How backpacking in Thailand became the institution it is today
By Claire Brownell
As I expected, I like the north of Thailand a lot better than I like Bangkok. A little more fresh air and a lot less people walking around wearing ominous surgical masks; a few more jungles, mountains and waterfalls and a little less sleaze, vermin, and congestion; same or better opportunities for reckless, adventuresome partying. Something about it just inspires me to write elaborate, complicated run-on sentences with multiple semi-colons.
However, the path we followed through Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Pai is a well-beaten one for backpackers. Some of the same themes kept popping up often enough that I started to wonder if something was up. It was almost as if everyone in Thailand was in cahoots to deliver the same brand of experience to us farang (foreigners). Soon, I had developed The Theory. The Theory explains just about every facet of backpacking in Thailand by speculating on what must have been said when the major players were deciding what direction the tourism industry would take. It’s best explained around a camp fire at about two o’clock in the morning in Pai, where everyone that my friends and I ran it by unanimously agreed that they were damned if I hadn’t figured it out, spot on. There are three main players in The Theory, whom I will refer to as Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo. They work for the Thai government, the tourism industry, and a data collection agency, respectively. One misty Thai morning, the three of them met to discuss their interests in the newly blossoming backpacker industry, and history was made.
ZEPPO: To summarize, the rate of exchange on the baht with Western currency combined with our pleasant weather and breathtaking scenery make Thailand a very attractive destination for young people traveling for extended periods of time on a budget. I have it summarized here in a diagram: “Cheap + sunshine + pretty = smiley face wearing backpack.”
GROUCHO: Hm, yes, I see. So the question is how we can best develop a tourism infrastructure that will allow the economy to gain optimum benefit from these “backpackers.”
ZEPPO: Precisely. Which is why we have commissioned Harpo’s company here to conduct a worldwide survey of what youth in the backpacking demographic would be impressed by.
GROUCHO: Brilliant! What were the findings of your survey, Harpo?
HARPO: (Clears throat) Things Westerners in their Early Twenties With Disposable Income and No Adult Responsibilities Think Are Neat. A report by Harpo Marx.
- Tree houses and bamboo huts.
- Getting recklessly drunk in public.
- Cheap, readily available beer and liquor, to facilitate #3.
- Cute, romantic paper lantern hot air balloons.
- Bars with camp fires.
- Bob Marley.
- Driving motorbikes, with no requirements for a license or experience.
- Secret gardens.
(Everyone takes notes, nods, and mulls this over.)
GROUCHO: Fascinating. And excellent news! Many of these are things we already have. Cats and dogs roam and copulate freely! And anybody with half a brain can drive a motorbike. Licenses are for pussies.
ZEPPO: And we can turn huge profits by taking suckers on elephant treks where you hike through the jungle all day then ride an elephant for half an hour in a parking lot.
GROUCHO: And if they want to get drunk cheap, by God, they will! We’ll make liquor available at every corner shop and what’s that ubiquitous North American convenience store chain?
HARPO: The 7-11, sir?
GROUCHO: A 7-11 every half a block!
ZEPPO: And we’ll get bars to serve the same sludge they’re used to mixing in water bottles and drinking in parking lots on the way to the bar back home. You know — energy drinks plus rum or vodka and some sort of pop. Any thoughts on the best way to serve it to impress our target market, Harpo?
HARPO: In a bucket, with a bendy straw.
GROUCHO: Genius! There is, however, the question of the cost of developing the infrastructure to handle all these backpackers. Sleepy towns will suddenly be flooded with five times the population expecting Western toilets and hot showers. Cities will need hundreds of guest houses and burger joints.
ZEPPO: I think that’s the question, precisely — how do we provide all these things our demographic demands, while keeping costs low enough to turn a profit? These people are, after all, intrinsically cheap. I have two words for you: Bare Minimum.
GROUCHO: I’m listening.
ZEPPO: For example, we can allow guest houses to build new Western toilets, but also allow them to pump the raw sewage into rivers and gutters and recycle the water. No one will notice.
GROUCHO: Build bridges and moats out of bamboo with no guard rails!
ZEPPO: Yes! And conveniently enough, it’ll form part of the rustic appeal.
GROUCHO: We’ll just overload the electrical grid with sockets that don’t work and blow fuses!
ZEPPO: And our cost cutting measures will be part of the appeal of “roughing it” and “living like a local.” Everyone loves a good “I almost died” story.
GROUCHO: But there’s still the matter of #9. We’ve spent years constructing some of the most Draconian anti-drug laws in the world; we can’t dismantle them just because some Birkenstock wearing hippies would pump a few hundred more Baht into the economy for a joint.
ZEPPO: How about a compromise? We’ll just cover guest houses with pot leaf motifs, play Bob Marley constantly, and have bars with names like “THC.”
GROUCHO: Perfect! That way, if they get drunk and confused enough by the mixed messages to ask the bartenders where they can get some, we can also squeeze a couple thousand dollars out of their friends for bailing them out of jail.
ZEPPO: Well gentlemen, it sounds like we have ourselves a plan.
And so they shook hands. And that’s my theory of how backpacking in Thailand became the institution it is today.