Thailand and Kyrgyzstan: Travel, Media, and Fear of the Unknown

If you keep up with the news, it’s hard not to notice that Thailand and Kyrgyzstan have been in the midst of political turmoil and violent protests this past week. In an effort to offer a foil to images of bloodied protesters in Bishkek, I posted a link to a series of photo essays from our visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2007.

Some friends thanked us, while another also voiced what I imagine is a prevailing perception: “Great pics but isn’t it crazy how fast a country/society can turn?

Meanwhile, the situation continues to simmer in Thailand. In response to a recent U.S. State Department travel warning for the country, one Twitter user indicated she would “…tread lightly in Thailand.” Some travelers in Bangkok were almost upbeat, claiming that the situation is almost back to “normal.” Another traveler who had seen both peaceful and violent protests in Bangkok was less convinced. Point is: Thailand is not dropping off travel lists anytime soon.

Differing Branding, Different Perceptions

We’ve been to both Thailand and Kyrgyzstan and we love them both. Not to make light of the situation in Thailand, but if I were forced to choose a country to visit in the midst of protest, Thailand would be it.

But why is it that Kyrgyzstan’s recent developments indicate a country that has “turned” or is on the edge of an abyss, whereas Thailand’s protests represent a blip on the return to normal? Sure, Kyrgyzstan has been a corrupt political mess for a while and its economy has suffered, but it’s not as if its streets have a recent history of running blood red.

Despite its recent coups and troubles, Thailand is a known quantity. More people have traveled there and know it as the “Land of Smiles” and white sand beaches. Don’t get me wrong – that image matches what we experienced. We recommend it heartily and have even considered it as a potential home base one of these days. But the perception of Kyrgyzstan suffers disproportionately because it is relatively unknown and located in Central Asia, a region few outside international relations departments and think tanks know much about.

Stereotypes and Prejudice

Prior to recent events in Bishkek, relatively well-seasoned travelers we spoke to tended to express concern when we recommended Kyrgyzstan and highlighted it as one of our favorite countries. As with the rest of Central Asia, the common response: “But is it safe there?”

We even sang the praises of Kyrgyzstan, its people and its community tourism infrastructure to a well-traveled American when she asked for new destinations to consider. She responded with: “But, isn’t it Muslim?”

Need she say more?

So where is all this coming from? Media plays a part, for sure. Feeding on the value of reporting crisis, media outlets usually only give airtime to certain countries when there’s violence or a natural disaster to report. Add to this the insidious mechanism of hyperbole which leads to the perception that the political mayhem or earthquake in question swallowed the entire country whole.

The Kyrgyzstan We Remember

What usually never makes the news, especially in today’s era of dwindling budgets for international coverage, are the human interest vignettes and images that capture the life of ordinary people in these countries.

There’s a reason we spent close to two months in Kyrgyzstan. The people there continually reminded us of the meaning of family and they often illustrated how communities could work together.

During our travel throughout the country, we were plied with kindness, food and offers for help in markets, on public buses, and in the middle of nowhere. Kyrgyzstan is where we learned about nomadic, pastoral cultures; it’s where we first slept in a yurt. It’s where we ate our first goat and it’s where we continually were awed by mountain vistas, which in retrospect are rather underrated.

In thinking about Kyrgyzstan and assembling our best photos into the photo essay and slideshow below, we are reminded once again of the beauty of this country and its people.

Photo Slideshow of Kyrgyzstan

If you don’t have a high speed internet connection or you would like to read the photo captions, check out our The Kyrgyzstan We Know photo essay.

The Future?

We are uncertain as to what the future holds for both countries. If we had to guess, the road forward for Thailand is a bit smoother than the one for Kyrgyzstan. As one of Audrey’s friends responded from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek today, “It was horrible…but everything is OK now. But I fear that the former president will not let go of power easily.”

In any event, the public perception hole Kyrgyzstan has dug for itself is made that much deeper by sensationalism, prejudice and fear of the unknown.

As a traveler absorbing more and more of the world each day, I have what might seem like a rather naïve question: How do we overcome this?

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  1. says

    This post definitely reminds me of that year or two ago when I was absolutely obsessed with getting to Central Asia…that’s how I found your blog, anyways! Despite all that’s been happening in Kyrgyzstan, I still hope to go someday. I’ve heard so many amazing stories about Central Asia, so it’s definitely a little distressing to see its image worsening in popular media.

  2. says

    Thank you for writing articles such as these!! You touch on the one, big, important reason I love travel so much: it’s about what you get to see beyond the headlines.

    Traveling anywhere in the world, you get a sense of just how biased media reporting is. I understand why: they want impacting stories, and usually that means conflict, war, disaster. But there is so, so much more to these countries than this.

    I’m in Turkey right now, and I’m planning a trip to Iran exactly for this reason. I want to see beyond the smokescreen that passes as information back home.

  3. says

    Whenever I hear about these kinds of events I think about being in Prague for the World Bank/IMF protests in 2000. We had friends and family calling us from all over the place to make sure we were still alive, and meanwhile, the protests were very much confined to a small area of the city. Classes were canceled and we had to show passes to get into certain areas, but that was about it. A friend of mine in Bangkok right now says she’s experiencing events there similarly.

  4. Bernie says

    Thanks for the insight and perspective! Speaking from my US viewpoint I see sensationalism in the media as only getting worse as they become more entrenched with the necessity to increase their corporate profits and thus the infotainment increases. Their is an obvious niche group in society which sees/knows this and they will continue to seek their information from alternative sources but unfortunately I don’t see a good outcome or turnaround for the masses.

    In regards to the protests: I agree with your analysis but I would caution about taking the protests and an actual coup in the case of Kyrgyzstan lightly. Throughout history many of these small protests and somewhat peaceful coups fester and turn into much bigger problems. In fact both of these current problems are a direct result from earlier coups.

    Dan, while your travels have obviously given you a great perspective as my own travels have done for me but do you think it’s possible that they can also limit ones perspective? Meaning, you are down in the weeds with the people and as such can be biased by personal experiences and interactions thus making it more difficult to distant yourself and see things from the 10,000 foot level. Not saying that they are but something to ponder nonetheless. Happy and safe travels my friend and I hope to run into you soon.

  5. Gluhoverov Sergey says

    Good morning, Daniel!
    Thank you for being such an opened mind person! I live in Bishkek and that’s a pity that the whole world watches now only the negative sights of my Motherland. You are right – Media indeed likes to show only awful things to attract more people but Kyrgyzstan is a real hospital and friendly country. You know thousands of tourists usually fell in love with our country and they always remember smiles of our people. Even in the mountains when a tourist walks near a lonely yurt – he will be invited for sure to have a cup of tea! And now the reputation of Kyrgyzstan becomes worse because of constant bad news on TV… I hope there are many travelers like you that know Kyrgyzstan from its usual sight – amazing mountains, friendly people, unbelievable nomadic traditions… All our citizens hope that this time will pass soon and we will be glad to meet new travelers in our celestial Kyrgyzstan!

  6. says

    Perhaps the default mode of travelers (and others) should be accept mass media as one source and not THE source of information. Whether the coverage is positive or negative, people need to do research to obtain the complete picture. That’s hard to swallow in the age of zero-delay “feeding,” but that’s how it is.

  7. says

    Good to see other travelers are talking about these events I finally decided to do what I have been talking about for years and go to work full time on my sites whilst traveling in asia. sure enough I have a ticket booked since a few weeks now and the initial destination is bkk…. Sure seeing that 21 people died las weekend is an eye opener as you mention though this is not new in thailand and seems to be reserved uniquely to small areas kinda like back in the UK when we had the riots & bombings which really was A non event unless you was in the midst of it… I did check how far my hotel is from the hotspots and it is far enough away for me at 4+ miles so for me the current events in Thailand will not have an affect on my plans…

  8. says

    Thanks for the intelligent look at the situation. On our travels we have always found that the problems like these sound much worse when you are outside the country than when you are actually there. Kyrgyzstan is still on our travel wish list thanks to your articles & beautiful photos.

  9. says

    I am so happy to read your reflections. I am in Bangkok now and have been sporadically for the last month. It was a little scary when the violence struck last Saturday but the protests are still confined to a very small part of a very large city. Yesterday marked the beginning of the Thai New Year and everyone was on the street in our neighborhood laughing, drinking and dousing each other with water. The atmosphere was very festive and fun, not what you see on the news at all.

    What struck me most in your post was this line: “She responded with: “But, isn’t it Muslim?” Need she say more?”

    I had the same conversation with a fellow traveler the other day. He was less of the type to go exploring but we invited him to see where we were staying in Bangkok and we started wandering around the small side streets and off the beaten path. We found a wonderful neighborhood with a great family vibe and I was enjoying the walk. Just then he turns to me and asks if I think it’s dangerous for us to be there. I was surprised and I asked him why. He first said that it appeared a little dirty. By dirty he meant poor. By poor he assumed that the people would be out to get him because he had money. I told him that I didn’t find it dirty at all, I thought it must be extremely safe as there were children playing and elderly sitting on the doorsteps of their homes. It was a family scene. He then said, “but aren’t these people Muslim?” And there it was. Hijabs and mosques are enough to get most Americans’ hearts racing. It is really truly sad that these prejudices are so ingrained even in people who consider themselves socially liberal. That is what the media has done to us.

  10. says

    It is almost as if the situation is a Catch-22. The only way to change the public perception is for more people to travel to these places for a first-hand educational experience, but every time there is an ‘incident’, the media is quick to pounce, which convinces more and more people to stay away.

    The only reasonable solution is to rely on other travelers, such as you and Audrey, who clearly do not have an agenda apart from helping facilitate personal growth and open-mindedness through such travel.

  11. Nancy says

    Thanks for – once again – reminding me to think outside the “media box”. The faces of the people say so much more about a place than the events that actually make the news. Beautiful essay!

  12. says

    Thanks everyone. Excellent comments — which I respond to, at length in many cases.

    @Naomi: I’m really glad to hear that you’re keeping Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia on your list. Go and bring back some good stories…that’s one organic way to help the image of Central Asia. It’s probably also important to note the distinction between the Central Asian people and their governments, but that’s perhaps always a valid and worthwhile distinction to make when coming to a conclusion about anything.

    @Daniel: You are welcome. Articles such as these are not the easiest to write because they take some care to touch on some difficult issues, but in the end they certainly feel worth it.

    We have found the same: traveling the world, you realize that almost nothing is as it seems through the lens of popular media — for the reason you point out: if it’s not sensational, then most don’t care to read.

    Good luck with your travels…and seeing beyond the smoke, to another reality.

    @Nicole: I was hoping you’d comment on this because of the experiences you’ve had. The headline “protests confined to a small area of the city” doesn’t sell. I think that’s the bottom line. I think many people in both Bangkok and Bishkek have experienced something quite a bit different than what most of us have seen “in the news.”

    @Bernie: Thanks for giving me something to gnaw on. Your comment has given me some fodder for another article.

    Regarding sensationalism, you’ve exposed the crux: how to turn full, honest reporting into something for the masses. I have hope. After all, McDonald’s doesn’t just serve burgers anymore — they serve salads.

    On Kyrgyzstan more specifically, I hope I didn’t give the impression that I’m taking the events in Kyrgyzstan lightly. That wasn’t my intent. As I mention in this piece, Kyrgyzstan’s politics have been a mess for a while. The president who was just ousted was the “opposition” five years ago, while the woman who is now running the current “opposition” used to be part of the old government.

    Regarding your comment on perspective, I believe experience can limit your perspective — if you let it. It’s possible to take a set of experiences (be they firsthand or from reading scholarly journals) and cement a view on that. It’s more difficult to keep an open mind and take in new information and revise one’s impressions.

    It’s possible to observe quite a lot as a traveler. I’m not talking about individual observations, but multiple observations that turn data points into broad observations about pervasive trends. Two examples come to mind. First, the countless houses in Kyrgyzstan that we visited that were flooded with news and TV programs from Russia. So I understand that Russian influence isn’t simply political in Kyrgyzstan, it’s cultural. And it’s pervasive. Perhaps not as pervasive — but accelerating — is China’s influence. China-sponsored public works projects (e.g., roads) in Kyrgyzstan were (and I’m certain still are) a sign of deliberate influence. It will be interesting to see where those roads of influence converge.

    We also come at the subject of Kyrgyzstan with more than visits with shepherds in yurts. We have friends in NGOs and others who worked for the government and for various media outlets, including where Audrey worked at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. We were fortunate to have access to quite a bit more than your average traveler. I believe that makes our view of Kyrgyzstan more broad and more deep than other places we’ve visited where we have fewer contacts. And with those contacts, we talked about land distribution, the role of Russia (and let’s not forget China!), small business development, and a host of other issues.

    Being at the micro level is dangerous if you spend too much time there without pulling your head out to understand it in context. But this is why we also take in what other journalists, writers and “experts” say to balance things out.

    So if all that means “down in the weeds,” then I guess that’s where we are. It also strikes me that a lot of so-called academic experts and journalists — who call Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia, Russia’s sphere of influence, their expertise — would do well to spend some time.

    @Sergey: We’ll do what we can to keep Kyrgyzstan and the Kyrgyz people in an accurate light as possible. We are always encouraging other travelers to visit your country. And we too hope this time will pass — quickly and with little bloodshed.

    @Keith: I suspect more and more travelers question mass media and “single source” information. Our guidebooks have taught us that we should question a single source, haven’t they?

    Once you visit a place, the news about that place never seems to be enough; the reports and analysis almost always seem superficial.

    I’m afraid you are right regarding the ways our minds and our expectations are trained to work in the era of zero-delay.

    @Cio: I imagine you’ll be fine…even if you aren’t 4 miles from the scene of the protests. Like I said, of all the places to be amidst protests, Thailand is it.

    @Erin: Glad to hear it. I hope Kyrgyzstan remains on your list until you’ve had a chance to see it for yourself.

    @Briana: Ah Songkran. I’m not surprised to hear that most Thais were undeterred from celebrating.

    Thanks so much for your vignette. Judging a book by its cover — be it dirty, or poor, or Muslim, or whatever — is destructive. Some of the poorest places we’ve seen have also been some of the safest. And the scenes are much the same as you describe: kids, grandparents, families all just doing their thing, living. Hopefully after enough experience your friend will develop a different barometer for “safe” that doesn’t concern itself with appearance or religion.

    @Earl: I’m afraid you are correct. All we can do is provide an alternative look. The more of us that do it and the more often we do it, the greater our effect, even if slight.

    Thank you for a rather flattering comment. I hope our actions can live up to it.

    @Nancy: Thank you! Maybe someday we can change the measuring stick with which we judge countries to the actual people that inhabit them.

  13. says

    This is really interesting, thank you. I agree with Erin, things can look much worse from the outside compared to when you are there dealing with them. I was in Bishkek during the 2005 Tulip Revolution and although it was tense at times, mostly because we did not know what was going to happen, it was certainly not as bad as was hyped in the media. Many incidents reported were sensationalised or just not true!

    Apologies for being blatant about advertising but if anyone is interested, I have written a book about my three years in Kyrgyzstan called Revolution Baby: Motherhood and Anarchy in Kyrgyzstan. I love Kyrgyzstan, it is a wonderful country. I love the mountains and remoteness and the fact it is so unspoiled. I love sleeping in yurts and riding through vast, unpopulated valleys. I would recommend any traveller to go there. It’s not dangerous, just take your common sense – there are many more realistically dangerous places in the world that people continue to go to without thinking about it!

  14. says

    To clarify, if anyone is interested, Revolution Baby has a lot of detail about the days of the Tulip Revolution and the politics leading up to it. And Kyrgyzstan is a challenging country, I found it very difficult to live there at first (living somewhere is of course different to travelling through it). But I persevered and ended up passionate about Kyrgyzstan – its challenges and idiosyncracies are the things you learn to treasure – so Revolution Baby is a story of discovery, in many ways.

  15. Sarah says

    Thank you for such an insightful article. We were in Kyrgyzstan a week before the turmoil and protests – actually also during the anniversary of the Tulip Revolution. We fell in love with Kyrgyzstan and her people; felt nothing but welcomed everywhere, and totally bowled over by the most stunning scenery.

    On our return, we stared open mouthed at the media coverage which missed the point about this wonderful country, focussing on the corruption of a small few.

    @Saffia – I have your book on my reading pile! Our friends were reading it while we were with them on our trip, and we travelled the road between Almaty/Bishkek/Karakol and felt every one of those bumps and pot holes too! I bought it straight away when I got home based entirely on the giggles of my friend as she read.

  16. says

    @Sarah: Thank you for your comment. As you’ve discovered firsthand, once you pay it a visit, Kyrgyzstan is hard not to love.

    As for popular media coverage, no one seems willing to make time to step back and look at the country outside of the crisis at hand — that sort of coverage unfortunately doesn’t sell.

  17. says

    I am so happy to read your reflections. I am in Bangkok now and have been sporadically for the last month. It was a little scary when the violence struck last Saturday but the protests are still confined to a very small part of a very large city. Yesterday marked the beginning of the Thai New Year and everyone was on the street in our neighborhood laughing, drinking and dousing each other with water. The atmosphere was very festive and fun, not what you see on the news at all.
    I’m in Turkey right now, and I’m planning a trip to Iran exactly for this reason. I want to see beyond the smokescreen that passes as information back home.

  18. says

    @SB: Sounds like a plan. Seeing beyond the surface, beyond the smokescreen — that, and curiosity is what motivates us to keep traveling, to keep digging deeper.

  19. Sonja says

    I plan to travel next summer along the Silk Road in three countries and our Department for Foregin Affairs has given us advice to travel to Kyrgyzstan. I hope the situation will change. How to get safe information?
    We are two Swedish middle aged women who has been in Tuva in Siberia.

  20. says

    @Sonja: The Silk Road and Central Asia should be fun. Regarding the situation in Kyrgyzstan at the time of your departure, I would recommend 1) contacting CBT (Community Based Tourism) Kyrgyzstan, 2) posting a question to the Lonely Planet forums for Central Asia, or 3) see if you find online someone working for Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan. Those sources will probably give you better, more accurate and up-to-date (and less alarmist) information that official government warnings and travel alerts. I hope this helps.

  21. says

    I’m in Bishkek now! My husband and I planned to move here over a year ago when politics seemed fairly stable and while the April/June events certainly got my family and friends interested in the country (and worried about our move), we were undeterred. I’m taking classes at AUCA so I’m right next to the white house and a ton of ministries every day and there hasn’t really been much activity since I moved here a few weeks ago. In fact, the U.S. state department doesn’t have a travel warning or anything like that issued against Kyrgyzstan (and they can be a bit over anxious with those). The students and teachers I’ve talked to about the political atmosphere seem excited about what the future will bring and there’s definitely no sense that the country is unsafe.

    btw, I read Saffia’s book, Revolution Baby, before moving here and I loved it :)

  22. says

    @Kirstin: Nice to see you in the neighborhood and thank you for your comment. Your observations confirm what our Kyrgyz friends have told us, and your point regarding State Department warnings is well taken. If they aren’t sounding the alarm bells at all, then things must be settling down in Kyrgyzstan — and dare I say absolutely safe. Given the opportunity to return to Kyrgyzstan, we would. Am glad you are there and enjoying yourself.

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