Will a $16 Fee to Get Into Thailand Bring Classier Tourists?

Siim Teller, Flickr

Tourists to Thailand may soon be charged an entrance fee of 500 baht. That comes out to about $16, not really overkill for getting into a country that’s full of street markets, pad Thai and full moon parties, now is it?

The proposed entry fee is backed by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, the Ministry of Public Health and the Royal Thai Police, and the collected fees would of course go back into government initiatives. But it’s not necessarily raking in fee money that has the Thai government behind it. It has to do with who they want and don’t want in the country. And they want better tourists.”Now is the time for us to have quality tourists,” said Public Health Minister Pradit Sintavanarong to the Bangkok Post.

Take that dread locked, sandal wearing, backpackers!

The travel industry however isn’t necessarily excited about the proposed fee. “The plan will affect the tourism industry, both in the short run and the long run, because tourists will feel bad about Thailand and they may feel they are being cheated,” Sitdiwat Cheevarattanaporn, chairman of the Association of Thai Travel Agents said.

Might be time for the Thai government to figure out another way to keep the riff raff out.

Photo Of The Day: Tibetan Travelers

Photo of the Day - Tibetan pilgrims
One of the travel world’s more annoying debates is backpacker vs. rolling suitcase. Those with backpacks scoff at travelers wheeling suitcases along cobblestones, while the roll-aboard lovers might want to avoid the connotation that “backpacker” implies. Even backpackers are being criticized now for taking too much. In the end, it’s just a place for one’s stuff. We can all agree that seeing pilgrims walking for many miles with very little stuff at all is pretty impressive. Today’s Photo of the Day is from Tibet, where some pilgrims are returning from a trip. Flickr user abhishakey photographed the travelers coming from Lhasa, where thousands travel each year to visit the Jokhang Temple with little more than a prayer wheel.

Share your best travel images with us by adding them to the Flickr photo pool for a future Photo of the Day.

What’s in a name? On pronouncing difficult country names

When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.

The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.

Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)

What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800′s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”

Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.

British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”

This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.

I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.

[flickr image via Ian @ The Paperboy]

VIDEO: Many steps around the world


A new video by Japanese filmmaker Takayuki Akachi shows people taking steps all around the world. Sounds simplistic, because it is, but the video shows a beautiful slice-of-life from around the globe. His concept is described as “collecting the steps from all over the world and playing a music with the steps.” The artist specializes in a “lone backpacker” style of filming that allows him to travel without a film crew. This isn’t his first round-the-world video effort: last year he made the stop-motion Traveling Denim, documenting a pair of jeans over two years and 50 countries. Check out all of his videos on Vimeo.

Music by Dulo, video sponsored by Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. MANY STEPS from Takayuki Akachi on Vimeo.

My year in adventure travel: a look back and a look forward

adventure, adventure travel, Axum, EthiopiaHappy Boxing Day everybody! As I sit here stuffed with my mother-in-law’s cooking after a traditional Spanish Christmas, I’m thinking back on all my travels in 2010 and looking forward to 2011. One of the best parts about my travel year has been sharing it all with you. I love the comments you’ve sent suggesting sites to see and trails to take, and was especially amazed by the outpouring of support I got from Ethiopians and Somalis for my series on their countries.

Early in the year I took my wife on a road trip in Ethiopia for our tenth anniversary. I have always wanted to go there and it didn’t disappoint. A combination of nice people, good food, awesome coffee, and tons of historical and archaeological sites shot it right to the top of my list of favorite destinations. So much so, in fact, that we’re going back in 2011! We haven’t finalized our plans, but we’ll be doing another road trip to a different part of the country and then I’ll spend a month or so in Harar, a fascinating city I want to learn more about. So expect a series about Ethiopia in 2011, including at least one trek to a certain remote castle in the rugged Ethiopian highlands.

Harar is the gateway to Somaliland, an emerging nation that has broken away from the chaos in the rest of Somalia. My two weeks there shattered every preconception I had about the region. Somalilanders are working hard to build a peaceful nation in a region notorious for war and corruption. Since they aren’t recognized as a country, they’re receiving very little assistance from the outside world. I’m proud that my series of articles helped in a small way to publicize their efforts.

As regular readers will know, I always celebrate my birthday with a long-distance hike. When I turned forty I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall National Trail. This year for my 41st I hiked the East Highland Way, Scotland’s newest trail. For my 42nd (moan) I plan to return to Scotland. I’m not sure where I’ll go, so I’m hoping one of you can help me decide. I want a hike of about a hundred miles over beautiful but rough terrain, with a steady diet of historical and archaeological attractions. Any ideas?

All these wanderings really filled up my hard drive. The gallery features some photos that didn’t make it into the original series. I hope you like them.

There were some less-adventurous trips in 2010, such as exploring the tombs of Rome, the sights of Yorkshire, and the legend of Jesse James. I’ve also had plenty of wonderful armchair adventure travel courtesy of my fellow Gadlingers. Two of my favorite series have been Andrew Evans’ amazing trip around Greenland that left me green with envy, and Catherine Bodry’s exploration of Yunnan, China, graced with her beautiful photos.

It’s been a wonderful year with a great team and great readers. I’m looking forward to 2011!

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