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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Touristic experiences #2: staged tourism and the charm of cute children

What is it about cute smiling kids in traditional costumes in foreign countries that we find so disarmingly charming? Flick through the back pages of a travel magazine to the ads for tours to South America and Thailand hill tribe treks and there'll be a couple of rosy-cheeked little kids in colourful clothes leading some llamas or sitting on the steps of a church smiling sweetly. In this case the children in my picture are posing at a lookout in front of vistas of the Golden Triangle, the point where Laos, Myanamar (Burma) and Thailand meet. We would never use a guide if travelling for pleasure but when we're working and reviewing a resort we try to get a taste of the activities available to guests to best assess the experience on offer. At the Four Seasons Tented Camp at the Golden Triangle, there's a range of activities, from mahout training and elephant treks to excursions to the Opium museum, Burma, and the Golden Triangle. The latter involves a ride on a longtail boat to the very centre of the meeting of the waters of the Mekong and one of its tributaries so you can see the three countries around you, rides on a songthaew (the open-air truck typically used as a taxi in Thailand) and tuk-tuk (a motorised Thai rickshaw), a stroll around a market to see the squirming creatures and crunchy insects that are the local delicacies, a visit to a temple to learn how to make a wish and be blessed by a monk, and this trip to the lookout. While we came to the conclusion that the excursion was a wonderful compact introduction to Thailand for first-timers to the country, we were uncomfortable (once again! - see the previous post by my partner Terry) with the song and dance show. Okay, so the kids didn't dance. But they did sing, they recited something to the effect of "You can take our picture for 20 baht" in half a dozen languages, they posed in front of the Golden Triangle, their hands first in the traditional Thai wai gesture and then fingers formed in rabbit ears, and they smiled very sweetly. (We noted, however, that their most sincere and spontaneous smiles came at the end when we handed over the money.) This form of staged tourism is cheesy and awkward at the best of times - don't you think? - but it's quietly discomforting when it involves little kids who should be in school. While we adored our eager young guide, we were embarrassed and uncomfortable with being placed in a position where we felt required to take photos of the children, yet we didn't not want to take the snaps and insult both our guide and the kids. So we took our pics - Terry using the opportunity to get some insightful close-ups of the children, me politely following our guide's suggestions - and we very generously tipped the kids. We told ourselves the money was paying for their education and putting food on their family's table but still we felt our uneasy. If there's one thing that I don't find cool about travel, it's tourism. And the more staged it is - it doesn't matter how cute the kids are - the more it makes me want to stay at home.

1 comment:

Alexander Santillanes said...

Driving around a bend in Swaziland, I suddenly came across a roadside stand. In front of the stand were a row of tiny children- they looked maybe about 5 years old- dressed only in tiny leaf loincloths. A man working there saw us coming, and commanded them to start dancing. As we drove past, they were all shaking and grooving frantically, all looking slightly worried. It was certainly a contrived touristic experience- but seeing the tiny life children dancing was certainly an experience none the less.-X