“We might not go to Thailand, it’s so touristic,” said the girl who, up until then, I’d had a lot of respect for. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to convince her and her partner that ‘touristic’ doesn’t mean bad, and, besides, there are a lot of places in Thailand to visit that aren’t over-crowded with drunk 18 – 22 year old Aussies and Brits. In the end, they had made their minds up well before speaking to me and I was wasting my breath.
“Anuradhapura was too touristy, so we didn’t go,” claimed the couple in Jaffna. I, too, was in Jaffna looking for a path unbeaten, but I had enjoyed Anuradhapura immensely. It is one of Sri Lanka’s three ancient cities. Ruins set in beautiful surroundings, dagobas and temples that are thousands of years old and some of which are still used in holy ceremonies today – yeah, that sounds way too touristy. Better give it a miss, eh?
I have been perplexed by some of the attitudes I have come across in Sri Lanka towards what are seen as tourist endeavours. It seems to be more important to be seen as a ‘proper traveller’. Of course this is not the first time I’ve heard such nonsense – one memorable lady in Thailand scoffed at us when we said we hadn’t been to Laos, and claimed she was the first white face the villagers there had ever seen – but it is grating when it goes on for weeks and weeks. I have jokingly longed for a plate of pasta or a burger only to be told, “We eat only rice and curry in the dodgiest places.” I have chatted about a lovely Colombo rooftop bar and heard, “Ah, that’s for expats, we only go to local bars.” I have exclaimed over the beauty of a beach in Welligama and my company has nodded knowingly and said, “The most beautiful beach is in the south, we were the only non-locals there.” It seems my experiences are not good enough.
Part of the problem is that people want to have an ‘authentic’ experience. The issue is that when we rich westerners discover a previously little-visited locale, word spreads. We begin to trickle into the area in bigger and bigger numbers. Money comes in, followed by food the visitors want to eat (as local food might be too spicy or too unfamiliar), followed by tours springing up and touts meeting us at the train stations. Suddenly the place isn’t ‘authentic’ anymore.
I argue that I have had just as an authentic time visiting my expat bars and eating my pastas and visiting my touristy beaches as the person who has eschewed all that. I feel that my money has gone to the right places, I have had a genuinely good time, and I have still seen a lot of the country. I have eaten lots of rice and curry in dodgy hotels and on trains, and I have caught more than my fair share of local buses. I have stayed in £6 a night cobb houses as well as having the occasional night in £50 luxury. Visiting a country can’t just be about eating the cheapest food, visiting the least visited places, and staying in bug-infested squalor. You don’t get points for suffering.
Some of the amazing things we have done were pretty expensive by Sri Lankan standards. Before Duncan arrived I went to Anuradhapura, to Polonnaruwa and to Sigiriya Rock. In the last few weeks we have been whale watching, where we saw blue whales, on a canoe tour of mangroves, on a sunset sail where we had the entire catamaran to ourselves, and to Udawalawe National Park to see elephants, free and majestic as they are meant to be. I cannot imagine how much I would have regretted my visit had we stuck to only the ‘non-touristy’ places and activities.
And just one final thought: if you really care about the difference between ‘tourist’ and ‘traveller’, you are a douchebag.