You think you are / but we know you’re not

The big Amer­i­can guy with a back­pack at the South­ern Bus Ter­mi­nal asked me if I was lost.

We can’t have tourists get­ting lost

I’m not a tourist I respond­ed curtly.

What non­sense. Of course, I’m still a tourist.

I could spend the rest of my life here and would still be a bloody tourist. And happily.

After almost five years in Indone­sia, I was still a tourist there. I could speak the lan­guage of sorts, I had a bet­ter under­stand­ing of parts of the col­laps­ing road­ing sys­tem and the local geog­ra­phy than many local born Indone­sians in many of the regions I spent time in.

But I was still a tourist to the Indone­sians. I was still a tourist men­tal­ly. Every bule I’ve ever met in Indone­sia is a tourist, and most espe­cial­ly the ones who like to think they are not – the sad ones in Bali who adopt local dress and local names and wan­der around in some nev­er nev­er land. Eat, Pray, Dream on…

I’m not sure how one stops being a tourist — or if one ever can. My child, if born in Indone­sia, might have bet­ter claim, but it’s worth remem­ber­ing that the Dutch, many of whom came from fam­i­lies who had been there 300 years, were giv­en two weeks to leave in 1949.

But, impor­tant­ly, the most Dutch nev­er went from being fair­ly unpleas­ant colo­nial mas­ters to equals with the indige­nous peo­ples they exploit­ed – or want­ed to.

Three hun­dred years of exploita­tion, sup­pres­sion, oppres­sion, mas­sacre and worse does leave scars. I’m not sure Indone­sia will ever get over Hol­land’s rule.

Try men­tion­ing the Opi­um Wars in Chi­na and watch the reac­tion. The next gen­er­a­tion, and the gen­er­a­tions there­after, of Viet­namese, are the ones who will raise the spec­tre of Hue and oth­er bat­tles again. Asia rarely forgets.

I know West­ern­ers that car­ry Indone­sia pass­ports, born else­where — they are still tourists. 1

Thai­land, nev­er hav­ing had an extend­ed peri­od of West­ern exploita­tion, is slight­ly more ambiva­lent about for­eign­ers than its big­ger, more con­fused, south­ern neighbour.

But I’m still a tourist.

And yes­ter­day I was a tourist in effect. We were going to Ratchaburi.

I’ve resist­ed Ratch­aburi. Most­ly because of the end­less offers to take me to the Float­ing Mar­kets, the main one of which is in that west­ern town, not far from Myan­mar (the town is about 1% Karen tribes-peo­ple) from the numer­ous dodgy taxi dri­vers tout­ing if I have the very rare mis­for­tune to find myself around Nana or the low­er end of Sukhumvit 2(yes, with­in the bound­aries of BKK’s own tourist hell. I’m not/am a tourist).

How­ev­er this was work and, yes, thanks for offer­ing to help, but I do know my way around the fast, sil­ly-cheap, mod­ern and con­ve­nient Thai bus inter­ci­ty sys­tem. It was about $2 each way, for a two-hour trip and the price includ­ed a bot­tle of min­er­al water.


After pass­ing what seemed like a dozen or more Tesco/Lo­tus-hemmed mega malls, we crossed the bridge into the main Ratch­aburi drag and were tossed out at the cen­tral bus stop. Nobody tried to sell us any­thing. Nobody paid any atten­tion to us, we were just two farang arriv­ing on a bus.

On first impres­sions, I liked the town. It was small, clean and tidy with the fast flow­ing Mae Klong Riv­er, brown and mud­dy, flow­ing through at some speed, drag­ging and deposit­ing green­ery on the banks and bridge pylons.

There was a float­ing beer gar­den but the walk­way had col­lapsed it. I hoped no-one was drink­ing on the thing or, worse, try­ing to stag­ger off, when the walk­way fell in. The Mae Klong Riv­er was not the sort of riv­er I’d want to be in, sober or leg­less. And in Thai­land peo­ple do get legless.

Most­ly I liked it because a day trip any­where is always an adven­ture. And a day trip any­where in Asia is an even big­ger adventure.

As much as I love the coun­try I was bought up, it’s pre­dictable. One of the joys of New Zealand is turn­ing a cor­ner and know­ing exact­ly what is around it. One of the joys of Asia is turn­ing a cor­ner and nev­er know­ing what is around it. Even if you’ve turned that cor­ner a hun­dred times.

I’m ram­bling.

We had a map. The fac­to­ry in this lit­tle ceram­ics town 3 had giv­en us a map. It was sim­ple. It showed the riv­er, the rail­way, the cen­tral police sta­tion and the mall. How­ev­er, maps are like cor­ners in Asia. You nev­er quite know what you should expect from them. It looked like a few metres — a hun­dred at most. I showed a tuk-tuk dri­ver at the bus stop. He laughed and said jed sip baht. I drove him down to ha sip baht but still felt that while B50 was an improve­ment over B70, it was still far too much for a short drag up the main street.

What the hell.

We got in.

I’ve always won­dered why these almost exclu­sive­ly tourist traps, which is what tuk-tuks effec­tive­ly are, are so bloody hard to get into if you hap­pen to stand over five feet tall. I twist­ed and pulled about 80% of my body in before the thing did a u‑turn into oncom­ing traf­fic with my leg still hang­ing out, swing­ing per­ilous­ly near to Hon­da vans we seemed close to nudg­ing. As we tipped around a cor­ner into a long-ish straight road of hard­ware and Plas­ma TV stores, bal­loon sell­ers and half-a-dozen mas­sive stuffed toy empo­ri­ums, I man­aged to get it ful­ly in.

We are going exact­ly the wrong way I thought, map focused in mind. I thought I’d shut up. A one-way sys­tem per­haps — like Lon­don’s — or Den­pasar’s — where the best way to get to the desired point B is to go in exact­ly the oppo­site direction.

As we moved across the fair­ly neat town, past the big hos­pi­tal, then what looked like a uni­ver­si­ty but I soon worked out from the signs 4was one of those mas­sive evan­gel­i­cal stick-your-self-right­eous-nose-in insti­tu­tions that wacky Amer­i­can cre­ation­ists plonk all over the plan­et, I realised that Ratch­aburi has two main roads, both with rivers, rail­ways and police sta­tions (actu­al­ly the same riv­er and railway).

We rat­tled and bumped along for half an hour before we found our­selves plonked on the edge of a six-lane high­way just out­side the city lim­its. The show­room was down an order­ly dri­ve­way. The man in the tuk-tuk point­ed inwards and then quick­ly reversed out, leav­ing us to walk hope­ful­ly into an expand­ing groomed but trop­i­cal expanse.

There was no-one there. The only build­ings were a pad­locked office and spot­less stand­alone loo block. We found our­selves wan­der­ing amongst sev­er­al acres of high­ly and bright­ly coloured large pots and ceram­ic sculp­tures set in the grass, the streams and the over­grown trop­i­cal foliage. Kin­da like a minia­ture ver­sion of Laos’ Plain of Jars on acid and with­out the US bombloads 5 and their awful heritage.

Even­tu­al­ly, some­one found us wan­der­ing amongst the jars and invit­ed us into a large build­ing amongst the bush. It looked like a Nis­sen hut in the jungle.

Brigid placed an order. I took photos.

If I ever need to find a new busi­ness, dial-a-tuk-tuk in Ratch­aburi seems like an oppor­tu­ni­ty beg­ging. Because you can’t.

You have to reply on store­men from the fac­to­ry to  squeeze you into the front of their cramped Toy­ota and then gen­er­ous­ly deliv­er you back the bus stop so you can wan­der off to the riv­er and drink per­haps the most deli­cious cof­fee in the world (thick, slow­ly strained into con­densed milk, Viet­nam style) in a small retro-ish cafe the likes of which you only seem to find in Thai­land, com­plete with ped­al-car Mini-Coop­ers from the 1960s (in Ital­ian Job plumage) and a huge selec­tion of Life mag­a­zines from the same era.  But, yes, the cof­fee was fab­u­lous and real­ly bad for me. I like but don’t crave espres­so any­more. I’m no longer the cof­fee snob that left Auck­land in 2005. Instead, I tend to crave the var­i­ous kopis of Asia, most­ly Kopi Bali. Hell, we trav­el with Indone­sian cof­fee. We take it to Amer­i­ca. We take it to New Zealand.

Still ram­bling.

But back to the ques­tion at hand. Am I a tourist?


How­ev­er, I’ve become a tourist every­where. I’m a tourist in Thai­land. I’m a tourist in Indone­sia. I’m a tourist in Chi­na. I’m a tourist in New York City.

And the one thing I came away from New Zealand a few weeks back with, was that, regard­less of my birth and per­son­al her­itage, I’ve real­ly become a tourist in New Zealand too.

I’m not sure it’s home any­more. I would not have said that a year ago but the six weeks spent in Auck­land and down-coun­try this mid-year have let me feel­ing like an alien. A com­fort­able alien to be sure, but an alien nevertheless.

I felt no sense of attach­ment when the earth­quake struck Can­ter­bury. It was awful and I felt sym­pa­thy, but attach­ment? No. I felt some guilt about that. I felt more attach­ment to the red­shirts in Ratchapra­song. The voic­es on New Zealand’s TV chan­nels sound as odd as the voic­es on TV in Guangzhou. The accents were surreal.

I get ner­vous at the empti­ness of it all, even the much tout­ed Auck­land traf­fic seems odd­ly sparse. Real­ly sparse.

New Zealand pol­i­tics have become a mys­tery to me (although I was thor­ough­ly pleased when John Banks got trounced in the Auck­land may­oral race, not because I liked the oth­er guy more – I know absolute­ly noth­ing about him – but because Banks is a turd).

Nope, I’m a tourist. State­less albeit with a pass­port that tells me I’m not.

And I’m not sure I mind.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. Their chil­dren, immersed in the coun­try from birth, arguably are less so — unless they are raised in the bub­ble many expats live in, which was the case for the Dutch over hun­dreds of years
  2. Soi’s 1 to 20
  3. we tourists may like to think these are tourist towns, exist­ing for our cam­eras and the trav­el pages but of course, tourism for most towns is but a sideshow — I’ve been to Ratch­aburi, look at the pic­tures — no you haven’t
  4. Why put your signs in Eng­lish? Per­haps god does­n’t read Thai script? Or are they just there to ensure their own place in the there­after. If there were to be a there­after, I’d not be unhap­py if it looked like provin­cial Thai­land, but I guess those that wrote the sig­nage would rather it was more like Des Moines or Lit­tle Rock.
  5. Thai­land was where many of the air­craft that dropped the bombs on Laos and Cam­bo­dia flew from – one under­stands why they are still a lit­tle grumpy


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

George D
October 14, 2010 at 11:26 pm

I think (hav­ing been in Java for less than 3 weeks), that you, I, any­one else who’s a tourist — sees things dif­fer­ent­ly. It does­n’t mat­ter how much you ‘know’, as long as you know dif­fer­ent­ly. And you’re right, the kids and the afakasi have a bet­ter chance of knowl­edge that bet­ter fits those local pat­terns, but no guar­an­tees as such. 

Oth­er notes in agree­ment — it is indeed true that cof­fee from the region isn’t espres­so, and thank your cho­sen God for that. 

New Zealan­ders sound real­ly weird, and are hard to under­stand. Even liv­ing in the coun­try, I was speak­ing inter­na­tion­al Eng­lish, liv­ing with a bunch of Euro­peans and Asians. This of course continues.

I’m a short bas­tard, so I don’t have that prob­lem with bemo. But as soon as I’m car­ry­ing a lar­gish pack… I ask the locals per­gi ke? in my bro­ken Bahasa, and once they’re all off you’re in the dri­ver’s hands.

I’m off to see Eat Pray Love with some friends tomor­row. File under comedy.

Tweets that men­tion You think you are / but we know you’re not :The Opin­ion­at­ed Din­er —
October 14, 2010 at 11:26 pm

[…] This post was men­tioned on Twit­ter by Simon Grigg, George Dar­roch. George Dar­roch said: “I get ner­vous at the empti­ness of it all, even the much tout­ed Auck­land traf­fic seems odd­ly sparse.” v @opdiner: […]

October 15, 2010 at 12:02 am

Java is incred­i­ble, George. The peo­ple, the island itself and the aura. It has a dense and com­plex spir­i­tu­al­i­ty that I did­n’t ever feel in Bali in the same way. We in the west know so lit­tle of it. I could live there ten life­times and still not begin to pen­e­trate it.

I had to try throw away every con­cep­tion and pre­con­cep­tion I had to even begin to try. Noth­ing is as it seems — pol­i­tics, reli­gion, business. 

Bemos are best when shared with chick­ens and a goat or two I find.

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