The Banana Pancake Trail as a Cultural Tourism Route

the beach movie film

Recorded travel is as old as the earliest pilgrimages, and Buddhist routes existed in Asia before the establishment of Christianity. Much like for those who ventured on early pilgrimages and the wealthy young European men who popularised the Grand Tour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, travel is still a vehicle for self-understanding and self-transforming. A prominent travel destination for many young backpackers and tourists of the past few decades is the so-called Banana Pancake Trail in South-East Asia, named for the cheap breakfast food to be found at many locations in the area. Existing roughly within the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Singapore, and often including Nepal, India, Indonesia and The Philippines, the trail is used heavily by backpackers and other travellers and tourists. It can broadly be defined as a circuit “linking backpacker urban enclaves, coastal and inland resorts, and the main attractions within a region” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Academic interest in backpackers’ motivations and experiences has grown in recent years (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.4), as the cultural and economic importance of South-East Asia is increasingly recognised. This essay will examine the Banana Pancake Trail as a cultural tourism destination, including its evolution from its early appearance as a destination in Western literature to its contemporary position as somewhat of a rite of passage for many young Western backpackers, the motivations for backpackers visiting the area, and the outcomes for both visitors and the region as a result.

In the 1950s, young Westerners began travelling through South-East Asia, following the route set out by Marco Polo 700 years earlier. The route became known in popular Western culture as the Hippie Trail, similar to its North American counterpart the Gringo Trail, and was closely linked to the transnational counter-culture movement of the time (Sobocinska 2014, p.1). As a result, ‘oriental’ lifestyles moved from being denigrated to romanticised in literature (Neville 1970, p.205), and the modes of travel developed on the Hippie Trail heavily influenced backpacking culture in the region from the 1980s onwards (Sobocinska 2014, p.1). Backpacking offers an “unlimited level of flexibility” (Smith et. al 2010, p.18) compared to types of travel used by the conventional tourist, but the mythification of backpackers as ‘anti-tourists’ is a concept both questionable and complex. Backpackers carry not only the physical baggage which gives them their name, but cultural baggage which helps form backpacker culture wherever they go (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.3), and ultimately change the places they visit as well as themselves. The concept of the Banana Pancake Trail evolved from the Hippie Trail as tens of thousands of young Westerners began to travel it, some “bent on experiencing the ‘real’ Asia, others pursuing their notion of an Eastern spiritual quest” (Rea 2006, p.50), and others “reacting to the alienation of modern society” (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.3). While an abundance of literature and technological options have placed a wealth of information on the trail at the fingertips of millions worldwide, research shows that many backpackers still view the countries on the trail as “exotic” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). This is despite the fact that infrastructure for backpackers that began to grow in South East Asia from the 1970s is now firmly established (Noy 2006, p.39) and visitors to the region can find the same tourist amenities available as just about anywhere else on the planet, providing they can pay for them.

A useful way to examine the Banana Pancake Trail’s position as a cultural tourism destination is to consider backpackers’ motivations for going there. One such motivation is adventure tourism, or tourism involving activities that are physically challenging or unexpected. The culture of the early Hippie Trail was promoted as being the “final grasp of authentic adventure” in the face of the ensuing influx of mass tourism (Sobocinska 2014, p.1), but the Banana Pancake Trail has since become a much more commoditised version of the original trail. It has been argued that risk and adventure are constructs in South-East Asia, facilitated by backpacker-targeting tour companies which market themselves as alternative or adventure tourism (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.49). Many backpackers are willing to adopt the fantasy exploited by certain sections of the industry, as a way of constructing a new, temporary identity while visiting the Banana Pancake Trail, with the aim of becoming more independent and adventurous, and to revolt against the regulations of society (Maoz 2007, p.122).

The increase in numbers of young backpackers seeking adventurous or risky activities on the Banana Pancake Trail has resulted in significant changes to certain areas and the communities who live in them. A prominent example is the small Laotian town of Vang Vieng on the Mekong River. Laos has only officially welcomed international tourists since 1989 (Hitchcock 2009, p.168), and Vang Vieng quickly underwent a “sudden metamorphosis from hippy hangout to water-propelled club strip” (Little 2016, p.13), fuelled by a party industry centred on the many tourist bars and river ‘inner-tubing’ businesses which attract young thrill-seekers. A sleepy village was turned into a partying hotspot, but tourist deaths from drug overdoses and drowning led to government intervention and a clampdown on the number of bars and nightclubs in 2010-2012, although the town has since been partially returned to the state of its “good old days” in order to “convince hedonistic Western tourists to make the trip” (Little 2016, p.13). Incomes for much of the town’s poor have been increased as a result of the transformation (Hitchcock 2009, p.179), but the area has arguably been changed irreversibly for the worse, losing much of its original culture.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Another motivation for backpackers visiting the Banana Pancake Trail is for the purposes of dark tourism: tourism which provides “potential spiritual journeys for [those] who wish to gaze upon real and recreated death” (Stone 2006, p.54). Travel to sites of dark tourism “links representations of reality with deliberately cultivated forms of subjectivity” (Adler 1989, p.1384) and has long inspired debates about morality. It has been argued that motivations for visiting dark tourism sites currently exist alongside other motivations (Seaton 1996, p.243) or that dark tourism should be classified not as one homogeneous category, but as “an array of tourisms, each entailing different histories, geographies, tourist subjectivities and specific, embodied performances that continually (re)produce both ‘dark’ places and their visitors” (Hughes 2008, p.318). Since the numbers of backpackers visiting the trail increased rapidly from the 1990s, many dark tourism sites in South-East Asia went through a “process of commercialisation from that initial demand to becoming a formal destination” (Hiebert 2014, online). The commoditisation of death has “long been a theme of the morbid gaze” (Stone 2012, p.1565) and with consumption so inherent in post-modern culture, it is almost inevitable that dark tourism sites create opportunities to develop a tourism product (Smith et. al 2010, p.36). As a result of increased interest, sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia now appear often in registers of dangerous destinations. A major problem with the concept of dark tourism is the fact the framing of instances of death and suffering by victims and aggressors often clash (Gezgin 2009, p.49). Vietnam, for example, has numerous dark tourism sites and is still feeling the affects of both the French and American occupations and conflicts from 1945 to 1975, but, paradoxically, Americans contribute to the tourist economy of the country more than visitors from any other nation (Gezgin 2009, p.49). Masanti (2016, p.113) suggests that the exploitation of death as a tourist experience is much less acceptable to local communities than to visitors to the destination, with suffering seen as being turned into a leisure activity for contemporary tourists (Smith et. al 2010, p.38). Dissonance or discord is often evident at dark tourism sites in South-East Asia as a result, especially where the views of victims and perpetrators are “not given equal prominence” (Tunbridge & Ashworth 1996, p.120).

Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Killing Fields, Cambodia

Further motivation for backpackers visiting the area is for the purposes of screen tourism: tourism that provides a link with locations where film or television productions were shot. Alex Garland’s best-selling book, The Beach, is about a very particular form of tourism, relating a story of a group of self-styled travellers who seek to distance themselves from more conventional tourists in Thailand’s isolated islands. The book and its subsequent film adaptation “provide a cultural critique of attempts to uncover the ‘authentic’, ‘real’ and ‘different’” (Law et. al 2007, p.142), and have likely shaped cultures of travel on the Banana Pancake Trail more than any other. It has been estimated the film has injected US$13 million into Thailand’s economy (Law et. al 2007, p.143), but increased film spectatorship as a form of tourism has also increased pollution and environmental destruction in the area of the island of Ko Phi Phi, where much of the film was shot. Additionally, the set was dramatically altered to appear more ‘tropical’, providing an unrealistic impression of the location. Film locations turned into tourism destinations can be problematic, as what visitors are seeing is the “front stage chosen and presented by the director of the film, and are using in effect a film goer’s gaze” (Butler 2011, p.93).

The effects of increased numbers of visitors to the trail over the last three decades have been remarkable in many ways. The growth of mass-produced travel literature from the early 1970s promoted South-East Asia as “one of the great travel adventures” (Wheeler 1979, p.27), although the continued success of Lonely Planet arguably has had negative effects on the region as a place for ‘off-the-track’ travel. While it has been said that early travellers to a region widen lifespaces by “exploring not only unknown geographic areas but also unknown/strange social situations” (Loker-Murphy & Pearce 1995, p.827), and as routes change due to constant seeking-out of new places, the seeds for later mass tourism are sewn (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.1). It has been argued that since a large number of backpackers have visited the Banana Pancake Trail since the 1970s, and despite increases in “heritage protection and management, conscientization and participatory planning, grassroots development and pro-poor tourism, co-management, and corporate social responsibility” (Hitchcock 2009, p.313), large swathes of the trail have succumbed to the inevitable commercialisation that follows tourism. The recent proliferation of institutionalised backpacker enclaves in cityscapes is a strong indicator of this. A prominent example is Bangkok’s Khao San Road, a small stretch of the inner city made up of cheap guesthouses, backpacker lodges, bars, budget restaurants and internet cafés (Muzaini 2005, p.144). From two guesthouses in the early 80s, there are now several hundred in the area (Cummings & Martin 2001, p.231).

khao san road, bangkok

Khao San Road, Bangkok

It is useful to examine the extent of any economic benefit to communities on the Banana Pancake Trail, as a measure of the cultural significance of backpackers in the region. Backpackers on the trail have been condemned for a number of reasons – their appearance, attitudes to drugs and sex, cultural insensitivity, stinginess and seclusion (Wilson & Richards, 2004, p.43) – but it has also been argued they contribute greatly to the economy of marginal communities (Scheyvens 2002, p.144). The manner in which backpackers travel on the Banana Pancake Trail – longer stays mean less economic leakage – benefits the economically weak members of the travel industry (Connell 2005, p.538). Looking at the national economy of Laos, as an example, evidence points to tourism benefiting the poor (Hitchcock 2009, p.179), although it has also been argued that members of communities through which backpackers pass “have frequently represented little more than pawns in a much larger game controlled by outsiders” (Westerhausen & Macbeth 2010, p.71). Interactions between communities and backpackers over small transactions can be viewed as a microcosm of the wider relationship and attitudes between backpackers and communities. Scheyvens (2002, p.147) explains that some backpackers “regard haggling as a game, to the extent that they may [so] exploit [traders] for a sale that they accept unreasonably low prices for their products”. So, while the practice of bartering or haggling over prices of goods can ingratiate a tourist to locals, it also has the potential to burn bridges. Sobocinska (2014, p.1) explains that power dynamics in such circumstances tend to replicate colonial practices, and can bring about mistrust or stronger feelings between the two parties. Studies have also concluded that many backpackers choose to travel on a budget as a lifestyle choice or philosophy rather than necessity, which can further evoke unfavourable reactions from members of communities who have no such choices (Wilson 1997, p.52; Murphy 2001, p.50).

The question of whether backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail should be regarded as travellers or tourists has been studied in increasing detail over the past two to three decades. Culler (1990, p.2) explains that the traveller is someone who seeks authenticity off the ‘beaten track’, or is “working at something”, while the tourist is solely “a pleasure seeker”, although tourism as a leisure activity becomes “ever more complex as it shades into such other activities as ‘lifestyle migration’ and longer-term sojourns” (Hitchcock 2009, p.312). Historically, the characteristics of travel began to change in the mid-nineteenth century, with the success of Thomas Cook and Sons and mass transportations systems brought about the “the decline of the traveller and the rise of the tourist” (Boorstin 1992, p.146). As travel methods evolved, tourist attractions became more numerous, offering “an elaborately contrived indirect experience” (Culler 1990, p.1), and the discrepancy between the “intentions of tourists and their practice [became] endemic to tourism itself” (Scheuch 1981, p.1089). While it can be argued backpackers are the “antithesis of the modern-day tourists”, who avoid conventional elements of the tourism industry (Kontogeorgopoulos 2003, p.177), it can also be said that wanting to be less touristy than other tourists is, in itself, part of being a tourist (Culler 1990, p.4). A connecting element among backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail is the “self-established and maintained contrast to mass tourism, which becomes apparent” (Spreitzhofer 1998, p.980), although it can be problematic to group all backpackers together into a group seen to be having the same motivations, goals and methods of immersion in the cultures in which they travel. Many strategies can be used to set backpackers apart from tourists or other, more inexperienced, backpackers, concerning how they construct their identity in relation to both locals and other travellers.

halong bay vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

In theory, backpackers’ use of budget guest houses and bungalows is a way in which “encounters with the ‘other’ are made possible” (Muzaini 2005, p.148). The ‘other’, in this case, is a closer or more prolonged exposure to locals’ families, manners, and daily lives in general; the theory being that locals are more likely to own and run small establishments than they are big hotel chains, and domestic tourists are more likely to also stay at cheaper establishments, facilitating backpackers’ contact with them. The same philosophy often also applies to shops and restaurants, with the idea that roadside stalls offer a more authentic experience than a restaurant franchise with Europeanised or “visitor food” (Suvantola 2002, p.149), although it is not always easy to dispense with other factors, including safety and cleanliness (Muzaini 2005, p.149). Backpackers generally consume what is produced locally as a method of identifying and maintaining familiarity with locals (Hampton 1998, p.639). However, with some exceptions, backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail have largely been criticised for not seeking the authentic in their destination, and the extent to which backpackers choose to be with each other, instead of locals, has been described as similar to that of the “’tourist bubble’, in that very few travellers encounter local people in non-commercial settings” (Fitzgerald 2000, online). Although friendly local staff are appreciated (Murphy 2001, p.50), relationships with other backpackers are often more important (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.47), and some studies suggest many backpackers have little or no interest in meeting, and learning from, local communities; rather they often show blatant disregard for social norms (Maoz 2007, p.122). Additionally, the greater role played by the Internet in tourism since the early 2000s has “allowed the individual backpacker to invoke a personal virtual community to supplement face-to-face interaction”, easing access to consumption of backpacker tourism (Sorenson 2003, p.847).

To measure its importance as a cultural tourism destination, it is useful to examine the history and evolution of the Banana Pancake Trail in terms of its commercialisation, from its position as “one of the great travel adventures” (Wheeler 1979, p.27), to a region where guest houses, restaurants and bars “proudly display signboards stating ‘as recommended in Lonely Planet‘” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Backpacker routes have undergone significant changes since the 1970s, due to the increased proliferation of budget travel options and the “interaction between the increasing commercialization and institutionalization of backpacker tourism” (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Backpacker choices can be viewed as being heavily guided by growing commercialisation operating in conjunction with other variables such as low-cost air and rail networks and external factors such as terrorism and political instability (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556). Indeed, the rise of corporate selection of backpacker routes since the 1990s and the advent of the Internet has meant less backpackers on the trail are making and following their own routes, meaning a greater supplier-driven system is in place in the region. This has contributed to the growth of the theory that, despite frequently describing themselves as independent travellers rather than institutionalised mass tourists (Hampton & Hamzah 2016, p.556), backpackers on the Banana Pancake Trail have ultimately largely become the “major affirmation of the modernity of tourism” (Wilson & Richards 2004, p.253) through their attempts, and failure, to avoid the modernisation of backpacker consumption.

In conclusion, it can be said that backpackers of the 1950s and 1960s blazed trails for those who followed, but the rapid commercialisation of the Banana Pancake Trail has meant fewer options for travelling in an ‘un-tourist-like’ fashion in the area. In recent years backpackers, and the culture which follows and manifests itself where they travel in numbers, often have negative effects on local communities and landscapes on the trail, including the destruction of natural features, creation of enclaves and inauthentic communities, and discord between locals and visitors. Backpackers’ motivations for visiting the trail are varied and complex, but have been described as misguided and fantastical, and it has been argued that they often avoid interacting with local communities, despite intending or professing to do the opposite. Countries through which the Banana Pancake Trail runs benefit financially from the presence of backpackers, but often at significant cost to their traditional cultures.

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