• World

The ‘explorers’ Who Swallowed the World

6 minute read
ALEX PERRY

When Herve told his parents he was off to Southeast Asia for a few months, he talked of Angkor Wat, Vietnamese hill tribes, pristine Philippine beaches. He’d meet new people, he told his folks, and immerse himself in foreign culture; this would be an exploration, a journey for body and spirit. Put like that, his Parisian parents sent him off with their blessings. But lying in a hammock on a hostel’s veranda in Phnom Penh with a girl under each arm and a beer on the table, it’s clear Herv’s main discovery is that $10 will get him a room, all the grass and speed pills he wants, and a different prostitute every night. “What a city,” he grins, hopping up out of the hammock and taking one of the girls by the waist, leading her to his room.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When backpackers first hit the road in the 1970s, they were seen as an antidote to sterile package tours, a return to travel as exploration and adventure. Cheap flights and cheaper costs on the ground meant any Westerner could play discoverer, a modern-day Marco Polo, Magellan or even Zheng He. By living with “the people”as opposed to living with fellow foreigners in five-star hotelsthe backpacker would witness and experience true culture, not some resort-show pastiche. By staying in cheap hostels and eating at small family-run restaurants, he would give his money to those who needed it most. And by maintaining an environmental vigilance, he’d simply tread more softly than the package tourist. The backpacker guidebooks described the perfect win-win. “The people at Lonely Planet strongly believe that travelers can make a positive contribution to the countries they visit, both through their appreciation of the countries’ culture, wildlife and natural features and through the money they spend.” No need for the Peace Corps or voluntary work. You could do good in the Third World just by going there. The book said so.

Young people everywhere took Lonely Planet’s mantra to heart. There are no reliable figures for how many still do so every year”millions and millions in Asia,” according to a spokesman for the Pacific Asia Travel Association. But Lonely Planet’s position as the world’s largest independent guidebook producer, with annual sales of its 430 titles pulling in $30 million, gives some indication. India and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (the “yellow bible”) are among the top sellers, with more than half a million bought of each. Founder Tony Wheeler is frequently cited as the man who changed the way we travel.

But as more and more people hit the road, there are fewer and fewer pioneers. Backpackers move as a herd, not unlike the package tourists they try to avoid. The overcrowding and bottlenecks are at their worst in Asia, the destination of choice since Wheeler and his wife Maureen released the first Lonely Planet book, Across Asia on the Cheap, in 1973. A well-worn trail links beaches in Goa (India), Boracay (Philippines), Bali (Indonesia) and southern Thailand and the peaks of Yangshuo (China) and Kathmandu (Nepal). In such numbers, backpackers can’t help but trample culture and nature, whatever their environmental beliefs. “They tend to be like sheep, all going to the same places,” admits Tony Wheeler. “That is a negative.”

Nor are backpackers particularly keen on local cuisines or cultures. Cafs specializing in the quasivegetarian backpacker diet of banana pancakes, muesli, fruit shakes and vegetable noodles have sprung up from Lombok to Laos. And flying in a DJ from London is all it takes to import wholesale the exploding club culture from back home. Entire Thai islands have become virtual colonies, offering pints of ale at the Bird in the Hand, ecstasy and colonic irrigation. On the island of Koh Phi Phi, a formerly idyllic haven now crammed with dive shops, restaurants and travel agents offering cut-rate tours to see where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach, Australian Simone Richard has the traveler look down pat: washed-out Thai fisherman’s pants, dirty blond hair squeezed into corn rows and fading henna on her hands. Overhonestlybanana pancakes, the 22-year-old says she’s made friends with people from all over the world, except the countries she’s visited. “Everywhere you go it’s the same thing: travelers all over the place, and everybody sitting around watching bad movies at night,” she says. “All the best places are wrecked, like here.” So why not get off the trail? “I don’t speak Thai. And you get to meet a lot of cool people. This is just too easy, I guess.”

The center of the backpacker world is the Thai island of Koh Pha-Ngan. Evidence of the crushing weight of the 10,000 people who dance each full moon away lies a few yards offshore from the Hadrin Beach party zone. In contrast to the spectacular fish and coral found elsewhere, the waters are lifeless. The only color to be seen under the waves comes from the luminous green of a beer can or the white from a Styrofoam takeout box. Onshore, as the sun goes down, the beach could barely be more alive. Crowds of backpackers squeeze into seven beachfront clubs on a mile-long strip of white sand. Many wear fluorescent body paint. Glowing psychedelic sculptures line the shore. Hawkers sell food, water, cigarettes, marijuana, ecstasy, magic mushrooms, amphetamines. Prostitutes work the crowds. Dancers spin fire chains over their heads alongside ladyboys on raised platforms. The music is deafening, dominating. Those too bombed to dance hug their knees and watch the palms, the sparkle of the sea swells and the men urinating in the waves like some mute moonlit video.

Nearly 30 years on, Wheeler concedes that backpackers have helped ruin parts of Asia. “The place I always look at is Kuta beach on Bali,” says the 54-year-old Australian. “It was really quite a wonderful place, and I go back now and think, ‘What a hellhole.'” His books bear some responsibility, he admits. “We are an influence, there’s no question of that, and maybe there wouldn’t have been so many backpackers without us.” But as visitor numbers climb each year, no one has any plans to stem the flood. Wheeler offers no grand solutions, sticking to the piecemeal guidebook wisdom of patronizing the good places to discourage the bad. But he is ready to give up one backpacker conceit, the habit of calling one another “travelers” to distinguish themselves from other, less intrepid vacationers. “I don’t believe that for a minute,” says Wheeler. “At the end of the day, we’re all tourists.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com