The only thing that stays the same is that things are constantly changing and that’s nowhere more true than in rapidly developing Asia. Scott & Trevor talk about how places change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but they always change. Often it’s your memory that’s not accurate too and the people you were with, mood you were in, etc, can impact how you remember a place. On this episode of Talk Travel Asia podcast, Trevor and Scott talk about how a number of places in Asia that they know well have changed over the years, both for good and for bad.
Trevor: I find that change can be bad if rapid popularity with tourists causes an area to develop rapidly without planning, which often results in negative environmental and cultural consequences. Many places I once loved have “jumped the shark” as first locals and then outsiders rush to cash in on a place’s popularity and both the physical and spiritual value of a place is lost to the tourist hordes and the greedy developers.
That said, change can be good and can benefit a local population. I chose several to talk about today that have some down sides, but have generally gotten better over the decades that I have come to know them.
Ko Samui, Thailand
Trevor: On my first trip in 1996, Chawaeng had only one small stretch of paved road: most was still pot-holed dirt and I stayed at Charlie’s huts on the beach for like $10. Over the years I went more than 10 times, gradually spending less time on Samui and more on Phangan and Koh Tao. Gradually I was turned off by the whole chain and thought there was no reason to go back: just too over-developed. Two years ago I spent a month on Samui and fell in love all over again.
I stayed with a Cambodian friend in Mae Nam, which is a great little town. Rent is really cheap for a nice little bungalow, there is some great cheap local food, which can be hard to come by in many tourist beach areas, there are great restaurants (from Japanese to German) that cater to different expat crowds, and there are stretches of beach along the north shore that are really nice and tranquil. Almost every day I drove down to southern Lamai, where the water is outstanding for swimming; beautiful clear deep water with buoys. And there is always the nightlife in Chaweng, which is fun because everyone is on holiday.
Ao Nang, Krabi, Thailand
Scott: I first came here in 2000. It’s a jumping-off point for the climbing Mecca of Railay Bay, Ko Phi Phi islands and some other small islands in the area. It has some very nice beaches, stunning limestone cliffs all around that tower, beautiful islands and really is one of the most gorgeous beach areas in Thailand and offers lots of options and variety.
When I first came the hotel offerings were a bit simple, but moderate and up to mid-range. Restaurants were mostly locally owned, quaint and for the most part tasty (the ones along the main beach walk area have never been very good). It was very much in the infancy of developing, prices were quite low, locals friendly and I especially love the Muslim women selling fried and roasted chicken with spicy BBQ sauce near the beach walk.
With each subsequent visit older hotels/buildings were replaced with more expensive ones, more restaurants went up, most not very tasty and then small little malls opened and such until today. It’s still a very good beach option, but certainly isn’t as sleepy as it once was. With growth prices have also gone up quite a bit. I remember it being much harder to find a truly good Thai meal. There is now a Ritz Carlton about 25min north of Ao Nang, and it’s not quite as nice as I remember it way back when, but a place I would still visit and recommend others to.
Trevor: Yeah, Railay Beach was long one of my favorite places. I held out at The Railay Beach Club as a bit of an oasis as the development grew. But the shit in the water finally put me off and I’m not sure I can ever go back.
Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Trevor: Back in 2001, Siem Reap was basically a one horse town in regards to dining and nightlife. And the temples weren’t super crowded. Walking around Ta Phrom was still very Tomb Raider, and the big thing to do back then was to climb up the side of Angkor Wat for sunset, so the top of the temple was fairly crowded with people, but the entire experience was altogether different from what it is today.
First, while the crowds are obviously much greater now, it’s probably better that everyone climbs up the Bakheng for sunset instead of all over the top of Angkor. In general, the “way of visits” forcing you along wooden walking paths take some of the fun out of the experience at Ta Phrom, for example, but it’s probably better you can’t climb over everything anymore.
Nowadays, it’s easier to get to more remote temples; it was ideal around 2010 probably, as even the more remote temples like Koh Ker are now becoming super crowded. Beng Mealea is tour bus central already. Other changes include electric bikes (great), the Baphuon is finally open to visitors, the 3 of 7 day and 7 of 30 day temple passes are great, and I think the development of Siem Reap is mostly good.
That said, there are problems with the water table not having enough water for a modern city of its size and the impact on the temples from a depleted aquifer, but the development is rather charming, certainly good for the local economy, and for tourists there is a great selection of restaurants, bars, and shops, many of which support social enterprises. All in all I think Siem Reap and Angkor have changed for the better.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Scott: It was during my first year in Southeast Asia, in early 2000, that I came here with two friends from Canada. We got on a slow boat in Chiang Khong, Thailand, crossing over into Huay Xai in Laos and had a very slow, sleepy boat trip down the Mekong River, overnighting along the way, then finally arriving in Luang Prabang. At that time the roads were all dirt, hotels seemed basic (but we were backpackers anyway), the electricity was intermittent at times, and it was really a sleepy, semi-remote spot. We ate at cheap backpackers spots and I don’t remember seeing many well-heeled travelers.
I then went back in 2012 to update a Groovy Map guide-map. The town had developed, with almost every shop offering coffee, pastries, souvenirs, restaurants, massage shop, or other things that tourists like. Most roads were paved, which is nice, dust kind of sucks after a couple hours. While things had grown a bit, there were more high-end hotels (which is nice too to open up tourism to other markets), the town was still very charming. In many ways, it’s better, with more and better dining/drinking options. In many ways, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the peninsula of Luang Prabang is for tourist nowaday, preserved in time because of tourist revenue. Had tourists not started coming, people likely would not have fixed up old wooden houses, instead building new modern concrete ones. Luang Prabang is a solid bet.
Trevor: This is a tough one for me. I used to spend a lot of time in Luang Prabang and considered moving there are a number of occasions. Even 10 years ago I was worried about how increasing tourism was going to affect it, and my friend who was enticing me to live there suggested that I could help to be an agent of good change, helping combat the inevitable downsides to development.
My greatest fear was that what happened to Siem Reap would happen to Luang Prabang. It was fine with me if Siem Reap became a developed tourist town because the attraction was the temples, not the town. Luang Prabang town is the attraction and if it developed like Siem Reap it would effectively ‘die’ in my opinion. It helps that UNESCO is involved and even the communist Lao Government, which strictly controls almost everything that happens will help prevent the bad changes.
Over the first 7 or 8 years I visited I thought that development was mostly on the right track, but I’ve stopped going in recent years because I don’t want my heart broken. With Air Asia connecting Bangkok to Luang Prabang I worry my fears are coming true.
Scott & Trevor: Scott and Trevor talk about how the city has changed for both of them in both good and bad ways, including the development of the BTS and MRT and transportation apps such as Uber, the end of 24-hour bar openings, the introduction of craft beer and quality coffee, the current ‘Singaporization’ of the city, and how the prices have increased dramatically in recent years.
See a Photo Gallery of pictures from this episode!
To learn more about Scott & Trevor:
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- Trevor’s Blog
- Scott’s Blog
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- National Geographic Cambodia
- National Geographic Thailand
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