Saturday, 28 March 2009

With change in Southeast Asia inevitable, Nick Grounds examines which elements the region should inherit from its Western friends.

The West has set the blueprint for growth all over the globe and Southeast Asia has joined the list of regions to follow in the footsteps of the West since the great Empires of Britain and Spain in the 19th Century.

Western elements can be found almost anywhere the eye looks. From the impoverished yet beautiful 4000 Islands in Laos, to the hustle and bustle of the Khao San road in Bangkok, traces can be found from London, Paris and New York. The issue I raise is whether this is a good thing for SE Asia?

(Should it be making its own inroads in developing, or is this tagging along the best way forward? I argue that change is both inevitable and necessary, and therefore the nations of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand should take some aspects of the Western world - those that suit their people - but not all.)

For modern day Laos, read Cambodia ten or twenty years ago. Likewise, for Cambodia, see Vietnam in the Nineties. The latter, reeling from the devastation of the Vietnam War, has recovered a great deal and is continuing to develop. A great deal of its development has been as a result of the tourist industry. Tourism in Vietnam and in the aforementioned nations is, from an economic perspective, always a good thing; this is undeniable.

What does get overlooked, however, are the repercussions of tourism. The cultural identity of these places is either in danger of becoming merged with Western influences, or being wiped out all together. Picking up a menu in Da Lat, Southern Vietnam, shades of the Costa del Sol or Ibiza can be seen - rather than the authentic excellence of Vietnamese cuisine. The streets are awash with pizzerias or burger bars. Although you can find traditional dishes, there is an increasing wave of Western bars or restaurants and it will only continue to spread, like a virus, to suit the needs of the traveller, and the pockets of the locals.

This presents a dilemma for the traveller. Miles away from home, there are times when you long for a fry up or a roast dinner with all the trimmings. Indeed, months without pizza can take its toll. However, the entire reason of hopping on a plane to travel over 5000 miles is to sample new cultures and traditions, and this includes sampling new cuisines.

I found the best dishes were the authentic ones, not the Western pretenders. I am not saying that I turn my nose up at burger and chips, for I too am a sucker for a good fry-up as much as the next man. However, whilst out there, a plate of steamed or sticky rice accompanied with a steaming Thai Green Curry and I would be as happy as Larry. It’s either that or a badly attempted, over-priced pizza. I know where my preference would be. Stick to what you know guys!

Vang Vieng, located in Northern Laos, is the greatest example of a town catering for the traveller’s needs. The tourists' desires are met in every way possible, but you cannot help but feel they’re needs are being met in the way the locals believe they should be. Tourism has completely infiltrated local customs and has taken over the town. Restaurants offer DVDs of Friends or the Simpsons, with the occasional Family Guy thrown in for good measure and serve a plethora of western dishes.

This, combined with the main attraction of the area (tubing along the river, stopping off at regular bar pit-stops) made the four days feel rather hollow and empty in hindsight. If the plan was to spend time rubbing shoulders with paralytic-western youths, then a week in Magaluf would have been a far cheaper option. It will not be long before we see a Mc Donald’s sprout up, and all for what? For the good of the tourist? Not in my opinion. The only ‘good’ to come from this circus is the people of Laos are making good money and earning a decent living. Beyond this, there is no ‘good’ to come from this – only the defacing of a national identity and a discoloration of local customs and traditions.

The beauties of Mui Ne in South Vietnam and Laos’ Dondet Island far outweigh the superficial natures of Vang Vieng and Da Lat. Despite being light-years behind in development, their grace, naivety and innocence compelled me and other travellers, drawn in by their natural excellence. Dondet was and is a miracle, a paradise that will enchant me for ever. It was so different to anything I have ever experienced before or since.

Electricity is cut off across the island from 11pm and there is no reliance on TV or video games from their children. If only more were as kind, generous and welcoming as the locals of Dondet. The danger is the island feels compelled to cater for the aliens that encounter their way of life, and in doing so follow in the footsteps of Vang Vieng. In an ideal world, things would stay static and continue to amaze the purists who temporarily seek solace from sometimes material nature of the Western world. However, although the heart wants this, my head tells me in no longer than five years, it will follow the likes of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui, Thailand's commercial islands for tourists.

It could be seen as rather selfish of me to sample and experience such natural wonders, and not want it to develop for the good of the locals' pockets. However, a compromise must be found.

The happy medium lies in Southeast Asia taking the elements that suit them. Travellers, who come and go like the wind, must not dictate change for the good of a few days indulgence. With tourism inevitable, change and growth in paradise is also. It is how this is controlled that really matters. The fear is they see the dollar signs and build that extra bungalow that will inevitably trigger a first hostel on Dondet.

So, the development continues as I write; onwards and upwards, until paradise is lost. I sincerely hope a compromise is met, but who am I to play God? Who am I to dictate ‘progress? Only time, and money, will tell.

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