Unbrave Girl Gets Real: In Search of the Authentic Travel Experience

December 26, 2010

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.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On December 26, 2010 at 11:51 am MaryAnne said:

    After a bazillion years overseas (and almost all of my nearly 2 decades of adulthood), I’ve sort of reached a tentative conclusion that, um, wherever you are is authentic for wherever you are. If there is a tourist trap fake village selling Pepsi and selling their kids to tourists for photo-ops well, then, that’s an authentic representation of what’s actually going on in that ‘village’. When I buy Cheetos and drink French wine and watch bootlegged English movies in Shanghai, I am (as I mentioned to you sometime last week) living a life that is also authentic– for me.

    Things change. Towns change. People change. Expecting to find ‘untouched’ noble savages in developing countries when we’ve been fine with moving beyond Little House on the Prairie is an insult to them and a denial of the fact that they too are participants in a world that happens to change regularly.
    MaryAnne recently posted..My Students Gave Me Stuff for Christmas!

    • On December 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm Sally said:

      I once had someone accuse me (or, ahem, tourists like me) of being the reason why fast food restaurants exist outside of America because I had confessed to enjoying my Starbucks & McDonald’s on occasion while overseas (okay, maybe more than just “on occassion”). I’ve seen plenty of locals at these places (In Japan, it’s a “Christmas tradition” to eat KFC & in Thailand, the locals eat KFC with a fork & knife! ooh, la, la!). These places don’t exist because of little old white me — they exist because the local people want these places to exist (& big corporations are more than happy to accommodate that wish) & because, as you said, times are a’changing.

      • On December 26, 2010 at 12:20 pm MaryAnne said:

        When i lived in the middle of nowhere in Turkey nearly a decade ago, the brand new, first ever McDonald’s was THE trendy place to hang out. Not my idea. Their choice. And here in China– hell, here in Shanghai alone, there are over 150 Starbucks. Their menu has been altered a bit for local tastes (more tea, more cuttle fish bread-http://www.ephemeraanddetritus.com/2010/04/30/101-things-about-shanghai-same-cept-different/). At McDonald’s you can get hot taro pie. I think that’s pretty authentic, in as much as people who live here buy it and enjoy it. I’ve adapted to things here and people here have adapted to things they’ve been exposed to. Stuff happens. We deal with it in our own ways.
        MaryAnne recently posted..My Students Gave Me Stuff for Christmas!

        • On December 26, 2010 at 12:25 pm Sally said:

          P.S. I think you should have really written this blog post rather than me. You’re saying what I wanted to say. Maybe you and Gerald can get together & co-author a piece on the “authentic me experience.” I’ll provide the grubs.

      • On December 27, 2010 at 11:01 am Celine said:

        Awesome post!

        As someone who spent the first 25 years of her life in the Philippines and had tons of quarter pounders and cafe mochas during that period, I am happy to assure you that the existence of those chains have very little to do with the preferences of visiting tourists. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but most McDonald’s branches outside the US will have unique items geared towards the locals (in the Philippines, this includes sweet spaghetti garnished with sliced up hotdogs–which is, in fact, a genuinely Filipino dish).

        One less thing for you to worry about! Now you can carry on taking pictures of adorable village children 😉

        • On December 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm Sally said:

          Sweet spaghetti? I got to try that (or not..). Japan also had some interesting fast food choices, including the red bean frappuccino at the Starbucks (I can’t imagine that was placed on the menu due to the whim of American tourists!). I will continue my photographing of children, rest assured I’m not personally causing the Westernization of other cultures.

        • On December 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm Andrew said:

          I love macaroni and cheese with hotdogs in it. 🙂 It sounds similar to your spaghetti. People think I’m weird when I talk about it, but that is the way my mom made it.
          Andrew recently posted..Preparations for a Holiday

  2. On December 26, 2010 at 12:20 pm Lorna - the roamantics said:

    ahh the authentic tourist experience! this is part of what our research in thailand focused on and i really enjoyed this post. these experiences get more difficult to have as tour companies increasingly commodify culture and more and more curious tourists arrive. the big question is, what constitutes authenticity? all cultures are dynamic- not static- so if we’re expecting to find “untouched cultures” i’d say we’re SOL, but having a genuine experience with locals is possible. glad you were able to find that with your second experience and sorry you had to feel duped before getting there. love this! great thought-provoking post 🙂
    Lorna – the roamantics recently posted..Hit the Road to Holidayland- 7 Fave Christmas Songs

    • On December 26, 2010 at 2:11 pm Sally said:

      Glad you enjoyed the post! I think, as you said, there are still plenty of chances to have “geniune” experiences, we just have to adjust our definitions of genuine. Maybe this experience won’t include a mud hut, but it can still be “authentic” (whatever that means these days!).

  3. On December 26, 2010 at 12:35 pm Conrad said:

    Thing is even I am not authentic so why should the rest be.

    Okay I prefer to hang out (doing nothing in general then just ‘hang around’) in less touristy places so therefor eat/drink/smoke/meet more local authentic (which often only translates in cheaper) stuff but it doesn’t mean anything, and for sure I doesn’t feel I found the real thing.
    Conrad recently posted..Thailand- Land of Wry Smiles- and Why I Totally Suck as a Travel Blogger

    • On December 26, 2010 at 2:18 pm Sally said:

      Yeah, but what is the “real thing”? I think there is no “real Thailand” (or “real America” or “real wherever”); or at least there’s not a simple definition. Sure, mud huts and roosters and bucket showers are one part of the “real” Thailand, but I’d argue that the tourism industry and backpacker bars and creepy dudes are also fast becoming a part of “real Thailand”, too.

      • On December 26, 2010 at 2:36 pm Conrad said:

        Well, simple, the Real Thing is just the image you have of things (brought by tv, books, memory).
        It’s not based on reality (or time related) at all, and better, it never is intended to do so. It belongs in the land sweet perception and frosty evenings sipping red wine or eating cookies, mumbling: “In the old days everything was way much better, nicer, real… etc”.
        Conrad recently posted..Cool Kids Wear Flip Flops

        • On December 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm Sally said:

          Well, I would never mumble that! In the old days there were no lattes (and cookies were a lot harder to come by — you actually had to MAKE them. Barbaric, really!)

  4. On December 26, 2010 at 2:07 pm Ayngelina said:

    I was taking photos at a parade yesterday of traditional Ecuadorian costumes and a local friend told me I was perpetuating the myth that they should all look like they did 100 years ago. He said people come into the country and are disappointed to see people in jeans, an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt and a Yankees cap.
    Ayngelina recently posted..Ten reasons my sister will miss me over the holidays

    • On December 26, 2010 at 2:24 pm Sally said:

      Ha! Nice… Well, maybe you can put some disclaimers on your photos… or include a few photos of people in Abercrombie & Fitch on your blog just to even things out.
      I figure my traveling as a brunette American is helping dispel the myth that all Americans are blonde. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who have been upset with me for not having lighter hair. One time I was hanging out with a Korean guy in Seoul who kept on asking me why my hair was so dark.

  5. On December 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm Andrew said:

    Maybe “authentic” and “genuine” need to be replaced with “traditional.” As in, this is how it was long ago. This seems to be the urge when we go on tours to little villages or go searching down the back alleys. The nice thing about the word traditional is that it implies traditions, but not whose or how long they have been going on. The young people’s daily tradition in my town even here in Germany is to clog the McDonald’s so full that I need to go to Burger King.

    There are the little traditional/colonial “living museum” things in the US too. They too have park benches (not enough) and Pepsi (probably too much). But they are labeled as museums, and it is mentioned that “no one really lives like this anymore”. It sounds like your first village could have easy been labeled so. Could you imagine someone’s only desire of the US was this “traditional” look.

    I kind of like this topic, think I might expand upon it for a post of my own.
    I think your daily life of smoothies and avoiding creepy white guys is not old timey traditional for Thailand, but probably closer to “authentic” than anyone wants to admit.
    Andrew recently posted..Elephants Need Trees

    • On December 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm Sally said:

      I think if the “village” I had visited was being run more like Colonial Williamsburg or other “living museum” places in the U.S. I would have been cool with that. But instead it was being marketed as a “village” when it clearly wasn’t (or it was… and it was the saddest village in existence). But I’ve heard worse stories of so-called villages which truly are human zoos and give the people working there little to no compensation. Often the workers are migrant workers who have no choice but to stay there or get deported. Lots of tourists are duped into going to these places thinking it will be an “authentic” experience and they’ll see a real village only to be faced with this really sad reality. If these places were run ethically and marketed honestly (“village-like theme park”!) I could support it. But it’s just sad.
      I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say about the topic!

  6. On December 26, 2010 at 4:19 pm pam || @nerdseyeview said:

    Probably, one of your smarter, earlier commenters has said this already, but here goes: I try to think of ALL travel as authentic experiences. What we want, I think, is for people to act as though we’re not there. “Go about your business, don’t mind me.” Or to have them immediately include us as though we’ve always been there. The way people are reacting to our presence, be it by selling us tourist crap that we don’t want or by inviting us to dinner or by scowling at our fancy cameras is totally real for THEM, so why do we dismiss is as otherwise for ourselves? It’s all real, it’s just not always what we want or expect.

    Usually, I get really irritable when reading the authenticity rant. That didn’t happen here at all. So thanks a LOT for that.
    pam || @nerdseyeview recently posted..2010 in Writing

    • On December 26, 2010 at 4:33 pm Sally said:

      As someone who regularly spends her days sucking down smoothies and eating cookies when I “should” be out exploring or adventuring or whatever, I’m all about valuing the experiences you have while traveling… and staying true to yourself and not doing a bunch of things you don’t want to do just because you think you should do them.
      During my first trip to Thailand I think I was more hung-up on seeing the things I felt I should see & do the things I should do. Hence, I ended up on elephant rides and river rafts (so not my idea of a good time — but everyone else was doing it) and going to creepy fake villages. Yeah, all these things were “real” and “authentic” in their own ways and definitely taught me a lesson or two about the tourism industry and what I don’t want to do… but I found I wasn’t being authentic to myself (river rafts?! that is so not a good iea for me considering my complete lack of balance).
      These days I’m perfectly fine with hanging out & doing my own thing & poking around town & eating at the same 2 restaurants because I like them and they know me & staying as far away from a river rafts as possible. Maybe some people wouldn’t consider this the “authentic travel experience,” but at least I’m being authentic to myself and not doing a whole bunch of things I don’t want to do.

  7. On December 26, 2010 at 4:32 pm reina said:

    Paul Theroux likes to become “kind of” invisible when he travels- it’s surprisingly helpful! My way- takes lots of time and going about one’s business and pleasure in an unhurried way. Example- a while ago, I spent more than a month in the same neighborhood in Kandy, Sri Lanka. I noticed myself being noticed for about a week, then slowly people got used to me and attention faded, that’s when I started enjoying myself more and more, connected with lots of people in a laid-back way, that felt natural and was, I hope, mutually satisfying…

    • On December 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm Sally said:

      My travel style is pretty slow (like… err… glacial), so I do tend to spend lots of time in each place. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for almost 3 months now, and I don’t feel like a tourist, but I can’t say I feel like a local (especially since I can’t speak the language). When I lived in Japan, there were days when I would actually “forget” I was foreign since i had been there so long. Not that I thought I was Japanese, I just would forget I was different. I’m not sure if any Japanese people ever forgot I was different (I wasn’t too great at speaking Japanese either and I certainly don’t look japanese!), but I did feel a bit more “invisible” there (well, as “invisible” as you can get when you weigh about twice as much as everybody!).

  8. On December 26, 2010 at 4:35 pm Sharon Miro said:

    Sally you are right: there is NO real or authentic travel-it just is what it is.

    I don’t get it. Why do so many search for “real” and “authentic”? Are their lives so bereft that they need search outside for something else that stirs the heart?

    Travel is what it is. If you like Strabucks in the morning and you are in Thailand, then that is authentic travel for you at that time on that day. There is no mystical “real, authentic experience”. The very act of going there changes the “there”. Read the Heisenberg principal, and choose where you go carefully.

    It is what it is when you are there.

    Don’t hang out in backpacker bars & hostels. Avoid those places that polute what traditional living in any country is. I don’t care how much time you spend there, Khao San Road is NOT the gateway to South East Asia.

    Research better where to stay and where to eat. Cheap is not necessarilty real, and the reverse is true as well.

    Above all, keep your eyes clear and your heart open for that one small shift in your heart that happens when you see really see how life is somewhere else than “home”.

    • On December 26, 2010 at 4:56 pm Sally said:

      The day after I went on this trip, I went to a expat friend’s house in Chiang Mai, drank spiked iced tea, ate a huge meatball sandwich and watched episodes of “Glee.” I had almost as much fun in that one day as I did on the entire trip (maybe more… if only because there was indoor plumbing involved). It was totally not the “real Thailand” experience (whatever that is), but I was hanging out with a local (a foreign local) and I felt so completely at home (while in a foreign land). I’d argue that while this experience was so totally removed from my village experience it was just as authentic. Like you said there is no mystical “real” experience.

      • On December 26, 2010 at 5:40 pm Sharon Miro said:

        You live there…it’s OK to watch Glee and eat meatball sandwiches. That is as real as life is gonna get.

        I spent 8 days in Chaing Mai on my own several years ago. It was the first time I had ever been alone away from the US. I spoke to very few people who were not Thai and spent most days gettign lost and eating in places where it seemed I was the special of the day.

        I went “off road” to the golden triangle, got stuck in the mud, spent hours unsticking the car, spent the night in a hotel on Burma border that had no heat, and no one else staying there. Bates Hotel Thai style.

        I had the BEST time. Guy who drove me said he had never seen an american who would get down in the mud, and didn’t complain about everything. He was impressed. Proud travel moment–heart shift.

        Doesn’t mean I haven’t done, and probbaly will do again typical tourist things–I will because that is what we all are, no matter how we package it or blog about it: we are all tourists somewhere.

  9. On December 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World said:

    I remember reading someone’s sig on LP forum… it’s something along the line of “If you want to do what locals do, you’d be working 9-5, worry about bills and take your kids to school everyday” — something along that line.

    That doesn’t sound like fun. I’d rather be a tourist and do things I enjoy even if that means visiting the uber ‘non-authentic’ Ripley’s Believe it or not Exhibition, lol.
    Jill – Jack and Jill Travel The World recently posted..Celebrating Christmas In the Largest Muslim Country In The World

    • On December 27, 2010 at 1:42 am Sally said:

      Ha ha! I LIKE that. Oddly, as an English teacher, I do usually end up doing what the locals do (working 9-5, paying bills… okay, no kids). I kind of prefer it that way — not so much pressure to go out and see things. Sure, I can go see things if I want, but I can also use the excuse that, “Oh, I live here!”
      But if there was a Ripley Museum, I’d totally go see that… even if I lived there!

  10. On December 26, 2010 at 4:51 pm Matt | YearAroundTheWorld said:

    Some of the most “real” experiences I’ve had come when you aren’t paying someone else to show you said experience.

    Learn some basic words, point at a map, jump on a bus, and just go on your own.

    Confidence that you can get yourself out of any situation helps too. 🙂
    Matt | YearAroundTheWorld recently posted..Daily Travel Photo- Blanca Smokes a Big One

    • On December 26, 2010 at 10:56 pm MaryAnne said:

      Given that Sally lived and worked for many years in Japan and Brazil and has spent several months in Chiang Mai, volunteering to teach refugees (correct me if I’m wrong on that one), and had spent several other months travelling super slowly through jungles and rice paddies and whatnot, I’m pretty sure she knows the basics of slow travel/non-tourist-bus travel.

      I think her point was that everything is authentic, in its own right. It may not be what we thought it would be but really, if it exists, it is authentic- the creepy white dudes, the fake village, the sometimes awkward interaction between locals and tourists, the Starbucks, the sofa, the coffee plantation, etc, etc. People living in a village ‘off the beaten track’ are no more real or ‘authentic’ than people living in towns and cities who wear jeans and who eat foreign foods and dance to foreign music (or not, as the case may be). As a foreigner living long-term in China, I am authentically here, just as my students are. And they are no less ‘authentically’ Chinese because they wear jeans and listen to hip hop and watch Star Wars.

      I suppose what I’m saying is , I think Sally already follows the advice you gave. She’s just talking about it from her own perspective. She’ll be fine. She’s braver than she lets on.
      MaryAnne recently posted..My Students Gave Me Stuff for Christmas!

      • On December 27, 2010 at 1:36 am Sally said:

        Yes, what she said!
        I had a lot of difficulty writing this post (I think someone slipped something into my Christmas pumpkin pie… and, yes, I did have pumpkin pie for Christmas… in Chiang Mai… yay!). I don’t think it came out exactly how I wanted it to.
        Basically, like MaryAnne said (and many commenters said) I do believe everything is authentic and real. Do I want to experience the picture postcard version of Thailand with mud huts and adorable village children? Of course! Do I think that’s the “Real” Thailand? No… or at least it’s no more real than the backpacker bars or high-rise apartment buildings or swish beach resorts.
        I’m cool with hanging out in my own neck of the woods (a high-rise apartment building) but it was cool to see how one portion of the Thai population lives (for a weekend…. I don’t think I could deal with bucket showers and outhouses much longer than that). And it was cool to do it while supporting a small business that I agree with — and not feel like I was supporting some creepy, unethical tourism practice that I don’t agree with. So win-win!
        And now I’m back in my high-rise… (I guess that makes it a win-win-win).

  11. On December 26, 2010 at 7:17 pm Kelsey said:

    Every moment is authentic. What you’re experiencing is real, unless you’re in a hologram, and as such, it’s authentic. If you wanted to see how real people live, well, you just did.

    You might actually really enjoy a recent blog post of mine, called “On Being A Local Foreigner”: http://www.driftingfocus.com/blogs/?p=9640 It’s about embracing your position as a foreigner and through that, connecting with the local community.

  12. On December 27, 2010 at 2:55 am 1Dad1Kid said:

    Great article. You make a very valid point, and I agree with you and other commenters. The time you’ve spent with locals, living among and near locals, being a regular patron at the smoothie place, etc, are all authentic Thailand. Slaughtering a water buffalo, is another type of Thailand, and so is drinking from a Thai bucket. 🙂
    1Dad1Kid recently posted..Two Winter Solstices in 2010

    • On December 27, 2010 at 2:57 am Sally said:

      Just don’t get those two things confused. Drinking from a water buffalo would not be enjoyable. (But slaughtering a Thai bucket might be a good time…).

  13. On December 27, 2010 at 8:54 am Lach said:

    That wouldn’t be the village of the long necks, somewhere in Mae Rim by any chance would it? As far as I can tell, that “authentic” village was transplanted to its present location in order to make the whole package deal thing more convenient. Supposedly there are real hill tribe villages somewhere in the area.

    The thing about authentic Thailand is that perhaps it’s not as exotic and mysterious as you suppose. Sure there’s some culture shock to get over when you’re new, but after a while everything just becomes pretty commonplace (yet, still bizarre). While there’s a lot about the culture here that seems peculiar to me, in other respects, Thai families are just regular people leading regular, modern day lives—albeit in a comparatively minimalist way.

    Are you looking for authentic, or romantic? One place to get both are the hill tribes of Sapa, Vietnam. I can hook you up with a bona fide guide if it pleases you!
    Lach recently posted..Phoenix Challenge 2- Skydive

    • On December 27, 2010 at 9:51 am Sally said:

      No, it wasn’t one of the long neck “villages.” There was one of those near the place where I lived in Chiang Rai and it seemed kind of creepy (and very non-villagey). There was actually a very interesting display about these kind of “villages” at the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai, and after seeing that I didn’t want to go.

    • On December 27, 2010 at 1:39 pm Sally said:

      And no plans to go to Vietnam (yet!). I’ll definitely let you know when I work that into my plans.

  14. On December 27, 2010 at 12:13 pm Emiel said:

    Loved reading your post! What is the authentic travel experience? I believe 75% of tourists are not looking for authentic experiences, they just travel to have a good time. Others go travel for a year all around the world, to find out what? Authenticity is something that differs for each of us.
    When I traveled to Thailand with our family, we experienced a totally different world. My kids are 6 and 9, so they were amazed. Was it authentic enough? Yes, for our family it was. When they grow up I am sure they want to discover more, learn more. Demand for authenticity increases with age.
    When I lived in Japan for a couple of months I surely had an authentic experience. It was not a short-term travel, I lived there in my apartment north of Kyoto. But I lived the Japanese way of life, I talked the talk and walked the walk 🙂 My Japan time made me understand that authentic travel experiences are not always in reach. I accept that during a two week travel you need some luck find it, like you did. Otherwise you have to stay for a longer period of time to make sure authenticity finds you..
    Emiel recently posted..Tribute to the colourful people of India

    • On December 27, 2010 at 1:27 pm Sally said:

      You make a good point about short-term travel. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for 3 months, so that’s how I found out about the village trip — through a friend I had made while I was here. If I was just stopping through, I probably would have never heard about this tour. I definitely think sticking around longer term allows you lots of opportunities you wouldn’t be afforded if you’re just passing through.
      I’d be curious to find out about your experiences in Japan. I lived there for 3 years so I had all kinds of “authentic” experiences (although, I’m not sure these are the same kind of authentic experiences you’d find on postcards and what-not).

  15. On December 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm Megan said:

    Do you watch 30 Rock? There’s an episode where Jack keeps telling Liz they need to find the “real America” and Liz keeps telling him there is so such thing as “real America.” “All people are horrible,” she keeps telling him…and in the end, she’s right.

    I think your point is probably not that all people are horrible, but I think you and Liz are right there together–there is no such thing as a “real” such-and-such because everybody’s reality is different.
    Megan recently posted..Challenge- Phitsanulok

    • On December 27, 2010 at 2:50 pm Sally said:

      Actually my point was that everyone’s horrible…. except for me, of course. (Does Liz Lemon come to that conclusion, too? Because I imagine she would. And, yes, of course, I watch 30 Rock, but sadly I’m very far behind in my episode watching. That will give me something to do when I’m snowed in in Buffalo next month. Yay!).

  16. On December 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm Phil said:

    Sally, this was a great post to read. We have a similar approach to travel. Take your time, make friends, and then good things will come. Whether they meet the definition of authentic is irrelevant.
    Phil recently posted..Ewoks and Turbo Viagra in Essaouira- Morocco

    • On December 28, 2010 at 2:33 am Sally said:

      Phil, You forgot to mention camels. We both believe in the power of camels. Okay, maybe you more than me. I have yet to even meet a camel in person (or should I say “in camel”). But I’m sure camels would like me… right?)

  17. On December 29, 2010 at 9:23 am Adam @ SitDownDisco said:

    I’m glad you were able to have that experience. I always have internal debates about the issue of “authentic” travel. On the one hand, “authentic” means living like a local which in its most basic form can be miserable. But on the other hand, I want to live life on the edge, eating guts, sleeping with rats, showering in muddy rivers and catching exotic tropical diseases. It’s all a bit contradictory really, hence the internal debate. 🙂
    Adam @ SitDownDisco recently posted..My Favourite Bali Destinations

  18. On December 30, 2010 at 4:08 am Laurence said:

    Hey, just found your blog. Took me a while, turns out the internet is a large, cavernous place. Anyhow, I’ve not been to Thailand, my experience of it largely stems from the tins of tuna that seems to be their predominant export to Australia and New Zealand. This leads me to conclude that if you want an authentic Thai experience, you should head for a tuna canning factory and work there for a while. Otherwise accept that you’re being sold a tourist ticket to what they think you think authentic might be, and enjoy the ride in a sort of third person looking in at what they think you think they think authentic is. Yep.
    Laurence recently posted..Reflections on 2010- my favourite bits

  19. On December 31, 2010 at 3:28 pm choi kum fook said:

    Hi Miss Sally! No comment on this post, just ask few questions for my knowledge. How many kind of tribes can be found in northern part of Thailand?. Do they living in a long house , like in Sarawak, Malaysia. Or living in mud hut, similarly in western and central of Africa? What is the main diet for the day? What are the main crops they are cultivating,? school is available? that’s all.And lastly, wishing you have a joyful and happy new year!!!.

  20. On January 1, 2011 at 11:03 am Connie said:

    I try to avoid the package tours that take you to meet the locals. To me, there’s no authenticity in that and no one that I’ve met who has taken one of these tours ever came out with exceptional stories. I think authentic travel is really what you make of it.

    I couchsurfed with a Bedouin family in Petra, Jordan and had an amazing time learning about their culture and even getting to sleep in a cave among the mountains of Petra!

    Another couch surfing experience in Costa Rica brought me only to an Italian restaurant with a group of Americans teaching English there. Not the “authentic” experience that I had hoped for, but what can you do.

    I think authentic travel is an endangered species these days and you just have to accept that whatever travel experience you gain, it’s authentic to you.

    • On January 1, 2011 at 5:25 pm Sally said:

      Wow, your experience in Petra sounds amazing (well, except maybe the sleeping on a cave floor part… that would be fun for like 2 hours for me… but I would feel totally “authentic” for those 2 hours, for sure!).

  21. On January 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm Kenan Lucas said:

    Authentic travel experiences would be limited to your level of immersion in a particular country.

    It sounds like you are reasonably immersed in Thailand – perhaps the ‘Alternative Universe’ Thailand with all those creepy white guys is now what the real Thailand is now like?

    By the way, awesome blog, I only just stumbled here. Have subscribed. 🙂
    Kenan Lucas recently posted..The Lessons You Learn After Jumping Off A 47 Metre Bridge

    • On January 2, 2011 at 2:19 pm Sally said:

      Yeah, I’m definitely immersed in alternative universe Thailand. Not so many creepy white dudes… but plenty of pancakes & other Western food. And totally authentic — for me! Glad you like the blog & thanks for subscribing!

  22. On January 6, 2011 at 11:59 am Jayne said:

    So I booked that sabbatical and am catching up with your posts!

    I got duped (read: was lazy) and did the exact same one day tour you mention at the start of the post. My arrival in the ‘village’ I went to conincided with a visit from an ice cream man on a scooter, the children went wild and at least one member of the tour group treated them to ice lollies all round. It got me wondering how many times a day this happened. Your second tour sounds much more ‘authentic’ and altogether a great experience, whether you regard it as the true Thailand or not.
    Jayne recently posted..Getting involved – the 1000 -1000 challenge

    • On January 6, 2011 at 4:58 pm Sally said:

      Wow, a traditional village complete with ice cream truck! Ha ha! Yes, the 2nd experience was definitely better and one of the highlights of my year.

  23. On January 7, 2011 at 9:11 am Marie said:

    I’m late to the party so at this point I can’t remember if I’m commenting on the original blogpost or just commenting on comments. You are one popular woman! Well, here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

    I once read someone’s ranty complaint about how he went to this Maori “village” here in NZ and it was “totally not a village at all. They just built it to make money of tourists”. Hmmm, yes they did! But, in this case (and I’m not saying it’s the same as what you are talking about with imported trinkets, etc. Crap, I hope it doesn’t sound like I am in any way comparing you to this dork. That’s not what I meant at all.) it was a community initiative to bring in much needed money while also giving them a reason to practice and share their traditional crafts, thus keeping them alive. But the main reason they built a mini-village outside of their own town was because they didn’t want a bunch of freaky tourists traipsing through their town taking photos of their lives. This totally sounds reasonable to me. But I do think it’s important to question who is benefitting and why as there are many “villages” set up in places for dodgy governments to benefit when the actual residents get nothing but exploitation.

    As mentioned earlier by someone, it’s difficult to know what you are getting in to when you first land someplace. But if you end up in a situation that doesn’t seem good to you, all you can do is chalk it up to experience, right? Then get yourself down to McDees to have a burger with the locals to make up for it.
    Marie recently posted..Lessons From a Jealous Friend

    • On January 7, 2011 at 9:55 am Sally said:

      I think you make a really good point the importance being in who benefits from the situation. At the county fair in my hometown, there’s an “Indian Village” where local Native Americans sell crafts and have performances and educational workshops. I know it’s not a village. Everyone who goes to that fair knows it’s not a village (or at least I hope they do!). And it all seems pretty legit & respectful & beneficial for everyone involved (I think… I could be completely wrong on this. It always seemed like a pretty win-win situation to me.). That wasn’t the feeling I got from the original “village” I visited in Thailand. It didn’t seem very legit or respectful and, from what I’ve heard & researched, most of the people in these kind of “villages” don’t make much profit from being exhibited.
      I think all of this is such a complicated issue and I’m still not sure I tackled it well in this post as I’m not even sure what I feel about the issue. Sometimes, I’m glad I spend most of my time overseas eating cookies and sitting on my couch. Not much ethical debate in that!

  24. On January 8, 2011 at 10:06 am Marie said:

    Cookies always trump ethical debates as far as I understand.
    Marie recently posted..Lessons From a Jealous Friend

  25. On January 31, 2011 at 4:49 am Mumun said:

    ‘braggy Peace Corps volenteer’… hahahah… that’s funny!

    Coming from and Indonesian here, isn’t funny how some developed country folks want to live in ‘developing’ area and yet the vice versa also applies. We all have our wantings, don’t we?

    If you want authenticity, you can to Indonesia and see that we don’t have Pepsi vendor ‘villages’ …. uumm… we have ‘Coca-cola’ 😛 vendors.

    I’m new fan by the way.Hai!!!

    • On January 31, 2011 at 3:11 pm Sally said:

      Hi Mumun,
      Thanks for your comment & always happy to have a new fan. I checked out your blog — LOVE it. How nice to have a blog written by know-it-all locals and not just a bunch of know-it-all travelers. 🙂 I’ll definitely have to shoot you two an email when I come to Indonesia!

  26. On February 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm Sarah said:

    I’m loving the debate you’ve started here!

    Authenticity is such a subjective idea that there can’t possibly be one idea of a truly ‘authentic’ experience. To me, it seems to be about getting as far away as possible (culturally more than geographically) from your own life and what you’re comfortable with. That’s why I feel a little disappointed to see the Maccy D’s and Starbucks when I’m away – not because I don’t think it should be part of their lifestyle, but because I’m generally hoping to see a culture completely unlike my own.

    Maybe authentic just means not open or available to the masses. The experiences which can be cherished because they are not shared by every other person who has signed up for the very same thing.
    Sarah recently posted..While I am young- I shall wear purple

    • On February 1, 2011 at 11:23 pm Sally said:

      Thanks for the comment! Yes, I think what we define as “authentic” has a lot to do with our expectations of a culture. Because we don’t expect a certain culture to have McD’s or Starbucks, we’re disappointed when we see it there (well, some of us are… I was personally pleased as punch to get my peppermint hot chocolate at Starbucks while I was in Thailand).
      I also like what you said about these experiences not being available to the masses — maybe instead of seeking out an “authentic” experience, we should seek out a “unique” experience. I’ve definitely achieved that with volunteering, I think.

  27. On February 8, 2011 at 5:29 pm Ray Sone Hovijitra said:

    Hi! I just went on the ‘journey’ with Lee at the end of Jan. What a great weekend of making new friends, spending time with the Akha people, and of course great coffee and Akha food!! When I finally go public with my blog do you mind if I link your article to mine? I’ll be sending it out to everyone for their approval before publishing of course. Thanks and happy trails! -Ray

    • On February 9, 2011 at 3:57 am Sally said:

      I’m so glad you had a good time in the Akha village. This experience was one of my highlights of my entire year! Such a memorable time with great people and great food (Oh man, I still dream of those mashed potatoes!).
      Definitely, feel free to include a link to my blog in your blog post! Good luck with the going public of your blog!


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