“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” travel writer Paul Theroux once said, whereas “travelers don’t know where they’re going.” His remark has become a backpacker cliché. It describes an ethic that allows us travelers (because, of course, I’m a traveler, not a tourist) to feel superior to those sheeplike tourist squares. We see them everywhere, and we disdain them. They are the ugly Americans, the deep-fried farang (Thai for “foreigner”). They are the packaged mob, the superficial horde. They are the clueless, inauthentic ones. That’s not us, we say. We’re beyond that — or, at least, we’re trying to get beyond that. We’re roughing it. We’re here for “unspoiled” Thailand, “authentic” India, and “real” Laos. But in many ways we’re not as different from those tourists as we think.
Sure, we may not pal around in loud groups wearing even louder shirts or stay in hotels that look like transplanted malls. We may not always look at everything through a camera viewfinder or have the bad taste to buy an official stamped-and-signed “These Sneakers Climbed Diamond Head Peak” certificate at the top of Hawaii’s Diamond Head Peak. But we all have the same damn packs on, and we all walk around with the same damn book — The Lonely Planet Guide to Whatever the Hell Country You Happen to Be In — and for the most part we’re all going to the same “real” places to have the same “real” experiences. And by the time we arrive, all the other people trying to get to the places that nobody else goes to are already there, and it isn’t so real anymore.
This became abundantly clear to me one early morning in the sleepy border town of Huay Xai in northern Laos, when I got on board a cramped and rickety cargo boat that would carry me down the Mekong River. Me, that is, and sixty-five of my closest backpacker friends.
The day before, I had taken a bus north out of Chiang Mai, Thailand, through hilly forests and past patches of still-smoking slash-and-burn agriculture, to Nong Khai, on the Thai side of the Mekong River. The stewardess (yes, Thai buses have stewardesses) had great legs and served us plastic cups of Coca-Cola with ice that we could slip into little cup holders that folded down from the seats in front of us. When I got to the Mekong, the captain of the turquoise longboat that ferried me across controlled the rudder with a string tied around his big toe. His legs couldn’t compare with the bus stewardess’s, but in the world of big toes this guy was the Jack LaLanne of Southeast Asia. The Lao customs officials who took my passport on the other side seemed very, very communist with their drab green army uniforms and little red bars on their shoulders and manners perfected in Soviet finishing schools.
A small army of backpackers must have secretly trickled across the Mekong in twos and threes that day and hidden away overnight in various guesthouses in Huay Xai, because the next morning, as if on cue, a strung-out platoon in brightly colored nylon and Gore-Tex emerged from doorways and sandwich shops and processed through the tiny town, all heading to the muddy berth where the boats were tied up.
The “slow boat,” as it’s called, was a retrofitted cargo vessel. I’m sure that, like me, every one of my fellow travelers had harbored a romantic notion of being thrown into a raw cargo hold alongside sacks of rice, scampering chickens, and a second mate drunk on cheap Thai whiskey; then slowly plowing down the flat, muddy waters of the queen of Southeast Asian rivers. The river was flat and muddy, but that’s where romance and reality parted company. The boat was a backpacker sardine can, bristling with fresh white faces and copies of The Da Vinci Code.
The Lao boatmen lashed our packs to the roof and packed us shoulder to shoulder onto the boat’s twelve hardwood benches. There wasn’t an inch to spare. Then four late-waking Australians showed up and were promptly wedged into the aisles. “I vas here nine years ago,” said Hermann, a red-faced German thirty-something squeezed into the seat in front of me. “I vas ze only von. I, unt vun ozzer. But zis —” he implicated the rest of us with a toss of his hand — “all zis is so not vat it is about.” No doubt all of us had read a blurb in Lonely Planet Laos, or Let’s Go Laos, or The Rough Guide to Laos. And no doubt, as our Lao handlers debated where to put the three Italians who had slept even later than the Australians, each of us was thinking our own version of Hermann’s This is so not what it is about. Hermann, of course, was making the added point that, because he had been here before it had been “discovered,” he was not as lame as the rest of us — a bit of bluster on his part to cover up his own embarrassment. In fact, all of us felt a little embarrassed, not just for ourselves but for the whole enterprise of adventure backpacking. Embarrassed, and resentful. How had these rough edges gotten so softened up? Who had beaten down this off-the-beaten path? Each of us wished that all the rest of us would go away, so we could go back to being real.
In a way it’s similar to how city dwellers feel about hipsters. Nobody ever self-identifies as a hipster, ever. Yet there seem to be tons of them. Who are they? They’re “them,” of course, but actually they are us. And we hate them/us. Still, we like having the health-food place around the corner and the new boutique down the street. But “Die, hipster scum” is never far from our lips. A more appropriate slogan, however, might be “Save the neighborhood — kill yourself!” When I arrived at my first Burning Man festival a few years back, I found myself a contrarian in a makeshift “city” of twenty-five thousand contrarians. (Did that make me a conformist?) In the same way, my fellow backpackers unnerved me because they reminded me that I was not as unique as I had supposed, and that I had far more in common with my loathsome tourist brethren than I would have liked to believe. I had met the enemy, and he too was on a slow boat down the Mekong.
Underpinning all of these thoughts that morning was a creeping sense of dread that the world was no longer what it had once been; that there was barely anywhere that wasn’t becoming a version of everywhere. I was not alone in feeling this way. In fact, the best travel writers are right there with me, nursing a similar dread, trying to decide what move to make.
In The End of Elsewhere Taras Grescoe surrenders to one horn of this dilemma. Accepting that there’s no way to get away, he instead chooses to go “exactly where the tourist ruts have been plowed the deepest.” Plotting a course through the pilgrimage routes of northern Spain, the classic sightseeing spots of Paris and Venice, and the backpacker havens of Thailand, he sets off on a quest to uncover “what makes tourists tick.” Lawrence Osborne takes the opposite tack in The Naked Tourist. Holding on to the myth of leaving the world behind, he sets out for “the last wild place”: the dense rain forests of Papua New Guinea, arguably the only locale on earth currently beyond the reach of the West’s tourism infrastructure. Pico Iyer takes a middle path. Rather than bemoaning the passing of some pure or unspoiled quality of a place, he embraces the globalization of culture, seeking out what is “different in each place about what is the same everywhere.” He notes how a McDonald’s in Katmandu is subtly different from one in Beijing or Paris or Iowa, and how this can reveal much about each local culture.
The river itself knew nothing of my twenty-first-century dilemmas; it paid no mind to my dread or resentment. Instead it flowed timelessly by as the boat chugged southward. Conversation soon gave way to long stretches of quiet. The world downshifted a few gears. Dangling my feet in the warm water, I watched northern Laos slide past: water buffaloes grazing along the muddy banks, a scattering of bamboo-framed fishing nets among the rocks, and every once in a while a cluster of huts.
Time, it seemed to me that afternoon, moved in streams and eddies of varying speeds. As we slipped slowly along the quietly sloshing river, Internet time was slinging hot light around the world, and New York time was quick-stepping it back from lunch. Meanwhile a Lao fisherman, who likely woke each day with the sun and set his holidays by the fullness of the moon, looked up from his nets and waved to us. We might have been moving in some existentially benighted The-Journey-Is-the-Destination time, but he was living in Already-There time.
Blowing past us every hour or so, tourists in cigar-shaped speedboats scudded along in Motorcycle-Crash-Helmet time. Throttles growling, they’d materialize as if out of some Doppler-compressed noise portal, churn up the air, and then dematerialize somewhere around the next bend. Watching them from our envelope of quiet — so dorkish in their oversized helmets, so set on getting there quickly — we felt just a little bit more like true travelers again. Seeing them hold on tight as their bows slammed away at the water somehow gave us back our moral edge, however imaginary it may have been. They were moving too fast; they had chosen the wrong experience; they didn’t “get” Laos. Oh, but we did.
For the postmodern backpacker, authenticity is a prize both jealously sought and immediately suspect. Out there somewhere, we tell ourselves, is a remote fishing village or mountain temple whose inhabitants are somehow their actual selves (whatever that means), living outside our postmodern house of mirrors. If we can just find this place — breathe the air, listen to the sounds, befriend a local family and share with them a simple meal — then we, too, will miraculously become our actual selves. Deep down we know this is a fantasy, but we cling to it anyway.
Meanwhile we resent the other Westerners we find at our precious destinations for having the exact same good (or bad) taste as we do. We go looking for something new and exotic, but every bit of ruined or not-so-ruined civilization worth visiting gives rise to a tourist domain that looks just like the last one.
Luang Prabang is described by Lonely Planet as “an incredible collection of Buddhist and French colonial architecture clustered together on a small riverine peninsula surrounded by mountains.” I’d read this sort of hype before, but as we inched our way down the Mekong, hope sprang eternal. I imagined a serene and gentle city somehow still untouched by the modern world. Lonely Planet egged me on, assuring me that “Luang Prabang’s decade-long tourism boom has done little to dampen its unique atmosphere.”
In fact, hauling my pack off the boat’s roof and wandering the city’s streets and temples that first day, I found a whole lot of dampening going on. The particulars may vary, but it’s a scenario being played out around the world: In 1995, in an attempt to reduce poverty and preserve a cultural treasure, UNESCO declared Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site. The influx of tourist dollars drove up prices in the core of the city, and residents moved out. Family homes were turned into guesthouses. Bar hours were extended. Monks became waiters. Desperately needed hard currency flowed into a poor, landlocked country still emerging from Vietnam War–era devastation. A cultural gem saved its historic old city by packaging itself for tourists and in the process lost much of its character and prized “ambiance.” Success story or tragedy? A New York Times article called it “preservation’s paradox.”
By the time we backpackers arrived, this process was already in the advanced stages, and we immediately became part of the paradox. Yes, Luang Prabang was charming; its river views splendid; its temples beguiling; its crooked, lantern-lit alleyways oh so full of character. But the heart of the living city was being hollowed out, leaving a Backpacker Bubble filled with funky cafes and handicraft shops and reggae clubs and tiki bars and ecotourism outfitters. With regional variations, we’d seen this all along the backpacker trail: Bangkok’s Khao San Road; Goa’s beach strip; Katmandu’s Freak Street. Our hearts sank. The Bubble was everything we’d hoped Luang Prabang wouldn’t be, and we despised ourselves for the role we played in making it so. But the Bubble was where the guesthouses were; it was where the restaurants with English menus were; it was where the Internet cafes were; and it was conveniently located near the temples we wanted to see. In spite of ourselves we were drawn into it.
The Bubble had an invisible border roughly corresponding to the cluster of numbered items on the Lonely Planet map. We could have walked out of it at any time, but we didn’t. Inertia, or some homing instinct to seek out the familiar, kept us tethered there. We made the Bubble, and the Bubble made us.
Here’s how it goes: You travel in packs with “friends” you made on the slow boat or at the guesthouse. You go out at night to the reggae dance club, drink Beer Lao at the pizza bar. There’s the inevitable checklist of side trips: “Did you see the caves yet?” “We’re going to the waterfalls tomorrow.” “I hear the inner-tubing in Vang Vieng is awesome.” You compare travel notes and prices with the others. Behind the good-natured camaraderie is a jockeying for status. The slower, cheaper, and rougher you’ve been traveling, the better. Bangkok to Phnom Penh by pickup truck on terribly potholed roads is stacked up against an endless third-class train ride in India (it’s always a train ride in India), or an absurdly overcrowded ferry in the Philippines, or a ride in the back of a suspensionless Vietnamese bus with carsick roosters. Then there’s the never-ending game of who knew about which place first, and there’s always a guy who snuck into Tibet before it was open to foreigners and has to tell everyone about it.
If you’re cool, you say “Lao,” not “Laos.” But if you’re really cool, you know that “Lao” is just a pretentiously cool way of saying “Laos,” with no basis in the country’s history or language. So you go back to saying “Laos.” It’s really frustrating for the people who are so doubly cool that they see through the people who put the s back on in order to be cooler than the people who thought it was cool to take it off, because now there’s nowhere else to go in this game of cooler-than-thou. So they tell you about sneaking into Tibet. In the morning you eat your baguette sandwich at the cafe and then wander the streets. Late in the afternoon you check your e-mail. At sunset you might climb Phousi Hill and sit at the base of the Buddhist shrine and watch the sun go down with every other white person in Luang Prabang. The Brit next to you says, “Tomorrow morning we’re planning to go feed the monks. Care to join?” And you’re not sure, because it sounds as if he were referring to feeding the animals at some exotic zoo. But the next morning you go anyway, and it’s about as sad as you expected, as much for the tourists, who don’t see the sadness of it, as for the monks, who do, and you realize that the Times article got it right: Luang Prabang is becoming a “replica of itself.” But what can be done? And who are you, a tourist, to be lamenting the transformation of this Buddhist ritual into a show for tourists?
Paul Fussell, in his 1980 book Abroad, skewers the snobbish kind of tourist who finds tourism itself offensive. This “anti-tourist,” as Fussell dubs him, anxiously asserts his difference from other tourists through an array of bizarre behaviors including “ostentatiously not carrying a camera,” “staying in the most unlikely hotels,” consuming nasty local food, and “sedulously avoiding the standard sights.” But ultimately the anti-tourist suspects that he is still a tourist like the rest and is beset by feelings of angst and self-contempt.
Fussell goes on to analyze the social-class basis of this angst. Whereas the working class finds nothing shameful in tourism, and the rich couldn’t care less if anyone finds them annoying, “it is the middle class,” Fussell contends, “that has read and heard just enough to sense that being a tourist is somehow offensive.”
That’s me. I’m middle-class. And clearly I’d read and heard just enough. On top of this, however, I’d also read and heard just enough to sense that being an anti-tourist was offensive, too. So I also had angst about my anti-tourist angst. And I wasn’t the only one. Many of my compatriots in the Bubble seemed to share this debilitating condition. Fussell might call us “anti-anti-tourists.”
A few days into my stay I found myself making classic anti-tourist moves: shunning the backpacker posse, leaving my pals from the slow boat at the first guesthouse and changing to another, and even going out of my way to eat nasty local food at a sketchy, no-backpackers-in-here family street kitchen. I made a rule: No English menus. Sure, maybe I’d get sick, but what was more authentic than catching some local disease?
Avoiding other tourists; trying to get sick; loathing myself, then feeling ridiculous for loathing myself — this was no way to spend my hard-earned vacation, and I knew it. I knew it with the fine-grained disdain an anti-anti-tourist reserves for his own pretensions.
Obviously other travelers have confronted these problems before me, and not all of them get caught up in self-hating ironies. Gabriel García Márquez, for one, seems to have made an easy peace with tourism. “I don’t know where the shame of being a tourist comes from,” he writes in his essay “Watching the Rain in Galicia.” “When I visit a place and haven’t enough time to get to know it more than superficially, I unashamedly assume my role as tourist. I like to join those lightning tours in which the guides explain everything. . . . Then I know once and for all everything I needn’t bother to see when I go out later to explore the place on my own.”
Pico Iyer points out how tourism is a complex, subtle, two-way encounter. “We are objects of scrutiny as much as the people we scrutinize,” he argues in his essay “Why We Travel,” “and we are being consumed by the cultures we consume.” It’s not just the monks who are in a fishbowl, Iyer is saying, but the tourists as well. This more dialectical approach evens the playing field some, but the question remains: Is this act of mutual consumption doing either party any good?
The only way to find out is to stop being an anti-tourist — or an anti-anti-tourist — and just be a tourist. Dress code: T-shirt, shorts, backpack, Teva sandals, camera, and Lonely Planet guidebook out of my bag and in my hands where everyone can see it. I tell myself just to accept that this is going to be a superficial experience, and off I go to see the sights. I visit Wat Xieng Thong, with its intricate designs; Wat Visoun, with its historically important Buddha images; the half-watermelon-shaped That Makmo; and the Royal Palace Museum. And I find it all quite interesting.
Eventually, as tourists do, I get tired and retire to a French-style outdoor cafe conveniently located across from the palace building. I sit down and order a Laotian iced coffee. Because it’s a popular locale, a host of other tourists are seated around me, wearing similar outfits and carrying the same guidebook. Getting the attention of a European couple a few tables over, I gesture to myself and my guidebook, and then to them and their guidebook, and I smile and make a circular motion that includes all of us in an eternal tourist brotherhood. They smile back. I take a sip of my iced coffee and, remembering something I read in a guidebook, try to picture how a fifteenth-century Lao king got himself killed while demonstrating his mastery of elephant tricks in front of an assembly of foreign dignitaries: the elephant stepped on his head. But the king had placed his head under the elephant’s foot, so I can’t really blame the elephant. As the river breeze cools my ankles and flutters the red communist flag flying over the adjoining bakery, I recall (also from a guidebook) that on a per capita basis Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world. The waiter (who used to be a monk) brings my bill.
During the Vietnam War the Americans had a catchphrase, “We must destroy the village to save it.” Now it’s our tourist dollars that have come to save it. And that are destroying it. “We are all tourists now,” Paul Fussell says, and it’s high time each of us started acting like it and trying to enjoy it. Beer Lao, anyone?
In spite of the considerable quantity of Beer Lao I drank that last evening, I managed to wake early — long before my bus was due to leave — and go for a run. All the various tourist, anti-tourist, and anti-anti-tourist gremlins must have conspired to make me confused, because I took a few groggy wrong turns and quickly found myself on unfamiliar roads.
I ran past fruit stands. I ran past people waiting at bus stops. (Luang Prabang has bus stops?) I ran past a child standing on the threshold of his home, his mother getting him ready for school. I was all pale thighs and knobby knees, breathing hard and heading for where I thought I could cross the Nam Khan, the Mekong tributary that borders Luang Prabang to the north. I’d left my Lonely Planet and its convenient street maps at the guesthouse, so I was a bit disoriented, but in a good way, in an interesting way, in that how-can-you-get-lost-if-you-don’t-know-where-you’re-going kind of way.
That’s all it took, really: a few wrong turns, and I was out of the Bubble and in a different Luang Prabang, a different Laos. Not a better one, necessarily, nor a “realer” one, just one without temples and Internet cafes and Brits and reggae bars and American hacky-sackers. There were burn patches along the side of the road, and all the Lao kids were looking over their shoulders at me as they coughed past on their mopeds. As best I could while running, I’d put my palms together and bob my head to them. They’d smile softly and say, “Sabaidee,” back as they disappeared up the road.
Eventually the road crossed the river. On the other side I cut down a dusty, garbage-strewn street, past tin-roofed bamboo shacks, to a network of muddy farmers’ pathways running along the riverbank. The sky was a severe blue in the morning light. Mud splattered my calves. Fields of rice and taro edged their way up the bank in a brilliant patchwork of green. I viewed the roof and trellis outlines of Luang Prabang’s old city from a new angle and wondered how long it had been since a tourist had come this particular way — a day? a year? never? — and why I thought the answer might make me or this moment any more or less real.
I thought of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay planting the New Zealand flag upon the summit of Everest, the first men to look out across the Himalayan range from the very top of the world. I thought of Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossing the Isthmus of Panama and gazing west upon the vast, uncharted Pacific, the first white man to lay eyes upon it. And then there was me, on my little footpath between two taro fields, on an out-of-the-way riverbank, looking across the water to the curved roofs of Luang Prabang, probably the first white man since last week to see it just so. And I thought, If this is what the world has left me to conquer, so be it.
I came to another bridge and ran underneath it and then up and around and onto the road. The bridge was heavy and misshapen, as if over the years new girders had been haphazardly added, leaving room for only a thin pedestrian walkway on one side and a narrow lane for mopeds on the other. I had arrived at the peak hour of the morning commute, and a vibrating throng of mopeds clustered along the dirt road, every few seconds releasing one of its number single file onto the bridge. If rush hour in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station is Asia’s most spectacular, then here, at the threshold of this narrow bridge over the Nam Khan, was its most intimate.
I stopped to watch the process, which was all about small gestures and restraint: a nod of the head here, a courtesy there. I had no camera with me (not out of anti-tourist snobbery; I just didn’t want to run with one), but I found myself framing shots in my mind — a classic touristic impulse, I realized, and to my surprise not an unpleasant one. I was wishing, in fact, that I could turn an hour of what I was seeing — a solid hour, no editing — into an infinitely looping video wall for my apartment in New York. (I don’t have a video wall in my apartment, of course, but I’d make one.) I’d been in Laos for exactly five days, so what did I know, but the whole scene, this vibrating tapestry of gentle negotiations, seemed to capture not only the essential civility of the Lao people but also the pure form and flow of the country itself. And I wanted it repeating in silence on the nonexistent video wall in my New York apartment forever.
The traffic eventually thinned out. I walked across the pedestrian half of the bridge and picked up my running pace on the other side, heading back vaguely in the direction of where I thought my guesthouse might be. Again I received those amused “crazy farang” looks. Again I got a bit turned around. I took a side road. Crowds of blue-uniformed teens headed into a whitewashed school building. Farther along I passed two UN jeeps parked outside a one-story institutional concrete structure. Its sign said “UXO,” part of the countrywide program to remove unexploded ordnance from the wars. I took a turn into a network of dirt paths that cut through several connected backyards, chickens scurrying before me. “Sabaidee,” I said as I ran past a woman sweeping leaves and dust. “Sabaidee,” she said looking up, surprised. And so I went, namaste-ing and sabaidee-ing my way through the yards and back streets of this other Luang Prabang, this other Laos, until suddenly, without warning, I popped out onto a familiar lane — with a money-exchange place and a bike-rental shop and a restaurant with a menu in English — just a block and a half from my guesthouse.
It felt almost like coming home.