Thai Tigers and the Tourism Trail

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“The floating market, palm sugar refinery, World War II Museum, Death Railway, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Tiger Temple.” Thus reads the catalog of destinations on the rapid-fire, Bangkok-based day trip which we choose from a glossy activity binder in our hotel lobby. The 12-hour excursion which ensues (half of which is spent shuffling from site to site in an air-conditioned minivan) is a memorable ride on the wide lanes of checklist tourism.

From the get-go, I am acutely aware that what we are seeing is merely the super-concentrated sharp tip of Thai tourism, completely unrepresentative of the vast majority of this country, which has not been “Westernized” or otherwise “spoiled,” by any standards. Throughout this round-the-world journey, it never fails to amaze how easy it is to stray from the tourist trail, that narrow highway which accommodate the vast majority of visitors and groups in any country. It’s not a bad model, actually, concentrating the masses to a few destinations and leaving the rest of the country wide open.

But straying from the trail is not on today’s agenda; my mother leaves in a couple of days, and we (along with several thousand other farangs on this hot, January morning) want to see as much as possible.

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That the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market retains just enough of its original charm that, by carefully composing a few shots in which I crop out the crowds and plastic trash, I can walk away with what I hope are interesting images, is eclipsed by the general mayhem engulfing the whole thing. My one purchase is a plate of sticky-rice and mango, which I buy from a not-smiling woman in her boat who charges me 50 baht ($1.25, three times higher than normal) and plastic-bags the snack in a Styrofoam box, packed with plastic fork and spoon (the dish is traditionally eaten with one’s fingers off a banana leaf).

Alas, in the brief moment that I see it, the famous floating market seems like a tragic shell of whatever it once was, so swarmed and choked with camera-toting foreigners are its boats, shops, and walkways. A well traveled Hong Kong-based Brit on our trip, named Ian, scowls in disgust when I bring it up over lunch a few hours later: “That was nothing more than tourists taking pictures of tourists buying junk,” he says. My wife, who visited the same site three years ago, is surprised by the smoke-belching motorboats in the water lanes, which she says weren’t there before, let alone the gaggle of hulking, idling tour buses in the parking lot.

I cannot help but wonder about the future of Belize, a country relatively new to tourism, whose recent foray into cruise ship shore visits is going down this same road, where cultural sights of interest are transformed into commercialized, shrink-wrapped caricatures of their former selves.

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The scene surrounding the war museum, River Kwai, and Death Railway (or “Railroad of the Mortality” as it is translated on one sign) is obscene; the original intention — to memorialize a place where occupying Japanese soldiers cruelly forced allied P.O.W.s to build this famous bridge to Burma before it was bombed by U.S. planes — is completely lost in a carnival atmosphere of shlacky shops selling dolls and hats and plastic elephants. The plaza is awash with white-socked tourists, wandering aimlessly with video cameras glued to their cheeks. Our minivan is nothing more than a pimple-sized version of the gigantic tour buses, and my cynicism does nothing to diminish the fact that I am here, a part of the crowd. I even buy a hat.

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Of course, things can be just as strange up north, on Chiang Mai’s greatest hits of trammeled sites, especially the “cultural” ones, where the attraction is the hill tribespeople themselves. The tribes are not only politically trapped — refugees without a country nor means for integrating into modern society — but they are now economically dependent on tourism, so they must keep up a romanticized show of their former existence. The 400 tour companies clogging Chiang Mai (and all their willing clients, myself included) keep the business humming, as they try to sell the latest “Non-Touristic New Area.”

We finally lose most of the big buses at the Tiger Temple, a.k.a. the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Monastery and Forest Preserve, where monks raising rescued tiger cubs (most orphaned by poachers near the Burmese border) have taken their own foray into tourism, charging visitors to enter and have their photos taken with the big, surprisingly calm cats, ostensibly to raise money for a proper zoo-like enclosure. There are quite a few minivans in the newly expanded parking lot, and our group of 11 is one of many that has come to take advantage of the afternoon tiger-petting session in a dry, boulder-strewn canyon.

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Though not completely overrun, the scene here is bizarre in its own way. I was always taught to leave wildlife alone (in Moon Handbooks Belize, I advise my readers not to touch the food-baited, wild nurse sharks, even though Belizean snorkeling guides encourage the practice), and the fact that these tigers are supposedly tame and peaceful does not distract me from their possible ferocity, even as my hands (and my wife’s!) rest on their breathing bellies, tiny pink smudges dwarfed by frying pan-sized paws.

Tay, one of the world’s biggest cat lovers, is enthralled at the chance to commune with the world’s biggest cats, but I can’t stop wondering if this somehow not “right.” I find more information and insight on the Tiger Temple’s official website and in an article by Chris Mitchell.

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Back in Bangkok, exhausted and cramped after such a long, strange day, we find ourselves confusing the many stops as we try to recount everything we’ve seen together. Despite my grumpy comparisons, it is a good day whose memories will endure and, like good little tourists, we can now check off six sites seen in our ongoing exploration of the Kingdom of Thailand.

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