Three years ago, when I first came to Chiang Mai during a month-long trip through Thailand, I signed up for a one-day group tour, which included an elephant ride, jungle trek and visit to a hill tribe village. A friend of mine had done a similar excursion while she was in Thailand and had recommended it. She waxed on about the lush jungle foliage, the quaint village she had stayed in and the villagers who had welcomed her with traditional dancing and home-cooked meals. She showed me photos of the beautiful scenery and adorable village children who had crawled all over her.
Her trip had taken place over the course of four days and included sleeping on the floor of a village hut, picking leeches off her ankles during the jungle trek and showering with a bucket. I didn’t have four days to spare. Besides, I figured a one-day excursion would give me all the good stuff (jungle scenery, quaint village, adorable children), without the bad stuff (sleeping on floors, leeches, bucket showers, and being used as a jungle gym by aforementioned adorable children).
So I signed up.
After a leech-free jungle trek and a pleasant elephant ride (well, pleasant for me… not so pleasant for the poor elephant who found himself at the sharp end of a very pointy stick being wielded by an elephant driver with a severe case of road rage), we arrived at the hill tribe village… or, ahem, “village.” The “village” consisted of a few ramshackle huts occupied by a handful of local people selling cans of Pepsi and macramé bracelets. The tourists outnumbered the “villagers” by about thirty-to-one. There were no welcome dances or home-cooked meals. (Unless I’m mistaken and Pepsi is actually a traditional hill tribe beverage). The village boasted only one adorable child, and her mother was charging fifty baht for tourists to take pictures with her.
When I asked the tour guide where the other villagers were and if this was, in fact, a real hill tribe village, she flashed a famous Thai smile and said, “Yes, real hill tribe village. Very authentic.” And then she informed me that the other villagers were just out in the fields that day (most likely harvesting more soda and bracelets for the tourists). After purchasing a Pepsi, I sat down grumpily on a park bench and waited for us to leave. (Yes, this village did, in fact, have a park bench. If I had asked, I’m sure the tour guide would have assured me that all hill tribe villages come equipped with park benches… and Pepsi vendors.)
I felt duped and disappointed. This was not at all what I had expected. After three weeks of backpacker bars, tourist-packed temples and hard-bargaining tuk-tuk drivers, I had imagined this would be my chance to see a side of Thailand I hadn’t experienced yet. I wanted the Thailand without the banana pancakes and Thai buckets and the creepy white guys on the make with pretty, young Thai girls. I don’t have anything wrong with banana pancakes or booze sold by the bucket. Even the creepy white guys don’t bother me that much. (Okay, they do bother me. I mean, some of these guys are just creepy. Mind you, I certainly don’t think all white guys in Thailand are creepy, and I don’t think all white guys who date or are married to Thai women are creepy. I just think the creepy ones are creepy. And, if you have ever been to Thailand, you know there’s a whole lot of creepy going on in this country).
I wanted the “Real” Thailand – you know, the Thailand of guidebooks and postcards and braggy Peace Corps volunteers. In the “Real” Thailand, the people live in simple mud huts (preferably without a satellite dish out front) and don’t wear anything fancy… like shoes or clothes with buttons. In the “Real” Thailand, there are no McDonald’s, KFC or Starbucks; instead, people just live off the land. (I sincerely hoped this land would include a plant bearing freshly brewed lattes and maybe a tree covered in French fries… but I was willing to be flexible.). In the “Real” Thailand people drive elephants to work. In the “Real” Thailand the locals smile at you and welcome you into their home because they like you and not just because they want to sell you bracelets made in China. (Mind you, if this was the “Real” Thailand, don’t ask me what all those other parts of Thailand are. I suppose the backpacker bars and banana pancakes and fast food restaurants and creepy white dudes are all part of some “Alternative Universe” Thailand.)
Not only was I disappointed in the tour and the supposed hill tribe “village,” I was also disappointed in myself. Sure, I hadn’t known exactly what I was signing up for, but had I used even a modicum of my logical reasoning skills I could have easily figured out that signing up for a one-day group tour might not be the best way to gain the un-touristy experience I had been hoping for.
Plus, there was something distasteful and voyeuristic about paying money to go tromp around someone’s village and snap photos of their children – even if I wasn’t entirely sure whether or not this was a “village” (or even their children… for all I know that woman was babysitting the kid for her unsuspecting neighbor and making a killing on the deal).
Was I just as bad as the creepy old white dudes? These guys spend lots of money to come to Thailand and hang out with beautiful women who probably wouldn’t hang out with them if they weren’t white and bearing cash. I was paying money to go hang around a village with people who wouldn’t usually hang out with me. Wasn’t that just as creepy? (Okay, maybe not as creepy… but definitely bordering on questionable.)
Since my experience in the village (err… “village”), I have been skeptical of shelling out money for any program that offers a village tour or a chance to hang out with locals. After paying money to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal for a month two years ago, I’ve been equally skeptical of any pay-to-volunteer programs. While I have many friends who have had good experiences with these kind of programs, my experience amounted to my spending the month tagging behind the overly competent orphanage director asking her if she had any chores for me to do (she never did) and filling up my digital camera with photos of me and adorable orphanage children. (Which, again, made me feel a little bit creepy… but not so creepy as to stop me from posting the pictures all over my Facebook profile page.)
Maybe I’ve just had bad luck with group tours and paid volunteer programs. Maybe I should actually research the companies I sign up for rather than, say, just signing up for the first company that hands me a brochure or shows up in a Google word search. Maybe you can’t pay for the authentic travel experience.
Or, maybe, the authentic travel experience simply doesn’t exist.
Authentic travel is based on the idea that you can travel to a foreign country and experience that country, not as a tourist (or a traveler or whatever the heck you call yourself), but as a local. You hang out with the locals, you eat what the locals eat, you live where the locals live, you do what the locals do.
It’s a funny idea, really. Why travel a million miles to a foreign country, where you most definitely do not fit in, only to try desperately to fit in? Is it even possible to fit in to a country where you don’t speak the local language or look anything like the locals? If being a local is so enviable, why not stay at home in your home country where you are a local?
It’s a funny idea, most likely an impossible idea, but one that I totally get. It’s the moments of “fitting in” or “feeling like a local” while I’m living abroad or traveling that I am at my happiest: being invited to share a meal at someone’s home, hanging out in some hole-in-the-wall joint that’s not in any guidebooks, being recognized by my neighbors, having the smoothie shop clerk know what I’m going to order before I even order it.
Despite my skepticism about the whole village tour thing (and the whole authentic travel thing… and the whole sleeping on the floor thing), last weekend I joined a three-day tour to a tiny village in the mountains to the north of Chiang Mai. Over the course of the trip, I ate local food (including some of the best mashed potatoes of my life and I have eaten my fair share of mashed potatoes, let me tell you). I slept on the floor. I used an outhouse. I showered with a bucket. (Okay, so I didn’t, but lots of other people did. It was freezing up there in that village, and I wasn’t about to risk pneumonia so I could feel all fancy and clean.) I tromped through jungle foliage. I helped harvest coffee beans. (Well, I picked a few coffee beans in between taking photos and chit-chatting with friends… but that coffee-bean harvesting thing is hard. And, I’ll have you know, lattes most definitely do not grow on trees.) I woke up on Sunday morning to the sound of roosters and the sight of the villagers slaughtering a water buffalo as part of their local New Year’s celebration.
Unlike my previous tour, this tour was not run by a tour agency but by a friend of mine who owns a small coffee company in Chiang Mai. The village, which is occupied by the Akha hill tribe people, is his hometown. The coffee that we helped harvest is grown by the villagers and sold in his café. The trip was organized as a means of raising funds to help his coffee company apply for their fair trade certification.
I had an amazing time in the village. I experienced a way of life and culture that was completely different from my own. I saw a few things I had never seen before (including a few things I would prefer never to see again – watching old men wash bile out of water buffalo intestine before I’ve had my morning coffee is not exactly an experience I’d like to repeat). I felt the warmth and hospitality of my friend, his family and the other villagers. I got a chance to meet and hang out with some amazing travelers. I took home memories I will never forget (and an entire digital camera full of pictures of adorable village children, of course).
While in the village this past weekend, I felt like I was seeing a side of Thailand that most travelers or tourists haven’t had a chance to see. It was definitely not a side of Thailand I had seen before. And it’s probably not a side of Thailand that will be around for much longer. My friend told me that most of the young people from the village are heading to big cities or overseas for university educations and good jobs. (And can you blame them? After two hours of half-hearted coffee-picking, I was ready to hand in my notice!)
Was this the illusive “Real” Thailand? Does the “Real” Thailand even exist? Was this my supposed “authentic travel experience.” Was I finally “living like a local” (even though I still don’t know how to speak the language… or wash bile out of a water buffalo intestine)? Was this experience any more genuine than my everyday Thailand experience (which doesn’t include any bucket-showers, but does include lattes and banana pancakes… and, yes, an occasional Thai bucket)?
I didn’t know.
I didn’t care.
I was just happy to feel welcomed… and not creepy.