It’s like a secret code word among young travelers: “authentic.”
“I liked Vietnam a bit better than Thailand,” said my coworker. “It just felt more authentic.”
Upon declaring my intention to visit Chiang Rai’s White Temple, my new friend at the hostel shrugged, and said: “I hated it. It wasn’t authentic at all; it’s not even a real temple.”
“I didn’t expect there to be so many foreigners here,” said another backpacker who’d just come from Burma. “I was hoping for something more authentic.”
There’s a magical and alluring draw to the idea of experiencing a country’s true culture. You don’t want a packaged, polished farce; you want to see things from a different perspective, and learn, and grow. That’s understandable.
But a people’s culture is not there for foreigners to consume. That’s why those things that really are “authentic” have remained so – because they’re for people to live and not for others to gawk at.
My truest experience with “authenticity” was unplanned and unglamorous. I arrived in Kanchanaburi during low season, and the few others at my hostel were older Thai people and families. I’m sure there were other white people around, somewhere, but I didn’t see them; I had no one to hang out with, and I admit that I was bored.
I ended up stumbling into a “secondhand market,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a crowd of locals buying and selling secondhand goods, like old clothes, jewelry, toys, and even unwanted puppies. There was a strong sense of community there, of real life, and there were many clusters of people who hung around just chatting. It didn’t look anything like the markets you find in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, which are filled with vendors selling things like elephant-patterned trousers, beaded bracelets, and all the other things backpackers like to buy.
I wandered about and did my best not to stare or act like I was in a museum exhibit; the only pictures I took were from the sidelines, to get a sense for how busy the place was.
I knew I didn’t belong, but at no point did I feel unwelcome. I got a few strange glances, but no hostility. The people I did interact with were open and friendly. On my way in, I was hesitant to jaywalk over the busy road. An old lady came up to me, took my hand with a kind smile, and literally led me across the street like a child. On my way out, I crossed the road at the same time as a group of four middle-aged women. One of them spoke English and started chatting with me. (Neither of us could pronounce one another’s name).
That was real. That was authentic. It’s probably the most authentic experience I had on my trip.
Yet, that market was not for consumption. It’s for the community, not for outsiders.
Take the opposite example: Chiang Rai’s White Temple. When my friend said it wasn’t a “real temple,” I asked for clarification, and she explained that temples are supposed to be built primarily for monks to live in and for people to come and worship. But no monks live at the White Temple, as their quarters haven’t been constructed yet. Similarly, no one worships at the White Temple. The shrine room is not complete; the walls are still in the process of being painted. The primary visitors, even Thai, are tourists.
But I am not Buddhist, and I know nothing about the history of any of the “real” temples I visited. I see these places and I marvel at the architecture, the heights of human achievement, the symbolism; I appreciate the art and beauty. For me, the difference between a 2000-year-old temple and a 20-year-old one is slim. I suspect the same is true for many others.
As for the absence of worshippers… I don’t believe worship is something for an audience to view, anyway. At the Doi Suthep temple near Chiang Mai, a monk sat in one of the shrine rooms robotically flicking water at throngs of kneeling people – both foreign and Thai – to “bless” them. I don’t doubt that this ritual held, and perhaps still holds, great meaning, but I have less faith in its efficacy when applied to hordes of people who don’t have any emotional connection to the faith it stems from. Doi Suthep is still a culturally significant landmark, but its long historical background and continuing religious usage haven’t saved it from becoming as much of a tourist stomping ground as the White Temple. That’s what happens to ‘authentic’ experiences when enough foreigners decide they’re interested in them.
I loved the White Temple. It’s beautiful, and when it’s complete, it’s going to be a historical and cultural gem, if it isn’t considered one already. I’m not about to look down on this experience because it attracts tourists. A thing doesn’t lose value because it’s meant to be admired, and, hey… I am a tourist. It’s okay to be a tourist. It’s not a dirty word.
Of course, you should be a respectful tourist. Also, there are some aspects of tourism you shouldn’t support, such as those that perpetuate animal abuse. Do your research.
Then, feel free to seek out the true experiences, and appreciate them. But don’t feel cheated if you walk the beaten path and take advantage of experiences or resources marketed toward tourists. Is tourism, after all, not a valid aspect of a place’s culture? If certain landmarks and activities are promoted to tourists so that a country’s economy can survive, does that mean we should turn up our noses? Why do some people think they’re too good to be tourists?
Discussion is welcome, as always. Am I spot on, or way off? Tell me what you think.