Bangkok is one of the world’s major tourist destinations. Writers such as Warren (1999) reveal that Bangkok is also known as the ‘City of Angels’. Over a long period of time the attractions of this contemporary capital city of the Kingdom of Thailand have encouraged travellers to come to visit. People have been attracted to come to the Kingdom by the exotic beauty. In early times only businessmen and traders came to Bangkok. In recent times, however, it has become a mass tourism destination.
A wide variety of natural and cultural attractions that suit the motivations of visitors from many countries entice people to this capital city. The tourist industry has responded to the international travel market by providing an extensive range of facilities to satisfy travellers’ demands. Tourism has given the Thais a reason for preserving their culture and protecting their heritage. However, since the arrival of U.S. marines, Thailand has been burden by the sex symbol which tainted the cultural rich image of the Kingdom.
This essay aims to provide an analysis of Bangkok as a cultural tourism destination and to explore the efforts which the local government endeavour to change the negative image of sex tourism to cultural tourism. It identifies attractions that ‘pull’ people to Bangkok and considers the motives that urge people to respond to the ‘pull’ of its attractions. It also notes the ways in which the major divisions of the tourist industry supply the needs of tourists.
Brokensha and Guldberg (1992 p.3) provide many descriptions of cultural tourism. The description most relevant to cultural tourism in Bangkok is ‘mixing with and meeting local people, and learning about lifestyles and cultures’. The aims of the cultural tourist can be achieved through attending cultural events, experiencing and appreciating built heritage and the natural environment, and gaining education and pleasure from these experiences. The city of Bangkok, through its natural and cultural attractions, provides many opportunities for these kinds of experiences and activities.
History of Bangkok, Thailand
The Thai, descendants of ancient Pamir plateau stock, are racially related to the Chinese and were one of the major peoples that migrated from southern China to mainland Southeast Asia. After entering the valley of the Chao Phraya River, they defeated and dispersed the Khmer settlers, ancestors of the Cambodians, and established the Kingdom of Thailand. People lived and traded near the Chao Phraya River. The trading and the population later expanded to other inland regions.
Bangkok was established in 1782 as central city for trading. The famous story based on the diary of Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landons. However, tourism actually began in the 1960, where U.S troops used Thailand as a base to attack Vietnam. It is likely that the soldiers told their friends about the exotic beauty of the Kingdom when they return home.
Bangkok Natural Environment
Bangkok is the contemporary capital city of the Kingdom of Thailand. It is located on the Gulf of Thailand coast. Bangkok has many rivers that connect the city to the sea. One of the world’s renowned rivers is the Chao Phraya River where Thailand first began.
Much of Bangkok’s history happened along both sides of the Chao Phraya River. Throughout history, the Thais depended on this river for their daily needs, such as cooking, laundry, swimming, fishing and as a source of drinking water. In addition, since the beginning of the Kingdom, people lived and traded along this river. This culture of trading and living by the Chao Phraya River carries on till today.
The tropical climate in this region attracts tourist from Europe where the winter is extremely cold. Chon, Singh and Mikula (1993) reveal tourists generally visit Bangkok for urban life and then travel to the neighbouring suburban areas to experience the natural environment of the beach such as in Pattaya or Khor Chang. Some activities enjoyed by tourists are scuba diving, jet skiing, sun-bathing and parachuting.
For tourists who want to be amid the peaceful atmosphere and observe the traditional ways of life by the water, Bangkok has much to offer. There are services which have been established to cater to tourists’ needs. This is in line with Smith’s (1988 pp.179-190) ‘supply-side’ concept. There are hotels, taxi boats, floating market, restaurants and other transportation services targeted at enabling tourist to experience the culture of the Thai. Tourists can experience the way of life that has be carried on for many generations. Tourists from other parts of the world, which are wealthier and economically advanced, can experience novelty and change as Cohen (1974 pp.527-555) suggests.
Major features of Thai Society
The origins of the Thai people are in the Southern part of China. The people were strongly influence by Buddhism, the central of the Thai culture, which was brought to the region by Buddhist missionaries from India. The Thais manifest their faith by building and skilfully crafting the elaborated works of arts of the temples. There are many temples in Thailand; however the glorious and magnificent ones are situated in Bangkok.
Most men and women were peasants and depend their livelihood on farming rice, vegetables and fruits at minimal wages. Peieggi (1996) reveals that since the U.S troops came to Thailand, the people realised the demand for hedonistic pleasure among these soldiers. Young girls and boys were sold for money as a source of family income. After the Vietnam War, due to the influx of tourists visiting Bangkok, there have been new job opportunities opened for the Thais. The Thais perform cultural dance, sword fighting and Muai Thai (Thai boxing) for the tourists’ viewing pleasure.
Throughout history, there have been several images of Thai society. These include images of leisure and eroticism. Gibbon and Fish (1998) compliment Thailand for its richness in culture and its hospitable people. On the contrary, Peieggi (1996) suggests that there have been high ratio of males visiting Thailand, primarily for its hedonistic appeal. Ashworth and Brian (1989) explain that such image is a challenge and the country is endeavouring to change; however, the most important image for the tourists is that Thailand is a cultural centre ‘where everyone is kind and hospitable’.
The history of Tourism in Bangkok Thailand
Although visitors came to Thailand many centuries ago, it was not really until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the Kingdom began its career as a major tourist destination. In the 1960s, the large US troop presence in Southeast Asia produced a surge in Thailand’s tourism. Since then, the boom has continued, although the large number of hotels has led to heavy competition and fairly low occupancy rates.
In the 1960s, Thailand became a favoured place for the ‘nomads from affluence’ (Cohen, 1973), young drifter tourists who were escaping the evils of the developed world in order to find culture and wisdom in the East. These people preferred to stay in motels or cheaper hotels to avoid the more luxurious facilities provided for the tourists. These nomadic ‘hippies’ were attracted by advertisement in magazines and friends who had been to Thailand.
In late 1990s, Thailand was promoted as ‘Amazing Thailand’ as a paradise inhabited by ‘a serene, harmonious people’. The Hollywood movie entitled ‘The Beach’ with leading actor Leonardo DeCaprio, illustrated the exotic island life. This was the period of mass tourism. Peieggi (1996) explains that Thailand emerged a popular destination due to its ‘peaceful’ religion and its exotic culture.
In 2001Bangkok has been named as the number one tourist city in the world by readers of the American magazine Travel and Leisure, the city’s Peninsula Hotel also coming in first in their reader’s survey of the top hotels. It was particularly popular with Europeans and Americans. As Elliot (1983) explains the success of tourism was partly due to its natural environment, “friendly people, exotic culture and a central position of the air route of the region”.
The Government began to focus its resources on tourism in 1982 when studies showed that tourism was the nation’s top foreign currency earner. In addition, during the APEC meeting in 2004, due to the fear of terrorism and the importance of the tourist industry, the government heightened the security during this period of time. The fear was greater when the President of the United States of America, George W Bush, was attending the meeting.
The Impact of Tourism of the Thais
Tourism has had a variety of impacts, both negative and positive, on Thai society.
Hewison (1987 p9) laments that due to tourism, many of the attractions in Thailand can be manufactured for the purpose of gaining more visitors. As Peieggi (1996) suggests because of the hedonistic appeal that Bangkok offers to male tourists, Thailand has been ranked statistically the highest scoring nation for the spread of AIDS. (Leheny 1995; Ritcher 1989) explain that tourism played a major role in the expansion of sex tourism, and has transformed the nation’s rich culture into an embarrassing burden. (Leheny 1995; Ritcher 1989) argues that tourism has ensured the preservation of the Thai culture and has made the Thais more aware of their own culture than they might otherwise have been. Elliot (1983) points out that the money the Thais have earned through displaying their culture to the tourists has help sustain them financially. Cohen (1995 pp 225-233) explains that commodities crafted by villagers attract tourists attending due to the craftsmanship, beauty and exoticism.
The villagers can sell these items to tourist for income. On the other hand, the villages much desire commodities which tourists use, such as denim jacket, T-shirt and jeans. There have been concerns reported by local media that the Thais risk loosing its unique culture by pursuing similarities with the western culture. Kontogeorgopoulos (1998) advocates that tourism increases employment opportunities for the locals. The author further explains that due to tourism, there will be construction of hotels and other facilities to service the tourists. Locals will be employed and trained in various areas. For instance, the locals can learn to speak the English language to enhance the ability to communicate with foreigners and increase their employability.
The exotic culture of Thailand has attracted tourists from many parts of the world to experience the way of life of the Thai society. As mentioned earlier, the Thais used to live and trade along the river. Tourists can experience this way of life Ratchaburi province which is about 80 km southwest of Bangkok. There, the tourists will discover a popular floating market. There will be small boats laden with colourful fruits and vegetables which are paddled by local women wearing bamboo hats. These images are often advertised for cultural tourism of Thailand, in travel magazines and brochures. Inquisitive tourists can embark on a tour onboard these boats.
Another tourist attraction relating to cultural tourism is the Songkran festival. It is an ancient festival, which is celebrated by the Thais annually and is influenced by the ancient Hindu astrological calendar. It is a common feature of the agricultural cultures of Thailand. In the old days, scented water was used mainly for blessings and paying respect to the elders. Tourists visiting Bangkok or in any parts of Thailand can join in the celebration and enjoy getting wet throughout the day.
Likely Motivational Factors
As tourists do not normally state their motives and wants in choosing a destination, it is difficult to know with certainty the motivation factors a tourist has in mind. Dann (1981 pp 209-211) explains that “the difficulties lie partly in the inability or unwillingness of the tourists to articulate their motivations”. However, tourists’ behaviours hint their likely motivation. Many tourists choose to visit Bangkok in order to escape from their routine to experience change and novelty as Cohen (1974 pp 527-555) or for the purpose of leisure. Tourists choose Bangkok as a destination to ‘revitalise’ themselves for a period of time before feeling ready to go back to work. Tourist experience the exotic culture of the Thai society.
The tourists can maximise the time they have in Bangkok, where there are many cultural activities orchestrated for tourists. Tourists can enjoy watching the Thai dance or the making of Thai handicrafts in parks and other recreation areas. Temporally, the tourists ‘forget’ about the stress and pressure of work back “home”. The laidback or slow lifestyle of the Thai agricultural culture enables tourist to ease tension and feel more relaxing physically, emotionally and mentally.
Hospitality in Thailand
Esichaikul (1998 pp. 359-369) explains that tourism offers a lucrative source of income for Thailand. The author further suggests that the provision of accommodation, food and drink are important to the country’s economy. Hospitality in Thailand ranges from luxurious facilities to very affordable home-stay. Outside of Bangkok, tourists can stay in ‘stilt’ hotels on the dam, resorts and hotels by the beach or huts in the forest. Tourists can relax and enjoy the tranquillity that nature offers in this tropical climate.
The Thai cuisine is unique and it reflects the exotic culture of the local society. The cuisine includes affordable seafood which the Japanese particularly enjoy. During the APEC meeting, the Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi, indulged himself every night in various kinds of seafood. Other cuisine includes pineapple rice, papaya salad, Tom Yam soup and the ‘Tok Tok’ noodles sold in the floating market. Thai cuisine is spicy and sweet in general; some adventurous tourists may be challenged to try the food, some tourists may resort to western food like McDonald’s and Subway sandwiches. Nonetheless, Thai food is low in cholesterol and healthy as many dishes often incorporate fruits in the preparation stage.
Due to the geographical location, tourists can travel to Bangkok by many means. The International air-port has facilities to accommodate various sizes of planes. Backpackers having visited the neighbouring Malaysia, Cambodia of Singapore can also choose to travel economically by trains and busses. Due to traffic congestion in Bangkok, other interesting modes of transport have emerged to allow people to travel efficiently.
Along the Chao Phraya River, tourists can travel by express boats cross to other regions. In addition, tourists may wish to travel at a slower pace, by long-tail boats, in order to enjoy the riverside scenery.
On land, tourists can travel on the elephant’s back, which in the past was only suited for the Kings. Travelling on elephants’ backs can be interesting; tourists will sway from side to side slowly high above ground level. Tourists often find this mode of transport amusing and exciting. Apart from taxis and busses, tourists can also choose to travel on a three-wheeled ‘Tuk Tuk’ to zigzag between vehicles without being hampered by the traffic jam.
In conclusion, cultural tourism in Thailand provides many exotic experiences for tourists. The government of Thailand has been investing resources in advertising campaigns to change the erotic image of by emphasizing the cultural richness of the Kingdom. It is apparent that such change remains the greatest challenge to the country. Though tourism has impacted Thailand negatively; it has provided employment and other financial benefits to the Thais and the nation in many related industry.