With its enticing mix of rainforest-clad islands, vast stretches of white sandy beaches, bustling capital cities and finely preserved ruins and temples, it is no surprise that tourists in their thousands flock to Southeast Asia. Every year a ceaseless mass of people travel to the likes of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, and even the Philippines and Burma, to either follow the region’s well-trodden tourist trails or to venture off the beaten track. In February a friend and I joined this wave, and I noticed a trend amongst the travellers I met along the way. There were tourists from every corner of the globe, it seemed, except from Africa. My question is: Why?
As I was raised in Nairobi, I have a habit of seeking out Kenyans wherever I travel. Usually my Tusker t-shirt does the work for me, but on this occasion there were simply no Kenyans to chat to. I met one, in fact, a drunk elderly man at a bar called ‘Heart of Darkness’ in Phnom Penh. He claimed to have lived and worked in Cambodia for seven years. His occupation escapes me, and our conversation probably escaped him the morning after, but he was not the only African I met working in the region. In Bangkok I met a couple of Ghanaians playing football in one of Thailand’s new professional leagues. The tourists though, were few and far between.
Southeast Asia is synonymous with backpacker travel, and has been since the introduction of guide book travel in the 70’s – possibly even before that when thousands of hippies flocked from Europe in the 60’s to follow the ancient Silk Road that stretched all the way to China. Today, the region lacks the past allure of exploring the unknown, but is now an established and immensely popular tourist destination.
The fact of the matter is: it is cheap. The influx of tourists has bred a vast range of accommodation, from luxury hotels to two-dollar-a-night youth hostels. Even the seemingly up-market places have cheap options. On the island of Koh Tao in southern Thailand, we found a bungalow on the beachfront for about 5 dollars a night per person.
The food, too, hardly requires deep pockets. If you’re disciplined enough, you can survive off tasty street food for a dollar. In Vietnam’s capital a bottle of Siagon Red beer will set you back 30 shillings. Getting around isn’t expensive either – renting motorbikes is cheap and a flexible bus ticket up the entire Vietnamese coast cost each of us $25.
There were beds in the buses too. Even the flights – though booked in advance and with a lengthy stopover in Mumbai – were affordable, despite the fact that we travelled in the high season. Money, therefore, shouldn’t be the issue.
Where, then, do Kenyans prefer to travel? According to Alex, who works at Bunsen Travel at the Junction, the majority simply stay within the country.
‘Most Kenyans rarely venture further than Uganda or Tanzania, maybe even Zanzibar.’ I asked why youngsters don’t consider Asia as an option before or after university, to match the ‘gap year’ culture in Europe – and he laughed. ‘The only youngsters going to that part of the world are honeymooners, or corporate people who go to Bangkok for a couple of days for business. It’s just not marketed enough.’ He has a point.
Budget trips to Southeast Asia are advertised heavily in Europe, where books such as the Lonely Planet’s ‘South-East Asia on a Shoestring’ lure youngsters to follow the region’s backpacker trails. In Nha Trang – half way up the Vietnamese coast – the streets are lined with restaurants with menus in Russian, and Russian travel agencies; so package holidays must be advertised heavily in parts of Russia. That certainly isn’t the case in Nairobi.
The other misconception, I think, is that Southeast Asia is simply too far away, and that the further away a place is, the more expensive it becomes. I have already highlighted how cheap travelling around that part of the world can be, regardless of how far away it is. Or how far people think it is.
As a consequence of both these factors, travelling to Southeast Asia hasn’t developed into a trend in East Africa, and that’s a shame. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in particular are becoming increasingly popular destinations for a variety of travellers – from young backpackers to families with children. As a result the region is losing its past romanticism of exploring off the beaten track and stumbling into the kind of white, sandy coves that inspired Alex Garland’s The Beach. This, though, should not put you off. There is still room for exploration without being suffocated by tourists; navigating the waterways of Northern Laos’ highlands is a good example. Otherwise, simply stay on the beaten track. It is, after all, well-trodden for a reason.