Celluloid glory for the great unwashed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 12:00am

They may be hairy, unwashed and niggardly but they have finally made it. The spotlight of Hollywood legitimacy is illuminating the peculiar cult of the back-packer in Southeast Asia.

Hollywood talent scouts are scouring the shabbier recesses of Khao San Road, Bangkok's back-packer ghetto, for extras in the upcoming 20th Century Fox production The Beach.

Neither economic boom nor bust has dented their numbers and neither have reticent communist governments in neighbouring countries. The fact their Bangkok peers aspire to mobile phones rather than opium pipes still has not stopped them wandering dazed and herd-like across the City of Angels in tie-dyed bloomers and grubby vegetable fibre shirts.

The Beach is set to star Leonardo DiCaprio and a group of back-packers who take their search for the perfect unspoilt coastline too far. Utopia on a mythical Thai island descends into a Lord of the Flies-style apocalypse.

Sources close to the production agree that, no matter what the ultimate message, the back-packers will be glorified.

Invariably the hardened 'traveller' demands 'authentic travel experiences' no matter if they are on a well-trodden hippie beach in Goa or among the Hmong in Laos. At the same time, they want cut-price banana smoothies and e-mail access, but nothing that smacks of commercialism. Through it all they quickly create ghettoes in even the smallest village.

It can be a fascinating experience to speak to affected locals about the hoards. The rundown but elegant old quarter of Hanoi, for years back-packer-free, experienced a veritable plague in the early 1990s. Many Vietnamese entrepreneurs were quick to encourage tourism but actively keep the tay ba lo at arm's length. 'Even more than the Vietnamese, they expect something for nothing,' Mr Duc, a hotelier friend, said. 'And they are just so dirty . . . I just don't think our two cultures can ever get on.' The authorities seemed to agree. One 1996 edition of the Communist Party newspaper ran a picture of a particularly hairy tay ba lo sleeping in a tree near Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. 'When will it stop,' read the caption.

Mr Truc, an elderly former diplomat in China, said he became alarmed when he first sighted mobs of beefy Nordic women trundling up Hang Ga Street as he did his morning exercises. 'They would talk excitedly and all carry the same book. I was reminded immediately of the Cultural Revolution and Mao's Little Red Book. I was amazed when I discovered it was only a travel guide.' The book, of course, is the Lonely Planet Guide - the hugely successful budget travel bible that for 25 years has opened up large parts of Asia, Africa and South America. The anniversary year has opened another new seam of contradictions. Despite a carefully packaged image of austerity, charity and political correctness that tends to shun development, the founders revealed sales last year of US$22 million (HK$170.3 million) from three million books. A Web site that has drawn the attention of Bill Gates is reportedly clocking up $1,000 in annual sales.

Even in its heartland, Southeast Asia, the Lonely Planet cult shows no sign of abating. As it criticises the difficulties of Vietnam, the Laos edition has been fuelled by the recent opening up of large areas of the country to independent travel in what government cadres see as a 'dangerous experiment'.

'We have had reports of back-packers making love inside temples after smoking opium in the grounds,' one Laotian envoy said. 'The monks were deeply shocked. Frankly speaking, this is not the sort of travel we had in mind.'