The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Life’s a Beach

Great story and photographs by photographer, Sean Smith over at the Guardian on the full moon parties in Thailand.

When I lived in Thailand 10 years ago it was just at the start of the gap year phenomena. Gap years used to be something people did after university and before employment but now many young people in Britain are being encouraged to go off around the world and experience it before going to university. While I do not quite agree with the writer’s rather sniffy distain at the perceived waste of these young travellers’ time and opportunity on their hedonism (after all what else should you be when you are 18 and away from home for the first time. There is nothing wrong with temporarily going nowhere in life – it is a privilege of youth after all) I do, however, agree with his take on the irrelevance of the experience they themselves hold so much kudos in obtaining.

His interviews with several backpackers exposes their snobbishness for tourists and I find it quite disquieting: Just because you can be a year on the road spending your parents’ money does not make you a better person or more “real” than someone who can only afford two weeks; and it is hard to disagree with that sentiment when he contrasts this self-fantasy cleverly with that of Francesco who had worked very hard for his short holiday of fun and refreshingly has no prejudice or greater ambition than “getting smashed. Getting in the buckets of Chang – and just going for it.” Which is after all just what the backpackers are doing.

A Halifax survey in 2008 found that the Average British holidaymaker spent no more than 8 hours away from their hotel in a week’s vacation and 70% never visited a local attraction. A even higher percentage never ate outside the hotel restaurant at all. While a gap-yearer may find it easy to feel superior to the average British tourist (if these statistics are true), its the image the “backpackers” have of themselves as trail-blazing adventurers that is so troublingly deluded. When I first started travelling, I went to places to really see them. I didn’t have a lot of money and many of the places that my ambition had finally been permitted to extend to had become firmly on the map before I managed to reach them. Towards the end of my ten years on the road the path was being well trodden and was now shared with children (gap yearers) who cared less and less about where they were and only wanted more of all they had left behind. These days there is a massive infrastructure available to realize their travel dreams. Many young people who head off on their journeys of discovery these days are backed by organisations that book flight, place volunteers with teaching charities or environmental action groups, organize training and back up, arrange travel companions and have reps and guides to assist their clients when needed. Basically, it’s a tour.

Even if you are travelling without this help there is a familiarity to the road these days that comes from the lower ambitions and lack of understanding many travellers bring to it. Now I am sure my 21 year old self, when I first set out in 1992, was a troublesome menace  to the “real travellers” on the road. After all I knew almost nothing about the places I was visiting and not much about life in general at that time to be honest. In those days, though Lonely Planet was a big seller, it wasn’t quite the automatic crutch it is now and I was usually travelling without the aid of guidebooks, friends or internet research and contacts. (I didn’t get my first email address until 1998 and then actually didn’t have anyone to write to using it until nearly 2000!)

I am not saying it is wrong to have such youth on the road, even idiot youth. Actually especially idiot youth as the point of travel for me, and I hope – if I ever get enough money again – for my children, is the learning experience that travel itself can teach you. Which is why I think what Emma Thompson is doing is great.

Mark Twain said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.”

But to travel thousands of kilometres and experience the same culture you left, the same friends, the same issues and the same conversations is totally pointless. At the end of your travels if you are still an idiot the time was wasted. It may have been fun, it may have taught you some lessons on friendships and relationships and a bit about self-reliance but that is not the sole purpose of spending time in foreign climes and it pretty much the same things the first year at University teaches you without destroying the local culture in the process.

You are meant to have learnt something from the place you visited too. Now I am not talking about metaphysical agendas and religions conversions, indeed the people in India who just don’t get it when they “get it” annoy me and I remember arguing with a western man in Delhi who was begging on the street and became angry at my refusal to give him money. In a country where mutilating yourself or your kids is a career move the arrogance of someone who could, somehow, someway, get home even if he genuinely had no money on him at that moment was breathtaking. And I told him so. Neither am I talking about the Khoa San Road tourists who who feel comfortable living in a foreign city but only from the comfort of the ex-pat bar or brothel. Like old style colonialists they have an easy power communicated through their idleness. It is hard not to feel superior and “at home” when everyone else is running around busily working for you. But that is not belonging nor is it travelling either.

Tourism is the worlds largest industry. It employs around 220 million people and, especially in developing, target nations, the conditions can easily be exploitative. After nearly a year in Thailand  I realized that all the pandering to the needs of lazier tourists was destroying the country I had come to see. In the article the writer alludes to that fact near the end. I lived with my Thai boss and his family at the travel agency where we worked; I lived the life of a Thai that works with tourists and you might correctly argue that this doesn’t give me authority to speak about “real” Thailand. Yet for many Thais and other countries’ peoples this is normal work and thus life. While the colour of my skin may have shielded me from the excesses of superciliousness many tourists and travellers bring to their dealings with locals it did in any way not obstruct me from observing it and rudeness, selfishness and a luck of understanding about the cultural aspects of the place they were travelling through was, unfortunately, all I saw. With some notable and generous exceptions. The rot and anger it caused in the locals even affected my dealings and friendship with my boss because there was no escape from it. The farmer can at least escape his fields sometimes; the businessman, his office occasionally. But when you live in paradise you are meant to feel lucky and that hoped for vision is what drives the visitor to over demand it. I remember having to deal with irate hotel guests in a flood-hit Hat Yai who couldn’t get their bus to Malaysia or some who complained about a lack of breakfast. They demanded my boss do something. But the streets were under a metre and half of water: what exactly, I asked them when he gave the phone to me thinking that a native speaker might be able to cool-down the situation, did they want my boss to do about that?

These were backpackers by the way, not five star vacationers in expensive hotels. In my day poorer travellers like myself mucked-in at difficult times; accepted that things didn’t always go to plan and more than that actually enjoyed the unpredictability of travel in poorer countries. With the “children travellers” has come a overt sense of entitlement to meaningful memories and yet, at the same time, a diminishing sense of wonder in the experiences they actually have. With the wheely bag tourists (one and the same most times) has come a lack of original adventurism and a rise in the desperate pursuit of narcotic lavishness to fill the void created by their own missing intrepidity.

Because “NO!!!!”  It is not enough to merely go somewhere else; however you label it travelling halfway around the world just to dance to western music and look at other westerners out of focus is an ersatz endeavor. Surely they know this which is why they label themselves so highly and haughtily. But when everyone else on the road is the same as you there is no fear to be had that you’ll be found lacking and that is what annoyed me most on the last few years of my own travels. People seemed content to collect experiences they knew they would be able to share with people, similar to themselves and with similar memories, through their long lives of looking back on their moment of ordinary otherness. This is what the writer fails to understand in his many references to The Beach by Alex Garland. That book was against the people he seems to say it speaks for. It was all about the intensity of genuine adventure and the difficulty of finding that, if you share the experience around too much. In the book the beach is killed by it popularity, yet the killing is planned, an act of euthanasia (Youth in Asia) no less, by one of the characters in the novel who had become aware of the monster he himself helped to create. Koh Phangnan does not get a glowing write-up in the book, either as it stood then, and as the inevitable future of the Beach in the novel, or all beaches, everywhere, under the onslaught of modern tourism.

I have never been to a full moon party. nor will I ever go (now – and even then – I am and was too old anyways)  but I understand those that do want to go. I just wish they didn’t want to go in Thailand; that they didn’t want that to be the high-point of their more than lucky opportunity to wander around the world. There is so much more to the place than that; so much more that deserves to be looked at “in focus”; taken to heart; lived within the harder reality of a risk taken and its rewards – both good and bad – and the learning of which is which from this direct experience of something so very very different from your ordinary life.

I remember one anecdotal piece in the long defunct Adventurers travel magazine way back when in 1988, that pricked this fallacy of freedom even then. The writer a long-toothed wanderer of many years irresponsibility  was feeling belittled in aspect and experience by a younger backpacker recounting his dusty resume at a chance encounter in some far flung corner of the world. Asked when he would return to the West the younger traveller simply answered, with just the right amount of distance gazed: “When it gets cold.”

The older traveller, though obviously not looking it, or the younger man would have not been so foolishly immodest, but knowing more, having seen the same before and knowing the albeit understandable attraction of what amounted to self parody, let him enjoy his affectation a while before climbing on a bus. As he boarded he turned and asked the young traveller loudly when his term started again to which the  younger traveller, caught off guard, could only mutter “October”.

The older traveller left on his own adventures long or short it didn’t matter he understood his own identity as a traveller and that was all he needed.

God I miss those days.

Picture above is not a full moon party obviously but is a beach in Thailand.

Damon

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