The Spoilers

February 4th, 2007

Bangkok — “Why in the world are you going to Thailand?” they ask. (Or Bali, or Tibet, or Angkor, or Tahiti, or Paris, for that matter.) “It’s been completely spoiled.” Then they hoist their beer or shot or Steinlager or whatever the hell they’re drinking, settle themselves onto their stools, and say, “Now when I first went there . . . .”

And they’re off, reciting the Travel Spoiler’s version of Paradise Lost, describing an era – now vanished in the dim mists of time – when the place you’ve been saving up for years to visit was actually worth visiting. The people were friendlier, the streets less crowded, the culture more authentic, the summer cooler, the rainy period briefer, beautiful women threw themselves at men’s feet (you don’t hear much about the reverse), and you could rent a five-room apartment over the river for twenty dollars a month. Oh, and did they mention the women?

When they’ve run out of superlatives to describe the past and negatives to taint the present, they deliver the coup de grace: “I’m finished with Thailand, actually.” (Or Bali, or Tibet, or Angkor, or Tahiti.) “Can’t even stand to go back, it’s changed so much.”

By now you may be so dismayed that you missed the nugget of good news in that last paragraph: Wherever you’re going, this person won’t be there. There will be other Travel Spoilers of various kinds, but this particular one won’t be among them. So cheer up, and let me tell you a secret:

All those places are still wonderful.

I don’t understand why so many people (okay, mostly men) seem compelled to make the point that they experienced the true Thailand or Tibet or whatever, and what you’re about to enter is some sort of animatronic theme park designed for less discerning travelers. Underlying this attitude is a very specific kind of snobbery. The country you’re going to visit was better then because it was harder to get to, there weren’t good hotels, the roads were scratched in the dirt with a stick. But now, the argument suggests, just anybody can go there. People who wear shorts. People who don’t care about the culture. People, they are suggesting, like you.

Another common thread that runs through the Spoilers’ stories is that the people who live in the country on your itinerary were more eager to accommodate the intrepid explorers of the Golden Age than they are today. No request was too unreasonable; all tourists were treated like Brad Pitt; some American or European schnorrer teaching English for three dollars an hour could afford four servants. Boil all that down, and you come up with this: back in the days of paradise, the people were poorer. And now they’re not so poor, and the Travel Spoiler doesn’t like that.

Anyway, if you’re unlucky enough to run up against one of these clowns, ignore him. People have been saying for decades that the earth’s various paradises were spoiled. Before I went to Bali for the first time, I read a classic book written in the 1930s by an artist named Miguel Covarrubias, in which he said repeatedly that Bali had been spoiled. Sixty years after Covarrubias wrote his book, Bali took my breath away. People have been proclaiming Thailand to be over since the 1980s, but it’s still the only Thailand on the planet, and it’s one of the world’s blessed places. Ignore the Travel Spoiler and recognize him for what he is: a snob and a closet colonialist who wants to lord it over the people of any country he condescends to visit.

But I have to tell you, the first time I visited Angkor . . . .

One Response to “The Spoilers”

  1. David H Says:

    Well done, Tim, although I do have an affinitiy with the Spoilers. I wish everybody was poorer. 🙂

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