“Oh the East is East, and the West is West
and never the twain shall meet.”
When Kipling coined the above phrase, I bet he’d never stood in IT City in Bangkok as monks perused the latest i-phones, watched Liverpool play on a portable TV with hill tribes in Northern Vietnam or supped green beer in an Irish Pub in Siahnoukville, Cambodia! Oh yes, it seems that things are a wee bit different nowadays to when old Rudy was knocking about! Same same, but different, if you know what I mean.
As a tender-footed newbie in South East Asia, the minute you arrive here, you quickly realize that this is not quite the strange, far off, foreign land that your mum thinks it is! Locals speak perfect English, (some with cockney accents) there are pizza places and ‘farang’ bars galore and you can pretty much get every home comfort that you could ever want only cheaper, faster and with more enthusiasm! Backpacking through this part of the world, you’ll encounter such an interesting ‘fusion’ of Eastern and Western cultures that at times you may have to stop and remind yourself where you are!
The modern traveller takes this ‘concoction’ one of two ways. There are those that fully embrace the familiarity and lap up everything it can offer, banana pancakes and all, and those that run a mile, searching every nook and cranny for the ‘real’ ‘untouched’ South East Asia, the one that Kipling speaks of, that guide books romanticise and the one that seems to have changed rapidly over the past twenty years and continues to do so before our very eyes.
A few weeks ago, I stood in a dusty book shop in Hanoi leafing through the pages of a ‘96 version of Lonely Planet I’d found lurking in the shelves. Reading through, I was transported to a very different land than the one in which I now travel. A land where Koh Samui has just begun to undergo tourism and Vang Vieng is an isolated countryside village ‘far removed from the Western world.’ I became enthralled, studying the travel notes to every backpacker place I’d been to, each time fascinated by the huge changes that had taken place over the last 15 years.
That night as I lay in the hostel, wide awake due to a sound you get used to in the cities of South East Asia, the drill, (At 3 o’ clock in the morning and still working!) I pondered the changes I’d read about. How will it change in the next 15 years? Will places continue to develop at such a rate until every place in South East Asia is the same? I thought of the homogenous high streets of every town in England and hoped not. That night a fancy new spa and massage centre had been built on our road.
Throughout the next few weeks, chatting with locals and foreigners now residing in this part of the world, story after story backed up the drastic changes. In Bangkok twenty years ago, the only place you could get a real cup of coffee was a posh hotel outside of the city, a stark contrast to the Starbucks lined streets now. In Koh Phi Phi, fifteen years ago there was no internet or phone. Long time travellers waited for post which was delivered once a month to the island and poured out onto the floor of the tiny post room where they would root through to see if there was contact from home.
Satellite dishes and Sticky Rice
And the more I took my tourist goggles off and started to look out for things, the more I noticed the signs of modernisation everywhere. Even off the beaten track infiltrations of Western culture seemed to be slowly seeping in. On a bike ride through the gorgeous countryside in Laos I noticed huge satellite dishes attached to wooden huts.
In Northern Asia, on a rafting trip in Nepal, as tourists urged the baggy trousered local guides to sing Nepalese folk songs, all they wanted to do was discuss American rap music to find new songs for their ipods. Plus, being from Manchester, I can’t have a conversation with a tuk tuk or rickshaw driver without it ending up about Beckham or Rooney. For half an hour in Hoi An once, I was given headphones and made to watch the build up to a free kick on an old computer before the enthusiastic travel agent would book my bus ticket. Music, fashion, food, sport, language, culture; it seems that things are changing here faster than you can write it on a postcard and send it home!
It’s a small world
And is this a good thing or bad thing? Everyone will have their personal opinion. But as bright, enthusiastic young Vietnamese students sit at Bia Hoi junctions with one glass of coca cola all night practicing their English with backpackers, fascinated by our home towns and our lives, eager to learn as much as possible; it’s clear that locals are welcoming such changes whilst cynical Westerners find it all a bit uncomfortable. I’ve spoken to many travellers who want everything to stay ‘natural’ and ‘untouched,’ the same as it has been for years. Whilst it’d certainly be a dull world if we all adopted one giant homogenised culture, could it be that such views reflect our own selfish needs to want to travel and ‘experience’ ‘unaffected’ places, only then to return to our own comfortable lives in the Western world?
Yet, ironically, as the East adopt Western characteristics, back home; it seems that more and more people are turning to Eastern cultures, ancient philosophies, healing, yoga and traditional medicinal remedies into their Western lives. As the East look to the West for advancement, the West look to the East for something that we may have lost along the way. It’s a funny old world.
You can’t hold back the river
And so, it is with Eastern philosophy and Buddhism in mind that I offer my conclusion; wherever such changes will lead us; nothing can ever stay the same. The world is an unfixed, fluctuating mass, constantly on the move and civilisations will and go throughout history. You can’t stop progress and human nature means that people will always be intrigued and covet a life different than the one they have, be it for better or for worse.
And to those in search of the ‘real’ Asia, what is the ‘real’ Asia anyway? Are the distant rice fields of Northern Eastern Thailand any more the ‘real’ Thailand than the bustling hub of Khao San Road? If you look around you whilst backpacking around this part of the world, you will see that the ‘real’ Asia is everywhere. The powerful energy of the place is all around and the contrasts and surprises that South East Asia springs upon its visitors for me, makes this all the more fascinating place to travel.
For more on the topic, this documentary is a great watch: