Welcome to the Land of Smile

Bangkok 2008


Morning all, I feel great this morning.

Today’s post is a little nostalgic. It begins with my website cover photo.  This one.

This image has been up on the landing page of backtotravel.com since the beginning in May 2014.  It’s weathered several design changes.  Gone from colour, to black and white. Had a green tint and even some bubble animations once upon a time.

So What Is It About This Image That I Love so Much?

Well, it’s the town. Bangkok.

For those that have never had a low budget travel experience in South East Asia, the significance may not be immediately clear. Allow me to enlighten you.

Bangkok is, or perhaps was, the modern backpacker’s mecca.

What?  Did you think it was Goa?

Nah.  It’s Bangkok for my generation.

Goa was the forerunner of modern low budget travel its true. But where Goa wallowed too long in a festival of idealistic hippies, Bangkok seized upon a new wave of progressive backpackers. By the time of my first backpacking trip in 1999, Bangkok had become the undisputed backpacking capital of the universe.

The Banana Pancake Trail

The Banana Pancake Trail is an affectionate term for the various backpacking routes around South East Asia, popularised in the Nineties. Similar to the “Hippie Trail” of the Sixties and Seventies it stretches from India, right through a dozen South East Asian countries all the way to the Philippines. It doesn’t refer to an actual trail but rather an ideology of traveling slowly for an extended period, living on the cheap and I guess, eating the odd banana pancake for breakfast.

If the banana pancake trail were actually a real trail, then Bangkok would most certainly be its beginning and its end.

Countless travel adventures have been born in the bosom of this boiling metropolis.

For a glorious decade this mother of all Asian cities, this extraordinary spaghetti soup of sights and smells would be a holy place for the backpacking tribe.

Bangkok Today

Alas, all things change.

Modern Bangkok still has true backpackers although their numbers have dwindled in the last 10 years.

This isn’t Bangkok’s fault. Travel culture has changed. Visiting remote exotic destinations has stopped being scary or difficult.

Bangkok has entered into the popular consciousness as an ordinary holiday destination.

Because of this, being a backpacker in Bangkok has forever lost a little of its mystique.

The Website Image

The website image was taken on September 18th 2008. It was taken from the then tallest building in Thailand. The Baiyoke Sky Hotel. It was taken from the room you see below on the 55th floor at around 8PM.  Off in the distance behind the twinkling skyline is the Gulf of Thailand with all its enigmatic islands and experiences just waiting, full of promise.

This was a poignant moment for me.  I was probably on my second or third Singha beer by then.  I hadn’t seen much of my brother David during the previous 15 years. He’d been like a father to me when I was little.  After we reunited in 2006 I realised how much I’d missed him.

This, our first night in Bangkok, represented a new begining for us. An end to those lost years. It was a celebration of family. A chance for us all to share a transformative experience in a faraway land.  To put the past behind us.

I didn’t realise it at the time but the next two weeks would become folklore.

By the time I returned to Bangkok 8 years later the city in these images would be gone.

Everyone together
My brother has great taste in t-shirts (Me, Nav, David, Lyn and Ray)

There Will Never Be Another Noughties Bangkok

2 years after the website image was taken, nearly a billion new wealthy tourists from countries like Russia, China and India would take to the skies. 50 million of them would come through Bangkok that year and Thailand’s culture would bend to accommodate them.

The ramshackle backpacker hang-outs would soon transform into macabre plastic theme park versions of what they once were.

Bangkok’s status as a cheap backpacking mecca was about to be crushed into obscurity by a stampede of hungry Millennials with money to burn.

The era of the Noughties backpackers had come to an end.

I Still Love This Town

There used to be a tiny sign in the arrival terminal of Bangkok’s old airport.  It was positioned in such a way that every traveller that came through the airport had to walk directly underneath it. It read: “Welcome to The Land of Smile”.

Though I’ve tried to be many things in my life, none have given me the joy that backpacking has. I am always a backpacker first and foremost and like so many backpackers from my decade, Bangkok will always be my spiritual home.

Have an awesome day everyone.