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Published: August 25th 2015
Heavy load coming
It's the same all over again. It's the same, so much the same that sometimes you wonder whether or not you are in the Truman Show. The same tables, the same chairs, the same menus, hell, even the same people sitting all around you! It's the backpackers' safest haven and the backpackers' worst nightmare. It's so annoying that it can transform every anti-tourist in a mass tourist and, on the other hand, every mass-tourist in a possible anti-tourist!
What I am talking about are South East Asia's infamous "foreigner streets", the Khao San Roads, the Pham Ngu Laos, the Makatis. Playgrounds for the young and dreamy, for the old an deluded. Home of the banana pancake, "Same same but different" t-shirts, beer tank tops and annoying tuk-tuk drivers looking to rip you off. And there are the couples. The weird and disturbing couples. The old, fat westerner and the young, slutty easterner. There are the backpackers, the ultimate anti-tourists turned herd-animals. The pub-crawls, the baggy pants, the tank-tops, the girls just showing far too much for local standards. There are the expats, running the "Angkor What?"s, the "Why Not"s, the "Reggae bar"s. The smirk of satisfaction when they look at
Monks washing feet at Banang Temple
a local monthly salary, earned from only one night of Australian binch-drinking.
These dystopian enclaves of exotic debauchery can be found all over South East Asia. From the smallest towns like Hue in Vietnam, to the kingpins of mass-tourism like Phuket and Langkawi. I have for long been wondering how they can exist, even more so how they can survive and thrive. I have long been wondering why there is always a strict segregation, typically a couple of roads, between "foreigner street" and the local living areas. Above all, why the backpackers, the ultimate hunters for authenticity, always end up in these areas, sipping beer and chewing western comfort food. Now, worst of all: Why do I, who honestly can not stand these places, always end up hanging out in them at least once during a South East Asian holiday?!
Again, it helps to have a Vietnamese girlfriend and it helps that she has traveled all over the lonely planet herself. During our last trip in Cambodia, we tried to chill (as far as this is possible in Cambodia) in Battambang, Cambodia's second biggest and quite far-off-the-mainstream city. Located in the west of the country, Battambang is famous
All-seeing faces in Phnom Sampeu
for some surviving French-colonial buildings, a couple of temples in the surroundings and, most of all, the longest landmine-belt in the world planted by the Vietnamese to seal off the Khmer Rouge. Sounds exciting you say?
That's what we thought, so we spent the last 4 days of our trip exploring the city and surroundings by motorbike. On paper, Battambang is not really interesting for a tourist, but for those who like to see another glimpse of Cambodia, far away from Angkor's temples and Phnom Penh's malls, I could recommend a stay. One of the main reasons we came to Battambang was to see how Cambodians live. Sounds very simple, but around the main tourist attractions and crammed in the capital it is not always easy to get an overview of the country one is visiting. Long story short, our search for authenticity, on day one, has eventually had us eating.... at the local foreigner street!
Serious! The national dish Fish Amok was watered down, no Cambodian was in sight for a mile (except the waiters which looked uncomfortably happy), and the prices were equivalent to one of the poor guys' salaries I guess. So why in god's
name did we end up here?! This was exactly the question that I asked THH over the dinner table and, although she was a little confused herself, she managed to give a reasonable explanation for what happened to us and probably many of the other foreigners in South East Asia.
Her explanation was a lot simpler than expected. There is a gap among South East Asians and foreigners (predominantly westerners). A gap so big that it can't be bridged any time soon. No, we are not talking about salaries. There were plenty of Indians and Russians in foreigner street, so I guess its not about the per capita. It's, as simple as it sounds, a gap in culture. THH reminded me of the South East Asian living habits. They don't like to go to bars and restaurants. If they go for food, they would go with a large group and its mostly for eating and making lots of noise. Its not about chilling out with a beer or a Negroni after a long day of work. No such thing. Also, with the notable exception of Vietnam, there is no coffee culture in the area. People don't just go for
And again, stuck in a South East Asian rainstorm
a coffee and/or a dessert, like most of us. They take their motorbike, drive from A to B, do what they need to do, and eventually end up going home or grabbing some snack at a road-side stall.
Particularly to the snacks, you might have noticed that I am not a picky eater if you have been reading my blog! But when we stopped on a Cambodian bus station, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and we went to see what they sold, it was impossible to dig in. The meat was covered with flies, and I mean covered beyond belief. Women were carrying baskets full of cockroaches on their heads. Nothing against eating insects, but I am not even sure all of them were dead! I was very eager to try the Cambodian national dish, called Amok. Basically, it is a fish curry steamed in a banana leaf and tastes pretty much like it sounds. I really wanted to try a local one after having had a couple in a fancier restaurants. I could not find any... until the last day.
The last day we adventured to Battambang's local market for a stroll and we found the
missing Amok. Contrary to its fancier versions, it was not steamed in a banana leaf but in a humongous metal pot. So far, so good. The problem was, the fish was left open on a dirty road stall next to a horribly polluted roundabout, for the whole afternoon.. under the sun of a Cambodian summer. Yes, I have tried some weird stuff. Yes, I understand that customs vary across the world. But no, I just could not go for it. Authenticity was not worth it.
So, coming back to the gap. The reason why a lot of foreigners in South East Asia end up in "foreigner street" is simple: There is not much else to do. Locals prefer staying in the family, don't have a habit of relaxing in public places, and all in all, don't share many interests with westerners. Of course, this varies by destination but for more places than not, it is true. This might seem extremely frustrating if you are looking for an authentic experience. So frustrating, that I have read blogs of people hating on South East Asia because it seems so "commercialized".
Trying to capitalize on this, I would like to give
A pretty typical South East Asian cityscape
you a suggestion. If you find yourself at Phnom Penh's river front or Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao (sorry, I can't forgive Khao San Road 😊), don't feel guilty. If you want to go for a cold one, for a nice little moment off from traffic, noise and dust... have your peace of mind. It's not happening because you did not try. It's probably happening because you don't have a motorbike, don't have a family in place, and don't like your insects still moving when you start chewing on them. The world is different and that's what makes it interesting. Cheers from Battambang to all of you, keep on moving!
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