Is Asia Still Authentic?

Here’s a piece I wrote after a visit to Chaing Mai Thailand a number of years ago.

Woman making umbrellas for tourists in chiang mai

 A woman making paper umbrellas for tourists in Chiang Mai

“Asia is no longer authentic. Modern barbarians and mass tourism are destroying it. “  Denis Gray, Associate Press Bureau Chief in Bangkok made that comment during an interview with a reporter from the Bangkok Post. I read the article about Gray during my visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Mr. Gray has had a vacation home in Chiang Mai for twenty years and bemoans the fact that Western business interests have completely taken over the area with their “ relentless greed and materialism.” 

     I can understand what Mr. Gray is talking about. I went to Chiang Mai on a golfing holiday and noted the ‘westernization’ and altered landscape of the area. Acres of jungle have been hacked down to create space for fairways, clubhouses and high- end spas and golf resorts.  

      Friends who traveled to northern Thailand decades ago say it was a jungle paradise. You could hike just outside Chiang Mai and find hill tribes villages where people lived much as they had for hundreds of years. Each tribe had its own unique dress, customs and was self-sustaining. In the last ten years, literally millions of tourists interested in seeing the traditional way of life in these hill tribes’ settlements have altered that way of life forever.

Performers at the Loy Krathong show

Performers at the Loy Krathong show

Chiang Mai now has a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a Holiday Inn. It also has a great deal of street garbage and its river is black with pollutants. Many of the rituals and ceremonies of the local people have become commercialized performances which tourists are charged money to attend. The tribal women come into Chiang Mai to sell their hand made products to visitors from around the world. Crafts are now produced in ‘factories’ especially set up so tourists can watch as they are created step by step. We were on a ‘packaged’ golf tour in Chiang Mai. Consequently we were ferried to several of these ‘factories’ before each round of golf to watch the staged production of jewelry, silk, ceramics and paper umbrellas. I felt uncomfortable viewing these talented people give a ‘fake performance’ of their skilled labor, staged primarily to convince potential customers to buy their wares.

Female golf caddies in Chiang Mai

Female golf caddies in Chiang Mai

     The golf courses in Chiang Mai were lovely. Each golfer was provided with a caddy, a local Chiang Mai woman, who had been taught enough English to tell you your yardage after each shot, and whether your ball would break to the left or right when you putted. The women were dressed in immaculate mauve and white uniforms. They smiled politely and helped you select which golf club to use for each shot, and carefully cleaned your club after every use. I wondered if before becoming golf caddies these women had lived an agrarian existence in a village attending to the needs of their families and participating in the traditions of their tribe. Were they happier then or do they prefer their present life with more modern conveniences and a steady source of income to support their families? people say tourism has been a boon to Thailand, improving the economy and the transportation system. Tourism however has also brought a thriving sex trade, AIDS, pollution, a depletion of natural resources, a changed landscape and has permanently altered the traditional way of life of the hill tribes people of Thailand. 

        I wonder if I a few years from now Chiang Mai will be distinguishable from any  typical American tourist spot. Will there be a theme park or museum you will need to visit if you want to see how traditional Thai people lived? 

Other posts about Chiang Mai……

Monk Chat

Loy Krathong

         

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Filed under Culture, Thailand

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