The Banana Pancake Trail

The Banana Pancake Trail

The Nam Khan ran its gentle course past my table on the river bank. Looking down through its clear, softly creasing surface, I could spot strings of feathery riverweed, drifting downstream before being collected, pounded into sesame-sprinkled sheets, deep fried and served to tourists like me. The quieter of Luang Prabang’s two rivers, the Nam Khan had fewer riverside restaurants and guesthouses than the Mekong – its larger, more famous sibling – and none of the ferries or tuktuks or shops that gave the Mekong side its bustle. I had found a room at Pathoumphone Guesthouse, just across from the Nam Khan, and though it didn’t have its own bathroom, it had French doors opening onto the quiet street that ran parallel to the quiet river. There was only one exception to the street’s tranquillity: the Blue Ice Bar, right next door to Pathoumphone Guesthouse.

Although Laos attracts thousands of backpackers every year, Luang Prabang does not have enough bars to keep young party-seekers entertained. They tend to hurry through the UNESCO World Heritage town on their way to or from Vang Vieng, where the abundance of bars, parties and drugs – and the lethal combination of these while “tubing” down a river – led to the deaths of at least 27 foreign tourists last year alone. With its soundtrack of party-anthems, free whiskey shots and all-foreign clientele, Blue Ice Bar was the only bona fide backpacker bar in Luang Prabang’s town centre, which has otherwise avoided resembling the tourist ghettos of other popular Southeast Asian destinations. The town’s UNESCO status was to thank – renovations required approval from a committee and all signage was made of varnished wood – and the enforcement of Laos’ 11pm curfew helped too. After 11pm, there was one well-known loophole: a bowling alley that allegedly served drinks until 4am every night. “Go to the bowling alley,” several Vang Vieng revellers had said of Luang Prabang: the town with the most striking collection of Buddhist temples I have seen.

After trekking in the hills east of Luang Prabang with three French women, Iain and I met them for a drink at Blue Ice Bar on the evening of our return. The five of us sat beside the river, chatting about the previous two days, their lives in France, and our lives on the road. A stubbly-faced Australian approached our riverside table and asked if he could join us, sunburnt arms hanging from a vest. “Yes”, we said, to be polite. Almost immediately, I regretted it.
“How long have you been in Laos?” Vest-Wearer began, predictably, and we each gave our replies in turn. “Have you done Vietnam yet?” Done and yet were the language of lists: he’d already ticked Vietnam off and, in his mind, everyone under thirty-five or so does Vietnam and Laos on the same trip – they’re both on the Banana Pancake Trail.
“I was gunna do Asia this year,” he said, before we could respond. “But I’d have to work for too long to save up. So I’m just doing Southeast Asia this time.” He wasn’t the first person I’d met who talked about doing entire regions – or even continents. “I did Africa last March,” they’d say, as if fifty four countries could be reduced to a single, cohesive entity. It had taken a recommended daily budget from one of Lonely Planet’s guidebooks to make Vest-Wearer realise that Asia was bigger than his three month escapade.
“We’re planning on going to Vietnam in a month or so, on our way to China,” I said, responding to his question.
“Aarg, Vietnam sucks!” said Vest-Wearer. “Vietnamese people just want your money.”
“Oh…” I mumbled, not sure how to respond. “Was there anywhere that you liked? Where did you go?”
He rattled off a few stops on the well-trodden route, defined by a ‘hop on hop off’ bus service, on which the region’s laziest travellers get their backpacks razored every day. “We toured Halong Bay!” he shouted, indignant, “and for one beer they wanted thirty thousand! Thirty thousand… er… whatever the money’s called.” My French friends were losing interest. They would not be visiting Vietnam at all; they were an anomaly in Vest-Wearer’s world, in which young people travelled in packs and went on pre-defined adventures. He changed the subject. “How long have you been on the road?”
“Two weeks so far. One more to go,” the eldest of the three French women said. I opened my mouth to respond, but Vest-Wearer wasn’t listening, just waiting for a gap.
“I’ve bin livin’ out the bag for two years now,” he said, trying to sound casual. “I did Europe last year – that was four months. Spent two seasons at a ski resort in Canada before and after that, then six months at Mum and Dad’s to save up for this treep. Bin livin’ out the bag a long time now.”

The conversation turned to the trek the French trio and I had just returned from, but Vest-Wearer hadn’t been on a trek, and changed the subject again. “The waterfall’s the only thing worth doin’ in Luang Prabang,” he announced, looking to us for agreement. One of the French women planned to visit it the next day. I asked which waterfall – a faux pas of sorts. “Ye know, the one everyone goes to…” Vest-Wearer replied, incredulous. In my three days in the town, I’d heard of two waterfalls near Luang Prabang: Tad Sae, which was seasonal, and Kuang Si, which was thirty or so kilometres away. The string of tuktuk drivers on Luang Prabang’s main street who called out “Tuktuk? Waterfall?” never said which one they meant either.
“Do you mean Tad Sae Waterfall?” I asked – the seasonal one; there had been plenty of rain lately. Vest-Wearer’s voice changed; there was a hint of annoyance.
“I’m talking about the famous waterfall – the one everyone goes to. I don’t know what it’s called… You must have been there!” He looked straight at me, convinced I was trying to be contrary.
“Well, I haven’t, so how am I supposed to know which waterfall you’re talking about?” I snapped.

The music was becoming unpleasantly loud, but when he caught me alone later on, Vest-Wearer suddenly wanted to talk about my trek. It had been organised by a company that promotes eco-tourism and sustainable development, which had made me think about these concepts, these buzzwords. I told him as much. How, for example, was drinking bottled water – from tiny bottles, which use far more packaging than large ones – considered eco-friendly? Friends and I had carried iodine and added it to river water when we went trekking in the Himalayas, but I hadn’t found any consumable iodine in Luang Prabang. “Aarg, ye know…” began Vest-Wearer, in a tone that was supposed to be comforting, “I think people like you and me are doing our bit just by coming to Laos.” Words failed me; I gave a guffaw, said goodbye and left.

Doing your bit by buying beer in Laos instead of at home is a surprisingly common delusion. It stems partly from ignorance, but the hollow notions of ethical travel adopted by guidebook companies like Lonely Planet are also to blame. At a 1994 Lonely Planet Travel Summit in Melbourne called ‘Us or Them’, Lonely Planet suggested a clear-cut division between travellers ‘like us’ – who use the company’s guidebooks and adhere to their humanitarian and ethical ethos – and tourists ‘like them’, who don’t practise sustainable tourism. Anyone who has visited a town turned Lonely Planet Mecca would laugh at the assertion that hoards of travellers, in all their incarnations, are even aware of what might constitute sustainable or responsible tourism because of the particular guidebooks they’re clutching, but Lonely Planet still insists that “their travellers” are different:

However they travel and wherever they go, Lonely Planet travellers are aware of the world around them. They are curious, receptive and independent, thinking for themselves and travelling responsibly. They follow both classic routes and roads less travelled, seeking their own unique and authentic travel experience. They are global citizens and, more than anything else, they just love to travel.

Lonely Planet has more or less ensured that the guidebooks’ most highly recommended destinations will never be “lonely” again, and this is just one of a handful of ironies. When Tony Wheeler wrote “don’t take my recommendations as gospel” in his 1979 Southeast Asia Guide, he couldn’t possibly have anticipated that thirty years later, Lonely Planet guides would be followed with such devotion that they’d be nicknamed “the Bible” or – in the case of the yellow-jacketed Southeast Asia edition – “the yellow Bible”. Today, Lonely Planet’s guidebook-publishing empire sells over three million books a year.  Tony Wheeler was dubbed the “patron saint of backpackers” by the New York Times and Southeast Asia on a Shoestringin its sixteenth edition – has sold over a million copies.

In the nineties, the burgeoning guidebook company got itself into an ethical mess by ignoring Burmese pro-democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s requests for tourists and the tourism industry to stay away from the country while the military junta was still in control. Four years after her initial request, in 1999, she addressed guidebooks directly: “Guidebook writers should listen to their consciences and be honest about their motivations. Profit is clearly their agenda. It’s not good enough to suggest that by visiting Burma tourists will understand more. If tourists really wanted to find out what’s happening in Burma, its better if they stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports there are.” Guidebook publishers Rough Guide and AA withdrew their Burma guides in response; Lonely Planet did not, suggesting that it knew more about what Burma needed than the Burmese themselves. Aung San Suu Kyi was appalled, calling the attitude “patronising” and “racist”. Lonely Planet responded by publishing an updated version of their Burma guidebook, including two pages on the pros and cons of going to the country. Two NGOs, Burma Campaign UK and Tourism Concern, weren’t pacified: they called for a public boycott of all Lonely Planet publications. Hundreds of unwanted guidebooks were dumped outside the company’s London premises. Using figures from international labour departments, the NGOs disproved one of the claims made by the guidebook: that forced labour, used to build many of the country’s hotels and airports, was on the decline. Lonely Planet offset negative press by drawing attention to its charity work in Southeast Asia – around Burma’s borders in particular – and sent out a press release about a large donation the company had made to the Burma Relief Centre on the Thai-Burmese border. When the Centre learned of the boycott against the guidebook publisher, it saw the donation as an attempt to salvage the company’s public image and insisted on returning the money.

Despite being included in a ‘dirty list’ of companies still doing business with Burma, Lonely Planet continued to update its Burma guide, releasing a new version in 2002. The following year, after 100 democracy supporters were killed by pro-government militia, the British government asked all remaining businesses and travel organisations to end their involvement with Burma. Large corporations such as British American Tobacco pulled out of the country, only highlighting Lonely Planet’s stubbornness. “If I was going to go through it all again,” co-founder Tony Wheeler said of the company’s handling of the Lonely Planet boycott, “I would be much more upfront and forceful about it than I was. We were too apologetic about it.”

The company has also been blamed for creating one of the most overrun backpacker trails in the world: the Banana Pancake Trail, an informal route that is as much a concept as it is a series of criss-crossing transport connections dotted with popular destinations. The Banana Pancake Trail’s roots lie in the Hippy Trail to the Indian Subcontinent. After travelling overland from London to Kathmandu in 1972, and then all the way to Sydney, Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen took the information they’d gathered along the way and compiled a guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap, published by their own start-up, Lonely Planet Publications. With the first book published, the sheer demand for information about independent, budget travel – and their own passion for the open road – inspired them to embark on a second journey: a year-long motorbike trip around Southeast Asia, out of which Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was born.

Today, the Banana Pancake Trail refers to a collection of Southeast Asian destinations that are extremely popular with backpackers, taking its name from the eponymous snack that is sold at traveller cafés or stalls along the way. It’s made up of a list of must-see sights, and now that air travel is cheap enough, people often fly from site to site or ‘paradise’ to ‘paradise’, rather than travel overland as they did in the past. It cannot be precisely defined because it is ever-evolving: it expands when an airport near Nha Trang is renovated or a road in Cambodia is tarred or visa regulations change. To me, the term is best used to describe locations where tourist facilities are better developed than the infrastructure used by locals, or where the proliferation of services geared at tourists has pushed other businesses further and further out, until a substantial part of a town’s centre is a tourist ghetto.

As far as it is a physical route, the Banana Pancake Trail predominantly snakes through mainland Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and, increasingly, Laos – but the Indian hippie haunts of Goa, Gokarna, Hampi, Pushkar and Rishikesh are often considered part of the trail. Some call its Indian incarnation the Hummus Trail because of the abundance of young Israelis travelling after a period of compulsory military service. A handful of scenic spots in Southwestern China such as Guilin, Dali and the towns within reach of the famed Tiger Leaping Gorge – all close enough to northern Laos or Vietnam to reach by bus or train – are sometimes classified Banana Pancake Trail territory too, as are parts of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Banana Pancake Trail-blazers usually start in the region’s backpacker hub, Bangkok, where cheap accommodation, an array of onward transport and almost anything you can imagine a backpacker needing can be found on or near Khaosan Road, Southeast Asia’s largest tourist ghetto. From there, virtually all the mandatory stops on the Trail can be reached – whether by bus, train, plane or motorbike. Destinations with a legendary party atmosphere, natural scenery or tourist sites with ‘must-see’ status find their way onto this mushrooming trail, along with the temples at Angkor, the atrocity tourism of Phnom Penh, the Vietnam War relics of Saigon, several of Thailand’s Southern islands, Vang Vieng with its rite-of-passage tubing and the limestone-karst booze cruises of Halong Bay.

Each has its own backpacker ghetto, near-identical dens of generic hilarity, characterised by cheap travel, multi-cuisine restaurants, budget accommodation and backpacker-choked bars. And all along this well-beaten track are travel agencies advertising buses and flights between the same few cities – geography nearly always second or third to cost and convenience. I doubt that Tony and Maureen Wheeler would recognise the overland route they took in 1972: a journey that took careful planning, with a well-scheduled itinerary that got them back to Sydney in time for Christmas. Today, people zip through mainland Southeast Asia haphazardly, going wherever ‘VIP’ buses stop or chartered planes fly. Geography has been redrawn by the travel industry. People go to places they can be comfortably or cheaply transported to: places that have had decent transport links built because there was sufficient demand. With Southeast Asia’s improved roads, growing number of airports and low-cost airlines, people can arrange their own whirlwind trips through the region’s most famous sites and cities. The highlights of the Wheelers’ six month overland trip can be ‘done’ within a week.

While this may all be wonderfully convenient, I find the number of people who travel around mainland Southeast Asia as if it were a single country disconcerting – and sometimes disorienting. In every tourist hub in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, the very same transport routes are advertised: Hanoi-Saigon, Bangkok-Phnom Penh, Siem Reap-Vientiane, Luang Prabang-Hanoi. Some of these routes involve 40 hour bus rides – for those who choose not to fly. It is as if the towns between these destinations don’t exist. Even travellers who aren’t pushed for time will often decide to embark on a diabolical 40 hour bus journey to tick off ‘must-sees’ instead of stopping in a town or two along the way.

Vest-Wearer was well-practiced at box-ticking. While he continued his evening at the Blue Ice Bar, I went next door to my guesthouse and tried to sleep. The music had reached a ridiculous volume; Vest-Wearer’s friend was behind the bar playing DJ. I lay in bed, thinking beer-fuzzy thoughts; Vest-Wearer’s voice replayed in my mind: “Doing our bit by coming to Laos… I did Vietnam… Vietnam sucks!” The music had been too loud to listen to in the bar, but now, lying in bed, I could make out the words to a song I’d heard more times than I cared to think about:

She’s nothing like a girl you’ve ever seen before… nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood whore… I’m trying to find the words to describe this girl without being disrespectful...The way that booty moving, I can’t take no more…

It was one of a handful of songs that had haunted us in every single Southeast Asian tourist town, but we’d first heard it at a Delhi coffee shop played on repeat. When Iain noticed the lyrics he shouted, “Oh my god! Did you hear that?” from his seat in the coffee shop. I hadn’t heard anything but a beat and a tune. “Listen! Listen! Aarrr…” he’d groaned, thrashing about in exaggerated disgust as he registered what was being sung. After two long afternoons of writing in the Delhi coffee shop – the only place with WiFi near our guesthouse in Majnukatilla – we came to the dismal realisation that they only had one CD. During the days of work to come, Iain wielded earplugs. A few weeks later, I discovered that the music was a collection of current hits, all of it catchy noise pollution. Suddenly, three years of hearing nothing but Chinese ballads on the radio seemed quite merciful. If this was the form that American pop culture had taken, ignorance was bliss.

They weren’t only hits: they were backpacker anthems too, and they doggedly followed us through the region, from Thailand, into Laos, then Cambodia and finally Vietnam, where we heard the album throughout the country, from its far south to its far north. Wherever there was a city or a town with some kind of tourist centre and a bar, the same songs were played. It was theme music – around us backpackers would squeal and say, “It’s our Thailand song!” – and it only added to the sense that I was stuck in some kind of Groundhog Day. We were staying longer in most places than the average traveller – juggling writing jobs and our website with travelling – and that only heightened the feeling: we saw group after group of young backpackers come and go, sitting at the same cafés, wearing the same vests, shrieking when the same songs came on. And it was all set to the same soundtrack that – try as we might – we could not escape. Not while we remained on the Banana Pancake Trail, that is.

Soon it dawned on me: my travels before Southeast Asia spoilt me. Travelling in the Middle East, India, China – and even in laughably crowded Western Europe during summer – had all made me accustomed to little feats that I have come to associate with independent travel. Locating a bus station in Pontevedra with just a smattering of Spanish, hunting down a cup of coffee in the small, south Indian town of Madikeri, or spending half a day in Aleppo amidst all-Arabic signage looking for an international calling centre from where I could phone home: these were some of the details of travelling life that peppered my overland journey to Shanghai in 2006 and 2007. Four years later, in many of the most historic – and most touristed – mainland Southeast Asian towns I visited, I couldn’t possibly have consumed a fraction of the coffee or WiFi that was advertised in the sprawling tourist ghettos of Phnom Penh, Chiangmai, Saigon, Siem Reap or Hanoi. My surprise was compounded  by three years of living in one of the world’s fastest growing cities, Shanghai, which had taught me not to expect WiFi – or coffee – unless I located a Western chain like Starbucks. Like hotels in London or Paris or Berlin, Shanghai’s are spread out over several districts; there are no tourist ghettos.

Southeast Asia has experienced a tourism explosion that is by some counts unprecedented. The number of international tourists arriving in Siem Reap, home to the historic Angkor ruins, has risen from 7,000 in 1993 to upwards of two million today. Once a Cambodian village, it is now the country’s fastest growing city. Tourism has been a boon to the local economy and is credited with re-instilling a sense of national pride in Cambodians, after the degradations of Pol Pot’s regime in the seventies and eighties. But there is another, darker side to the growth. The poverty of post-conflict Cambodia has created a market for sex tourism that is spinning out of control. Despite relative prosperity in the city itself, a reported 37 percent of the population in Siem Reap province continues to live below the poverty line, which Cambodia defines as less than 45 US cents per person per day. A significant number of Cambodian parents who are unable to provide for their families send their children to private residential childcare centres, many of which market themselves as “orphanages”. Since 2011, more than 250 of the country’s 12,000 orphanages have been under review, after a study found that only 28 percent of Cambodian “orphans” are, in fact, parentless. Aid groups such as UNICEF are alarmed at the sheer rise in the number of Cambodia’s orphanages: from 153 to 269 in the past five years. Just 21 of these are state-run; the remainder are suspected of convincing parents that their children will receive adequate food, shelter and education, while profiting from foreign donations, predominantly from “orphanage tourism”, a form of voluntourism which too often does more harm than good.

I weaved my way through crowds, dodging touts and salesmen, snatching glances at passing scenes. Red-faced men, bellies protruding, sat at street side tables drinking beer with lithe beauties who blotted their made-up faces in the evening heat. Groups of vest-wearing lookalikes perched on stools outside a bar called Angkor What? drinking tall bottles of Angkor beer. A few steps away, a football match played on a big screen in the street as people in plastic chairs groaned, cheered and slurped. I passed bar after bar after restaurant after bar: this was Pub Street, a black banner hanging from the buildings declared. Around a corner, stalls sold the stuff of holidays: beach dresses, flip flops, curios – and t-shirts to immortalise the experience. Tanks of fish ate the dead skin off people’s feet: Fish Massage, No Piranhas. Further down the street, signs for massages became more frequent: Back Massage, Whole Body Massage, Oil Massage, Special Massage.

The ghetto followed a simple formula: it offered tourists everything they could possibly want in one place, including Branston pickle, an utterly British brand of pickled onion. Craving the familiarity of a Branston sandwich or a Heineken or a burger is understandable, but it is also contradictory because somehow, when on the Banana Pancake Trail, people forget the familiar constraints of home. They may hire a prostitute or two; they’re in Asia, after all. Or they’ll visit an orphanage, though it’s never crossed their minds to do so in their own country. Or, after a morning of exploring ruins in Siem Reap or visiting Phnom Penh’s Killing Fields, they’ll line up and pay a few hundred dollars to shoot a bazooka at a cow or lob a hand grenade at a firing range. The rules are different in Cambodia, it seems.

Neighbouring Thailand may offer a less mind-boggling array of activities, but it hosts the bulk of mainland Southeast Asia’s foreign visitors and has been indelibly transformed by tourism. The country went from 336,000 arrivals in 1967 – excluding the American soldiers that travelled there from Vietnam for ‘Rest and Recuperation’ – to having no less than 19 million today. In an interview,Tony Wheeler responded to a question about Lonely Planet being partly responsible for the creation of the Banana Pancake Trail: “Oh, there’s no question we are responsible. It’s true. But on the other hand, we didn’t expand Thai Airways fleet from ten aircraft to 100, you know. We didn’t build 50 new hotels in Bangkok. I don’t think you’d find many Thais saying, ‘Oh, let’s go back to the days when I didn’t have a motorbike, and if I had a job I was lucky.’”

There are no shortage of arguments both for and against tourism and its proliferation – in Thailand, in Southeast Asia as a whole, and elsewhere in the world – but Wheeler’s comment on Thailand smacks of the same arrogance as his stance on Burma. Tourism, backpacker-ism and banana pancake trails are all on the rise, and all three will bring both good and bad – hopefully in something close to equal measure. Perhaps all we can hope for is a new generation of travellers who – with or without guidebooks – do not fall for notions of their own humanitarianism, independence or sense of ‘responsibility’ without identifying what that those concepts mean to them. Then they can consciously decide whether or not they want to be part of Lonely Planet’s “Us”: a designation that is loosely defined at best, by a corporation that bestows integrity and congratulations on its customers merely for buying its products.

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25 Responses to “The Banana Pancake Trail”

  1. I am in the last few weeks of what has been my first really long overland trip through some of the countries of South-East Asia. One of the things I have remarked upon in my encounters with other travelers is that there is a latent but otherwise unacknowledged 'hierarchy of the road'. Whilst I have up to now been impressed by the quality of the observations on this site I am dismayed that the present post has slipped into what I can only characterize as a type of effete 'travel snobbery'. I can say this because I myself am not innocent of taking such a high-handed position. Nor in my status of a somewhat older backpacker have I, by the same token, not felt somehow inferior that I readily shrink from taking the risks of recklessly venturing where so many younger travellers readily go. And these might well be the very same people I might criticise, and have criticised, for contributing to the increasingly tragic inhospitability of tourist destinations such as Vang Vieng. I guess, what I am trying to say is that the whole ethical dilemma surrounding tourism – especially in third-world countries – is not so easily discussed and delineated by a rather superficial attack on Lonely Planet as the harbinger of doom nor on the easily identified perpetually dumb and inebriated Aussie backpacker. I really think you have let yourselves down with this post. I have come to expect better.

    • Thank you for your honest response, Michael. I am glad to hear that you were previously impressed by the quality of the observations on our site, though it's a pity we didn't hear from you in your earlier frame of mind. Your mention of 'travel snobbery' is certainly relevant and I, too, have encountered plenty of what I would call travel snobbery, though it is usually along the lines of travelling to the most far-flung corners of the earth, or intentionally going to the world's least-visited countries. If being selective about which places I travel to – or, for example, knowing that Koh Phangan is simply not for me – makes me a travel snob, then so be it.

      What I am more concerned with is the fact that this article reads as some kind of (highly simplified) answer to the "ethical dilemma surrounding tourism". This was something that was only touched on in the context of examining the so-called Banana Pancake Trail: what it is, where its appeal lies, what some of its implications are and where it comes from – through my own experiences of travelling in several of its 'stops'. It is the second in our site's series on famous overland routes, after the Hippy Trail.

      As for Lonely Planet, though much of what I have read about this Trail does "blame" Lonely Planet for the explosion of tourism in the region, this is obviously only one side of the argument, and I believe I touched on the positive side too. What interests me most about Lonely Planet is that the company maintains there is a connection between its own ethical stance and 'Lonely Planet travellers', a link which I find problematic and extremely tenuous. It was the paper on ethical communication within the guidebook series (which I linked to in the article) that first drew my attention to this. If travellers like the "easily identified perpetually dumb and inebriated Aussie backpacker" really do have the sense that their presence (in Southeast Asia, or anywhere they travel) deserves to be commended, this threatens to have far more of a negative impact on host countries than numbers alone could – in my opinion, of course.

  2. Ant says:

    Hi Clair and Michael,

    Claire, thanks for sharing you thoughts. I wrote a piece many years back with a similar sentiment, ironically about an Aussie. But I'll leave the Aussie factor out of this:) I've had equally infuriating conversations with travellers from a multitude of nations.

    But I would never call myself, or anyone else, a travel snob after sharing or reading such a sentiment. Every traveller is on their own mission, and strength to them. But I do question the person who looks at travelling as a sport, ticking of destinations for the sheer heck of it. They learn very little about the places they have been. That is a shame and defies what most people believe travel is about. I look at viral vids that do the rounds, like the guy who did a time lapse of his "around the world trip" with all of the landmarks we are familiar with, and I think: he's just showing off. If he had spent all that money on travelling to just one of those places, he'd be far richer man for it. Maybe people need to be reminded that they should take an interest in the people that live in the shadow of these landmarks.

    It's a shame to hear about the scourge of tourism in that region Clair talks about and if I once had an urge to go there, it has been swallowed up by many reports like this. The same can be said for many other places. But there is a place for everyone. (Right now, for example, I love travelling Africa because there is so little that is "manufactured" for tourists and where it is, it is often remarkable – take the wildlife industry for example and the steps they are taking toward conservation and sustainability. Funnily enough I am also doing more exploring in the neighbourhoods and Townships around me in Cape Town and find it incredible how much I have to learn.)

    It is not only Lonely Planet that is to "blame" for the scourge of tourism, it's the industry as a whole.

    I think, Michael, that opinions like Claire's must be shared and that travel as an industry should be criticised, as should travellers. It is useful to start a discourse that sparks solutions and ideas that are progressive and will hopefully be embraced by travellers and publications like Lonely Planet resulting perhaps in more efforts towards volunteer tourism and ethical practices – even, for example, keeping destinations which are just begging for a BEST KEPT SECRET mast cover, an actual secret.

    At the very least, the people that have had those experiences, like Clair, add to the debate. They don't deserve to be categorised as snobs. They are pointing out a social deficiency that has been brought about by this industry.

    thanks for your time

    Ant

  3. Hmmm, yes. Maybe I was a bit too quick to give Claire's position such an extreme label.

    I guess the problem is that this article has caught me at a most un-sanguine moment in my own travels.

    In fact, I think this blog has some of the very finest on-line travel writing that I have yet come across.

    Well researched, well-written and offering so much more than the usual trite and self congratulatory rubbish on offer just about everywhere else.

    Oops, was I just being overly impulsive and dismissive again?

    But I really mean it.

    Best wishes for your future travels and thank you for taking me with you.

  4. Henry says:

    I thought that was a well written and interesting article. However, I do question what is the real difference between you and "vest-wearer". I have done some travelling myself, and I would suggest luck. Sure he sounds like a idiot but his "we're doing them a favour by coming here" implies that he is aware there is a problem and he is trying to justify himself.

    You seem to be slightly older than the common banana-pancaker and if you were twenty today you could very well be alongside them. SE asia is a good place to start travelling as its cheap, accessible, and fun. And yes there are far more people than would be ideal but each of them is looking for something too. I went along the trail for my first trip and throughly enjoyed myself, but better it gave me the confidence and passion to visit less touristy places on subsequent jaunts.

    I agree that lonely planet should not be a bible, but it can be useful when you get off a train at midnight in a town where noone speaks good English and just want a place to stay, as happened to me in Sumatra. At the end of the day they only give recommendations, its others that follow them.

    I suppose my point is though that although it is easy to judge the hoard you are part of it too, and while box ticking travelling has it downsides I would still contend there is nothing like travelling for broadening the mind.

  5. Ant says:

    Good to hear your feedback, Henry. Your point is valid: "while box ticking travelling has it downsides I would still contend there is nothing like travelling for broadening the mind." But it seems more and more travellers are losing that aspect of "broadening of the mind" because, for one, the places to they go to are so crowded with foreigners like them that if they are first time or even "seasoned" travellers, they tend to find safety and familiarity in those interactions. They lose the aspect of "travel" by not interacting with locals.

    If they do interact with locals, it is often on the recommendation of other travellers or guidebooks. This certainly hampers that aspect of broadening the mind. These folk are falling back on what feels for secure and the locals they interact with are simply working them for profit – and strength to them.

    It's a fine line and its up to people to choose their own experience. But so often we follow someone elses lead, be it a mere tip in a recommendation from your new mate. "Oh, I've done Africa. Loved it. You've got to go." Well what part of it? Where exactly must I go? or "Brazil. Fucking amazing. You haven't been there?! Oh my god. It's the best place on earth." or "Yeah, I got so stoned in Bali. Fuck. Yeah. Great place. You been? No!? Fuck. Nothing like it! got so stoned." This is stuff I've heard verbatim and I can rattle more off for pages and pages. These people are learning very, very little and their mind can't be broadening more than it would if they just stayed at home and watched Discovery.

    I'd say there is a huge difference between Claire and the Vest Wearer, and that is someone who has learnt something worthwhile through travel (abundantly clear in this blog) and someone who hasn't.

    SE Asia is the worst possible place to start travel, young or old.

    Throw a dart at the map and throw the guidebook away.

  6. Gavin says:

    I agree with a lot of what's said, and disagree with a lot. The inebriated vest wearing aussie spliffhead or ultra-drunk latent-homosexual tension aggression Israeli soldier gang and their fucking music are completely atrocious to my taste. However, at least you can get away from them. I live in Bangkok but I've just been to Khao San road for only my third time and the first time in almost 2 years! It's a good area for Songkran, while it's mostly Thais. At night time the vests descended, westerners are french kissing 10 yards from a Buddha statue and Thai teenagers are wandering up and down the street giggling at the bargirls and creepy old people. But you can leave. Khao San is 3 streets, really. Asok is 4 or 5. Bangkok is a city of nearly 14 million people, there is always somewhere else.

    Vang Vieng – never been. Why would I go? The Lonely Planet told me I wouldn't enjoy it.

    Haadrin – been there. Done that. Bought the now-covered-in-luminous-paint t-shirt. Left. Went snorkeling instead.

    There is an utter naivety to this writer. Naivety, for instance how a good portion of the piece is just a barely-concealed attack on the Lonely Planet's issues in Myanmar, while referring to Aung San Su Kyi as "The Burmese people themselves". Naivety in thinking that these changes aren't happening the world over, whether driven by western tourism or not. My Thai students are obsessed with Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga and half of them wear Christian crosses 'fashionably' in a bizarre reflection of pseudointellectual potheads the world over dousing themselves in sandalwood and henna while listening to "World" genre music. Yes, the world changes. We lose things. We gain things. If she's been to the beating heart of Buddhism and not realised that railing for things to stay the same for the sake of her pleasure is futile, while deluding herself that she's a responsible tourist for knowing the name of yet another generic fucking waterfall, she's almost worse than the vest wearers. Both claimed to be 'doing something', only one of them is actively trying to make people feel worse.

    For an ethical and successful orphanage in Cambodia, check out New Futures Organisation, Takeo (I won't link, just google it). That she segues from child prostitution – a real problem in Asia – to these orphanages is incredibly dangerous. I cannot vouch for every orphanage and yes, there are very likely some bad ones. This one is good. With a government like Cambodia's, non-government is good. NFO sends kids to the local school during the day, and gives them English and other lessons in the afternoon. They provide play facilities for the orphans such as a football pitch, swimming pool and jungle gym – which are also open to the people of Takeo, as they are the only ones in the town. As such the orphans get more interaction with other Khmer than the typical "big house full of sad kids" image. They encourage volunteering, not just for long stints of teaching (the longest serving volunteer teacher is also the English teacher at the local school) but also for the often short term visit volunteering. However, short term volunteers are requested to use their skills – as an IT guy, I tried to mend their computers (after months in unsealed room, they were coated in Cambodia's red dust and home to various nasty things) and at the request of one kid got them Michael Jackson music. Others dug holes to insert poles to erect a ball-net behind the soccer goal to stop the ball going into the stream. But the best part of NFO is that it really is about the future; any money donated to a child is held until they they finish college – in a country where it makes more economic sense to drop out of primary school and work the fields, this is massive. Yes, a lot of them still have living family; however the 'holding' prevents the family from taking money from the child. The child is an 'economic orphan' for a reason; Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries run by a corrupt, profiteering government. That the writer would lump any charity, let alone a broadsweep of all the orphanages there, in with paedotourism is the worst part.

  7. Ant says:

    "Vang Vieng – never been. Why would I go? The Lonely Planet told me I wouldn’t enjoy it." Sounds like a splendid reason to go to Vang Vieng.

  8. Ant says:

    "Vang Vieng – never been. Why would I go? The Lonely Planet told me I wouldn’t enjoy it." Sounds like a splendid reason to go to Vang Vieng, to learn more about a place that hasn't been swamped by foreigners and see the situation there for what it truly is, without having to rely on hearsay from guide books, blogs or other travellers who have made their own minds up about something.

    That is probably the best thing about guide books. I read a guide to Mali recommending to avoid Kouri in the East. I mad ea beeline for Kouri and had an incredibel experience and learnt more about Mali than any of the "tourist" spots like Djenne or Segou.

    Had a similar experience in Nerano in Italy, Calla de Campos in Mexico, iRishidia in Morocco and so on and so on – all places either not mentioned in guide books or recommended against because it was of no interest. Usually it meant the writers simply had not been there. These places inevitably gave me a truer sense of the people, politics and issues than any other.

  9. It's our pleasure, Michael. And thank you for adding to the debate.

  10. Campbell says:

    Sorry for leaving a negative comment on something you have worked on and shared with us for free but the article got me quite wound up. I found it long-winded and cliche-ridden. And the apocryphal anecdotes (like tourists shooting bazookas at cows) and including a vest-wearing straw man archetype just cheapened the article further. It read just like that same tired conversation held in all those bars on the 'Banana Pancake Trail' that you seem to so heartily despise – the difference between tourists and backpackers, making a difference, this is the problem here's the solution, another Angkor please, blah blah blah. Ok you have done lots of travel, congratulations, let me buy you a beer. Maybe all those louts on the road will get enlightenment one day too, we all start travelling somewhere (although I suppose letting too many of them into the 'ultimate traveller' club would dampen the elitism somewhat).

    Many of the points you make are valid and extremely important to make (yes we should be discussing the negative impacts of travel) but, in my opinion, mixing them in with your UT stories mentioning how much more travel you have done than other people makes me feel like I am are being lectured by that boring guy in the bar who tells me I should have been here five years ago.

    And if I were to offer a thought of my own it would be to ask whether there is a problem with letting a country decide for itself whether the economic benefits they get from tourists outweigh the costs to their culture?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and facilitating a discussion.

    Campbell

  11. Lissie says:

    The banana pancake trail used to actually be worse – before Indochina opened up to tourism in the 90's – everyone did a loop around Thailand and then headed south to Malaysia and Indonesia.

    I arrived in Bangkok in 1989 after about 4 months in India and Nepal – and like you I was surprised about how easy it all was. But I also found it dull and rather boring – even though there was a bigger language barrier – it was all setup for tourists – in way India wasn't.

    And India had been full of experienced travellers, Thailand were full of "kids" – and I was all of 26 at the time LOL.

    I think all that has happened over the years is the locals have got smarter at exploiting the tourists. We picked up one of the "hop on hop off" tourist buses when we finally got to Vietnam in 2004. We went to Mui Nee for some beach time and I'd already booked a hotel deal on the Internet. The bus stopped in the middle of town (I knew it was the middle of town I can read road signs in Latin alphabet!) but the driver insisted that we were going on to a good hotel. Obviously his contact was a little late and he was waiting for him. We got off, insisted on getting our bags – even thru the insistence that there was no taxies and it was too dangerous to walk (oh pleeeese it was 3pm!). We walked 50m up the road – picked up a taxi and were at our hotel 5 minutes later. And not one other tourist on that bus (about 50 of them) – moved a muscle – not one of them got off! They sat there like lambs to be taken to the next overpriced guest house!

    I've seen more dissent in a coach tour – compared to that group of so-called independent travellers!

  12. Ant says:

    Great discussion, folks. Fiery at times, but all points relevant on a fascinating topic. thanks for kicking it off, Claire.

    • Ant, you are most welcome. It was, of course, debate and discussion that I was hoping for. And thank you for your very valid input. To respond briefly: I personally agree, and am glad, that I didn't start travelling in SE Asia – I would have become jaded. That was my reason for, as Campbell put it (above), "mentioning how much more travel you have done than other people": as a means to broadly compare my experiences travelling in different places. (And China could certainly do with a bit more WiFi, but not at the cost of creating a trail like mainland SE Asia's.) Lastly, I was interested to hear that you're finding "exploring neighbourhoods and townships in Cape Town" fascinating. That is one of many things that Iain and I hope to do when we return, as almost-strangers, to Cape Town. I hope to meet you in person then!

  13. You make some interesting points, Henry. And you may be right: if I were twenty, I would probably be travelling in a very different way. In fact, I shudder to think about my (drunken) naivety the first time I travelled to Europe without my parents at 18. Thankfully, I am now an older, more experienced and knowledgeable person – one that was struck by her observations along the Banana Pancake Trail and wished to present them. And when travelling in popular (often overrun) destinations in SE Asia, I undoubtedly was part of the hoards, at least in a physical sense. It's not my intention to make myself out to be some holier-than-thou enlightened traveller, but many of the people I travelled alongside were far too amusing not to write about. And though laughing at them may seem 'snobbish' or even hypocritical, they interest me, and are major players in the broader SE Asian tourism scene, and their perspectives and actions have an impact on the places they travel in. With regards to Lonely Planet guides, I agree they are useful and I use them for various things, including finding accommodation. It was the way that many people use them that was worth chronicling, in my opinion. Lonely Planet certainly cannot be 'blamed' for the way people travel. As Lissie pointed out (in a comment below), sheep will be sheep.

  14. Gavin, thank you for your in-depth comment. My reason for including a "barely-concealed attack on the Lonely Planet’s issues in Myanmar" was that it presented Lonely Planet – 'promoter of ethical tourism' – in a tricky, but relevant context, though it sounds like there is not much I can say at this point to convince you that I'm not naive.

    I'll address your two other points anyway: the article does not bemoan the fact that changes have occurred anywhere. What I wished to highlight and describe was the nature of certain changes, but I attempted to balance this with the 'success story statistics' of, for example, Siem Reap's growth. There is obviously nothing wrong with Siem Reap – or anywhere – profiting economically from growth, whether it's led by (Western) tourism or not. But – I'd argue – if there weren't such a large market of "inebriated vest wearing aussie spliffheads", as you call them, or other tourists who are more interested in bars than culture and history, the centre of Siem Reap would be a much more tasteful place.

    That brings me to your last point. Mentioning the market for sex tourism and orphanages in one paragraph was not an attempt to connect charities or orphanages with paedotourism. The two were simply listed as examples of the problems that exist in Cambodia. You have obviously had a positive experience with the particular orphanage you mentioned. It also sounds like this orphanage – as a place that seeks short term volunteers with skills to offer – is not one of the "big houses full of sad kids” that tourists typically visit for a few hours in order to pat themselves on the back, but do little else.

  15. Ant says:

    Look forward to it, Claire. Lets try keep in touch.

  16. Gavin says:

    @Ant, I'm afraid I was being a bit flippant about Vang Vieng; It's true that the Lonely Planet does advise those of a less… exuberant nature not to go (for the very reasons this writer has specified), but taking my tongue out of my cheek, the "Tubing" really is an established part of the 'trail' that you very quickly learn all about without ever having been there. I thought it was bizarre the first time I was in the south of Thailand on a sleezy street in Phuket that every second lager lout was wearing the same vest from so far away in Laos. Lonely Planet's warnings about Friends repeats, magic mushrooms and drowned revelers clearly doesn't put anyone off as it seems to me more people 'tick that box' than Angkor Wat. 2 years living here later and it's very obvious now but even in that first week you quickly gather from word of mouth what you might or might not enjoy. Backpacker centres are hell for a lot of reasons but this is one of their better uses.

  17. lia vandersant says:

    interesting debate.  the drunken vest wearers -v- real travellers debate has been going on for years.  i last did a long trip in 1980 covering bali, england, greece, turkey, isreal, america.  and i met female versions of the vest wearing aussie in a tiny little hostel in old jerusalem! i was completely gobsmacked, a room full of them.  all loud and pissed. but they had a bar of chocolate!  christ knows how they got hold of that. i thought people like that hung out in discos, but yep! like adventurous kate, they also travel.  i'm sure they must learn something?  

    anyway i'm not jewish and i found that israel resembled 60's south africa when i lived there, (i'm talking full blown apartheid) also i didn't much like kibbutz life or their racist views.  i naively thought kibbutz life was going to offer me true gender equality, a taste of real socialism and some sort of idyllic farm existence.  instead i was stripped of my travellers clothes, handed a uniform and sent to the kitchen to chop oinions for three days.  oh well… nothing was ever going to beat bali anyway.

    so i moved to the sinai and lived in da haab in a bedioun camp for 20 cents a day with all the other kibbutz refugees.  most of them were unemployed youth from europe, and, happily, it was vest wearing tourist free. mainly because in those days da haab was hard to get to, rat infested and the only food available was halva and flat bread, freshly baked by the bediouns each day.  certainly there wasnt much booze.  

    the sinai was awesome then and the bediouns looked forward to becoming a part of egypt so that the nearby israelie army camp would move on and toursim could develop. well its certainly developed, well beyond my wildest imagination.  i hope those bediouns got a fair share of the tourist dollar!  

    so the trip i'm doing now, 32 years later commenced in bali.  i saw the island of my dreams again after 32 years.  well… you cant hold back development, but in my opinion bali has been totally and utterly fucked.  then again, so has the rest of the planet.  but i did feel overwhelmingly sad for the locals, because they dont appear to have profited from tourism at all.  they have just lost their land and been reduced to touters, all of them. and their island has been over run by people from all over indonesia, so much so, that the indonesian government is now attempting to decrease the population of bali by offering the balanese people money to re-settle in other parts of indonesia. i can't believe it!   the balanese themselves are being relocated. and all because of tourism.  

    so yes, i went to vang vieng, and really, i couldn't stay, not even for two days, i just had to leave, because all i could see was locals being over-run and over-whelmed by tourists, who didn't care at all about their standard of living, or respect their values.  i simply dont believe that spending your tourist dollars in a developing country helps people at grassroot level at all.  it simply robs them of their homes, their culture, their values.  as soon as there is money to be made the rich move in and do what the rich do best, take the all money.  

    the people of vang vieng have nothing left, you only had to look at the beautiful mountains surrounding the tattered remains of their once beautiful village to see what they have lost.  

    seeing the abandoned american air strip built in 1963, said it all for me.  first they were invaded by the yanks and then, when their lovely village became peaceful again some backpackers discovered tubing and now their lives have been lost under a pile of empty beer bottles.  it was just too sad, and i just had to get out of there.  

    i'm wondering now if the best thing real travellers can do is to stay home.     

    the vest wearers, i think, tend to hang out were the bars and restuarants are, perhaps thats why lonley planet is so popular.  they direct people to hotels, bars and restuarants.  

    in 1984 i became pregnant and decided on a home birth.  guess who turned up at my home birth doctors surgery in a rolls royce? yep!  mrs lonley planet herself.  i do wonder if they have given back enough to the developing countries they grew their wealth in.  

    the wheelers and i come from a beautiful city called melbourne, its not a popular tourist destination, but the rising asian middle classes have us in their sights. i just couldnt stand it if my beautiful clean city was over-run by travellers.  its just too awful to contemplate.  but we have over-run asia for the past 40 years, so perhaps its our karma.  to become their most popular tourist destination. 

    already they have discovered that the steps of our parliament house makes a wonderful backdrop for their wedding photos. its quite nice to see all those brides with their grooms, posing for photos.

    so yes… next week i will be going home and i think what i have learned is to enjoy my town, because in ten years time it could be over-run by tourists.

    then again… perhaps thats where the vest wearing aussies might come in handy cause who wants to hang out with them?

  18. Ant says:

    Hi Lia. thoroughly enjoyed and learn't much from your comment. Good on you. Ant

  19. lia vandersant says:

    thanks ant. finally got time today to kick back and read your blog. greatly impressed, so double thanks for you kind words.

  20. DEK says:

    You make it all sound perfectly horrible. This is such a thoughtful article that I wish I could add something, but I am so appalled by what you describe that nothing I could say would be constructive.

  21. DEK says:

    Let me raise an heretical question: Is it good for a young person — and here I mean late ‘teens and early twenties — to travel abroad?

    It is supposed to be broadening, but is it? When they travel independently do they not so often keep to places frequented by their peers? When I first visited Athens I had just turned forty and looking at all the young travelers I thought how wonderful that they were able to have these experiences when they were young. But then I went into the Peloponnese and to the smaller islands and never saw another one and realized that they traveled only among their own kind. I had not had enough contact then to realize how much time they spent partying; that this was all Cancún to them.

    On Crete I found a nest of unwashed young people living in caves, apparently stragglers from the Hippie Trail. A fellow who spent some time with them told me that they weren’t really in Greece at all: that they were just hanging out.

    They travel through unique cultures and ancient historical traditions and are unable even to read a newspaper headline or communicate with any local person not connected to the travel industry. Is it any wonder that they remain tied to home and friends through twitter and the internet, and to the company of their peers, rather than immersing themselves in the world around them?

    Yet they will come away thinking that they “know” the country that they have just passed through and their curiosity will be stilled.

    And what of their hosts? Will the people of the countries they have passed through know more of the country that they represent? Are these ignorant, well-meaning, free-spending, partying inebriates who lead local young people away from traditional values the image we want projected abroad? How will they play against the narrative of Western decadence?

    I’ll stop the argument here. And I do think young people — particularly Americans, for example — should travel, but in their own country, to learn about it so that they can appreciate what they later see in other countries. Young people in New York or Boston have little idea what goes on in Iowa or Oklahoma, little understanding of the culture of their own country. In San Francisco I was talking to a young fellow who went to Harvard; when he drove across the country he told me he tuned his car radio from one NPR station to the next. Get to know your own country: later, you’ll understand other countries better.

    • You have raised some interesting points – thank you. From my point of view, age is only one factor in determining whether or not it's good for (young) people to travel. Many travellers who I've met (who would do better to call themselves holidaymakers) admit that they are leaving their own country mostly to "have fun", so having a "broadening" experience is immediately limited by their own mindset. Having said that, if you're a westerner who has never left your own country, even meeting a westerner from another country, or eating food that you are unfamiliar with may be broadening to some extent. I have met people who describe everything they see and experience in foreign countries as "normal" versus "weird". So I think whether or not you are broadening your world view really depends on the base you're starting from.

      From what I have seen, the age group that you refer to are, for the most part, experimenting with a new degree of independence more than gaining a clearer perspective on a foreign country. Arguably, they could achieve similar results in any town or city where they don't know anyone, so I agree that travelling in one's own country is important has great potential for learning and self reflection. It may even be more effective or transformative than the experiences people have with "their own kind" while abroad, where a cloud of exoticism often reduces their ability to analyse and understand what is around them. In fact, being abroad may only serve to confirm these people's preconceptions and stereotypes. What I find more worrying than teens having fun in foreign countries is older people (whether around my age – 30 – or older) who consider drinking with other westerners in bars in foreign countries – and never taking themselves out of their comfort zone – a means to become worldly-wise and "well-travelled".

      I'd be interested, as always, to hear what other readers think about the issues you've raised.

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