With the current wave of anti-autocracy protests sweeping the globe, time is running out to visit some of the world’s most infamous regimes…
To be considered a truly wild, truly brave traveller these days, you have to be prepared to go pretty far. You could visit every country in the EU, bungee jumping from every bridge you cross, and still have done little more than the average 18 year-old exchange student with a Lonely Planet jammed in his pack. If you want real travel cred, you have to be prepared to go a whole lot further.
Whenever travellers congregate to exchange stories, the mentioning of certain destinations will garner instant respect. Turn up in a dorm wearing an ‘I heart Mogadishu’ shirt, or a ‘SeÃ±or Frog’s – Port-au-Prince’ cap, and you’ll gain immediate admiration.
If war or disaster zones aren’t really your cup of tea though, there is another way to gain instant attention. Intruding into a conversation with “well when I was in Pyongyang…” is a very good way to start. This is because – whether you call them autocratic or call them revolutionary – anything that can be considered a ‘regime’ is a big win on the gringo circuit. Consider some examples…
Cuba. Unless you’re from Miami, you probably don’t have much against the Castros. You might even like them, or at least their more photogenic comrade-in-arms. Still, fifty years in control is a long time. Fifty years of embargo seems even longer; you could probably argue that Cuba is under the embargo’s regime, and not that of the Castros. Either way, especially among USAmericans, Cuba still counts as a very exotic destination.
Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe has nothing like the years of experience that the Castros have, but when it comes to batshit crazy government, few do it better than him. He allegedly paid millions of dollars to a woman who claimed she could conjure gasoline out of a magic rock. Such presidential antics are the stuff of many a novice backpacker fantasy.
Libya. Combining tough visa regulations with an irate, entrenched leader, Libya has something for everyone (the Mediterranean coastline and Roman ruins are supposed be kind of cool too). Muammar Gaddafi has done serious time as top dog in Libya, and if nothing else, he is to thank for reserving his country as a pristine paradise for those seeking to avoid the beaten track.
Myanmar/Burma. The Burmese junta has prevented Burma going the same way as Khaosan Road, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of drunken Australians prepared to change all that, if only they could. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi once discouraged all fans of freedom from visiting military-ruled Burma, but has since relaxed that stance and said that she doesn’t mind the idea of independent travel there.
North Korea. Kim Jong-il may not have been in power for all that long, but combine his rule with that of his dad, and the Dear Leaders have an enviable dynasty forming. North Korea might be the ultimate forbidden destination for independent travel; the only definite way in is on a state-controlled tour, chaperoned by a guide trained to sing the praises of the Misters Kim.
The problem with such regimes is that, as long as they seem to last, they do eventually come crashing down. Capitalism could come to North Korea long before you have finished filling out paperwork at the border. Gaddafi looks to be in his final, delusional days of power. Look at what happened in Turkmenistan; Saparmurat Niyazov was a deranged bastard who ran the country as his personal Disneyland. Then BAM – heart attack. End of insane regime, end of epic backpacker cred.
As fast as they fall, though, other regimes spring up. Who knows how many times Hugo ChÃ¡vez will try to get the Venezuelan constitution changed so that he can stay in power? Who knows how many more Bushes are waiting in the wings, hoping to continue that dynasty?
Best word of advice for those hoping to boost their travel cred by visiting a few regimes; don’t wait around. Get in before those in power get out. Democracy might be all fashionable and egalitarianish, but in a travel destination, there’s nothing more passé.