South East Asia: Same Same But Different. (Our First Article Ever!)

“Oh the East is East, and the West is West

and never the twain shall meet.”

(Rudyard Kipling)

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.

Culture Shock!

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.
Milan Pizza, Vang Vieng
One side of Vang Vieng…
Mountains Vang Vieng
A side of Vang Vieng that has remained unchanged for years.

Changing Times

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.
Hanoi hairdresser EDIT
The back streets of Hanoi.
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.
The crowded beach of the famous ‘Maya Bay’.

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.
Sattelite on every shack
Satelite dishes on every hut.
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.
Traffic jams in Bangkok.

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:
YouTube video
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

10 thoughts on “South East Asia: Same Same But Different. (Our First Article Ever!)”

  1. The problem isn’t the development. It’s the cunty backpacker the development brings. People who just want to drink all day and night and party. They travel to sit on a beach in the sun rather than experience culture and see historic sites.

    Travelling to SE Asia has become a fashion statement. People who wouldn’t dare to travel to anywhere else on the planet or don’t have the brain to go somewhere of their own accord and just follow the crowd.

    That’s what ruins the authenticity.

  2. Thailand already had the many farang influences 40 odd years ago,yet all things seemed to be just fine.the locals made their money and I Never witnessed any farang rudeness displayed to the locals.
    The major problem is,now,the number of straight out Obnoxious,rude,disrespectful visitors that think they own the country and act as though they are of a higher calibre. These nasty Pricks,imo would be far better to go to NK or Saudi Arabia and let themselves see how far their shit actions are accepted.
    Twice tonight I’ve had these fukers walking into me while glued to their cell phones,and it aint the first time.
    It’s so pleasing yet rare,to see a young lady traveller who has just bothered to dress decently and does NOT look like a common Tramp.
    They did so years ago,but they had respect then.

  3. Peter Watson Wemyss

    Just get away from the cities. I live and teach in Tien Lang,23 km from Hai Phong. If I want western food and drink I can go to Hai Phong or Cat Ba island. In Tien Lang I can walk a husky and cause oodles of curiosity. Children will always try out their English on you-not too hot, but they are prepared to give it a bash. Hopefully you are prepared to be stared and giggled at! It was even more so in Son La in the mountains near Laos 9 hours by road from Hanoi.

  4. Rocio Cruz Jimenez

    nowadays most of ppl just want have the chance to take “authentic” pictures while posting them online sitting down at nearest Starbucks or Mall that provides Wi-Fi & aircon

    1. Craig Stewart

      Exactly. I’m in Phnom Penh and I went to see Star Wars instead of the killing fields. Furthermore, the only people I’ve heard say ‘same same, but different’ have been complete bellends.

  5. Getting used to haggling is tricky as a westerner. Usually they start out double the price of the item. Try walking away from the store and they beg you to come back and offer the product for 10% of what they initially said! I agree with whiterabbit a little, China for example is great for those good values, but I couldn’t get over the state run TV censoring everything except good news about China. A mixture of the two with the best from both the West and East would be nice 🙂

  6. Great writing!
    I have been pondering about the same stuff regarding ´its a small world´ even though Im an asian. When I was younger, I thought to be an open minded person is to have a western thinking. I didnt appreciate much what can be found in asia. Now, as Im living in europe for 2.5 years, i eventually slowly adopting asian values back again (healing, herbs, yoga, martial art, buddhism, the weather). And my recent trip back home to SEA fascinated me more about simply asian and SEA.

  7. Positive World Travel

    I remember reading this article in Cambodia. Great! Well done. We have been travelling though SEA for 6 months now and everything you said in your article rang true.

  8. Very well written and you ask some fascinating questions. I’ve been traveling through India, Vietnam, and now Nepal for the past three and a half months and I’ve witnessed firsthand everything you’ve mentioned.

    With regards to change, I think that like you said, it’s inevitable. The West wants to be like the East and the East wants to be like the West. I think all we can do is attempt to extract the portions from both that are beneficial to life on Earth and hope to make a better world for all.

    Ancient philosophies, healing, yoga, traditional medicine, and family values from the East combined with innovation, technology, and ingenuity of the West can and will come together.

    I think we should be looking for ways to promote and preserve things that will have a benefit to future generations and not worry so much about satisfying or preserving our thirst for the “authentic” and “untouched”.

    We need to remember that these are lives we’re talking about — people who have ambitions just like those in the West and who have every right to opportunity and growth. I think culture and religion can and should be preserved while simultaneously allowing room for advancement. I see bloggers like you and me as being part of that process by asking questions and discussing these topics using our firsthand experience.

  9. Cody McKibben

    Just testing the comments… Who designed this sexy sexy website?! I’m really proud of you and the new issue Nik! 😉

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