Once upon a time the travelling community headed off to far-flung places with one goal in mind; an experience. They wanted to make things happen that would have a life-changing impact, to see and do things which would alter their world view. They wanted to party, but party in a way that they were unable to do back home, and they wanted to meet new, interesting people. Out of necessity everything had to be done on the cheap.
When I first went travelling in earnest in the late 1990s, I met one such guy from the old school. Thailand had already started its transformation into the commercial tourist-friendly entity it is today, so people who were searching out those life-changing experiences were heading elsewhere.
This guy, Laszlo, was Hungarian, and he was funding his travelling by renting out his apartment in Budapest. I remember when we talked about daily budgets, he was horrified at what I was spending. I was going for RM70 (VND380,000) a day, while he was on a much more modest RM30 (VND163,000). We were in Kuching, Malaysia and his constant complaint was how expensive it was compared to Indonesia.
But it was his time in Indonesia and the Philippines that really showed what type of a traveller he was.
He trekked halfway across Irian Jaya (now West Papua) and came down with malaria. The tribespeople looked after him and he slept on a matt of woven grass, to wake up covered in flea bites. He went to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia while the province was in the middle of a religious civil war and got caught up in the fighting — he showed me photos of the riots. He tried to get into the then-non-independent East Timor, to be turned away at the border, and he got himself in trouble once again in Zamboanga on the southwestern tip of the Philippines, when independence fighters from the nearby Sulu Archipelago made raids on the city.
Now Everyone Can Fly
Today’s travellers rarely have such experiences. Part is the reason for travelling. Yes, people are searching out experience, but it’s no longer as daredevil as it was in the past, and it is no longer experience that means doing things and going to places that few have been to before. The internet and advances in communications have put paid to that. Everywhere has already been visited and we know about it by people talking online.
Another reason is Southeast Asia itself. Whereas once upon a time it was the travellers and backpackers who opened up the region to tourism, now with mass tourism and all the required amenities so well set up, tourism dollars come from all strata of society.
This is aided by the growth of the budget airlines, which in turn has changed the physical nature of travelling.
Back in the day, travellers had to suffer the discomfort of long and often harrowing bus journeys, or unsafe boat rides across unfriendly seas. Now travel times have been shortened and journeys cheapened thanks to the likes of AirAsia. Put simply, anyone who can afford the short-haul flights and cheap hotel rooms can travel.
One other key difference is regional stability. We hark on about North Korea and the threat it poses both regionally and to the Western world, whereas in fact this region was far more volatile 30 and even 20 years ago than it is today. Take Cambodia — war there only stopped following the death of Pol Pot in 1999. Indonesia was constantly dealing with uprisings in provinces as far-flung as East Timor, Aceh, Irian Jaya and the Maluku Islands. Myanmar was a no-go zone, as was much of the southern Philippines, and even southern Thailand had issues with Muslim insurgents.
Instead, today travellers are in search of far more trivial experiences, the kind of experiences they can tick off a bucket list, the kind of experiences that simply mean, “I’ve done it. It’s finished and over with.” Whether it’s cutting the head off a chicken, taking a selfie with an elephant or eating snake, it’s these kind of experiences that seem to make people tick. As selfie culture suggests: in the past people travelled to see, now they travel to be seen.
Does it make it any better or worse than the experiences of travellers in the past? In my opinion, no. It’s just different.
Although I do yearn for those days when myself and a group of people going by boat to Siberut off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia got caught up in a storm. Without food and low on water, we ended up stranded for eight hours on an untouched, white-sand beach on an uninhabited island. Now that was an experience.