Spots of Time

November 25, 2003

The Last Tourist In Thailand

At some point in their journeys, most travelers feel the urge to “get off the beaten path.”

In some this urge is little more than a vague notion – an unspoken item on their mental “to do” list before they return home. In others, this is a deep yearning – a badge of honor to demonstrate that they were more than a tourist in a place – that they had somehow transcended the surface layer of touristy activities and gotten in touch with the “real” (insert country here) and her “real” people.

For still others, this urge develops quietly and slowly, subconsciously, after one too many VIP bus trips in the exclusive company of other travelers. The realization that being taken, in air-conditioned comfort, from one guesthouse to an interesting site to another guesthouse, with the occasional roadside bathroom break, is not reality – in any part of the world.

In Alex Garland’s novel, “The Beach” a group of backpackers journey to a remote Thai island in search of this paradise utopia. Funny enough, this island utopia the travelers find is full of nothing but other travelers - not one local person in the bunch. And yet, in their minds, the journey is a success. This tale exemplifies what I believe many travelers want when they say they want to get “off the beaten path.”

What they really mean is they want a place that is still new enough to tourism that the people are friendly and unaffected – but also manage to speak a little English. They want a place that lacks Internet, but still has electricity and maybe hot water. They want a few cheap guesthouses and restaurants, some local brew, and an eclectic mix of travelers with whom to spend long nights discussing the world’s problems. Oh, and ideally it should be a picturesque village near a nice mountain or beach, if you don’t mind.

Truly being off the beaten path is HARD. It is being in a place where no one else looks like you – no one. It is the realization that all communication must be done with gestures and the odd word picked up from a phrasebook – and even then there will be misunderstanding. It means regularly ordering one thing and getting something else – but not having any idea how to rectify the matter. It means not having anyone to talk – unless YOU learn the local language.

I have never really been off the beaten path. Sure, I’ve been to places that are less frequented by tourists – places that felt remote and exotic. But even so, there was always another traveler or two or ten to ease the burden of communication – someone you could turn to and wink and say, “what the hell do you suppose that meant?” and laugh as you both realize you have no clue.

Only once have I experienced an inkling of what it must be like to get off the beaten path – and in the most unlikely of places. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking for it. I just needed a 30-day visa for Laos and was going to the closest place I could find it – Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Khon Kaen, located in the northeastern part of Thailand, is a modern Thai city – the fourth largest in the country, to be exact. There is the expected traffic and tall buildings, shopping malls and hotels, movie theatres and Internet access. Not at all what one might picture when thinking of an “off the beaten path” local.

But, Khon Kaen, though large and modern, does not have the usual requirements to make it an international tourist destination. There are no special monuments or sacred temples, no nearby hill tribes, no beaches, and no mountains. It is basically Indianapolis, Indiana. A nice place to live and grow up, but for people from other countries, it wouldn’t exactly make the Top 10 list. As such, there is no need to cater to an international audience.

Walking around Khon Kaen was like being the last tourist in Thailand. For several days, I saw no other white people. My hotel was filled with Asian business travelers, there were no restaurants geared toward western foreigners, and asking for directions once I left the hotel lobby was a game of charades in which I was a deaf mute.

I spent a week in Khon Kaen, waiting for my visa. I ate dinner alone every night at the same street stand located outside a 7/11 convenience store, and ate breakfast every morning at the crowded restaurant across the street from my hotel. By the end of the day my brain hurt from trying to communicate, and my savior came in the form of satellite television in my room. Embarrassed as I am to admit this, I spent nearly every evening tucked away in my room watching HBO or STARS while munching on some exotic fruit I had purchased at the local fruit stand.

Faced with being somewhat off the beaten track, I suppose I failed. I should have made more of an effort to meet people, to talk to the locals. But where should I have gone?

Karaoke bars comprised the majority of nightlife around my hotel, and the intentions of a lone American girl crossing the threshold would have certainly been misunderstood. And, as I am not the type to go to a bar alone in a land where I speak the language, doing that in a place where I was not guaranteed of understanding was too scary of a proposition.

And, while I spent my days chatting with locals at food stands and in shops, there is only so much that you can say when you can only remember about 10 Thai phrases and have a hard time comprehending all but the most basic of answers.

My week taught me a lot about my own expectations of traveling – and what made it nice and comfortable and what made it hard and uncomfortable. Had I just had one other person with me in Khon Kaen, my experience there would have been much, much different. But then, I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much - about myself and about my needs as a traveler.

Getting off the beaten path is sometimes harder than it appears – and sometimes much easier. For those who think it requires an 8-hour ride in the back of a pick-up truck on dirt roads to some quaint, remote mountain village that some other traveler or a guide book has raved about, think again.

For those who really want to give it a try – here is my advice. Find a place in your guidebook that has nothing special for tourists. No pristine beaches, no hill tribe populations, no “fabulous” guesthouses, and no towering monuments of any kind. The kind of place described as “without much of anything to keep a visitor overnight” or “there is no reason to stay here more than a few hours.” Go there and stay for a while.

Then talk to me again about “getting off the beaten path.”