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Postcard from Cambodia – Part 4: The Rise of the Ancient Backpacker

December 4, 2019

Sihanoukville – the casinos have almost reached the sea

Back in the day, backpacking was a serious business. Plenty of my generation took the hippy trail to the East, hitchhiking overland through Turkey and Iran to Kabul, then on to Kathmandu, Delhi or Goa, sustained by inexpensive food and lodgings. After months of cheap dope and spiritual enlightenment, they would run out of money and rely on handouts from anxious parents to make it back home. No internet, the occasional postcard, fast diminishing traveller’s cheques and finally the emergency call for help.

The locals would look at these visitors with a mixture of incredulity that people from rich countries would deliberately seek poverty, and greed at the prospect of what wealth they could extract from them.

“Going travelling” was something you did before you went to university or took a proper job. Older folks were somewhere on the path between buying their first home and retiring on a decent pension.

Several decades on, things are a bit different, in the UK at least. The kids are at home, struggling to pay the rent, and if they need a handout, they have to contact their parents, who happen to be backpacking in Bali. Yes, there are still young people out in obscure tropical locations looking to find themselves, but few of them are far away from an ATM and an internet cafe.

These days backpacking seems to be a multi-generational thing. Rather like Glastonbury, but somewhat more time-consuming.

We saw the evidence when at the end of the trip to Cambodia we stayed at a small resort which consisted of a dozen bamboo villas, a central eating area and a pool. The villa had most of the mod cons that we wanted – air-conditioning, a functioning shower, decent wifi and the all-important kettle. It wasn’t four or five-star luxury, but it was all we needed for a quiet week before we headed back to stormy Britain. For $40 a night, what’s not to like?

Across the road, the same owners offer little huts with communal bathrooms for $9 a night. The people who stay there check in to the central dining area, so we got to see them as they passed in and out.

Most of them were groups of two or three. Usually they were loaded with backpacks that looked heavier than they were. But for every bunch of young travellers, there was an equal number of grizzled older folks, often in their fifties and sixties, also lugging big rucksacks. Some of the guys appeared to be travelling alone.

How many were dedicated long-term travellers was hard to say. The overland routes are now blocked off, so most of them would have arrived on cheap flights that weren’t available fifty years ago.

The young ones reminded me of our elder daughter and her boyfriend of the time, who at the age of 18 set off for a gap year trip that took them to India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and the west coast of the USA. I can’t say I wasn’t worried about their safety, but hey, life’s a risk, they did the self-defence course and they made it back OK.

But today, a decade on, would I be so sanguine? The kids, especially the girls, looked so vulnerable, so fragile.

Would I be comforted by the presence of those older backpackers, or more worried? When we arrived at Sihanoukville, I thought to myself that if I was on the run, this would not be a bad place to hang out. And then I read that the city has indeed been a refuge for dodgy travellers, including paedophiles, who have plenty of scope to do what they do. I thought of Gary Glitter, who used Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam as his hunting ground. How many like him have never been caught?

In this town at least, the days when you can easily go off grid must surely soon be over. As China’s investment in massive hotels and casinos bears fruit, the original inhabitants live in what is increasingly becoming a small enclave surrounded by what our resort owner sadly refers to as “the new Macao”. Chinese investment will surely bring Chinese surveillance technology. Hiding places will be harder to find.

Will that be a good thing? In one sense yes, if you see mass surveillance as a means to guarantee order and safety. But many people from the West, young and old, go travelling to see worlds different from their own, to learn from different cultures and bring new perspectives to their daily lives back home. And unlike in their own countries, there are still places to go where the camera doesn’t pry. Needless to say, only a tiny number seek anonymity for nefarious reasons.

But for the upwardly mobile nations of South East Asia, increasingly falling into China’s economic (if not yet political) orbit, backpackers are the wrong type of tourists. Living on a tight budget, unable to load themselves with additional baggage, they have money to spend on doing stuff rather than buying things.

Are the Chinese any different? Not that much in my experience, except that the large number of visitors from mainland China are part of a first wave of tourism from that country. Most come on package tours, and travel by coach from place to place in large groups. Hotels don’t benefit hugely from their presence because the tour operators negotiate big discounts. Often enough, they spurn dining outlets for street food. Partly because of language difficulties, they stick to themselves – so there’s not much interchange to be had with locals or travellers of other nationalities.

But I doubt that the concrete palaces of Sihanoukville are being built for them – at least not the high end properties. Just as the shimmering towers of Dubai are not for the low-paid workers who build and maintain them, so it will be the moneyed classes who will enjoy the new Macao.

Already, according to a young Japanese guy who befriended us at the resort, many of the tens of casinos in the city are open already. They’re glitzier than Las Vegas, and they’re packed with Chinese gamblers sporting huge wads of dollars. Illegally gained money, he reckons, which they must use or lose.

For how long the native Khmers, many of whom resent the dilution of their culture and specifically the dominance of the Chinese, will tolerate their lowly status remains to be seen. As the graffiti on a wall close to our beach proclaims: “RIP Sihanoukville”. Another, on a sign next to a rare piece of undeveloped land, says “Not for Sale”. And this one speaks for itself:

My backpacking days are over. In fact they ended almost as soon as they began. A trip through France and Italy in the summer before university was about the extent of it. Afterwards, a few rock festivals and that was that. These days, the old knees wouldn’t stand more than a few hundred metres weighed down by twenty kilos of baggage on my back.

But for those with young knees, it must be quite disturbing to think that they can travel halfway around the world, break free of parental influence and end up in a bamboo hut next door to one of Mummy’s best friends.

Alas, the days of taking off thousands of miles away with only a rucksack for company may soon be over. If the ice shelves keep slipping into the sea, those beautiful beaches may turn into salt marshes or mangrove swamps. And emergency measures to reduce CO2 emissions might render long-haul flying beyond the pockets of all but the very wealthy, who will not be bringing backpacks.

What the future would hold for those who rely on tourism for a living is anybody’s guess. In Sihanoukville, perhaps those who decry the Chinese city rising around them would, after all, be grateful for the presence of the new visitors. Assuming, of course, that the casinos don’t slip underwater along with the rest of the coastline.

For me, such a mournful prospect is perhaps academic. By that time, having played my full part in screwing up the environment, I shall probably be looking forward to the annual old folks’ coach trip to Bognor Regis. If Bognor still exists, that is.

From → Postcards, Social, Travel

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