Thailand: Outside a Tourist World

Hat_YaiHat Yai, Thailand’s 4th largest city, is a dirty, sprawling metropolis in a province that has seen its fair share of terrorist bombings, religious uprisings and race-ridden ridiculousness. It is a scrappy town of seedy dive bars, aging expats and nervous Malaysian sex-tourists. It has more dentists than any town needs, a relatively unimpressive live animal market and a smattering of halfway decent street vendors. And its ugly.

There is absolutely nothing to attract tourism to Hat Yai and almost everything to deter it. But I love it.

khaokhamoo_v2lHat Yai is where I discovered Kao Ka Moo (a sickly sweet, fatty, slow-cooked pork dish usually served at street stalls or in shopping mall cafeterias). It’s where I came to terms with derelict squat toilets and found that bum guns are actually multi-purpose foot bathing, hand washing, dirty luggage cleaners. Its where I spend my nights between visa runs in a $10 concrete box in a repurposed utilitarian building which offers no amenities whatsoever, listening to the honking of midnight traffic. The only drink-able coffee is at the recently bombed-and-rebuilt McDonalds, but there is a surprisingly shiny sushi restaurant just out of town. And there isn’t much else. A few shopping malls, a pharmacy here and there and like everywhere in Thailand, a 7-11 on every street corner.

When you work in the Thai tourist industry as I do, you tend to get a little over-inundated with the unreal. Exaggerated smiles, yes mams and yes sirs, mamsir, sirmams. All around you there is an elevated and enforced desire to serve and please, but with a quiet undertone of resentment. You get used to tempered flavors, frustrated instructions and a habit of apologizing for you’re customers’ mis-managed behavior.

My semi-frequent mini-trips to Hat Yai are a refreshing dose of reality and welcome relief from forced civility. This is a city that is unapologetically genuine. And not in a travel brochure way. There is no pretense of “culture” here, no shiny resorts and very few western restaurants.1152_12991575794-tpfil02aw-3768

Hat Yai is nothing special in and of itself, it could be any of a hundred Thai towns just like it, but it reminds me of a different Thailand than the one I am accustomed to. It offers a glimpse into a the real lives of normal people who’s salaries and livelihoods don’t count on impressing me or coercing a sale out of me because of my foreign face; people who really don’t care that I am there at all. Despite being even more a minority in a place like this, I somehow feel less of an obvious target and I love it.

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Bringing Down Bali

231Mark is Gay.

For that matter so are Josh, Michael, Simon, John, Frank and Matt, among about a hundred others. And in case you were wondering, if you want more grunt, you should fuck a pig.

Is this for real?

Its times like these that I am grateful to my mother for a name that, while difficult for many to pronounce, will never be painted on cheap plastic tourist tack and sold en-masse on the streets of a once-lovely land gone bad.

In my mind Bali is a beautiful wonderland of silent stoicism, a peaceful realm of bicycle riding rice farmers, terraced hilly landscapes and pleasantly meandering streams. In reality Bali is a very different beast.

While there are still areas of natural semi-undisturbed beauty and the odd isolated village of native Balinese going about their business, there is a large part of the island that has fallen into a Cancun-like swamp of drunken, overindulgent cheap-trinket chaos. Except its worse than Cancun could ever be, uglier than anywhere I have seen and an embarrassment in every form. Bali has fallen victim to tourist terrorism and nowhere is the unapologetic sprawl worse than in Kuta, the main tourist center and many people’s first glimpse of this once-majestic corner of the world.

Kuta is the frat house of the Southeast Asia.

At a souvenir stand outside my hotel’s restaurant I overhear a young Australian tourist recount to his buddies the sexual escapades of the night before while still-drunkenly fingering a large bold bumper sticker advertising the “Power of the Pussy”.  To his right a small Javanese vendor is eagerly showing off his collection of profanity in print; from “Suck it Bitches” shot glasses to “Do Me Up the Bum” hats, a sticker that simply says “Boogers” and t-shirts that read “Kiss My Hairy Ass Cunt”. Who buys this shit? Seemingly someone, a lot of some ones. Booths like this one are a dime a dozen in Kuta, so much so that it is easy to become disoriented and lost in a maze of cheap sexually explicit, neon colored junk.

Outside of these seedy city alleys, the Main drag isn’t much better and caters to the unimaginative. There is a giant but crumbly McDonald’s, a number of chilly air-conditioned Starbucks and Starbucks wannabes and a Quicksilver sportswear store on every corner. The nightclubs feel freakishly like overblown airport bars and, surfing aside, there isn’t much to do here besides drink.

In fact the only useful thing I can find in Kuta is dusty two-for-one book exchange.

I have a hard time understanding how this place ever came to be. Once upon a time people came to Bali for what it originally was. For beautiful beaches and surfable waves, excellent diving, cheap eats and a relaxed vacation. Somewhere along the way it just got horribly out of hand. And while I am thoroughly disgusted with what tourism has done to the once quiet town of Kuta, I can’t help but wonder, if in some twisted way, places like these are beneficial, if only to keep the “Bitch Princess” t-shirts and booze guzzling, belligerently indulgent pho-tourists, contained.