Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Travel Spoilers

“Why in the world are you going to Thailand?” they ask. (Or Bali, or Tibet, or Angkor, or Tahiti, or Paris, for that matter.) “It’s been completely spoiled.”

Then they hoist their beer or shot or Steinlager or whatever the hell they’re drinking, settle themselves onto their stools, and say, “Now when I first went there . . . .”

And they’re off, reciting the Travel Spoiler’s version of Paradise Lost, describing an era – now vanished in the dim mists of time – when the place you’ve been saving up for years to visit was actually worth visiting.

The people were friendlier, the streets less crowded, the culture more authentic, the summer cooler, the rainy period briefer, beautiful women threw themselves at men’s feet (you don’t hear much about the reverse), and you could rent a five-room apartment over the river for twenty dollars a month. Oh, and did they mention the women?

When they’ve run out of superlatives to describe the past and negatives to taint the present, they deliver the coup de grace: “I’m finished with Thailand, actually.” (Or Bali, or Tibet, or Angkor, or Tahiti.) “Can’t even stand to go back, it’s changed so much.”

By now you may be so dismayed that you missed the nugget of good news in that last paragraph: Wherever you’re going, this person won’t be there. There will be other Travel Spoilers of various kinds, but this particular one won’t be among them. So cheer up, and let me tell you a secret:

All those places are still wonderful.

I don’t understand why so many people (okay, mostly men) seem compelled to make the point that they experienced the true Thailand or Tibet or whatever, and what you’re about to enter is some sort of animatronic theme park designed for less discerning travelers. Underlying this attitude is a very specific kind of snobbery. The country you’re going to visit was better then because it was harder to get to, there weren’t good hotels, the roads were scratched in the dirt with a stick.

But now, the argument suggests, just anybody can go there. People who wear shorts. People who don’t care about the culture. People, they are suggesting, like you.

Another common thread that runs through the Spoilers’ stories is that the people who live in the country on your itinerary were more eager to accommodate the intrepid explorers of the Golden Age than they are today. No request was too unreasonable; all (male) tourists were treated like Brad Pitt; some American or European schnorrer teaching English for three dollars an hour could afford four servants. Boil all that down, and you come up with this: back in the days of paradise, the people were poorer. And now they’re not so poor, and the Travel Spoiler doesn’t like that.

Anyway, if you’re unlucky enough to run up against one of these clowns, ignore him. People have been saying for decades that the earth’s various paradises were spoiled. Before I went to Bali for the first time, I read a classic book written in the 1930s by an artist named Miguel Covarrubias, in which he said repeatedly that Bali had been spoiled. Sixty years after Covarrubias wrote his book, Bali took my breath away. People have been proclaiming Thailand to be over since the 1980s, but it’s still the only Thailand on the planet, and it’s one of the world’s blessed places. Ignore the Travel Spoiler and recognize him for what he is: a snob and a closet colonialist who wants to lord it over the people of any country he condescends to visit.

But I have to tell you, the first time I visited Angkor . . . .


  1. Tim, my friend, you have hit upon a nerve. Not a painful one, but still a nerve.

    As you point out, everything changes and Mykonos is no exception, but I never tell a prospective or arrived visitor anything of the sort (except in the first part of this sentence). I agree with you that each must be allowed to discover the magic of a place on his or her own. No frame of reference is needed, and I get great joy out of hearing a newbie gush over some "new discovery."

    But here's the rub for me: the returning travel spoiler. Perhaps it's a unique Mykonos breed, but I come across them regularly. They seemingly return just to tell any who will listen just how different (translated as worse) the island is from the "last time I was here," generally expressed in multiple decade spanning units.

    The twist on this type of traveler, it that unlike the genus you describe, mine are mostly female. I never thought about it until reading your piece (again you're a thought provoker), but you've suggested an answer to that phenomenon.

    Unlike Thailand, where evidently "beautiful women throw themselves at men's feet," historically Mykonos was a place where attractive men offered the same opportunity to women (mostly). Exhibit #1, the film/play "Shirley Valentine."

    Perhaps because that too has changed (for a myriad of reasons), they speak only of the past in an effort to protect whatever sweet youthful memories they risked by coming home again?

    Whatever, the only thing I can say for certain is that the returning travel spoiler has far more courage than their barstool-only, high-horse traveling counterparts.

  2. On the other hand, nothing beats the first visit, especially if the traveler is young and had to work two jobs to get there. Nothing is taken for granted.

    If the trip also involves attending some institution of higher education, the first time traveler is surrounded by people of the same age who are experiencing the country for the first time, too. Enthusiasm is contagious.

    The real reason for putting off a second or third trip isn't fear that the country has changed as much as it is having to acknowledge how much has changed for the traveler. No one gets to be twenty-two twice.

  3. Wow, I crawl out of bed, take one sip of coffee, and find myself looking at two very thought-provoking posts.

    To Jeff, I can only say I wish I'd thought of that. The returning travel spoiler is a blight on existence. In Thailand, they're mostly male since fewer women come here in search of company (although some do) than to Mykonos. The returned, discontented travel apoilers are the second worst kind of farang in the Kingdom, the absolute worst being those who have actually STAYED as the place fell to pieces around them.

    And Beth hits the nail on the head: as much as destinations change, we ourselves change a lot faster and a lot more. The permanently embittered expat in Thailand, the guy who hates everything but has nowhere else to go, is a guy who s no longer young and cute and for whom the Thais once went out of their way to be pleasant to, to adopt, to smile at, to go home with. There's nothing wrong with Thailand that 40 years off their age and 20 inches off their waist wouldn't fix.

  4. I think a lot of pleasure in a place rests on attitude. To see any place as fresh and new again is very important. I would choose what is uniquely of that country, and enjoy it again and again. I detest snobs of the kind that look down on a place because it isn't what it used to be. Much closer to home, I've been to Yosemite in all seasons, and it never fails to impress. Wander five minutes off a trail and suddenly you are in a quiet, almost sacred place. (Just pay attention to signs that tell you to stay out of danger). Those travel spoilers are more interested in making themselves important than enjoy the world. A little humility wouldn't hurt.

  5. If you could travel backwards, to the time those travel spoilers arrived in (wherever) the first time, you would probably have heard them say that (wherever) is just not as good as someplace else they have visited. Its a status thing. What I have is better than what you have - and you can never get what I have. Plus, some people enjoy complaining more than they enjoy traveling.

  6. Lil and Dawne, you're both 100% right. These jerks actually think they're more important than the country or sacred spot they're dissing.

    This is the kind of thing that makes me wish for a REALLY selective virus.

  7. Well, you have a really selective virus or sorts, if you think about it this way, Tim - the syndrome itself protects the target from further visits! Pat