Chris Taylor

Don’t feed the locals

When I was last in Bangkok, I met with writer and freelance journalist Tom Vater. I hadn’t realized until then that Tom had also written a novel set in the milieu of the long-term travel/backpacker scene – The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. I will save some words of praise about Kathmandu for another post, because there was something that came up in that conversation on the Middle-Eastern dog-leg of Soi 3, Sukhumvit, over chicken curry, dal bhat and naan, that I’ve thought about several times since. We were comparing threatened getaways. Tom mentioned a couple of spots in India; I parried with a few of my own in Yunnan. I said I was pessimistic about where it all was heading – that just as there was a sense that everywhere was being invaded, there was simultaneously a sense that the glory days of individual travel were over, that it was all going to the dogs and we’d all end up having to go “home”. That, I added, was in part what my novel Harvest Season was about.

Tom flashed a cheeky grin and demurred: “No,” he said. “I just think there’ll be a lot less people traveling and those that do will be the adventurous ones who started it all in the first place. You’ll retreat to your getaway somewhere in China, and then someone else like you will turn up. Andthat’s when it will get interesting.”

I thought this was a wonderful idea – and still do. I mean, MSN Travel – somebody forwarded me the link – just listed Thailand as No 5 among the most dangerous destinations in the world. Imagine if they all stopped going – “more than 14 million … in 2007, more than 800,000 of them British”, the article tuts at the reader. Yes, a serious cut back would be terrible for the Thai tourism industry and probably for the Thai economy in general, but for me and Tom (and anyone else who might be reading this) it would be just like the old days.

 Except I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I didn’t while I was writing Harvest Season, and I think so even less now. A literal reading of the novel might lead you to think that there are valleys in Southwest China fighting off hoards of hippie backpackers. There aren’t. It’s part of the delusional conceitedness of the players in Harvest that they imagine themselves to be more of a threat than they are. The real threat, and it’s alluded to vaguely in the novel – I wonder now whether I shouldn’t have stressed it more – is the development that’s overhauling off-the-beaten track destinations for domestic consumption, and I have written about that recently here andhere.
If I ever really thought of Harvest Season as documenting a kind of last gasp of the backpacker era – which arguably began with the launch of Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s Across Asia on the Cheap in 1972 – it was because I’ve felt for some time that the erstwhile rich world is running out of time to wander around the fast-developing poor world at bargain-price leisure. The tables have turned and the locals are reclaiming the paradise at their doorstep.