Just a few months back, I had the chance to return to the very first countries I traveled to in my early days of backpacking. It was interesting at best.
I still remember my first foray into the strange unknown. Back then it will take me at least 6 months of preparation just to travel within Southeast Asia (I am based in the Philippines so it shouldn’t be that stressful as coming from any further away). Travel guides were the best source of information – Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc (yes, books – we had them in paperbacks kiddos!). Then you access the travel forums for the latest info. What time is the last boat to the island? How much can you rent a motorbike? Is XX Restaurant still open? That sort of thing.
Nowadays, it’s all about the apps. Internet made things easier now. You can book flights, accommodation, island transfers, heck even a real time access to camera streams, just by the touch of a button. The good thing about this is a smart phone takes less space in that 60L backpack. Now you only can arm yourself with 10 other electronic things to carry with you.
When I first did my mainland Southeast Asia route, I chose Thailand as my entry point. There were no budget airlines at the time so traveling around means flying to the main hubs – Singapore or Thailand then organize the border crossings from there. I had printouts of pages and pages of information that I copied and pasted from research along with my LP book to navigate my way around. Back then staying in places like Khao San Road made sense. When you are trying to get your bearings in a foreign land, the comfort of seeing other travelers doing the same thing as you makes the difference for a nervous, solo traveler. Plus, I don’t deny that any time you want to take a break from eating like a local, there are available familiar food around. Today, people reviews and the numerous travel blogs can get you a sense of what to expect even before landing.
I recently entered Thailand through one of the land border crossings from Cambodia. Again, this is a vast improvement from many moons ago. There was only one border between Cambodia and Thailand at that time and it took me and a friend hours to haggle the best price for a taxi to get us from Aranyaprathet to Poi Pet and more hours traveling across. Border immigration then refused to acknowledge that my passport was visa exempt.
Now there are public buses and vans that go through several borders for less amount of time. Immigration is also not a hassle. Touts trying to carry your bag for an overpriced fee unfortunately still exist.
Beautiful view at the border crossing between Koh Kong and Hat Lek
Of course the obvious change nowadays is the evident increase of full on mass tourism. After a week of partying non-stop in Southern Thailand, I decided to take a break and take one of those brochure printed fast boat trips to Koh PhiPhi and surrounds. I imagined that being on a boat and doing island hoping is much better than returning for another day of beer pong or some other excuse to drink. The moment I showed up at the meeting point, I instantly regretted it. There was a massive crowd that were being herded by the organizers of the tour companies. People were cramped to some 50 or more fast boats and moving en mass from island to island. Now I know the how it feels to be led like a cattle in a herd. Jesus!
I was super grateful that I spent two weeks on the relatively quiet beaches of Sihanoukville and Koh Rong before that. Best decision ever!
A deserted Otres Beach in Sihanoukville
Okay so maybe I have company. But he is more interested in playing with his shadow than me.
I am literally 2 minutes away from the beach
One of the many pristine beaches of Koh Rong
Hiking over to the other side of the island
Hopefully we have a few more years to get to see this before full development arrives in this part of Cambodia.
Now back to present day Southern Thailand. I blame the movie, The Beach for ruining the beautiful Maya bay. Imagine some 300-500 tourists visiting Maya Beach on a daily basis. It is sad.
Plan on sun bathing here? Forget it.
Even the diving seem to be operated like a tour group. They sign up divers in small groups which is good. They then put those small groups in one big boat. Result? There will be some 50 or so divers going underwater all at once. If there was one good thing about this experience and despite the rough waters and poor visibility, we still manage to see some marine life and not just diver fins.
So here I am, sounding like a jaded traveler. Will I continue traveling? You can bet on that. Will I attempt to come back to places that I have gone before? I will be choosy about it. If there is one thing that never stops it is the travel experience – the nature, the locals and fellow travelers that you meet along the way, the people you fall in love with, the friends that you gain, the scents and colours, the food, the similarities and differences from one culture to another.. all these makes it still worthwhile to keep on traveling.