Durian is the King of Thai fruit. It is also banned in most Asian hotels and airports. Durian’s aroma is sometimes likened to cat vomit, or that dead animal that’s been hidden somewhere in your house for three days — in the middle of summer. I tried durian for the first time during my villages interview trip. The taste and texture are pleasant and custardy. To get to this taste, though, one must be able to ignore the reek emanating from the fruit.
Now that I have tried SE Asia’s most popular fruit, and held it down, I was affably force-fed durian at every local house. Durian is in season right now, so it’s cheap, and everyone has a large supply. Despite my protests, Mai, my translator, would announce at every house we visited “she eats durian.” This statement immediately summoned a spiky fruit and a butcher’s knife. I think I am now immune to the scent, and while I do not hate the taste, I cannot say it holds the same appeal as mangosteen: the Queen of Thai fruit. Yet over the last 10 days I have more then made up for my three years abstaining from the stinky fruit.
I just returned from a 10-day excursion into the villages where Andaman Discoveries works. I visited 5 villages, and interviewed 22 tourism stakeholders. Interviews were conducted in a typically relaxed Thai fashion. Distractions were frequent. An enormous cat head-butted me for 40 minutes as I attempted to take notes. A toddler tried to steal my phone. TVs blared in the background. Neighbors stopped by for a chat, or just to get a look at the farang visitor.
Per Thai custom we sat on the floor throughout the interviews. Floors were generally tile or concrete. Sometimes there was a woven mat. Sitting on hard floors for such long stretches caused both physical and cultural pain. In Thailand it is the height of rudeness to point the bottom of your feet at another person. After about ten minutes sitting, though, one of my legs always falls asleep, or my ankle hurts, or my knee is sore. I find myself trying to shift positions unobtrusively, so I don’t distract from the interview. At the same time I must contort myself to avoid showing the soles of my feet to anyone in the house. Most Thais are polite enough to ignore my farang fidgeting even as they sit perfectly immobile for 30 minute stretches. Despite a decent bit of yoga, my knees cannot tolerate half lotus for more than 10 minutes at a time.
One initial interview impression is of an emerging anti-litter norm. Across Asia I’ve watched people throw plastic to the ground casually. Sometimes people will even toss rubbish on the sidewalk when they’re only meters from a bin.
Tourism has also increased people’s feeling of pride in their villages. Maintaining a clean appearance is associated with that pride. Many locals cited new-found feelings of guilt when they see tourists picking up trash. Local youth groups also do trash cleanups. Between guilt over other people collecting litter and local pride people have mostly stopped littering. Many people even said they became angry over non-local Thais passing through and tossing wrappers on the street. Witnessing the rapid emergence of this anti-litter norm is fascinating. Litter is a massive problem in the developing world. As a westerner used to a relatively clean environment, free of plastic covering trees and bushes, it is easy to forget the US was equally litter prone only recently.
I have seen a bit of trash of the roadside, but people told me it is all because of the goats. Goats don’t have any social norms. Despite their polluting the goats do provide an all natural composting service.