Photograph by Christophe Archambault, Getty Images
From the October 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Men sporting the heads of tigers and lizards are staring at me from every street corner. They stand alongside other men and women dressed in suits and military uniforms draped with medals. Some gesture with a thumbs-up, a two-fingered V, or an open palm. Others cradle things in their arms: soccer balls, babies, pandas. I dash across streets, turn corners, duck down narrow lanes, but their gazes follow me.
No, I’m not in a hotel having a jet lag–induced nightmare. I’m wide awake and wandering around Bangkok during Thailand’s big national election. The Thai government has strict limits on the amount of money that politicians may spend on campaigning, so instead of 20-second TV spots, political parties rely on inexpensive ways to get their message out to voters. Like political posters. Right now, it seems that every streetlight pole, building pillar, and tree in Bangkok props up a humongous vinyl placard.
It’s 7:30 a.m., still cool enough here to stroll around comfortably before the June swelter kicks in. A fellow with a sheaf of newspapers under his arm stops and chuckles when he sees me taking snapshots of the poster with the lizard-head man wearing a suit. I smile back, give him my sweetest “Sawadee ka” hello, and ask him what the Thai slogan on the poster means. “It says all politicians are animals, so don’t vote for any. This party wants supporters to cast a blank ballot.”
“And that one?” I ask, pointing to an ad showing a chubby man with beady eyes hoisting a grumpy toddler. “Ah, that one says that politicians are like baby’s diaper—need to be changed a lot. I think that is a quote from some foreign writer.”
Indeed. And if Mark Twain, that intrepid world traveler, were still alive, he would probably be tickled that his saying has made such a splash in the Thai political arena.
I know that many people prefer to detour around politics when they travel. Political demonstrations, like other large public activities (sports matches, concerts), can get out of hand, going from peaceful to perilous on a dime. And in many parts of the world, the most innocuous conversation about political issues can have unpleasant, even dangerous repercussions. But some of my greatest travel memories are of places I visited during or on the heels of intense political moments: walking eerily empty strands of beach on the island of Grenada a few weeks after the island’s coup; getting caught up in a march of singing, banner-waving Parisian workers during a strike in the city; learning about Argentine politics—and life—by talking with the people banging pots and pans in protest in front of the president’s palace, the Casa Rosada, after Argentina’s fiscal collapse in 2001.
Politics shape the daily life of a place as much as its traditions, history, and beliefs. Shy away from traveling to politically active places, and you’ll miss some of the most interesting moments in that nation’s lifetime. I’d have given anything to have been in India during Gandhi’s nonviolent revolution or in Berlin when the wall came down. There is no better time to experience and begin to understand what a culture is all about and where it’s going than when its people are mulling over that very question, loudly, freely, and in public.
Of course, I take precautions—I try to steer clear of war zones, and I don’t get into political discussions in places where it might offend my local friends or get them (or me) arrested. I also make sure I do some advance research so that I’m informed about the situation on the ground.
The reason I traveled to Bangkok this past summer was to experience Thailand’s election campaigning in full throttle. In fact, I often plan trips around a politically interesting moment. Like local festivals, local politics give you a concentrated shot of the essence of a place. In some nations, political campaigns are almost indistinguishable from festivals. My first travel experience of an election was in Trinidad, where campaigns are like early V.S. Naipaul novels come to life. I remember laughing at the wicked calypso songs mocking the unpopular incumbent prime minister. After election results announcing his defeat were delivered in the wee hours of the morning, I raced out to join the crowds dancing along the streets behind steel bands, all celebrating a fresh start.
Lively, boisterous democracies make for great travel experiences. Tamil Nadu, in South India, is known for its temples, food, and music, but it’s also a terrific choice for travelers keen to explore local politics. Here, the major candidates promote themselves and their political platforms on huge, hand-painted billboards that look like ads for Bollywood movies (indeed, some of the candidates are stars of Bollywood movies). They also get their messages out with audio electioneering. I remember seeing an old Ambassador automobile (India’s version of a Volkswagen) driving at a crawl as it broadcast a party’s manifesto through loudspeakers. Crowds then followed it to a political rally in a field. There, on a makeshift stage, sat the candidates, each draped in white clothing and choked with heaps of orange garlands, like revered gurus.
I happen to be obsessed with cultural differences, so one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to pay attention to the details of political style, which vary a lot from place to place. I’m from Brooklyn, where the president of my borough often jumps up on stage to dance with a neighborhood band when campaigning. So I totally appreciated witnessing the same scene during an election taking place in Brazil when I was there. Likewise, when I visited Tokyo during an election, I was fascinated when I spotted local candidates wearing political-party sashes over their black suit jackets beauty-contest style and bowing solemnly to every passing voter.
Mark Twain (and his admiring Thai slogan writer) had it right: Politics can be messy. But politics can also inspire. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that political sympathizers are sometimes referred to as “fellow travelers.” The political process itself is also a kind of travel: It’s a journey that is meant to lead a people to a better place. For those of us travelers who are fortunate enough to hop onto the local campaign bus for even a bit, as I did in Thailand, it offers a chance to take home not just an impression of a place but a sense of its future.
Contributing editor Daisann McLane tweets from her travels. You can follow her on Twitter at @Daisann_McLane.