Humidity was building in the night sky, the tall coconut trees starting to sway dramatically, signalling a storm on its way. “I wish I’d come here 10 years ago”, I said as the last of the Chang beer dripped from the bottle whilst I lay in my hammock precariously strapped between the uprights of my 100 baht-a-night (£1.50 at the time) rickety beach bungalow. “Yeah man, me too”, replied my newly met travel mate, shouting over from his adjacent bungalow, in-between strums on his beat-up travel guitar. “I mean, it’s cool here, but just think what it would’ve been like back then”. I reached over to my cassette player to shake out the ants that were slowly eating away at it. (They were soon to finish it off, forcing me to buy a CD player, not a bad idea to ditch the cassettes anyway, after all Apple had already released their fourth generation iPod).
This was the scene, July 2004, on the small and some would say legendary, Thai island of Koh Pha Ngan. I was back on Koh Pha Ngan in 2015, and while sitting in a tree-tops bar reached by a wooden staircase clinging precariously to a steep jungle-clad hill, I was, with a slight smug look, able to recount to fresh-faced travellers how I was here 11 years ago, and how it was so much different – in reality, partly due to bad transport links, thankfully relatively little has visibly changed, compared with other places at least.
I must admit to having a mild obsession with how places change and develop over time. I get unhealthily excited over outdated guidebooks. An early edition of the Lonely Planet Survival Guide to Thailand is one of the best things I’ve bought online. So in my mad obsessions, I’ve made some conclusions, and that, for Southeast Asian tourist destinations at least, development usually takes the following pattern.
First arrive the backpackers, the intrepid travellers, who want the rickety bungalows with intermittent electricity and when getting to sleep through the heat and humidity one can consistently rely on counting cockroaches rather than sheep. These are the places that make a traveller, where one meets other travellers, the ability to share information over a beer and a smoke. These are the places where I spent my formative years as a traveller, and even now with some travel mileage on me, I still enjoy the most.
Rumour of a good travel destination spreads around backpackers like Vegemite in an Australian town. So it is that more and more travellers arrive, hoping to find their piece. Of course, then what happens is that more businesses – bungalow operations, guesthouses, restaurants, travel-shops – open to cater to the backpackers as more and more backpackers flood in, and eventually the town or island becomes part of what has been interestingly dubbed by various guidebooks who helped create it, the ‘banana-pancake trail’, refering to popular Asian routes and destinations favoured by backpackers.
As a town or an island reaches a certain level of popularity among backpackers, providing – and this is key – transport links are good, two things regularly happen simultaneously which could be viewed as the fuel and the spark respectively.
Firstly, business owners seek an opportunity to develop their simple accommodation – rickety beach bungalows that go for 100 baht a night (£2), are replaced by sturdier en-suite versions that go for three times the amount. As demand increases so do the prices. These bungalows may be replaced by more expensive versions with air-conditioning, TVs, slippers, bath robes, heavy duvets to counteract the air-conditioning (where’s the logic?). The management have enough money saved to build a pool, and can now charge premium prices, and they may even change their name from ‘Coconut Bungalows’ to ‘Coconut Boutique Resort’. They may even choose to sell their now valuable land to developers. In a word, capitalism.
Secondly and simultaneously, ‘mainstream tourism’ operators see an opportunity to promote these once off-the-beaten-path areas, and the ‘mainstream tourists’ want to visit areas that they have heard so much about on the grapevine from backpackers’ stories or ideas of paradise sold through mass-media.
So begins the development into a place that inspires thoughts of “I wish I was here 20 years ago” whilst looking around in annoyance at all the other foreigners and the corresponding over-priced accommodation, all the while others are doing the same whilst looking at you. The local market with a few enterprising stalls selling smoothies to backpackers, gets renamed ‘Walking Street’. The full-moon party on the beach goes commercial and starts charging an entrance fee. The local boat-drivers triple their price in as many years, because the time-poor, cash-rich tourists will pay it.
It requires a certain amount of generalisation to classify types of tourists, but by ‘mainstream tourism’ I mean relatively organised and structured tourism with better standards of accommodation, relatively short total trip length, and higher per-day spend (time-poor, cash-rich). Backpackers conversely travel for longer periods, often without pre-booking accommodation, affording lots of flexibility, will spend less, staying in budget guesthouse accommodation (time-rich, cash-poor). Public transport is the preferred method of transport, although as is witnessed in places that are very busy with travellers, such as Surat Thani or Krabi in southern Thailand, one has the intention of travelling by public bus, but after buying a ticket conversely and annoyingly finds oneself surrounded only by other foreigners, on a privately owned bus.
Often one is quick to praise backpacker tourism as low-impact when compared to mainstream tourism, but perhaps the argument for either is not so clear-cut. So let’s have a look at a place that has seen great changes since it opened up to tourism in the late 1990s.
Vang Vieng. A town of around 25,000 people in Laos, a small landlocked country between Thailand and China with a total population of around 6 million. The town is about three hours by road north of the capital Vientiane, and is surrounded by picturesque limestone karsts and paddy-fields.
Due to it being a neighbouring country of Thailand, a country popular with backpackers since the 1980s, when in the late 90s, it became easier for foreigners to travel to, with the easing of travel restrictions, it was increasingly the alternative destination of choice for those who thought Thailand was getting too mainstream. The atmospheric capital, Vientiane, with its crumbling French villas and many Buddhist temples, is from Bangkok, an overnight train journey to Nong Khai and a short border crossing, and as Vang Vieng is just a three hour drive across the plains from Vientiane, it quickly became a popular rural hangout for backpackers wanting to spend the days kayaking or more likely ‘tubing’ on the river, walking or cycling, exploring surrounding villages, and then the evenings eating, drinking, and smoking in the town.
“Where am I? Am I nearly there yet?” It’s dark, but there are some lights in the distance and some faint drum beats carrying in the wind. I was certainly talking to myself as I was very much alone, having lost my new travel friends somewhere along the way.
I was half-naked, but no, I wasn’t on a bus. I was also half-drunk on Beer Lao, sitting in tractor wheel inner-tube, in the middle of the Nam Song river, drifting closer to Vang Vieng. This is what’s called ‘tubing’. It was 2004. You climb aboard a tuk-tuk, taken along the dusty road for about three miles, jump in the river on your inner-tube, hanging on to your valuables in a dry bag, and every few hundred metres hear the welcoming sounds of “Sabaidee, Beer Lao, Beer Lao”, before being offered to be hauled in by pole to the make-shift bar shack. You can sit for as many beers or smokes as the money in your dry-bag or sensibilities allow, before jumping back on your inner-tube and continuing your journey down the river.
2004 was the first time I visited, and before the peak of backpacker visitor numbers. Then it was an unremarkable, fairly small town with many family-run guesthouses, and a significant but manageable amount of backpackers ‘tubing’ in the day and eating, drinking and socialising at night usually until the very early hours around a riverside fire. I enjoyed the tubing, the evenings and early mornings spent playing guitar, drinking Beer Lao and ‘lao lao’ rice-whiskey around fires on one of the river islands, connected to the town by precarious bamboo bridges. I enjoyed days exploring the surrounding countryside by bicycle, and lounging by the Nam Song river on bamboo platforms in between refreshing dips.
I visited a few months later in the Spring of 2005, when I specifically remember noticing that the town’s central wet market had been moved a mile out of town presumably as I pondered at the time, because of rising land values and demand for land from guesthouse developers. After this I visited in 2006, and then 2007. I then didn’t return until this year, 2017, 10 years later. Sure it was recognisable, but so were the massive changes.
Perhaps the peak of backpacker visitors was around 2010. At this time, it was reported that local people were becoming increasingly frustrated with the brash behaviour of some travellers. Drink and smoke fuelled partying keeping local people awake, half-naked travellers wondering around the town in what is a conservative and traditional country.
Some say the local youth were becoming negatively influenced, as they were constantly surrounded by foreign young backpackers indulging to excess. It was well-documented by the media that sadly a significant number of lives had been cut short in Vang Vieng, most reportedly due to intoxicated jumps from platforms at make-shift riverside bars, in a town without a hospital able to deal with any serious medical emergency. Superstitious villagers who used the river for washing and bathing grew afraid of going to the riverside. Things were ultimately getting out of hand, and the authorities seeing it as much, moved in to close down some of the riverside bars, and to quieten things down. As rumours spread of Vang Vieng’s demise as an anything-goes party town, so backpacker numbers dropped. That’s to say, backpackers interested in an all-out party atmosphere stopped coming, but the town has carried out attracting backpackers seeking nature and perhaps a more gentle party atmosphere – really exactly what attracted backpackers in the first-place before things turned somewhat raucous.
So now, in 2017, one might think the town and surrounding area is a haven of tranquility, and the town a model for sustainable tourism. Unfortunately, as I found out on my recent return, the locals have a different annoyance to deal with.
As the old public bus was rattling up Highway 13, and the flat plains that stretch north from Vientiane I was wondering what would have become of the Vang Vieng I was last in 10 years prior. I was expecting something more relaxed, quieter than in more recent years, but I refused to believe that backpackers would have been altogether dissuaded from visiting.
We pulled into the old US airstrip, strategically important during the Vietnam war, and now still serving as the bus station to the town. “What’s that deep rumbling noise? Have they resumed flights on the old airstrip?“ The answer flew towards me in the form of a large group of ATVs zooming down the road, each one carrying two Korean tourists, one driving, eyes fixed to the road, one sitting smiling and waving at passers-by. As we went through the town in the back of our songtheaw pick-up on the way to our guesthouse, we noticed more and more of these ATVs, each one sounding like it had an F1 engine strapped to the back. The quiet Vang Vieng roads now sounded more like track-side at Silverstone. “Still two restaurants advertising Happy Pizzas with all the telling smiley faces” I noticed out-loud.
Then on the otherside of the road I was amused to see the same old open-air eateries showing the same old episodes of Friends on loop, that they were doing in 2004. There were of course low tables of backpackers totally zoning out to the repetitive American comedy. Some things never change I thought. The small family-run guesthouse that I stayed at in 2004, 2005, and 2006, was gone, in its place was a larger hotel building. The bar opposite where many a travel story and smoke was shared with fellow travellers was still there.
What was noticeable was the relatively small numbers of young Western travellers, and much higher proportion of mostly older travellers from east Asia, most noticeably South Korea. Aside from the many older tourists, travelling in large groups, there were also some young Korean travellers, travelling in couples or small, usually single-sex groups. But generally it seemed, the tour groups of older Korean travellers prevailed.
After checking-in to our guesthouse on the quiet outskirts of town, we wandered down to the riverside. The number of bamboo platforms that have for many years – in the dry season at least – sat half in the river, half on the banks, overlooking the bamboo bridges that crisscross the river, had dramatically increased.
Nearby, what were tiny operations of a handful of unstable thatched huts, and a rickety bamboo restaurant building, were now neat rows of teak and concrete bungalows with all mod-cons, stretching back into the limestone-karst flanked paddy-fields. Korean pop was blasting out of some of the river-side BBQ shacks. We settled down on a riverside platform furthest away from the new bungalows, with Beer Lao, and some gentle Lao folk songs playing in the background as the Nam Song flowed gently downstream, and nearby picnicing Lao families were enjoying their fair share of Beer Lao, sticky rice and grilled river-fish.
I looked over to the river island where in 2004 and 2005 I spent many a rice-whisky fueled night playing guitar around a fire. In place of the hastily-built bar shacks, was a smart-looking building, presumably a hotel. Times change, I thought.
Enjoying the view with the Beer Lao and the Lao folk-rock, we sat in our hut, legs dangling over the edge into the cool Nam Song which flowed swiftly by. Further upstream it was possible to see the odd tuber coming down the river, but very infrequently, nothing like the crowds of the mid-2000s. Lao children splashed and floated down the river, their parents clearly not worried as they drifted downstream, much happier than the European kids of a similar age I saw the night before, eyes transfixed on their iPads as their parents chatted away.
As we put our heads down on the cushions, so it started. The roar. Boat after boat of tour-groups started to come by. These were not the silent glide of kayaks that were more common in 2004, these were longtails, that had engines as powerful as they were noisy. The boats didn’t stop coming. It seems as sunset approaches, which is a perfect time to enjoy sitting in a riverside hut with a Beer Lao, is also the most popular time to take a noisy boat trip up and down the Nam Song.
Later, we went to a local restaurant for some laab, grilled chicken, and sticky-rice. The owner was trying to dampen the flames of the barbeque grill that were furiously licking at the chicken, as the rice steamed away.
A large tour group strolled by, going from their sizeable hotel, to somewhere, led by their tour-guide into the night. The owner cheerfully greeting them in broken Korean. A smile, but the group continued to be led forward by their guide. “These tours never come to us, to small restaurants”, the owner offered to me. “They only eat in their hotels, or in certain restaurants that have an agreement with their tour-company”. I of course, told him about my previous trips to Vang Vieng, over the years. We talked about the differences between now and then. The laab, by the way, was delicious. “seb li li” I told him as much as we were leaving.
So that night, over yet another Beer Lao, I began to think about something. Whether Vang Vieng was better off when the majority of visitors were young backpackers, or is it better off now, when the majority are older tourists, and many of them in tour-groups.
At the height of Vang Vieng’s backpacker tourism, in the mid to late 2000s, you could say that local businesses were doing well. Many independent travellers, should mean many independent minds (as long as they’re not all following the same guidebook’s advice), meaning many independent visits to many independent small businesses. This ultimately spreads the cash, benefiting the economy at a very local level, and quite widely. That’s not to mention all the family-run guesthouses that backpackers prefer, most set up on the back of family homes, slowly expanded to include guestrooms. But there was a downside, some of the problems mentioned earlier, brashness offending local customs, locals being negatively influenced by the excesses of the young backpackers.
Since the Vang Vieng party has wound down, what we see are more group-tours, more mainstream tourists. Less debauchery and drunkenness. Fewer half-naked foreigners confidently parading the streets. But the loudness of the tubers, has not just been replaced, but exceeded by the loudness of the many tour-group laden motorboats plying the river. The older tourist demographic may be better behaved after dark, but not necessarily better behaved out on their days trips.
Exploring the countryside in the day, we came across a scenic swimming area, a river running into a natural blue pool, surrounding by lush vegetation, rice paddies and towering karsts in the distance. The beauty of the area meant that it was packed full of the tour groups that we’d seen around the town, and a huge and worrying amount of litter that was being left behind by these same tourists. As debaucherous as young backpackers can be, it seems the younger generation do tend to be a bit more considerate when it comes to where to put their finished bottle of Beer Lao.
For meals the tour-groups often either eat in their hotels, or go to restaurants that their tour company has approved. So since the drop in backpacker numbers many
local restaurants and bars are loosing out on business, and the wealth created by tourism is becoming more concentrated to certain businesses. This is certainly having a negative effect on the local economy. However, as these time-poor, cash-rich tourists are just that, perhaps they are more likely to spend their tourist dollars in local craft or souvenir shops. Backpackers travelling on a budget and having to haul their possessions around for often months on end, may not be as interested in buying souvenirs. So there may be economic benefits in other ways.
As I sipped the last drop of my Beer Lao from its bottle, looked at my watch, I pondered, the issue is complicated, but what’s for sure, backpacker tourism brings many benefits in many ways that mainstream tourism doesn’t, but mainstream tourism can also be beneficial in other ways. After that thought, I retreated from the terrace, into the bungalow, wishing I’d had my guitar with me, and a fire to go and play around. But without the Jack Johnson covers.