If packaged bus tours were more entertaining there would be less need for roadside attractions.
If you build it they will come seems to be the philosophy wherever in the world touri gather. Those who build, own, or operate their own private field of dreams rely on a mix of kitsch and the seemingly never ending desire of those on holiday to do something and to see some sights – no matter what it is – to provide a steady stream of paying customers to their door. Many are nothing more than a modern version of a roadside attraction, a lesson in bad taste transcending to high art from America’s past when the country took to touring by automobile and could easily be swayed to stop and see the World’s Largest Ball Of Twine, a replica of England’s Stonehedge made from 38 old cars painted gray, or a (patented, mind you) 65-foot-tall elephant made out of tin and wood, the country’s first – and unfortunately not last – example of zoomorphic architecture.
Hokey charm was – and still is – often the appeal of roadside attractions, although any stop when travelling with a car load of children or senior citizens has an appeal. I mean who could resist a Prada store setting alongside a gas station-less desolate highway – 150 miles away from the closest town of any size – that features the sum total of 20 left-foot shoes and six purses in the display window of the permanently locked building?
America may be the only country to lay claim to an 18-foot-tall turtle built out of old wheel rims, but we are not alone in our pursuit of roadside cultural roadkill. In Australia, where the phenomena is called Big Things, you can stop to check out the World’s Largest Tennis Racquet, the World’s Largest Blade of Grass, or the World’s Largest Rocking Horse . . . all in the name of tourism. Canada too weighs in providing distractions for weary travellers with the World’s Largest Baseball Bat, and, of course, the World’s Largest Maple Leaf, eh?. Or you can check out the World’s Largest Coffee Pot in Germany or the World’s Largest Sundial in India. Obviously, whoever said size doesn’t matter wasn’t a world traveller.
Separating touri from their cash is an art form practiced throughout Thailand.
Not that odd and quirky shouldn’t be a draw on its own. Even tacky has its place on a holiday schedule. Provided you are in on the joke. When your patronage is the punch line, it’s a different matter. A roadside attraction can make or break a Road Trip! especially when you are stoned. A tourist trap, on the other hand, serves no other purpose than to bleed hard-earned cash from your wallet. Even if you did buy the T-shirt.
Thailand, the most popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia, offers a great variety of attractions for the touri crowd including crystal clear diving sites, sandy beaches, hundreds of tropical islands, a varied night-life to please every perverted taste, thick jungles to trek through, archaeological sites to wonder at, museums, hill tribes, exceptional flora and bird life, palaces both grand and otherwise, a huge number of Buddhist temples, several World Heritage sites, great food, cheap beach front bungalows, and some of the best luxury hotels in the world. In the Land of Smiles there is something for every interest, every budget, and every taste. Even for those who lack any.
There are also taxi driver mafia to contend with, transvestite thieves to avoid, pollution, touri gone wild, a steady stream of traffic accidents, opportunities to be scammed daily, and at airports, radar glitches, flight delays and long immigration lines. The country’s pros, however, can and do outweigh its cons. If it wasn’t for its own brand of roadside attractions which – with the exception of a few that actually are worthy of your time – can be called nothing else but tourist traps.
Novelty architecture qualifies as a roadside attraction everywhere but in Thailand where it becomes a symbol of official government business instead.
Last year Reuters ran a story widely picked up by news organizations around the planet entitled Thailand: Land of Smiles or Tourist Trap? which suggests the entire country is a tourist trap. And CNN’s list of the World’s 12 Worst Tourist Traps honors Thailand with not just one but two entries on its list. Australia may hold the title to having the World’s Largest Pineapple, but Thailand lays claim to having the World’s Largest Number of Tourist Traps. The internet site Virtual Tourist lists 807 of them, which too may qualify for a World’s Largest title. If you ever wondered why Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles, now you know.
Tourist traps are attractions, establishments, or activities that have been created or re-purposed with the aim of attracting touri and their money. Most tourist traps would love to figure out how to remove the touri from the equation and just deal with the money (not unlike many bar boys, who could be considered tourist traps in their own right). Some tourist traps in Thailand are of the Americana roadside attraction size, staying alive by feeding off of but a small handful of touri each day. Others, like the Golden Triangle, are industrial in size and cover large swaths of the countryside. While the country’s well-known but still profitable scams get all the press, its tourist traps are equally as responsible for turning many holidays into nightmares. And perhaps not surprisingly, both negative experiences owe their existence to the same source: ignorant touri. Though tourist traps benefit from those with a complete lack of taste too.
Since I’ve been recently posting a series of articles on The Top Ten Bangkok Experiences, it seemed appropriate to also provide a list of Thailand’s Top Ten Worst Experiences. Or its top tourist traps if you are a glass half full kind of guy. If for no better reason than to answer why I seemed to have ‘forgotten’ to list some places in the articles about what you should see and do during a holiday in Bangkok. Not that there aren’t ten tourist traps in Bangkok alone worthy of mention, but I thought I’d share the wealth and spread the joy from border to border. And if you think that since one of the places that made it to my Top Ten Worst Experiences list was recently featured on one of the gay Thailand message boards as a must-do mans it is a coincidence, it’s not. But in their defense, it is nice to see a fan of Pattaya who is at least attempting to find an interest in something other than cheap booze and cheaper boys for a change.
The postcard perfect version of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market can only be found on postcards.
1. The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Damnoen Saduak made it to CNN’s list of the World’s 12 Worst Tourist Traps; they called it “as authentic as that pack of Viagra for sale on a back soi off Sukhumvit Road,” showing that even CNN gets it right occasionally. The world-renown Floating Market is a must-do on many touri lists and a perfect example of a good tourist attraction gone bad.
A nightmarish network of canals filled with long tail boats belching diesel fumes while shuttling sardine mimicking visitors around to blow money at the floating shops and boats that peddle the same junk you can find on Khaosan Road but at three times the price, it would qualify as a scam instead of a tourist trap if it wasn’t for the occasional cool little old lady peddling her wares from a rickety boat photograph you might get to take if you avoid the organized tours that deliver touri by the thousands daily, and sneak in instead during the early hours before the rest of the crowd arrives. Or better yet, hit any one of the other floating markets closer to Bangkok. Many of them too are tourist traps, but they are less crowded and cheaper to get to.
2. Klong Tour.
Part of a day lazily motoring through the waterways of Bangkok while picturesque village life along the banks forms a background to your excursion sounds like a perfect Bangkok experience. And it would be if that opportunity existed. Whether you go on a package tour or negotiate a boat ride on your own your experience will be the same. And it will have nothing to do with that idyllic vision. Soon after embarking, your boat will be set upon by the Klong Pirates, a group of locals in small boats who you’ll have to buy cokes, postcards, or bananas from before they’ll remove their pit bull jaw-clench like grasp from your boat and allow you to motor away. Then, when things just start looking up you’ll stop at a progression of dubiously named snake and crocodile farms – and anything else that the locals think they can call a farm – where you’ll be forced to disembark and spend even more money before being allowed to get back onto your watercraft again. By the end of your excursion you’ll swear dry land never looked so good.
3. Crocodile and/or Snake Farm.
Not that you have to take a klong tour to experience the crocodile and/or snake farm tourist trap, they are almost as ubiquitous as 7/11s throughout Thailand’s countryside. If you come from one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have crocs or alligators, maybe you’ll consider this tourist trap an attraction. Ditto if you have the mentality of a three-year-old. It’s not a fun experience, though it usually is an interactive one. Expect to have a boa constrictor draped around your neck until you pony up with a tip for its removal. Pray to have a crocodile crush your jugular so that you do not have to further experience what Thais have done to Mother Nature in the name of commerce.
Mi casa es su casa? Thanks, but I’d rather be homeless.
4. Hill Tribes.
After experiencing the roadblock known as Hill Tribe Ladies on any touri congested street in the country, why anyone would want to pay to go see more of these little devil’s spawn is beyond me. But that photo op thingy makes us do strange things. Popular up north and unfortunately almost always offered as an add-on to any other tour you may sign up for, trekking out to an authentic Hill Tribe village is a popular touri pastime. No one, however, actually lives in that den of vipers posing as a village. It is a small series of open-front huts serving as souvenir stands. And that photo op? Despite your having paid about $30 for the visit, you’ll have to tip each and every Hill Tribe member you attempt to capture on film. Back in town that shot will only cost you three bucks.
5. The Sanctuary of Truth.
There are a few thousand Thai temples in the country, many of them quite magnificent, many of them authentically historical. Few if any charge an admission. If and when they do it’s usually a matter of 10 to 20 baht. Or you can visit the Sanctuary of Truth just outside of Pattaya where the admission is $15 and the temple is not one any self respecting Thai has ever prayed at. And Thais will pray at a shrine devoted to a two-headed lizard born in the village next to theirs.
The truth about the Sanctuary of Truth is that it is a tourist trap built solely for the purpose of attracting touri and their money. Which explains its mock sword battles, motocross track and shooting range. I’m surprised they haven’t brought in gogo boys for entertainment yet. Though I do have to admit there is an allure to the cheap bastards who flock to Pattaya and become incensed if charged more than 100 baht for a drink shelling out $15 to look at a fake wat. But then maybe they are just used to that from looking at all the fake erections on display at Sunee Plaza. Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai does it better, and there the ticket cost is nada.
6. Patpong Night Market.
“What?” you say. But you included the Patpong Night Market in your #2 entry to The Top Ten Bangkok Experiences! Yes, I did. And just reminded you of that fact too. That doesn’t mean it’s not a tourist trap. In my defense, I did tell you not to buy anything. Patpong’s Night Market also made it to CNN’s list of the World’s 12 Worst Tourist Traps. And it is listed in every guide book known to man as a place you have to see when visiting Bangkok. The guidebooks suggest it for a risque night out, CNN called it “about as sexy as an Australian sheila drunk on Two Dogs.” But CNN forgot to mention the large population of Australian sheilas drunk on Two Dogs that you’ll find there. But at least the puke running in the gutters factor is lower than you’ll find during a night out on Khaosan Road. There is no question that it qualifies as a tourist trap, and barely qualifies as a night market, but you should experience it anyway. But do it in transit from the gay pubs off Silom to the gay gogo bars on Soi Twilight, Just keep your wallet in your pocket. And your dick in your pants.
Forget about taking a tuk tuk ride, hopping on a motorcycle taxi can be a lot more fun.
7. The Gem Mall.
Everyone has heard of the Thailand Gem Scam, a tourist activity the country is known for worldwide. And savvy touri know to avoid being taken for a ride by taking a tuk tuk ride to a jewelry shop. Meanwhile, hordes of them sign up for and pay an ridiculous amount to be taken on an organized bus tour to one of these jewelry producing mega stores. Which are the same stores the tuk tuk driving scammers will deliver you to. If you can’t resist, play the Scam A Scammer game instead, or call a gem mall from your hotel and they will send a nice air-conditioned limo to pick you up for free. There are better ways to spend your holiday time, but you will get a free drink and will get to watch the craftsmen at work before being ushered into where the low quality/high priced gems and jewelry await. If you drop enough baht you can probably talk them into driving you over to see Jim Thompson’s House too.
8. The Monkey Show (Because The Monkey Farm Just Wouldn’t Sound Right).
As a paid attraction, monkey shows are popular both up North and down South. You won’t see them in and around Bangkok because they just can’t compete with those whose antics you can enjoy on Khaosan Road for free. I don’t quite get the allure of watching an amazing (and rather ugly) primate harvesting coconuts from a palm tree, but if you also got to watch their trainers beat them bloody to teach them their delightful tricks you might not be quite as happy with this overpriced, rip-off form of entertainment. And watching a monkey ride a bicycle isn’t nearly as entertaining as watching a backpacker on ecstacy try to perform the same stunt anyway.
9. The Tuk Tuk Experience.
In my book tuk tuks and condoms are a lot alike. At times, they are a necessary evil, but given my druthers I’d rather not, thanks. Tuk tuks are seldom the cheapest way to get around town, but sometimes they are the most convenient. Most people know that by riding in one there’s a good chance you’ll get ripped off. Even then, I wouldn’t call them a tourist trap except for that guidebooks all claim you have to have the tuk tuk experience while in Thailand. And they encourage touri to take a ride for no better reason than to ride in one. For most casual visitors, there is no good reason to take a tuk tuk anywhere. For most there are other forms of transport they can use instead. And if you have to live life dangerously, you should hop on a motorcycle taxi instead. Now we’re talking livin la vida loca.
Huh. Women have an unhealthy attraction to their eggs.
10. The Chiang Rai Hot Springs.
This rest stop comes the closest to being a roadside attraction in Thailand. It would qualify as one and avoid being called a tourist trap instead if not for the few hundred vendors selling some of the flakiest souvenirs in the Kingdom who line the perimeter of its gigantic parking lot waiting for a bus load of fresh meat to pull in. It is perfectly situated to be a roadside attraction, just slightly more than halfway between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai where, thanks to the undersized bladders of Thais and women alike, a pit stop is always required.
The geyser out front would never qualify as a Big Thing, but offering the opportunity to boil a few small local bird eggs in a natural hot springs is a perfect roadside attraction activity. If that’s where it ended. But as soon as you’ve handed some cash over to one of the local women doing the egg trick, you are descend upon by a mob of aggressive vendors who try to pull you into their stall and sell you genuine elephant tusks made of plastic and genuine rubies made of glass. Both of which do qualify as Big Things because like with silicone breasts, if they’re big enough, no one cares that they’re not real.
Originally I was going to include a short list of places that fit the roadside attraction bill more than they do the tourist trap moniker. Like the three headed elephant at the Erawan Museum and Jim Thompson’s House, which I’ve ragged on often enough. But then places like the observation deck at Baiyoke Sky Tower and James Bond Island by Phuket popped into my head. And I’m not sure if riding an elephant is a tourist trap or more of a roadside attraction. So I quickly came to realize that Thailand has pretty much turned every attraction into a tourist trap.
There are many wonders to see in Thailand, but almost all of them require dealing with the tourist infrastructure, which is solely designed to transfer baht from your pocket into a local’s. But that’s Thailand, and I’m cool with that. It could be worse. You could be stopping to see the World’s Largest Bottle of Catsup instead.
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