Back from the future
Travelling through Asia is not how it used to be
ONE of the least lonely places on the planet must be the Lonely Planet readers’ club. I amsitting in the garden of a guesthouse in Chiang Mai and every traveller of whatever age or nationality who alights from a tuktuk seeking accommodation is clutching the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand.
Herewith a murmured confession: I am a Rough Guide user, partly because I find the slightly peculiar English perspective of this series refreshing, but also because I am insanely jealous of Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who have sold their Lonely Planet empire for an astounding fortune.
My jealousy was aroused long before their windfall. Decades ago I was backpacking around Asia with a couple of friends and we kept a notebook in which we entered information on bus and train times, restaurant and hotel prices, and tips on everything good, bad, weird and mad. And then, alas, we lost it.
It could have been left on a bus grinding through the highlands of Sumatra, on a riverboat on the Mekong in Laos, or in a doss house in the depths of Burma. In moments of utter madness, I imagine one of the Wheelers found it and the rest, beginning with their first volume, South-East Asia on a Shoestring, is their marvellous story. It’s a nice fantasy.
Chiang Mai these days is flashpacker paradise. You can see, do, taste absolutely everything. There are myriad adventure options as unlikely as ‘‘ziplining with gibbons’’; there’s whitewater rafting, downhill biking, jungle safaris, all classes of treks and opportunities to meet hill tribes (even those with ‘‘the long necks and big ears’’, says one poster) and a range of elephant encounters.
Activities over for the day, everyone floats lightly around Chiang Mai, many clothed alluringly in hill-tribe chic, having massages, lattes and happy-hour cocktails. How did we ever travel without black mud baths and fishnibbling pedicures? Next, you can take a cooking, jewellery-making, vegetable-carving, tribal belly dance or mahout course.
If you are spaced out with stress (imagine!), there are releasing sessions, regression hypnotherapy, shaking meditation and oracle readings. Agencies on every corner will arrange everything, including transport, so no longer are travellers tormented by chaotic bus stations; a minibus will collect and deliver you, aircooled, to your destination. Once upon a time backpacking was an adventure. You took a chance with every meal, lodging and journey because there was no reliable information, and we didn’t care anyway because that was what travelling was about.
There was often nothing to do because there were no arranged activities, treks or adventures. All we had in the late afternoon was reading in a cell-like room under a fitful fan.
Cocktails? On my earliest encounter with Indonesia, my two friends and I would save for a week to buy one bottle of Bintang beer between us. Tapas? Sushi? When we finally reached Jakarta after months elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, we found a shop supplying embassies and were thrilled to buy a loaf of bread and some peanut butter. BBC? Al-Jazeera? One of the first televisions in Yogyakarta was set up on a plinth at a roundabout; there was so little traffic that half the townsfolk would assemble each evening to watch it.
Facebook? Skype? Australian embassies used to hold mail, and once, at the embassy in Bangkok, we were invited by the ambassador to join him and his staff at the embassy retreat at an undiscovered Pattaya. And all because we were three Aussies in Thailand.
Hill-tribe treks? I was fortunate enough to take a number of non-organised hikes in Thailand and Laos between 1968 and 1973, when you could happen upon Meo, Akha, Lisu or Karen villages and stay in their smoke-filled huts. And see tribespeople still dressed in hand-woven clothes and cumbersome jewellery, see the little critters they caught skewered on crossbow arrows, see the Akha girls flying flirtatiously on their towering bamboo swings, and see the hillsides and valleys rippling with opium poppies all the way to the horizon.
Once, in Chiang Mai, Mr On, a dubious character who was running guns to Karen rebels in Burma, suggested I join him on a three-day walk out of some desolate border settlement a half-day’s drive away in a pick-up.
Unprepared (but prepared for anything), I went along. We crossed a ramshackle bridge, met nobody in uniform and disappeared into Burma. After about six hours we came across a Karen resettlement camp where the oddest Englishman tipped himself out of a hammock and asked, without preliminaries, ‘‘Do you require an elephant?’’
A woman, who was also English, remained in her hammock, but assessed me through the mesh with the toothy gape of a merry-go-round pony.
Mr On was in hushed conversation with local men, villagers were busy weaving and husking rice, children chased chickens about or could be heard chanting in a classroom. So, not having anything particular to do, I said to the Englishman, ‘‘Well, if you’ve a spare one.’’
‘‘I believe we can free one up,’’ he replied in a jaunty manner.
So a mahout and an elephant materialised, I was hoisted aloft and we trampled off into the scrub.
That night we finished a bottle of Mekhong whisky. The English were missionaries, devils for the drink, and seemed interested not in conversions but in teaching skills to help the Karen survive. They supported the insurgency of the Karen, Kachin and other minorities against brutal Burmese repression and were not at all discountenanced by the arms Mr On would bring. What this would mean for their own futures, I didn’t dare imagine.
The next day Mr On and I continued on elephant back with two mahouts. We reached a second Karen community and another sales opportunity, together with more weaving and dancing, and children rushing deliriously about at my presence. And another night of Mekhong, which Mr On produced magically from places tucked away in his jacket.
We returned in the morning with the elephants to the first village and then Mr On and I retreated to our starting point at the Thai border, and back to Chiang Mai. I had a keen interest then in Asian politics and was not entirely ignorant of what had been happening up in those godforsaken margins of the Golden Triangle, and of the multitude of ugly little conflicts that flared and smouldered in the shadow of the all-consuming Vietnam War.
Tragically, the struggles with the gruesome Burmese regime seem without end and the border areas are now home to hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Reflecting, here in my Chiang Mai guesthouse garden, I feel I may have been a little harsh on today’s travellers. After all, what did I achieve by my picaresque excursions into other people’s trouble spots? A few good stories?
In Chiang Mai I meet people who are not venturing aimlessly across borders but are volunteering to work with those whose precarious existence is a sideshow, abandoned to a remorseless state on the one side and to statelessness on the other. These young travellers might appear to be softies (witness all that pampering) but let’s acknowledge they are making a significant difference to the lives of distressed people.
Thailand’s Chiang Mai is today a flashpacker paradise where tourists can see, do and taste everything