Same-same. This is how a Thai acquaintance described Khao San Road, the backpacker’s mecca of Bangkok. He pointed out that all the stalls were the same, the people were the same, the restaurants and tattoo parlours the same. As it is in the centre and quite famous, we thought we should investigate. What did we discover? Same-same.
The street is packed with street food vendors selling the types of Thai food that farangs (foreigners) would probably like to eat: chicken satay, Pad Thai, and roasted scorpion. (The last one is of course more for great selfies than the actual desire to eat the little black creepy-crawlies.) The clothing shops are filled with bikinis, flip flops, skirts, sarongs, and tee-shirts with stupid sayings like ‘I don’t need Google – my wife knows everything’. There are a dozen money exchange booths, endless trip bookers (‘Bus to Vientiane! Bus to Phuket! Cheap cheap!’) and many restaurant/bars with long happy hours and grotesquely over-priced drinks and food.
What is most notable, though, for its same-same quality is the consistency of the people. There were two groups: wealthy Chinese tour groups and hippie backpackers with dreads, baggy trousers and backwards baseball caps. In other words, the type of people who are travelling for one of the following (valid) reasons:
1. ‘To find myself’ – I just need a space to get away from it all and really figure out who I am
2. ‘To travel, man’ – I want to do all the amazing things out there before they’re gone
3. ‘To escape’ – I’m sick of the 9-5 bullshit, and feel that travelling is much more spiritual
4. ‘To discover authenticity’ – I want to get off the beaten path, because I’m different
This then begs the question: Why do so many backpackers, who want to travel and see the world whilst living on a budget, choose to all stay on the same street, with the same non-native people, with the same internationalised food and the same offerings for sale? And do they not realise that it costs more? Or perhaps ‘budget’ travel isn’t the same as ‘good value’ travel? Are these the same bloggers who mention the desire to get off the beaten path? I hope not, but fear yes. Wouldn’t one think the traveller who hasn’t bathed for weeks and whose dreads existed before embarkation would run from such a manufactured street? The opposite seems to be true.
After fleeing Khao San Road, we headed south to Koh Phayam, a little island that we chose specifically because there is very little to do there, and it has beaches, palm trees and turquoise water. We were fully prepared for the fellow guests to be Western, and also accepting that this choice would keep us smack dab in the middle of said beaten path.
However, what we weren’t prepared for was the comment that the proprietor of our get-away made: ‘I go back to the UK for two months every year because all my family and friends are there.’ And how long has he been running a resort in Thailand? Eight years. Eight years! How does he not have friends here? He surely must, but in saying ‘all my friends’ instead of ‘to catch up with old friends’ implies a significant sense of isolation. His girlfriend is Thai, his business partner is Thai, but his family and friends are far away in the British Isles. His guests are almost all Western, and the staff are primarily from Work Away, and Western. He speaks English to everyone and has quite a good time drinking away the evenings with backpacking guests.
This attitude permeates everything, to the point that I am now pulling back when I see a fellow farang. I am feeling critical before even exchanging a nod with them, and the feeling is stronger when they have a frame backpack instead of a wheelie case.
We all want to explore new places and cultures, to meet new people and hear new ideas, but we don’t actually want this. We want to be in our comfort zone, a transparent but rock-hard bubble that can transport us to new and exciting destinations without popping. People whose bubbles match (same make and model) can join up, their bubble walls opening to allow the same-same in. How to right this? Is it wrong? Note: we are not that different. V and I would always pick an AirBnB with AC over a hostel where we could ‘meet people’….although we do try to choose an AirBnB of some local Thai person over a chain hotel to at least get some feeling of what’s normal. But still.
Before you start thinking it is a Western-only concept, remember that this need to self-isolate extends across the globe – you only need to look at any medium to large city and it will have a thriving Chinatown, complete with Chinese doctors, lawyers, bakers, chefs, hairdressers, and schools. Look at how often you’ve met non-Western people in your neighbourhood, assuming you live off the ‘beaten path’. I doubt many people from outside your demographic (whatever it may be) are wandering through – we, as humans, stick to our groups and recreate our comfort zones wherever we go.
If we really want to, we can push ourselves into new and possibly embarrassing or uncomfortable situations. But it is easier to find other people who also want to escape the norm and be a ‘traveller’ instead of a ‘tourist’ and then endlessly confirm, back and forth, that by finding each other you are now ‘different’. While sitting on Khao San Road drinking a Heineken over pizza and a scorpion on a stick.