South East Asia: The West Side Story


With the unique cultural landscapes of several developing countries being re-cast and repackaged into all-inclusive panoramic splendours for the convenience of ‘western’ tourists, Swetha Das finds that the view is more one-dimensional

After spending an hour booking taxis, cruises and tickets for us (all with a smile on his face), my aunt wanted to thank the man at the tourism desk for his service.

“Thank you so much. What is your name?”

“James, ma’am”.

“Surely your name isn’t James. What’s your real name?”

He took a second to answer.

“My name is Surin, ma’am. Thank you for asking.”

A seemingly innocuous exchange, but enough to give me one of my first insights into travelling as a ‘western’ tourist in South-East Asia – which is that the reality of our commercialised world has repackaged the brilliant complexity of culture and tradition to the very print of the puffy pants that tourists adore wearing.

The holiday? Fantastic. Kind people, inimitable food and an abundance of cultural exhibitions and tours that taught me a lot about ancient civilisations that even Wikipedia couldn’t explain.

Despite this, I was hyper aware of what was omitted from my holiday experience.

When tourists from the so-called “Western countries” visit developing countries with a rich culture, they appear to experience two extremes.

The first is a confronting realisation of the poverty of developing countries, with Westerners volunteering for charity organisation to visit slums, build homes and teach at schools. Isolated from the normalcy of the country, they experience a one-dimensional view of the economic climate. Often their volunteering is more harmful than helpful, and presents an opportunity to take pictures of themselves with the poorer population to update their latest Facebook profile picture.

The latter is common for most tourists: an observation of the beauty of this new cultural landscape from the window of a five-star resort. Families will explore temples and large shopping malls during the day, return from the heat outside to their air-conditioned suite and spend the night eating from the continental spread at their resort’s buffet table.

Thanks to the generosity of my family, I was a part of the second type of tourist. My family and I gallivanted around Cambodia and Thailand from the safety of hotels and resorts. My level of comfort was stable as I took advantage of the WiFi and room service at my disposal over the course of those two weeks.

Retrospectively, there is guilt for travelling this way. Coming from an Indian background, I feel constant frustration hearing the same questions and phrases from people: “Are the slums really that bad?” and “I’ve visited India once, Goa is so beautiful”.

With only two weeks to explore these countries, what I garnered from this holiday was a watered down presentation of culture, complete with ancient religious paintings reprinted on souvenir mugs and spice-less curries.

I can recall my excitement while sightseeing in the Siem Reap Floating Village in Cambodia. Our boat began to slow down, and I assumed it was for us to soak in the warm glow of the sunset that kissed the gathering of houseboats. Instead, the boat was slowing to stopover at the large tourist souvenir shop in the middle of the river. Even the homes of Cambodia’s poor have been warped to become a place for monetary accruement.

“Commodification, standardisation, loss of/staged authenticity and adaptations to tourist demands” are what The United Nations Environment Program outline as the major influences on local customs and culture. Most tourists would have encountered this in the increase of western facilities like the native cuisine of KFC lining the streets of Phnom Penh, and the classic ‘local market’ which seems to be frequented only by tourists.

It’s difficult to have a genuine experience within a country with limits of time, language and money. This conscious filtering ostracises a portion of the population and reduces what was once an intricate amalgamation of traditions and history to fit into a convenient one-week holiday package.


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