Monday, June 18, 2007

Global Village

In late 1989 and early 1990 I spent six months backpacking in Europe, Egpyt and Israel. I was an ignorant kid out in the big bad world for the first time. I started in London, got sidetracked in Amsterdam, did whirlwind tours of Germany, France and Italy before slowing down for two months in Spain and Portugal. With four months of solo travel under my belt, I headed to Egypt for a taste of a truly foreign culture. Egypt was everything I hope for, it was everything that Europe and America was not, and it hinted at more far-flung destinations in my future.

I heard through other travelers that if I were heading across the Sinai Peninsula and into Israel, I had to stop at a spot on the Red Sea called Dahab. I think today it would be described at “chill,” but back then it was just mellow. Dahab has grown over the years into a full-blown resort town (and was the target of terrorist bombs in 2006), but in early 1990 it was still an outpost with nothing more than a small strip of ramshackle restaurants and a collection of huts on the beach for accommodation. I passed the days lounging on pillows, reading books, playing backgammon and swimming in the sea. There was nothing Egyptian about it other than it’s geographical location. It was all about chilling out, listening to Bob Marley and being a backpacker. It was my first taste of the backpacker haven (or ghetto, whichever you prefer). It was also the only place I got food poisoning in my six months of travel.

Backpacker hangouts are nothing new. They exist all over the world. They cater to their customers with western food, western movies and plenty of space to RELAX. And they are usually located in breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

Thailand is a country with a fair share of backpacker havens. In the south, where I am now, there are stunning islands and beaches, each one packed to the gills with tourists in the high season. In the low season, i.e. now, there are still tourists, but prices are much lower and the crowds much thinner. The rainy season will do that to a place.

My last stop, Ko Lanta, my present location, Railay Beach, and my next destination, Ko Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee, heh heh), rightly fit the mold of backpacker ghettos. Locals are here to serve the customers, Menus are in English, the food is bland, and there's little trave of the host country other than the stamps in the visitors' passports. As a 40-year-old single traveler, it’s been tough to make connections with the groups of twenty-somethings and the happy loving couples. I feel more at home, and more alive, when I'm mingling with locals.

Ko Lanta

Railay Beach East

I’m happy I’ve seen Ko Lanta and Railay, and Ko Phi Phi has a reputation as a paradise on earth (see "The Beach" or, better yet, read the book), but I’m looking forward to heading north and seeing Thailand.

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