When touristy places become exotic
A benefit of traveling off the beaten track is that when you finally visit a well-trodden place, it’s a pleasant surprise.
The annoyances of tourism – hustlers, touts, tons of restaurants and bars catering for tourists, loud drunken backpackers – become a cultural attraction, no longer a burden.
We had this feeling in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Arriving in Serendipity Beach, the city’s most popular quarter, we were mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers, offers for massage, 10 year-old bracelet hawkers, and a mile of beach shacks offering 50-cent beer pints and “happy” pizzas.
The last time we experienced something similar was in Airlie Beach, Australia. It was tame by comparison, consisting of a single strip of hostels, bars, and travel agencies. No one ran after us to sell a service.
Then we had a blissful two months in Papua New Guinea and the lesser-known parts of Indonesia.
Arriving in Sihanoukville gave us a kind of culture shock that assaults not your notion of custom, but of place. A town that transformed itself for tourism invites its own kind of lazy philosophical meanderings. You wonder what the pushy locals would be doing if there were no foreigners. You see the lengths local businesses go to make visitors feel at home away from home. You see how (young) people act when far from the eyes of parents and bosses.
It turns a strip of bars, cafes and souvenir shops into a museum as well as a hangout spot. And it inverts the logical purpose of travel: while some people escape a comfortable, routine life to rough it for a bit, you indulge in a few rare comforts between bouts of roughing.
And you leave recharged, ready to plunge into the unpredictable once more, forget the corny clubbiness of it all, and be surprised on your next shore leave.
I no longer look down on touristy places. But I had to avoid them like the plague to appreciate their delights.