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Investigation or Intrusion? Toeing the Travel Journalist’s Line

bangkok amulet market

Investigation or Intrusion? Toeing the Travel Journalist's Line

At Bangkok’s amulet market, not everyone wants to chat with travel writers.

After meandering the gritty, shadowed alleyways of Chinatown, where street vendors’ sizzling oil harmonizes with the lackadaisical yapping of chubby dogs, the Outpost field team tuk-tuk’d like Mario Kart characters through Bangkok’s swarming traffic to just beyond the Grand Palace.

Threading between throngs of solemn mourners dressed in black or white in demonstration of respect for the late king, we strode past stalls vending antique coins, gold chains and tiny jars of whitening cream made from “snail excretion.” (Your guess is as good as mine.)

The amulet market is nestled in a claustrophobic labyrinth where raindrops the size of egg yolks slither between layered awnings. Tables of brass figurines and clay tiles are concealed beneath plastic tarp, protecting them from what we’d been assured prior to our arrival was “not the rainy season anymore.” This is where those working Bangkok’s most dangerous jobs purchase Buddhist talismans to keep them safe; black-magic accoutrements such as dehydrated animal fetuses are also available.

Our local guides were Steve, an old friend of our videographer’s who emigrated four years ago, and Som, his Thai girlfriend. They explained the significance of the individual amulets, which seemed to share general connotations of good fortune: health, luck, prosperity.

Phra Chan market

Talismans at Bangkok's Phra Chan market, colloquially known as the "amulet market."

In one stall, two men individually sculpted life-sized clay statues of Buddha. Though still in the rough stages—thick wire poking from the neck where Buddha’s head will soon perch—the emerging detail was exquisite.

“His is a very honorable job,” Steve gestured to the nearest man, who boasted a black T-shirt and a neck tattoo. “By making these statues, he’s seen as reincarnating Buddha in a sense.”

“Cool!” I exclaimed. “Do you think he’d be willing to do an interview with us?”

Som chatted with him in rapid Thai and the man eventually conceded, though seemed extremely uncomfortable. He kept his eyes on his work throughout the interview, smoothing the clay with expert palms, and his one-word answers were often so soft that Som was unable to even hear, let alone translate.

I asked basic questions about how he’d gotten into the profession—“Practice,” explained Som—but cut the interview short as he didn’t seem to be enjoying it.

We suddenly felt guilty: was this merely shyness, or had we unwittingly pressured him into appearing on camera as culturally ingrained politeness discouraged him from declining?

At the end of my first year at Ryerson University’s journalism program, our professor posed a question for us to ask ourselves: “If a guy goes on a homicidal rampage, do I have what it takes to call his mother incessantly until she answers, and possibly get her crying as it makes for a better quote? If the answer is no, then this program isn’t for you.”

I didn’t return for my second year.

Notwithstanding his hyperbolic scare, journalists are indeed often required to push boundaries to find and share their stories. We brazenly ignored the “NO PHOTOS” sign in the amulet market, our photographer covertly snapping shots over my shoulder while Mike recorded the scene from behind a pillar. Was this harmless rule-bending more or less disrespectful than unintentionally pressuring somebody into appearing on film when they really didn’t want to?

Am I overthinking this?

When writing an article, it’s easier to discreetly veil yourself from within the circumstance; on camera, everything is accounted for. While we’ve only been recording this web series for a few days, it’s already making me more self-aware and critical of my position within these situations, and shaping my actions, interactions and reactions.

Watch the Show

sue bedford travel writer

Sue has been a columnist for Outpost since 2013, where she specializes in indie travel. She has travelled to more than 50 countries and published a travel memoir in 2016.

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