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 Shoestring – in 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.