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Published: August 7th 2014
Travel - especially your first go of it - fills the mind with so many new concepts, new ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing. The images and thoughts, these are not things that can be transferred to others, for they are born of our own unique experiences and perceptions. Many of the things we experience while traveling stick with us much longer than others, which simply fade with time. Sadly, with all of the life-changing experiences and memories, I must reflect quite somberly that one of the most stark impressions I have been left with is that travel - as I have had a short opportunity to realize it - may be coming to an end. Not dying a slow and subtle death, but a sudden shock-wave which becomes so overwhelming that it is already too late before we are scarce able to muster a final fleeting grasp. And this wave is not just a threat to travel, it is a microcosom of things to come in a world where we are constantly and systematically conditioned to strive for comfort, prestige and material gain, often at the expense of others - A system that leads us all to blindly and unconsciously
When the package tours ran us out of Bayon, I had not yet conceived of this blog. I only have a few random pictures documenting the chaos.
encroach upon one another, nature and the world itself. It is no secret that a person born fifty-years ago was born into a world with half as many people, but we scarce allow ourselves time to contemplate this fact.
In 1977 when the owner of the Cave Lodge in Sappong, North Thailand first came to visit the Land of Smiles from Australia, he went to Nai Harn Beach on Phuket. In that not too distant world, Nai Harn contained but a single shack, a retired police captain and his wife, who allowed him to stay with them and smoke locally grown ganja in a hammock while the wife prepared fresh fruit and homemade curries. Fast-forward to 2014 and Nai Harn beach has exploded with luxury resorts, overpriced and inauthentic restaurants, signs in Russian and English and topless European women- ignorant or simply uncaring as to the great offense their spectacle pays to Thai culture. And here I am speaking of perhaps the most undeveloped and pristine of the beaches in the entire south-west portion of Phuket. And then there is Doi Mae Salong, on our first trip we were enamored with the beautiful foggy mornings, sprawling tea-plantations and timeless
feel of the mountain-top single-road town. When we arrived back only a year later something had changed - the vans had come. Tara and I sat outside of the small market sipping tea with a local artist when suddenly a tour van approached, and then another and another, totaling six vans. As soon as they had parked the Chinese package tourists descended on the market, with cameras in tow - the number of people at the market had increased four fold and there was a great deal of camera snapping, shouting and rushing about. The population of largely Yunnanese Chinese and minority ethnic (hill tribe) groups seemed a bit overwhelmed by the entire situation - there didn't even seem to be a long enough pause in the commotion for them to stop someone and make a sales pitch. Within what I will assume was 15 - 20 minutes the people were quickly herded back into the vans and they were gone, just as quickly as they had come. Once again the market fell back to it's sleepy way of life, until a second fleet of vans roared through an hour or so later. So I can't claim what I saw
Morning at Bayon
Early on, we seemed to be the only visitors.
on the roof of Prasat Bayon was a total surprise, and still I can't to this day shake the feeling of impending doom that I felt that day - both for the future of travel and the future of humanity.
I come from the original land of bad behaving tourists. It is no secret that in the post-war period many Americans with extra cash in their pockets but no real education about the world - it's people or it's culture descended on the world from the Great Wall to the Ancient Pyramids. The image of the 'Ugly American' was forged in these early years and many of our foreign policy endeavors and proclamations of exceptionalism have not done much to repair the image. We were followed by the camera toting Japanese in the 1980s and plenty of inconsiderate European, Australian and Russian guests who have burst onto the scene in many developing countries. And then there is the greatest threat to the future of travel... and since there has already been much ado in the press about the bad behavior of Chinese package tourists - leading to condemnation even from their own government ministers, it would be foolish to
suggest these newcomers on the international stage have some unique and inherent character flaws which their predecessors did not. Many of these people are from rural areas where access to education is limited, let alone a global education that might instruct one on proper conduct in a vast array of international cultures in a 21st century world. Just like many of us who get a dollar in our pocket - they want to see the world, however the language barrier and inability to organize trips on their own has driven these people into the jaws of the predatory package tour companies who operate on a strict profit motive without the slightest regard for their guests, let alone other travelers or the people upon whom their clients will be unleashed.
We approached Bayon in the early morning hours of our second day at Angkor. As it was suggested that this site is usually next in line after the morning rush to see the sunrise, we decided to head straight there as the sun rose and we were not disappointed. The sky had only just changed from pink to a light blue as the haunting stone faces began to appear in
the distance. As we parked our bikes the imposing structure appeared as if it might once have housed an entire city of residence in all of their domestic, commercial and spiritual endeavors. We walked in through the main gates and wound our way around through various stone hallways and chambers, many of which emerged into open-air courtyards where the magnificent stone faces stood like giants looking out toward the horizon. Around the corners were small rooms with stone Buddha images, offerings of flowers and burning candles - the scent of incense wafting through the air. Splendid rays of sunlight beamed through the windowless frames giving the chambers an otherworldly aura. The silence was penetrating like that of a deep forest, with the occasional birdsong greeting us through the open-air windows. We meandered about the halls in this way for quite sometime - we weren't really sure where we were going or what we were doing, but we eventually found our way onto the rooftop. Outside the sun was quickly heating up and we came across a great deal more visitors, but we were surprised by the noise we were hearing - where from? There were visitors in all directions but
Beginning of the End
Consider yourself lucky there are no audio files!
none of them seemed to be shouting, so what was the roar - the specters of ancient Angkor rising from the depths of the great stone chambers below?
We didn't have to wait long to find out the answer - a man with a color-coded neon hat and flag emerged from one of the stairwells, and soon our immediate vicinity had been overrun by a group of package tourists in matching uniforms. The things I will never forget is the shouting, the shoving and the photographing. The small signs enticing visitors to keep quiet on the sacred grounds trembled against the terrible wave of humanity as first one, and then several mega-buses full of package tourists descended on the sight. Perhaps it was simply the contrast from the perfect, quiet and sacred mornings we had experienced thus far, but the departure was too much for me to bear. I looked around in futility for someone who might ask them to relax, inform them that this is an ancient spiritual and sacred place - how would they like the shrines of their ancestors descecrated in such a way? In the midst of the chaos my attention was brought up to
a stone slab where a group of grown women were shouting at the top of their lungs - they had climbed a top in florescent sombreros and where shreaking for someone to document their idiotic behavior on film. After the third or fourth shove and a group who nearly put Tara on the ground in an attempt to get a photo from where she was standing we left in disgust. All the peace in my heart had vanished - I actually contemplated shoving them back as we made our way through the cacophony. As we descended a staircase down the side I looked out toward the front causeway where six additional tour groups of close to 70 people each had congregated before the site. They were identifyable by their color-coded uniforms and were being herded about by men with whistles and flags. We put our heads down as we walked past them and tried to pretend our spirits hadn't been run into the ground. We walked past the overflowing trashbins where monkeys fought one another for half-empty soda bottles, and then across the road lines with the towering tour busses. We unlocked our bicycles and took one last look before
peddling along on our way.
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