Southeast Asia's Little Italy

Last Sunday was a strange day. Following an afternoon spent puttering around the oldest national park in Thailand, I ended up eating dinner at one of the country's newest attractions: Palio Khao Yai, a "walking street shopping center in Italian-style village mall." Got that? A personal recommendation had led my friends and I to hunt for a burger joint south of the town of Pak Chong, and after mistakenly driving past a vaguely European complex, we found ourselves paying 20 baht each to enter this warren of terracotta-colored buildings. Call it the Little Italy of Southeast Asia.

As out of place as it seemed architecturally, what struck me about Palio was its obvious allure to amateur Thai photographers. While we were there, dozens of people streamed through the gate, usually in couples, and always with cameras. I smirked as they posed in front of the fountain in the piazza, and shook my head in disbelief as they led tiny dogs in sweaters down faux-cobblestone streets. Apparently the ability to shoot portraits against a "Tuscan" backdrop trumped the appeal of creatively-named cafes like Fries Me To The Moon.

It seemed silly to me at the time, but when I thought about it later, I realized that I'd misjudged things. After all, whether or not it's international, a big part of travel is making memories, and for most of us, taking pictures is part of that process. Did I really think that my images of waterfalls and wildlife somehow showed a more authentic side of Thailand? True, I'm the kind of person who prefers hiking to shopping, but a park is a tourist attraction too, and in the end, they're all competing for visitors. In that sense, maybe Palio Khao Yai isn't such a strange place to spend a Sunday.

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