South East Asia. A place once associated, predominantly, with the mid-life crisis career man, or the thrill-seeking hippy, has now become something of a rite of passage for middle-class youths. The crashing economy and rising university fees have pushed us all towards the same perceived end: an edifying, spiritually uplifting Asian journey.
Given the limitations of school or university holidays- or the one year break that is socially acceptable to take out of education- this generally equates to an accelerated jolly through the hip parts of Asia. You only need to get a couple of drinks down one of these seasoned travellers before he or she will regale you with their wisdom. A fortunate listener, you might expect stories of their newfound maturity, their enhanced appreciation for life and, latterly, their numerous sexual conquests.
It’s easy to criticise this type of traveller. Something that many people might niggle at is the question of their authenticity. ‘Travel’, with all its connotations, brings forth the image of an explorer, a pioneer, gaining unique insights into the vast cosmos. And yet, the reality is, the South East Asian experience has become a package holiday, with all the same landmarks- popularised on Facebook and forced upon you by squealing travel reps. Cuddle the drugged-up baby tigers for the camera- check. Ride a precariously-balanced seat atop an elephant- check. Drink a sandcastle bucket full of home brewed vodka- and eject it out upon the sand beneath the rising sun- check. The more of these milestones you manage to do, the more you will be able to converse with fellow ‘travellers’ of South East Asia, who have risen to your lofty plain. It becomes not so much a case of discovering, looking with Proust’s ‘new eyes’ upon your surroundings. It is instead about entering into an exclusive club, full of members who have conquered the same cliches. Entering a number of tourist-ridden destinations, and recording your adventurousness for posterity, with a little thanks to Mark Zuckerberg.
For others, a greater concern might be the effect that these travellers are having on the countries they are invading en mass. Any economist will tell you that tourism is, in financial terms, a wonderful thing for a country to invite: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, all of these countries are becoming wealthier and more prosperous thanks to the tourists flocking in from every corner of the world. Indeed, what’s wrong with this? ‘Money! Education! Opportunity!’, the economist cries. But what opportunities, exactly, does this demand to please tourists offer? You only have to enter the nightlife strips of Bangkok and Phuket in order to find out. Particularly, the perverse entertainment of ping pong balls, pieces of fruit…and even small furry animals being ejected from places they should never have been in the first place. The Western tourist industry funds not only these, but also the age-old prostitution industry, with a number of less-than-plausible massage parlours offering you an extraordinarily good time.
Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is blessed with naturally beautiful landscapes and it is a great place to visit if you get the chance. There was a reason why the Western tourists flocked here in the first place. But if you are herded there for the wrong reasons, due to social pressures and hype, it will most likely not be the most satisfying experience of your life, nor will it complete you as an individual. We all have our pipe dreams. We all have the places we have read about, heard about, and dreamed of visiting. And ultimately, you will probably engage with these experiences much more, if your ‘reasons for travel’ surpass merely hedonistic pleasure-seeking, and you have researched more than what bar to buy your copious amounts of Blue Lagoon cocktail from. It might be more difficult to break away, and pursue your own travel interests independently. But in ten years, when you have a 9 to 5 and only a couple of week’s holiday to play with, you will regret not making the most of these opportunities whilst you had them.