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
Note: 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.
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 naive question: How do we overcome this?
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