Khao Sarn Road Disneyland
Khao San Road Disneyland
Many of us initially travel to Thailand, or other South and East Asian destinations, in order to find a new set of values, a new way of living. Growing up in Europe, the mythical ‘Orient’ represented exotic lifestyles founded upon ancient
cultures which had worked out their value system many thousands of years ago, a personal and social freedom not found in the west.
I myself, remember travelling to Thailand for the first time with a real sense of adventure, having read Hemingway, Kerouac and Bukowski I really felt like I was on a journey of discovery – a modern Marco Polo. However, that was many years ago when I was many pounds lighter and many shades greener. Now, I’ve travelled extensively around Asia and live and work in East Asia, I now see Asia in a completely different way. I see Asia as having extremes of modernity and tradition, affluence and poverty, freedom and restriction. Gone are my Garland-esque images of discovery. In all honesty I now come to Thailand to enjoy the delights of the Sukhumvit ghetto, I rarely leave Sukhumvit when in Bangkok and my activities would be much criticised by western feminists <don't worry, that is nothing to be cocnerned about – Stick>.
Last night I did make a rare visit beyond Sukhumvit. I decided to go and revisit my former ‘alternative lifestyle’ haunt of Khao San Road. What greeted me was an unbelievable farce of the ‘alternative lifestyle’. Sociologists would describe it as a simulacra of freedom, a hyper-reality of hippiness. For the Khao San Road is supposed to be the centre of anomie that is the Orient, it is meant to represent the rejection of western culture – it is where we go to find ‘Gemeinschaft’ rather than ‘Gesellschaft’. I would say that KSR has become a theme park of “Traveller Thailand”, where there is a strict convention of clothing, drinking, eating and leisure – if you obey the conventions then, paradoxically, you are deemed to be ‘free’ and ‘cool’, if you don’t obey the conventions then you are in some way ‘straight’, ‘restricted’ or ‘limited’.
Dress is the most obvious convention on KSR, everybody wears the same things. The men all wear three-quarter length shorts or linen trousers, the women the same or long flowing cheesecloth skirts. T-shirts with surfing logos or cheesy slogans are the norm (what’s with that ‘Cambodia, Danger Mines’ T-shirt ?). Many women wear some sort of Carol King kaftan inspired linen thing. College kids can be excused for their naivety, but not for their lack of individuality. Many middle-aged people were also totally inappropriately dressed likewise, what makes a fat balding accountant from Surrey think that if he dresses like an extra from The Beach then he is ‘alternative’?
I had just come from dinner with some Thai friends and was dressed smartly in chinos, a long sleeved shirt and brogues. I found people actually sneering at me, yet surely I was the one who was doing that thing most sacred of the Lonely Planet herd – ‘respecting local culture’ ? But no, all girls must get their hair braided, all guys must get some ‘tribal’ tattoos. Many of these people clearly think that because they’re now alternative they can dress like tramps. How can someone have enough money to fly half way round the world, but not enough to buy themselves some soap, have a shave and wear some decent clothes.
It was consumption patterns which most jarred me. Far from representing alternative economic formations the KSR crew are just as witless consumers of mass market capitalism as any people in malls in Europe and North America. I am not only referring to the presence of Boots, 7-11 or Starbucks on KSR, I mean the so called ‘alternative’ products. Everybody buys their flip flops (de rigueur wear of the LP herd), their fisherman's bags, copied CDs, books about drugs etc etc. If Thais can make money out of this lot then good luck to them.
I have read on this site, and in numerous other places, criticisms of the typical Thai ‘sex tourist’, those who prefer to spend their time in Sukhumvit or Pattaya. Such criticism usually comes from the politically correct and morally superior sort of person found on KSR. However, you are much more likely to find an alternative lifestyle in a gogo bar in NEP or beer bar in Pattaya than on KSR. I have met many more free-thinking, intellectually liberated and informed people in ‘sex tourist’ locations than in Lonely Planet recommended guesthouses or on the KSR.
If we really want to look at who has rejected a western value system then maybe we look at those who reject the conventional constraints of sexuality, conformist family structure and monogamy (both Farang and Thai). Such constraints cause so much unhappiness, poverty and trauma in the west. If we want to find those who truly support local economies we maybe should look at those who give money directly to local people (even if most of them do come from Isaan !) If we want to find those who are accepting of difference, individuality and autonomy then have a chat with your fellow punters in the next gogo or beer bar. Why doesn’t the Lonely Planet recommend that all those who want a real ‘alternative experience’ give KSR a wide birth and head straight for Nana Plaza.
I only hope that Thais do not judge Farang by what they see on the KSR. I hope they do not think that it is any representation of Farangland. For the KSR is little more than Disneyland for the witless, unimaginative and uninspired. It’s become the quick and, easy ‘Eastern’ experience, in which you can ‘find yourself’ (in a banana pancake and a bottle of Singha) before you return to good careers and the predictable domestic life-course of western sub-urbanism.
P-Zim, Jan 2006