Stop Trying to Find The “Real” Southeast Asia!


This is a rant about the word ‘authentic’ when applied to travel.

When used by either travel companies, or backpackers themselves, I feel it’s the most ‘inauthentic’ and overused word in the whole travel vocabulary.

Tour companies try to sell us… “This trip will take you off the beaten track, for a real ‘authentic’ experience of Vietnam/Thailand/Laos/Cambodia etc…” Guidebooks say…“For a more ‘authentic’ insight into ‘said country’, be sure to visit….” Of course, what is implied here, is that you must head off into the middle of nowhere to visit a village that has no WI-FI, electricity or roads leading to it, where people only wear traditional clothes, in order to truly get an “authentic” experience.

What you are already seeing of X country is now inauthentic. The shopping malls, Western bars and restaurants that occupy much of the space in many Southeast Asian cities… the AC VIP buses, trendy coffee shops, chain stores, brands and anything that Westerners see as modernised, is ‘tainted’ and the ‘unreal’ Southeast Asia.

You must try your hardest during your holidays to find the ‘REAL’ Southeast Asia… It makes me laugh that a Western tourist can decide for a whole country what are the real and unreal parts of it. “You only visited Koh Samui and Bangkok? Pah… You just didn’t see the REAL Thailand.”

Sat atop a temple in Bagan, Myanmar watching the sunset (one of the most impressive and cliché) things that you can do in the whole of the country. I heard two backpackers remark… “Yeah, I mean in Vietnam you can get a pizza whenever you want. In Myanmar, it’s more difficult to get a pizza. It’s just more REAL.”

More real. What does that even mean?

Today, I stood in Myanmar Plaza, a big fancy shopping mall by Inya Lake in Yangon and watched a flat screen plasma TV displaying images of the ‘authentic’ Myanmar. The crumbling temples of Bagan, young monks walking barefoot on dusty streets holding their alms bowls, a farmer tending to his skinny cows in a rural part of Myanmar…

Why do we need such iconic exaggerated representations of a country in order to tempt us to visit?

Incredible India, Amazing Thailand, It’s More Fun in the Philippines… Tourism Boards churn out stereotypical images of a country’s ‘brand’ that tour companies try to live up to when they show travellers around. Of course, they will always fail to live up to this image because it’s not a real image at all. You can just imagine in the design department… “Ooh, can you just edit out that Starbucks sign using Photoshop, so you can only see the noodle stall?” “Can you crop off the monk holding his mobile phone, and just leave the smiling youngsters in their saffron robes…” We’ve all done it ourselves when taking a photo. You wait for all of the tourists to walk away from the waterfall/beach/temple for a few seconds so that you can grab a shot that’s devoid of people. Who are we trying to fool here?

Sunrise at Angkor Wat. What happens when you look the other way?
Sunrise at Angkor Wat. What happens when you look the other way?

Addition: The BBC was found guilty of this recently when they admitted that the ‘treehouse scene’ in their Human Planet series was faked. A member of the tribe told makers of the new series that they built the treehouses “for the benefit of overseas program makers.”

YouTube video

Why are people so scared to tell the truth about a place?

There’s nowhere in Southeast Asia changing so fast as Myanmar, and it’s clear that the young working people here want the latest iPhone and MANGO clothes with a passion. They’ll turn their noses up at the local tea shop with its betel-stain toothed chef and head straight for Pizza Company in the shopping mall, for some very ‘inauthentic’ food indeed.

When you travel to Yangon and become witness to this unique and interesting moment in history, isn’t that just about as authentic as travel can get? Cherry-picking sections of the country to visit, that satisfy a romanticised image of travel is, in my opinion, missing the point. My advice? Don’t try too hard to find a ‘more authentic’ version of a country… You’ll become part of one big consumer-driven conspiracy to overlook the full authenticity of a place. Breathe it all in and if you fancy a pizza one day instead of noodles, be authentic to yourself!

Nikki Scott - Founder South East Asia Backpacker
Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor

Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.

Find me: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

5 thoughts on “Stop Trying to Find The “Real” Southeast Asia!”

  1. While I was only in Thailand for a month, the ‘real’ thing seemed to include monks at the Seven-11 (I have never been to more Seven-11s in my life!), food from every corner of the world, and Elvis in Old Town.

    To me, it was a wild mix of old and new, and didn’t need my Western eyes judging it’s evolution.

    I appreciate this viewpoint.

    You look like a RANGER, Nikki!

    1. We saw Elvis in Old Town (Lanta Old Town in this case) the Saturday before we left. He was eating burgers and drinking beer. You don’t get much more authentic than that!

      1. Haha! I just realised what’s happened here! Same Elvis, same Old Town, same table no less. Same same but same…

  2. James Davies

    Yeah I agree, but it’s also not as black and white as the writer is making out. Like what is authentic? There are many places where traditional clothing and historic culture is only done for tourists, which would technically be ‘unauthentic’. So you could travel as ‘off the track’ as is possible and see something that isn’t true to real life. I guess whatever people do when no one is looking is their authentic being. If you engage with a country for what it is then it’s authentic. But its a bit of a bullshit concept, countries are what they are for one reason or another so its just about how we engage with them.

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