Photo: Wong's Bar, Bangkok.

Idle banter forum

On authenticity

Posted by somtam2000 on 5/10/2015 at 10:22 admin

From this week's newsletter:

"I'm in Bangkok at the moment, staying in a Chinatown hotel within the grounds of a temple and on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. It's a wooden house, supposedly more than 100 years old, and the water literally washes under my room, a couple of feet below my bed. The glass windows open out over the Chao Phraya and I can watch the river traffic roar past through a tangled web of ivy that falls down from the roof above.

To me this is "authentic Bangkok", but it is authentic in an bit of an Anna and the King kind of way. Late at night, when the boat traffic has ceased but for the lumbering barges, and the lights glitter and dance on the river's surface, it's easy to imagine a time past of sailing ships and trader's vessels at anchor.

But, like Anna and the King, this authenticity is a personal thing. Others might find my hotel contrived and overpriced rather than charming and splurge-able. A friend recently bought a condo in the northern Ramkhamhaeng district of Bangkok - a world away from the chocolate waters of Bangkok's River of Kings. It's in the midst of a hubbub of taxis, condos, malls, belching buses and hordes of people -- and he used "authentic" as one of the first words to describe it. Personally I'd prefer riverside wooden house authenticity!

Authenticity gets bandied around a lot when it comes to travel. The places we go, the food we eat and the people we meet are all frequently judged according to just how authentic we think they are. But, like the "new remote trekking area" out of Chiang Mai, the "boutique" hostel in Phuket, and the "authentic hospitality" in a village outside Mae Hong Son, the meaning is often just another vapid slogan.

Authentic travel -- is there even such a thing?"

Is there?

#1 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,901
 Send somtam2000 a private message   Where has somtam2000 been?   Website   Twitter   Facebook    Flickr    Google+   Instagram   Pinterest 

Posted by chinarocks on 5/10/2015 at 10:26

I think a good test for this is how much of the money you spend on a holiday goes to benefit the local economy.

Staying in a family-owned guest house, eating street food and drinking the local brew, taking rickshaws, buying locally made crafts or consumables.

I think these would all be classed as authentic travel, although I'm not 100% sure either.

#2 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 738

Agoda coupon: Get an extra 7% off selected properties with the coupon code
“Tfishpromo”

Posted by somtam2000 on 5/10/2015 at 19:06 admin

That's a good point - I never thought to consider the aspect of where the money is going. Nice one.

#3 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,901
 Send somtam2000 a private message   Where has somtam2000 been?   Website   Twitter   Facebook    Flickr    Google+   Instagram   Pinterest 

Posted by StevenA on 6/10/2015 at 00:27

I think the Rolf Potts talked about authenticity in Vagabonding; paraphrasing poorly, it has as much to do with how you approach experience, as the experience itself. Interestingly, we just arrived in Bangkok yesterday (first time there) and found our way to a narrow, crowded wet market, where we were the only "tourists." And for the first time in a long time, I left my phone (camera) in the hotel, so I just took it all in without recording it (except in my mind). This felt really '"real" which is what I think we mean when we call something authentic. So did the crunch and slipping I felt stepping on a dead rat (yuck). As I write this, I'm now on a bus to Chiang Mai, listening to Air, with no real itinerary for the next three weeks. Then back to "reality"? What is real anyway?

#4 StevenA has been a member since 24/2/2015. Posts: 1
 Where has StevenA been? 

Posted by Gogomobile on 6/10/2015 at 02:49

A hotel in Chinatown doesnt represent Thailand anymore than an Irish pub in Sukhumvit does.

#5 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412

Posted by somtam2000 on 6/10/2015 at 06:26 admin

@StevenA Interesting - cheers. Enjoy your three weeks!

@gogomobile As so often is the case, your comment is fabulously helpful and constructive -- please feel free to share what does actually represent Thailand -- just so we all know. Thanks.

#6 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,901
 Send somtam2000 a private message   Where has somtam2000 been?   Website   Twitter   Facebook    Flickr    Google+   Instagram   Pinterest 

Posted by Gogomobile on 6/10/2015 at 06:33

You don't know what things are Thai?

Ask a Thai person then.

#7 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412

Posted by exacto on 6/10/2015 at 17:08

Authentic. To me it has always meant doing what the locals do. Hanging out in a spa or beer fest tent with my friends in southern Germany always feels authentic because it is what the people who live there do with their time. Riding the bus or the train in Thailand always feels authentic because that is how the local people get around too. Buying tacos at my favorite stand in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, always feels authentic because the other customers are mostly Mexican people picking up dinner for their families.

As I've watched Thailand develop over the last quarter century, I think the meaning of authentic has evolved with it. For example, when I first visited Ko Samet in 1992, the only Thais there were fishermen, who did not hang out on the beach, or workers. But on my last two visits, the vast majority of visitors have been Thai. As a result, it feels more authentic there, even if more touristy, because hanging out on Samet is how a large number of locals spend their time. Same as listening to jazz music in Bangkok at the clubs on Soi Thong Lo, because even though the music isn't authentic Thai, the others there and therefore the experience is. One of my all time favorite nights in Thailand was at a bar in Lampang where a band out of Chiang Mai played live music to a crowd of mostly Thais and Asian tourists. It was authentic and fun.

The Chinatown hotel is authentic, because it captures Thai history and Thai style, and because people still live like that throughout the country. But an apartment near Ramkhamhaeng is authentic too, because you are living how the people there really live.

#8 exacto has been a member since 12/2/2006. Location: United States. Posts: 2,755
 Send exacto a private message   Where has exacto been? 

Posted by DLuek on 6/10/2015 at 21:36 TF writer

^What exacto said. Also I like this from StevenA:

As I write this, I'm now on a bus to Chiang Mai, listening to Air, with no real itinerary for the next three weeks. Then back to "reality"? What is real anyway?

That sounds like a pretty "authentic" travel experience.

When taking photos of beautiful monuments and the like, I used to wait around until tourists were clear of the frame, somehow thinking that it would be more "authentic" if no one else were there, or better yet, if some locals moved into the frame to provide some "local color." At some point I said, "Shoot the tourists too." Everything is authentic, in its way.

But for the sake of argument: I'd say that the original Kentucky Fried Chicken, founded in some small town in 1930 -- that was authentic. The KFC next to Sala Daeng BTS Station -- not so much.

#9 DLuek has been a member since 19/6/2008. Location: Thailand. Posts: 1,287
 Send DLuek a private message   Website   Twitter 

Posted by antoniamitchell on 7/10/2015 at 07:36

Ah, yes, but as Exacto says above: "To me it has always meant doing what the locals do. "

If the KFC is filled with locals, who's to say that's not an authentic experience?

#10 antoniamitchell has been a member since 13/5/2012. Posts: 539
 Where has antoniamitchell been?   Website   Twitter 

Posted by Gogomobile on 7/10/2015 at 08:14

Kfc and maccas tastes different in every country so sampling it does provide some variety. However homemade fried chicken beats store bought stuff anyday and its the same with Thai food or hamburgers.

#11 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412


Posted by MADMAC on 7/10/2015 at 14:02

The thing about the use of the word I find comical is it confers legitimacy in the minds of some tourists. As if authenticity were synonymous with good. Driving your car drunk off your ass is an "authentic Thai experience". That doesn't make it a good one. Speeding down a country road, high, with no helmet in shorts and a t-shirt, headlight not working... that's an authentic Thai experience... Also, the way things were 100 years ago is almost never authentic anymore in any country. Yet people often confuse the two. Old vs authentic.

#12 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by antoniamitchell on 7/10/2015 at 15:29

Well, a lot of people use those sorts of lazy shorthands - "natural" as synonymous with good (as in "I'll have some of that lovely, all-natural arsenic"), "chemical" as synonymous with bad ("I don't want my kids exposed to chemicals" - like H2O perhaps?). Drives me up the wall (and turns me into a boring pedant at dinner parties....)

I wonder if finding a giant ant in my fŏi tong that one time counts as an authentic Thai experience...

#13 antoniamitchell has been a member since 13/5/2012. Posts: 539
 Where has antoniamitchell been?   Website   Twitter 

Posted by Gogomobile on 7/10/2015 at 23:39

Or being blind drunk at 2pm on a monday as some locals.

With hotels I look at features like a pool and gym, bed quality, room size and cable tv as opposed to style. Style matters if you are building a house to live in for the next 30 years but for a holiday I dont care but there is always a niche market for expensive boutique pretentious styled hotels. Some people are happy to pay triple for appearances.

#14 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412

Posted by gecktrek on 8/10/2015 at 04:46

Authentic travel or authentic destinations? i love to travel to places that despite external (for most of us, homogenised western) influences still contains an intrinsic essence that can only be found in that particular place. some locals could argue that their cultural influences and lifestyle was actually inauthentic, therefore harder for travellers to define that essence when looking for an authentic destination...

#15 gecktrek has been a member since 24/3/2013. Location: Australia. Posts: 141
 Send gecktrek a private message   Where has gecktrek been?   Website   Flickr  

Posted by MADMAC on 8/10/2015 at 07:38

gecktrek - that's true everywhere. If you asked me what was an "authentic American experience" I'd be hard pressed to tell you. Same for German. Some things might be quaint essential German, like a beer fest, but basically Germans live their lives like Americans do. So what you end up identifying as authentic is pretty much a cute curiosity. Cultures are not static. Never have been. Humans have been moving around the planet and transplanting cultures and languages since there have been humans. Is Islam in Pattani "authentic"? Depends on how far you want to go back. Is a Chinese temple in Bangkok authentic? Depends on how long you want to go back to define authentic. When US soldiers and agency personnel were operating in Laos in the 60s and 70s, they brought with them country line dance. The Laos ended up adopting it. Now it's considered "authentic Laos dance" called Basallo.

#16 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by chinarocks on 8/10/2015 at 08:06

I think you are taking the debate around the word a bit far. I am sure your point are valid but probably overly complicated for this forum.

To me, authentic is probably best summed up by "do as the locals do". Be it what they eat, how they travel, what they do to relax.

#17 chinarocks has been a member since 17/6/2011. Posts: 738

Posted by billytheliar on 8/10/2015 at 09:47

I always thought authenticity is something for real travelers and not for tourists ;-)
Seriously now, I am not so sure as I used to be. I guess absolute authenticity means not just to do as the locals do. (I am perverse enough to enjoy bus rides in Laos, but I don't get travel sick, so I already start losing contact with the local puking majority at this point). It would mean to live as a local, earn your living as a local, share the worries of the locals etc. But this is a conceptually different thing than traveling, or even living as an expat with secured income from abroad - an impossiblity for most of us. Otherwise, since it's naive to believe that one doesn't interfere by one's mere presence (which does create a market itself, we want to sleep and get fed), searching for authenticity is like trying to restore a lost virginity, or 'innocence'. A good thing for our feeling or self-understanding (or self-inventing) when we are on travel, but not much more than this.
On the other hand, I'm also one of that kind of persons: I would never join a club that accepts members like me - I prefer being a tourist in not-touristed places. It felt nicer to watch the morning alm ceremony in Salavan than in Luang Prabang. Well, perhaps because it was more authentic.

#18 billytheliar has been a member since 3/4/2012. Posts: 48
 Where has billytheliar been? 

Posted by MADMAC on 8/10/2015 at 10:57

Billy that was a great post man. Too funny.

#19 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by Gogomobile on 9/10/2015 at 03:52

"How they travel"

So tourists need to overload a car, drive erratically, sing karaoke and play cards drunk to travel like a local.

Which farangs are doing that? None


So there are no authentic travellers.

#20 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412

Posted by MADMAC on 9/10/2015 at 04:41

"So tourists need to overload a car, drive erratically, sing karaoke and play cards drunk to travel like a local.

Which farangs are doing that? None"

Well, not many. I know a couple...

#21 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by Gogomobile on 9/10/2015 at 06:35

They would be expats not tourists.

#22 Gogomobile has been a member since 14/4/2015. Posts: 412

Posted by MADMAC on 9/10/2015 at 14:48

OK, fair enough.

#23 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by Yesterday on 9/10/2015 at 20:34

I think somtam's description of the hotel in Bangkok beautifully captures the romanticism and nostalgia intertwined with the tourists quest for authenticity.

Is there even such a thing as 'authentic travel?' - I guess no, as there is no such thing as inauthentic travel. But there is certainly such a thing as travel disappointingly devoid of opportunities to experience nostalgic feelings.

#24 Yesterday has been a member since 9/8/2015. Posts: 33

Posted by somtam2000 on 10/11/2015 at 16:25 admin

Authenticity back in the news again, this time via Pico Iyer:

"And yet the single most revealing moment I spent in Yemen came not in Old Sana'a, but in the bombed-out, headline-ridden port of Aden. The "true Yemen," I realized inside a crowded Internet cafe, was the sound of "La Cucaracha" playing loudly as a truck driver sounded his horn outside. It was the melancholy half-Yemeni, half-British man who buttonholed me one afternoon and invited me to see the cemetery where most of his family was buried. It was the Ching Sing restaurant nearby that had been serving moo shu shrimp through nearly 40 years of warfare, and boasted a menu startlingly similar to the one I'd seen at the Chinese Cascade Restaurant (an "Authentic Chinese Restaurant") in southern Oman, not far away -- run and frequented entirely by Indians."

and

"The "reality" we crave, in short, is itself a fantasy. "

Worth a read.

#25 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,901
 Send somtam2000 a private message   Where has somtam2000 been?   Website   Twitter   Facebook    Flickr    Google+   Instagram   Pinterest 

Posted by MADMAC on 14/11/2015 at 00:38

"The "reality" we crave, in short, is itself a fantasy. "

Good quote. "Authentic", at least in many minds, means "old". As in customs or food or behaviors that have been around a long time. But cultures are not stagnant things. They are growing all the time. And humans are not stagnant animals. They are moving all the time. Thai culture from the 14th century would be unrecognizable to a modern Thai.

In my view, contemporary culture is what counts. And if you come to Thailand, and want exposure to culture, that's what you should be seeking. And this means going to places which are not tainted by tourism and working on learning as much language as you can. But that only applies if you are really interested in the culture - as opposed to sight seeing. Nothing wrong with the latter, but it's just not "culture".

#26 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
 Send MADMAC a private message 

Posted by clevam on 27/12/2015 at 01:08

I met a man who was looking for such an authentic experience that he was going out to live with some poor agricultural villagers who wore different clothes from the majority of other locals. Of he set with enough bottled water ,(didn't want to catch a disease). He also carried a camera with which he proceeded to violate the privacy of just about everyone he met. It was authentic for the locals .but his water bottles were a constant reminder of his stay for the couple of decades. Cant get more real than that!!

#27 clevam has been a member since 17/6/2010. Posts: 6


Please login to add a reply

You need to be a Travelfish member to be able to add a reply to this post. Please use the button below to log in. After logging in you'll be returned to this page automatically to add your post. Not a member? Join up here.