Authenticity, Tourism, and Self-Discovery in Thailand: Self-Creation and the Discerning Gaze of Trekkers and Old Hands

By Johnson, Andrew Alan | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, October 2007 | Go to article overview
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Authenticity, Tourism, and Self-Discovery in Thailand: Self-Creation and the Discerning Gaze of Trekkers and Old Hands


Johnson, Andrew Alan, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


Introduction: The Robot

Whiteness and Robot-ness

During the summer of 2001, the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT, formerly TCT) aired a new commercial to promote its "Amazing Thailand" year. As the commercial opened, a robot sat with its back to a tree in a vaguely tropical setting. Its chrome head nodded a bit, as if it was napping. An icon at the lower edge of the screen identified the location of the forest as "Amazing Thailand." Cut to the robot in a market, the robot dancing in a nightclub, the robot at a Buddhist temple. Its movements are--as expected for a robot--stiff and hesitating, its face is an expressionless metal mask. Cut to the robot at night on the back of an old-looking boat floating down a misty river with dense forest on both sides. The robot is waving at a group of old Thai villagers who have crowded on to a dock to wave back at it. The robot puts its hands together in a wai (a traditional Thai greeting and farewell) and bows its head. The villagers return the wai, and as we cut back to the robot, we see that he has changed into a young white man, appearing somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, with a backwards-turned baseball cap. His head rises up, and he has a profoundly content expression on his face as he sees the villagers with his human eyes. Cut to a black screen with the logo and slogan: "Amazing Thailand".

In other words, in the TAT advertisement, the white tourist, alienated from his human identity back at home, rediscovers it through a moment of genuine interaction and shared sentiment with a misty and traditional Thai village. He escapes the other automatons and discovers a hidden world whose inhabitants are human and help him to become truly human, although significantly he does not become Thai, but farang. He has not immersed his alienated self into Thai society to become adopted into Thainess, but rather through interaction with Thais he re-asserts his masculinity and whiteness.

Here, I will use the TAT commercial as a starting point to examine the trope of self-discovery in tourist-related literature dealing with Thailand. I will begin by examining theories of tourism and the problem of authenticity, and then go on to look at two specific instances of tourism in Thailand: "ethnic" tourism, in Valene Smith's (1977, p. 2) term, where the tourist adventure is an apparently unironic search for "untouched" tribal areas in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand; and sex tourism in Bangkok, where tropes of rebirth and a rediscovery of masculinity are echoed both in tourist's diaries and in fiction written by and for expatriates living in Bangkok.

The Tourist

The foundational works on the ethnography of tourism (not, it is to be noted, tourist ethnographies) appeared in the late 1970s, as anthropology took a turn for the reflexive and self-critical. (1) These attempt to define who a tourist is, and what they do, and whether what they do is ultimately good or bad for the "toured". Maxine Feifer, citing in part the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, describes the tourist as "'one who travels for pleasure or culture' ... Yet nobody wants to be called a tourist" (Feifer 1985, p. 2). While I will begin with the tourist traveling for "pleasure," I ultimately want to conclude with the tourist traveling for "culture", more specifically, traveling for self-identity. Through immersion in the other, the tourist seeks an authentic self-image.

The tourist space is one where the rules of work space do not apply: what is appropriate when one is touring is often what is not appropriate when one is working (Graburn 1977, p. 18). Time, for the stereotypical wage laborer/petty bourgeoisie, is divided into two poles: time spent working, and leisure time, corresponding to Leach's profane and sacred time, respectively (ibid., p. 20). When on vacation, the tourist is seeking a break from the constrictions that everyday life places upon him: the tourist, when touring, is searching for an alternate identity that can, upon a return home, be reincorporated into the self, thereby offering transcendence.

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