The Hype

The trouble with travel is, there’s always a there after the there. I even started a little poem about it. It went something like this …

I don’t mean to repeat myself but
the trouble with travel is,
assuming you’re a pessimist,
you find everyone you thought you left back West.
All the places you were told are a must-see
are hollered at you by savvy locals constantly.
Everything is served up to you on a platter,
that everyone’s faces are worn out doesn’t seem to matter,
as long as you spend your money,
and do the picture-taking dance like a well-trained monkey.
Meanwhile real life ekes out all around,
oblivious to the “important ” places that abound –
(then poetry suffered sudden death)

To arrive at the destination printed on your ticket and then to stay just at that destination – sacrilege! There are a whole lot of other places around there that need to be seen and felt, and not a billboard, taxi, tuk tuk driver nor tour operator window will let you forget it for a second. Hostels and guesthouses are no exception. Most, to be fair, don’t go past the usual display rack of brochures for nearby attractions and activities. But Lonely Planet warns you that in Chiang Mai for example, many guesthouses will actually evict you after 3 days unless you book a trekking tour through them. Cheap room rates don’t happen out of the goodness of their hearts, after all. I’ve been lucky enough that hasn’t happened to me. Well, more like aware enough. Three days was all I booked, but even then I ended up spending one of those days on an elephant trek. More on that later.

So, in most places, a one day grace period to lounge about, have a look-see about town, is considered normal. After that, move along already! Even if no one comes right out and says it, as mentioned above, there’s clear surprise on the faces of front desk staff when you – okay “I”, who’re we kidding here – during the unavoidable lobby chitchat, announce that I’m still hanging around town today, just like yesterday, the day before, and so on. Yes, I’m aware of all the canned tours, multi-day treks available, etc. etc.

It so happens that I’m twice burned twice shy about packaged tours. They’re terribly convenient, no doubt about it, emphasis on the terribly. Looking back on my first experience of such a thing, it wasn’t so bad, but the first moment I laid eyes on the Axum obelisks, after a lifetime of hype, was a letdown. We drove past them on the way from the airport to the hotel. That was it. Just like we drove past the homes and businesses seconds before and after. No lead up, no mysterious passage through the countryside, just vroom and swoosh and they were in the rearview mirror in no time. Maybe that was the idea. We’d drive by them so fast (since there was no other way into town anyway) that we would miss them. That way, getting up at 5am the next day to “see the obelisks” would actually mean something. The other stops on the tour through the historic north – pre booked flights, hotels, and guides at every step on the way – were all right. The Tis Isat Falls and Lalibela churches needed some work getting to and around, and both were definitely worth the exertion. Gonder, site of the much-painted and photographed castles, however, another letdown. Again, it might have had something to do with the accessibility of the sites. Somehow, seeing daily life going on around a certain hyped place kills its mystique and appeal, for me at least.

Fast forward a few years, over the course of which I passed some very content weeks at all inclusive resorts here and there, and the scene of the next crime was Ubud, Bali. I’m sure that once upon a time it was a very chill place to spend a lot of down time, but the nonstop barking of hawkers will make anyone book a day tour – hell, several days tours – out of the city in double time. So I got suckered into what sounded like a magical day looking around elephant caves, rice terraces, active volcanoes, temples and such. The word that comes to mind to describe how all that hype translated in reality is limp. Limp driver/guide, limp sites, limp everything. Okay maybe I booked the second cheapest tour available, but c’mon don’t hate me because I’m poor! The one time the driver/guide perked up (other than at the end, when he started hinting heavily at the big tip he desired) was when we agreed to make an unplanned stop at a spice plantation, where he got to hang out with his buddy who (surprise, surprise) happened to be there, while the rest of us sniffed around spice and fruit trees, sampled twelve kinds of coffee and settled for just peeking at at civet poop, the main attraction and the second step in the production of the world’s most expensive coffee.

Not long after that adventure came the opportunity for a day spent kayaking from Vang Vieng to Vientiane in Laos. Once you deduct the time spent first getting to the river, (1 hour), cooking and consuming lunch (approx. 1.5 hours), fishing me out from the rapids where I capsized (twice) and got stuck in a whirlpool (20 min), and getting from the river to Vientiane itself (2 hours), the time spent kayaking definitely did not amount to a “day”. The guides, for their part, struck a perfect note between oblivious and professional. Can’t blame them, though, it’s no fun doing the same thing every day, even if it is kayaking down the Mekong three times a week with frequent stops for swimming and cliff jumping, especially if the pay is as pitiful as I suspect it is. And you know us penny-pinching backpackers, we’re not exactly famous for our generous tipping.

They say that one of the signs of madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Well then, call me certified, because I signed up for a day of elephant trekking in Chiang Mai almost on the heels of the Laos debacle. I was starting to feel like a freak by the third day of loitering about town. Cooking courses didn’t appeal to me, I prefer the eating part. Massage and meditation courses, ditto. Zip-lining from treetop to treetop in approximation of the flight of gibbons, even less so. Rock-climbing looked appealing, until I remembered that Thailand doesn’t have a monopoly on climb-able rocks. I’d seen and scaled enough rocks in China, all subtext intended. Elephants, however, were something new, as were bamboo rafts. Promised in the package I picked were visits to short-neck Karen people’s villages (as opposed to the long neck ones, the ones with dozens of rings around their necks that make them look like giraffes, apparently it’s totally not PC to go gawk at them), bamboo rafting, an elephant ride through forest and a one hour trek though the forest to a waterfall, not in that order. And lunch, of course, the part I always anticipate the most.

Well, I’d like to say that, again, it felt like more time was spent in the van getting from point A to point B than anything else, but the trip was actually the best one I’d been on. Thailand is a tourist magnet for a reason. Bamboo rafting is just that. Nine long bamboo trunks are tied together at both ends. You sit on the trunks, getting most of your lower half completely wet. The rafter stands at the front with a long stick and guides the raft along the fast moving river and through some rapids, ideally without losing his stick or the thing capsizing. The elephant ride through the forest brought its own twist in the rip-off with the elephants continuously being guided to banana stalls set up high on stilts, where you were encouraged to buy a bag of bananas, which you would then have to feed to the elephants or else they refuse to budge. You couldn’t deny them their treats anyway, and not because of their monster size either, but because of the knocks on the head their riders kept giving them. I felt some guilt about the way the elephants were treated. Not too much, though, not a Western-sized guilt. Are baby elephants supposed to eat their mother’s poop? Or is that a serious sign of being underfed? Not sure I want to know either way.

The only part that was completely faux on this trip was the village visit, which as a concept is a strange one anyway. The so-called villages were nothing more than a few ramshackle souvenir stalls with much the same stuff on display as in town, a few strategically placed pigs, and people dressed in traditional costume weaving cotton and smiling to display their betel-nut stained teeth. That’s a running theme of all tours, no matter where. Sooner or later, everyone gets herded into stalls set up with all manner of souvenirs to buy, all roads lead to something – from instant framed prints of you doing the activity to bananas for the poor elephants – which you are strongly encouraged to buy. That’s another thing, there’s always a there after the there, and there’s always a buy this after you’ve done that.

And now that Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom, Ta Phom, Banterei Srey and so on have been ticked off the to-do list, I can’t help feeling like I spent hours on buses and at border crossing lineups just to get shuttled from one intricately carved and assembled pile of ancient rocks, one set of hollering hawkers, and one flavor of poverty to another. I came ready to be awe-inspired, breath-tooken. The hype about Cambodia’s temples is like none other. I even educated myself a little bit, read up on the place and all, but the only time my breath caught, my eyes were transfixed and I felt that it had all been worth it was when I saw what nature had done after humans had left the scene (Ta Phom) or where they had never built anything to begin with (the woods around Kbal Spean).

I realize I’m bitching. I realize I’m not being grateful where and when I should. But every time I find myself in the midst of activities like those I’ve talked about, one little voice inside my head (the others go for a coffee) keeps repeating “Why? What for? So what? Ok, now you’ve seen X, and? (all the one voice, btw). And most importantly, “This is great and momentous and all, but really I’d rather be in my room or by the pool or in a cafe lost in a good book.” I’d rather be home, wherever that happens to be at the moment. Never do I feel so refreshed or transformed as when I resurface from home-like times, not Indiana Jones times.

So why the frangipani am I putting myself through all the site-hopping? Because I feel like I should? Because it feels like sacrilege to not go to the there that’s there? Because I feel the need to have the kind of holiday (running helter-skelter in the name of enlightenment) from which one needs another holiday (fossilizing poolside in the name of Being) to recover? Something is really twisted with that picture.

So I’m escaping, again, to another there whilst I’m still here, a there where I know I will find two things that never fail to disappoint: utterly lazy days and endless nature. Culture be damned, here’s a new poem, goes a little something like


Ko Phi


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