Adventure travel in Thailand and Laos? There’s precious little adventure left…
One of the great things about being on the road is the adventure, the uncertainty, the independence you learn from standing on your own two feet, traveling the world and finding your way with little more than your nose and a 2 kilo Lonely Planet to guide you.
Well, the Thais changed all that.
Head anywhere in Thailand and Laos and you’ll likely soon fall victim of a kind of tourist apartheid where every time you go anywhere you find yourself in a minivan full of other backpackers and travelers and the only Thai in sight is the driver. The backpacks go on the roof and you find yourself sat to 8 other farangs who haven’t yet learnt to shower 2-3 times a day in the tropical heat. Out comes perennial backpacker conversation of ‘where do you come from’ and ‘where and have you been’, and out the window goes any notion of independent travel.
To be fair, you can head down to the central bus or train station and travel with the Thais or Lao but they make it just too easy to do otherwise. From almost any guesthouse in the region you can book just about any tour or journey that you plan on making. You pay at the counter, a mini van comes to pick you up and you’re on your way without having to fumble through your phrasebook or do anything much except wake up on time.
It’s easy, it’s cheap and who knows but you might get sat next to some hot blonde traveler from Sweden…
But after a while, as you watch the country pass out of the air conditioned window, you might get the feeling that you’re not really traveling any more. You’re being herded around like the lingually-disfunctional, smelly farang that the locals take you for. You haven’t taken any risks, haven’t had to struggle to get anything done and you end up feeling like so many sheep being herded around by smiling farmers.
Then when you arrive in the picturesque village-turned-tourist trap that was cool a couple of years ago but has now been restructured to meet your needs, the Thais and Lao continue to make life easy for you. Everywhere offers massage, banana pancakes, non-spicy food, tubes of Pringles, adventure sports and bars with all your favourite TV shows.
In Vang Vieng in Laos, for example, many travelers elect to ignore the stunning tropical hills looming above the river to spend their days reclined on super-comfortable couches in bars, watching Friends of the Simpsons for 6 hours in a row. Observing row upon row of backpackers spoon pad thai into their mouths, their eyes trained on a flickering screen and a dumb grin around their lips, you’re reminded of some bizarre mind-control experiment.
And then there’s the adventure sports. Everywhere you see signs daring you to take up the v-lining/rafting/bungee jump experience in the ultimate quest for survival against the odds. All well and good but if the average traveler can’t find the bus station by himself it’s unlikely that floating down a river in a rubber inner tube is going to provide much of a challenge.
The activities all sound good fun and Thailand and Laos are beautiful settings without a doubt but it seems troubling when entire countries represent only adventure sports parks to the travelers who visit. Hardly any of them dare eat any street food, never learn more of the language than how to say ‘thank you’ (and that in a way that would sound more like ‘thnik yahou’ to a local) and spend up to a couple of months in a country without ever learning the first thing about it.
Banana pancakes, the odd TV show and hot Swedish backpackers are all good but it makes a mockery of travel. The locals tolerate the invasion of consumerist backpackers with amusement at best, contempt at worse and the developers soon move in to entice gormless Westerners with more money to spend. In the meanwhile, the few conscious travelers watch all the construction going up, light a joint and embark on the usual debate about whether travelers destroy the places they visit.
The appetites that travelers bring with them certainly fuel the developement. If travelers refused to eat highly-priced food, watch TV and arranged their own travel then things wouldn’t change nearly as fast. But that’s not human nature. The locals who profit from providing all the services are just trying to make a buck and the big development usually comes from outside.
There’s no easy answer but ultimately it’s up to the people who live in a place to maintain its culture and environment. The traveler who passes through for a few days on their Gap Year joint is hardly going to make much of a difference.
It’s hardly travel in any recognizable form though and after a while the only way you can get any real adventure in Laos or Thailand is to start hitchhiking and heading to places not mentioned in the guidebooks.
But then you won’t meet those hot Swedish backpackers…