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 11:10 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.

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October 15, 2010 at 12:10 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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