Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Authenticity: (Un)Real Travel

I'm planning the next trip back to ye olde motherland, and am thinking about all things travel-related. I find it hard to strike a balance between trying to visit as many countries as possible and spending longer stretches somewhere to "really get to know the place". A ridiculous sentiment, but one I cling to.

There are two kinds of travel cliches. In one you see the Louvre, the Eiffel tower, Versailles. In the other you "see the real Paris", "shop where the locals shop", steer away from all those dreadful "touristy" things (you are a traveller, a flaneur even, not a tourist!) and instead look for this amazing little nameless boulangerie that used to be a brothel, and make it yours. Cécile will give you a discount and talk in hushed tones about the occupation. She once made love to Hemingway, you know.

I find the idea of one travel experience being more "authentic" and "real" than the other quite frustrating: only certain things count as real. Frequenting Cécile's place is authentically French in a way popping down to the McDonald's around the corner is not. I can guarantee you my life is not what would-be travelers have in mind when they want to experience "the real Australia". Mortgage payments, Finnish playgroup and watching Modern Family are decidedly un-real.

I went to Nepal and Thailand about six months ago, and I found myself struggling with the pursuit of authenticity. As I say, it's a maddening cliche, but a difficult one to resist. In Kathmandu I stayed with a friend who had in her nine or so months there learnt to speak reasonable Nepali, and was an expert guide. Without her presence I think I would have been quite shellshocked by the noise and the smells and the traffic - all that authenticity! In my first few hours there I saw a cremation and we wandered through a peaceful memorial ground dotted with monkeys, holy men and little - inhabited - houses. The forest of stone structures reminds her of Père Lachaise. I wouldn't know; I haven't been.

We eat momos overlooking the Boudhanath stupa. The Tibetan ladies, the wedding procession, the shoppers all flow in the same direction. Her flat is locked with padlocks, there is a 'go-bag' by the door for when the earthquake finally happens. If there is a traffic accident, leave immediately; a mob will form fast. We play Boggle, eat pasta, and work around the power cuts.

We go on a rice-planting tour. Yes, a tour. Many of her expat friends come along, and we are pleased to see some "actual" Nepalis on the tour, too. This must be a real thing!

The planting is fun - I could have a different view if the leaches had gotten me, but there you go. The organisation leaves something to be desired, though: no one really knows where the bathrooms are and how exactly we are supposed to get changed and showered. When we do find the toilet we are simply thrilled at how... authentic... it is.

I plan what to do when I arrive in Bangkok. Check in to the hotel, dump the bags, and find the nearest supermarket. Buy bread, cheese, and some milk for the mini fridge - sometimes you just want a sandwich. There will be a toddler involved, we have to cater for afternoon naps. I'll find a quick dinner by the roadside and be ready for when the others arrive. We will study maps, we will explore, we will wing it. I'm not by nature a bold or rugged traveller, but I've learnt from Nepal that I can push my boundaries.

Bangkok, however, has other ideas. 

The hotel does not want me to simply check in and leave. I must sit down, I must be welcomed properly. I am given some documents to sign, my bags are taken away. I am given a drink - fruit juice in a champagne glass, garnished with an orchid. I am directed onto a different comfortable seat, this time near the lounge singer. The tour manager blocks my exit and shows me brochures.

We must not, under any circumstances, accept a tuk-tuk or taxi ride just outside the hotel. Far too dangerous. They will want to rip you off. Much more sensible to arrange a private car to take you places. There is a lot of bowing, and I don't quite know what to do with myself. Doesn't she know I've been on public transport in Kathmandu?

I finally manage to inspect the room and find the nearby shopping centre. I have KFC for dinner, my groceries by my side. I notice am the only tourist in this entire building, and I find it quite delightful that my Tesco & KFC excursion will probably be the most "authentically" Thai experience of this trip. This, as it turns out, is where the locals shop.

The Skytrain connects one enormous shopping mall to another. It would be very easy to never touch street level here. We see the Golden Buddha, Chattuchak markets, we ride on tuk-tuks and find that Indian restaurant Lonely Planet was on about. We buy souvenirs and memory cards from MBK, we eat at Siam Paragon and CentralWorld. We are not locals, but we are savvy tourists: there is a lady a short walk away who will do our laundry much cheaper than the hotel will. 

My favourite place is Jim Thompson's house.  It is put together of six "traditional" Thai houses, salvaged from around Thailand and put together as a private residence for the mysterious entrepreneur. It is traditional, authentic, it preserves old customs and architecture... but of course the once-separate structures only gain meaning because they have been transplanted here and given new purpose by Thompson. Still, the place seems both aware and untroubled by its (un)real authenticity, its repurposed, constructed dedication to fusion heritage. 

I still don't know where to go en route to Finland, but I hope I can be aware and untroubled getting there.

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