What is it about Southeast Asia that so captivates our attention? For many Westerners, Southeast Asia has attained an identity of exoticism and escape, enchanting travelers as a destination “off the map” of global tourism. It’s a myth readily fed by popular culture. From Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to Alex Garland’s The Beach we’re painted a picture of a magical world, unsullied by the realities of real life – and we’ve taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Southeast Asia, we’re told, is where we’ll go to forge new identities. We’ll quit our jobs back home, find a bungalow on the beach in Thailand, and live out our days drinking 25-cent beers, sunning ourselves under a palm tree. Our problems back home? Distant memory. For anyone struggling with the vagaries of career and post-collegiate life, it’s a powerful fantasy, bandied about during late-night drinking sessions or anytime life becomes “too much of a drag.”
But what’s it really like to travel through Southeast Asia, circa 2009? Does our fantasy match the reality? Though plenty is left to explore, the romanticized destination of deserted beaches and bumpy bus rides is experiencing a dramatic shift, further connecting itself to global tourism and the world economy. Luxury boutiques dot the streets of “communist” Vietnam. Thousands of travelers show up for Full Moon Parties on the beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. Even Lonely Planet’s hugely popular Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the defacto “bible” for independent travelers, is nearly 25 years old and 14 Editions in print. How does the region today look after this huge influx of new money and visitors?
It was these very questions that had me thinking. Was there still adventure to be found in Southeast Asia? And how did it match with the visions of escape and personal reinvention I had in my mind? Encouraged by books like Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding, I left behind my full-time job in New York and created a plan. I would spend the next few months traveling through the region. After a stopover in Seoul, I head to Bangkok and then on to wherever luck will have me. Not only is it a chance to reinvent the direction of my own life, it’s also an opportunity to observe the rapidly changing direction of this fascinating destination.
Over the next few months, I encourage you to join me as I investigate Southeast Asia with a fresh eye. We’ll return to familiar stops on the “Southeast Asia tourist trail” to survey the terrain, and introduce you to places you never knew existed. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the art of long term travel, and some of the rewards and challenges encountered along the way. We hope through our mistakes and successes you’ll have a chance to truly understand what traveling through Southeast Asia is all about. Ready to go? Let’s chart a course, South by Southeast…
You can read future posts from Gadling’s travels “South by Southeast” through Asia: HERE.