Back from the fu­ture

Trav­el­ling through Asia is not how it used to be

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence Grumpy Old Traveller Has A Cha - MURRAY LAU­RENCE

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.

PHO­TOLI­BRARY

Thai­land’s Chi­ang Mai is to­day a flash­packer par­adise where tourists can see, do and taste every­thing

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