A few weeks ago, I was in Thailand to race my bicycle. Now, that sounds like an exotic, alluring and indulgent confession. Or worse still, a blog that starts with a #humblebrag. It’s not, it is the opener for another rant on my part. Which probably makes this even more indulgent. But bear with me, there is sense to this seeming self-indulgence; that ‘Thailand’ doesn’t exist, and Thailand is a pretty mediocre holiday destination. It is the gold standard of mediocrity ( in the category of holiday-making at least) in a world that is increasingly tending towards an inoffensive, palatable median. And if you don’t already agree with me, then it’s likely that you may already be part of this profitable collective delusion that it is not….
‘Thailand’ (as opposed to Thailand), is an incredible collective folk legend in which many are invested. Say ‘Thailand’ to anyone in a major global city, or anywhere in a temperate, developed (post-/) industrial nation, and it instantly evokes paradise island idylls. It’s backpacker adventures, away-from-it-all-Luxury, freedom and exploration, endless massages, being waited on hand and foot by lithe young men and women and raging undertones of, primarily sexual, domination of the other. These ideas of escape, freedom and power; underpinned by assumed economic leverage and cultural superiority, are the product we are being sold. Fascinatingly, this is not longer just a Western Orientalist fantasy, it’s an Eastern Orientalist fantasy too. Ask any middle-aged, middle-class dentist or desk-jockey in Singapore, Shenzhen or Seoul… Thailand is to escapism what Paris is to High Culture. It is a totem. THE totem And like Paris has its very own Syndrome, brought about by the gaping abyss between the idea and the reality, ‘Thailand’ Syndrome is a clear and present danger.
Simply put, for all the imagined allure, the reality of Thailand is that it is a tourist conveyor belt. An early Asian entrant into the global tourist industry, it became synonymous with the West’s orientalist fantasies, as captured in Alex Garland’s The Beach, and most sinisterly evoked in Houlbecq’s Platform. And now in an economically multipolar, globalised world has continued to sell these on to any bidder. It positioned itself as a passive, untrammelled territory ready to be ‘discovered’ by any white tourist daring enough to get on a commercial airliner. Ever-cheapening global air-travel has democratised the Thailand ideal, not just to these new colonialists, but also Asia burgeoning middle class. I do not resent the democratisation of travel, but as a destination, it trades off the illusion of distance, of carefully manicured exoticism and ‘eastern promise’.
When you travel halfway round the world and spend half a month’s wages to get a piece of this illusion you are already invested. You’ve bought the idea before you bought the ticket. You have too much emotionally riding on that expense to see anything over than what you want to see; it is white sands, drinks in coconuts and sex under palm trees. But deep down, you know the reality is just another commoditised destination. You feel it as soon as you step of the plane to get your transfer bus, or if you kid yourself that you are somehow ‘roughing it’, to haggle with your cut-throat, small-C capitalist cabbie. Every overpriced bottle of mineral water or lacklustre excursion, plays on you subconscious intuitive awareness that you are simply an optimised asset class in a global game. But you tell yourself that it’s a ‘A Holiday of a Lifetime™’ and you take the pictures, instagram the illusion and Facebook the fallacy. And that is how the mythology becomes a kind of cultural Ponzi scheme; as long as we all keep paying in, none of us need to face up to the middling holiday that we just shelled out for. None of us need to face that Thailand is in fact like any other heavily developed tourist destination, selling Made-in-China (or rather now, Vietnam) tourist tat, with half-scruffy beaches lined with umbrella bars, drunk spring-breakers, confused Japanese tourists, pink-drunk Brits and local hustlers. It’s the Costa del Sol via Edward Said.
There are undoubtedly undiscovered corners, hidden beaches and empty vistas, but during your ‘Seven days in the Sun’, you will be funnelled to any one of a number of hotspots with other sunburnt globe-skippers such as yourself who are kidding themselves that they have come to somewhere otherworldly. More than anywhere else, Thailand represents how modern tourism sells ideas rather than places or cultures. It markets the idea of travel in a reality that is ever more touristified, commoditised and homogenised
Recently FailToPlan came back from a two-week break in Sri Lanka. Now before I spend this blog post tearing my own holiday apart- (and I have to admit, there was a point about 4 days in when I was getting work withdrawal and was drawing parallels between the symptoms of vacationing and those of depression; if you were wondering the similarities are waking up late with nothing to do, no sense of purpose, sitting around, doing nothing, feeling lethargic and drinking too much) it was an incredible holiday; stunning range of scenery, wonderful people, beautiful beaches, fantastic weather, fascinating culture (that’s got the tourist board off my back…) at the end of the trip, I also spent two day in Dubai.
Now the two couldn’t be any more different on the surface of it. In the red corner we have rugged landscapes, breath-taking contrasts, elephants parading through the streets on festival days, tuk-tuks and tea plantations. And in the blue corner we have petro-dollars, the worlds tallest building, robot camel-jockeys and a man-made archipelago that is a miniature replica of the world.
I love Dubai, albeit in the same way that motorists love to slow down when there is an accident on the opposite side of the road, but even then its not going to help me win friends and influence people in Dalston, but despite the initial reactions of most of my (near-homogenous) unrepresentative sample of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, neither one of these places is chalk, nor cheese; they are not a set of binaries- deep vs. shallow.
It is another post and an aside that deserves further discussion that to pass of Dubai as a glossy simulacrum of real life is to miss the point by coming at it from a specifically European Enlightenment tradition POV, not least because of the depth of opportunity if you want to ‘make it’ globally while remaining grounded in your regional-parochial traditions and history ( as told to me by an brilliant creative director who I worked with in the region many years back.
But rather than making that case here, back to Sri Lanka for now. It currently seems to be the destination du jour for a certain strata of jaded western European early-adopter member of the precariat- the freelance photographers and social media consultants; those of us who work jobs that don’t count as real ( ie. Anything that you cannot explain to a child under 11 in one sentence…go on, take the Pepsi Challenge on that one); it has become India-lite for the avant guard of the young professional- a pale imitation of our bastard boomer parents travels (the generation that liberated, then commodotised the world, leaving us with the pasteurised dregs- again, ‘burn the old’ is another discussion for another time)
On my return from this trip of two-halves, my fellow marketing ninjas as brand consultants began to engage me in the common pastime of ‘Tick-box tourism top trumps’…“Did you see this…?” “Visit that…” “Stay here…?”
As we talked, it struck me; how different is taking three-wheelers and night trains on the same well-worn path round this island from homogenised fake beaches and pristine malls, or really even now, a ‘bucket-and-spade-ten-days’ in the Costas? The target audience and therefore the ‘executional vehicle’ is different but how substantively different is the play that is being made? Is there a real qualitative difference between ‘we all sit on the same loungers by the same beach near the same pool’ to ‘we all visit the same bay, take the same surf lesson, climb the same trail, wash the same elephant’? They are both just different commodities for different tastes. But they both still commodities (In a related post, I have said before that because of this, we are in fact living in a ‘Golden Age of Staying at Home…)
But I believe there is a difference. The superficial artificiality of Dubai is more honest- a ‘genuine fake’. It doesn’t try to pretend it is more than it is, which makes it in many way more substantive and more real. The malls, the waterparks, the 7-star hotels, the ‘worlds highest bar’ in the ‘world tallest building’ leave no room for irony and never apologise for what they are. Many hate Dubai, but most of those have never been there. Go, and feel free not to like it afterwards, but on some level you cant help but marvel, and actually, respect it. There is no room for irony. This is not to say that Dubai is a qualitatively better, more diverse and rich place than Sri Lanka ( in fact on a personal level I would argue the opposite…) but to dismiss one because of the other shows a certain kind of skewed and privileged view.
There is a lot to disagree with culturally (and that is before we get into the big political stuff around women, sexuality and civil liberties, which are wholly vile, and for which the UAE deserves censure but which are also off the agenda for this post) but to hate it culturally, to not even simply be able to appreciate it as a marvel of the audacity of (post)modernity, is to show quite how jaded and calcified one it.
Mark Twain claimed that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness’. Waiting by the gate to board a flight at Dubai international airport, there is a sample of a few hundred of the earth’s residents; a tranche selected by quirks of fate as diverse as late-running meetings in Manila or the impulse to visit a newly-born relative on the other side of the world. Looking around the gate, you can see a hundred pairs of trailing white wires into a hundred different coloured ears. A young boy in a dishdasha languidly swats at a glowing tablet screen, his face a concentrated picture of barely concealed contempt for the whole process. If we are to put any stock in this arbitrary thin-slicing of humanity, then there seems to be little to evidence Twain’s epithet.
Historically, travel has been a disruptive act. To undertake a journey meant to leave home and the relative safety that represented. Perhaps it is for that very reason that the act of travel has been romanticised in literature and imbued with an almost-mystical significance. The risk that it inherently contained meant that it had to be prized to be incentivised. But maybe this is stating the equation the wrong way round. The mystical significance comes from what travel had to offer. The romance was linked to the reward; an expansion of human understanding, the opportunity widen and deepen the intellectual pool. Often this would come from the journey as much as from the destination.
Travel is no longer an individual experience, it is a commodity. The travel industry was worth $1,972.8 billion USD in 2011. ‘Adventure’ is no longer something you have, it is a rack of brochures in Trailfinders, after ‘Action Holidays’ and before ‘Americas (North)’. This has been a long time coming. Even in the days of Earhart, and certainly by the time of Armstrong, while the heroic quasi-mystical version of travel was being valourised, the travel industry was fractionalising and homogonising that same sentiment, repackaging it into 7- 10- and 14-day pieces. Since the advent of the grand tour in the 17th century, travel has been losing its genuine power, replaced instead with fictional significance. Since the glory days of 14th and 15th century explorers, as its real importance has diminished, its ceremonial role has grown in popular consciousness. As early as the 18th Century, some critics were deriding the Grand Tour as “a paltry thing, a tame, uniform, unvaried prospect”. The birth of the itinerary was the beginning of a long and illustrious ending.
With a marked decline in the package holiday since the end of the 20th century, the logical thought would be that travel is once again diversifying, that after the post World War II, mid 20th century standardisation, we are rediscovering our instincts to strike out alone and ‘see what we can see’. But in fact, the lineage can be traced from these first accounts of Byron and his contemporaries in Florence, through the pre-planned, pre-paid excursions and identikit apartments of the Costas to the lonely-planet-guide collecting, tick-boxing that typifies travel now- you may not buy all the pieces in one go and from one place, but it is still ‘Sightseeing’ not actually seeing the sights ( whatever you, as opposed to the guide, might define those sights to be) however you dress it up. One involves taking in the air, the atmosphere, the feeling, the people that make up a place. The other involves checking off ‘must-sees’ from a generic list. Suddenly your mini-break is the same as everyone else’s. The ‘Self guided Tour’ might mean that they are configured in a different order, but ultimately the pieces are all the same. Gradually the publishers who produce these books are dropping the final vestiges of pretence that claim to be opening up a new place for their readers to explore, concentrating instead on sending to print big-hitting top-ten ‘best-of’ books, stripping the guides down to their core checklists. At least its more honest.
What all this amounts to is a transformation of experience itself into a commodity. Where travel was once about a ‘being’ mode of existence, it becomes about ‘having’ acquiring landmarks in a place, rather than experiencing it. One of the side effects of this is that certain cities begin to feel like theme parks to certain eras, playing up to their own guide-book caricatures. As Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega puts it, ‘ like a wax museum with a pulse’. New York as ‘20th Century Land’, a kind of ouroborus cliche that feels like it is only one edict away from having Rhapsody in Blue being piped out of the nearest lamp-post every time you look up to take in a skyscraper. There are no real sights left to see.
Where technology meets with travel, it only serves to catalyse this same process, providing ever more subtle and artful tools for acquisition. If only the tourist wandering round, iPad screen 6 inches from their face, would be the apogee of this- adding an intermediary screen between themselves and the real-world, occasionally tapping on the shutter button to capture a moment as they go. Even the near-commodity point-and-shoot digital camera has much to answer for, lowering the barrier to taking a picture, meaning most see the world perpetually through a viewfinder or screen, visually evidencing their progress through their top ten tick list with angles and shots near-indistinguishable from those in the book to start with. The proliferation of social media means that we do not even have to wait until that friend returns to take us through a slide show of their snaps. Instead we get real-time over sharing of every meal, every landmark, every minutiae of their trip before they have even finished it. And every set-piece shot indistinguishable from the last acquaintance that went to the same place. That same standardised experience is shown when you overhear two ‘intrepid travellers’ who have recently visited the same place. ‘and did you go to X?’ ‘yes we went to X after Y then to the Z that the bar recommended’ ‘ah yes, we went to Z on out last night’. And what both parties thought of it was exactly what the guide thought they ought to.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the international airport terminal, a liminal space cut adrift from time or place, where you are at once everyman and no-one. From check-in to duty free to air-bridge to pressurised cabin, it is a sanitised and efficient process that give no hint of ‘arrival’ or ‘departure’ beyond the lit up signs on the terminal walls, adding to the wholly alienated and alienating experience of modern travel. As we criss-cross the world with increasingly regularity, we continue to shrink it. As states and culture become closer and more porous, the reason to travel, the need to discover becomes less relevant. As destinations become cross-checked and indexed with increasing levels of granularity and every back-street bistro ‘discovered’ by a constant stream of directed patrons, clutching their ‘insider’s guide’, the question remains whether there are even any outsiders left.
But it is not just the increasing efficiency of the physical act of travelling that is reduced the act of discovery to simulacrum. The pervasive technology that connects us, creating an always-on world, that we are told brings us all closer together- highlighting our similarities over our differences diminishes the need to leave home in the first place. Sub-cultures or movements, whether it is Portland Hipsterism or the Darbawia Boys of Saudi Arabia are mainlined into the general consciousness as fast as they can begin to develop. There are no more cultural Galapagos’ left, and soon all the creatures will begin to look the same. Disconnection helps diversity to develop but the danger of this constant connection is the creation of a ‘Grey Mush’ of culture. You can hear it in numerous Top 40 or Hit 100 or any other of the many near-meaningless music rankings around the globe. The same artists crop up across charts, swamping local music trends with magpie-like tracks that steal with pride from any number of genres. When was the last time you heard an RnB track that didn’t include a 90s dance piano riff and a dubstep middle eight? Microsoft are even using dubstep to sell internet browsers. Talk to a current teenager and their music taste will probably encompass anything from Elgar to Gaga, perhaps with some Miles Davis and Frank Zappa in the mix. Even within a given place’s culture, the idea of any sense of tribalism seems dead. Mankind as a species has a long (pre)history of the divisive effect of tribalism, but there is something to be said for the biodiversity it can bring. Looks and sounds used to come from individual cities and were radiated out, from Madchester to Northern Soul, from Tin Pan Alley to Detroit techno, there was a sense of place, or at least of origin that was transmitted with the pop movements they spread. Now the cultural behemoths are transnational, with Lady Gaga as a 21st century Nemo, and her stage show a vast, Nautilus, constantly touring, spreading its agnostic gospel.
Located within this wider movement towards the transnational, the current trend towards craft- the growth of market, micro-brewing, niche designers- feels like an oddly futile gesture in the face of this homogenisation. As companies operate as supra-national missionaries, spreading their brands values and core benefits from place to place, everywhere begins to look the same. The same logos give cities from Lago to Los Angeles an increasingly eerie sense of Deja Vu. Inside the industry they talk about ‘missions’ and ‘reasons to believe’ as if buying and the self-actualisation it is meant to bring is a new religion that could save us all. With one million people a week moving to cities to be bombarded by these companies proselytizing mission-statements, our very aspirations are being standardised. It is the same transnational brands that provide empty ciphers into which we pour our hopes, whether we are a student in Chengdu or a single mother in Quito. It is Apple phones and Nike trainers and Johnnie Walker scotch that will save us, make us look 5 pounds thinner, put a tiger in our tank and a giant in our toilet bowl.
Linguistic trends are only serving to quicken the shallowing. Language serves as the framework from which ideas and culture hang. The peculiarities of grammar and syntax of any given language help to shape its cultural tropes. The lazy cultural stereotyper might want to assign directness in the German character to its penchant for compound words for instance or British circuitousness to the Passive Voice. Sweeping over-simplifications aside, language is an integral part of the cultural narrative of the place where it was evolved and where it is used. It is a living record of an evolutionary trajectory, such as Autumn, reflecting the Renaissance’s influence on 16th century British society in displacing ‘Harvest’ and ‘Fall of the Leaf’ from usage over time. (Incidentally making the continued preference for Fall in American English more English than the English, something no doubt that every (small R) republican and Anglophile will unite in horror over).
The growth of English as a second language because of its dominant role in business, due to the convergence of the growth of America in the 20th century with the legacy of Empire from the 19th century is only part of the 21st century linguistic shifts. UNESCO posits that over half of the 6000 ‘living’ languages in use today will be extinct by the end of the century. When they go, they take with them 3000 cultural histories, 3000 oral traditions, sets of superstitions, beliefs, verbal tics- ways of understanding and interpreting the world. These are instead replaced by a shared lexicon of urban experience, a way of articulating problems and ideas peculiar to the city and at once universal to them all, as that becomes a dominant mode of being, and as cities develop to ape previous templates laid down in the urban environment. It doesn’t help that many newly-urbanising countries are looking to older cities rather than their own history of the communal living experience to set down a path for development, drawing on expertise from the very same ‘Wax Museums’ that are re-imagining themselves as parodies of their own pasts.
At the same time, there is a strong, countervailing movement being brought about by the very same technology that is shrinking the world outside our front doors. While at once bringing the mainstream together into a kind of transnational grey-mush popular cultural consensus, it is also allowing diversity to flourish at its ever-increasing ( and increasingly bizarre) fringes. To experience other cultures we must look to online spaces, where this diversity is being driven. This new transnational eclecticism may not be to everyone’s taste, but there is doubtless something for everyone there and it is undoubtedly made more extreme by the marginalisation it revels in, when faced with an increasingly blander mainstream- a point that is patently obvious after about 30 seconds on 4chan or any online pornography listing site. But what it does do is give life and depth to a sense of other and in doing so celebrates difference in a way that travel no longer can.
But it is not just alternative tribes that are developing online that make this the golden age of staying at home. Greater definition and higher fidelity makes the experience of staying at home more real than most of what you can experience in real life, especially when so much of that is now being viewed through a screen with headphones firmly placed in ears. A friend who was about to head to the mountains of Nepal trekking for two weeks was suffering a sleepless night before departing, worried that he didn’t have the right music selection for this trip on the iPod to walk to. Forget the birdsong or the sounds of nature, if the foothills of the Himalayas needs augmenting, why not do away with the imperfect reality and all that tiresome travel it requires and just immerse in the experience the technology can provide? As trips become tick-lists, and access is limited and planned, surely the Discovery Channel can give you the kind of unparalleled access that going there never could? The Blue Planet in HD, tablet open to wikipedia on your lap is a more immersive and educational experience that a second rate diving holiday or trekking trip could ever hope to provide. How far are we away from the kind of full-wall, holographic viewing technology that mean this will really be the case. And if immersing in this reality isn’t what switches you on, why not immerse in an alternative one? Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games offer an expansive alternative which you can spend days in. For some it has been too seductive a prospect with a number of deaths being reported amongst the most hardcore of these gamers, including a 3 month old child in South Korea who died of malnutrition after being left to fend for herself by its game-addicted parents who were engrossed in an online child-rearing game in an internet cafe for hours each day.
Though, in-extremis, it is shocking, it does show how attractive an option this technology provides. In a world where the experience that we once sought from going abroad is standardised to the point of absurdity, these immersive technologies suddenly offer something more original, something more real than reality. As travel becomes a process to be endured and one city becomes indistinguishable from the next, getting on a plane or train somewhere seems as likely to narrow the mind as it is to broaden it, spending time in identikit terminii with the same jaded nomads. In the next decade and beyond, perhaps it will be the experiences that we have in our front rooms that will challenge and surprise us more than anything we might find up a mountain in Morocco or on a beach in Indonesia if we do not start some kind of cultural conservation. Truly this is the golden age of staying at home.