SEPT 21 — I’ve always had the indie spirit in me. I like being unique and one of a kind instead of being part of a corporate dinosaur. (Yes, for those who know me, I do work for a corporate dinosaur now but I’m still doing things the indie way!)
I’m also quite the seasoned traveller, even if I do say so myself. And recently, I had the opportunity to travel to one of Southeast Asia’s favourite destinations — the island of Phuket in Thailand.
I had been there once before, but that was almost 20 years ago when I was still a teenager. Of course, I wasn’t expecting everything to be the same, what with the unfortunate tsunami and all. But what I saw wasn’t what I expected either.
The famous Patong beach strip was swarming with people, and almost none of them were Thai. Most of them were visiting tourists consisting of Caucasians and other Asians. As for local businesses, Indians were running them.
Twenty years ago, I remember that there was one McDonald’s on the Patong strip, which was fine since it’s the last resort for desperate and homesick tourists. Now, that same two-kilometre stretch has four McDonald’s and two Starbucks.
And if that isn’t enough, here’s the killer — turn around the corner of the strip and you will catch a glimpse of a huge gold guitar statue in front of a white building — Hard Rock Cafe, Phuket! Talk about mass commercialism rearing its ugly head here. That’s the sad thing about Southeast Asia’s tourism industry. We seem to think that the more commercialised we are, the more appeal we have when it comes to visiting foreigners.
Malaysia is no different. We have our Phukets all over the country. Just take a look at our Jalan Bukit Bintang and Jalan P. Ramlee, with all the glitzy nightclubs and discos.
We have large areas in Kuala Lumpur city that resemble the Middle East (because Middle Easterners like to visit?). Go down south and we have that spanking new LegoLand.
Look at Langkawi and its European-like boardwalk with all the al fresco-style cafes and restaurants. Walking there, one could even be convinced that one was walking in France (despite the humidity and heat).
Why can’t we have a tourism industry that doesn’t involve mass commercialism and is based more on the local culture and its people? It would be great to go to Phuket and taste delicious tom yum rather than a Big Mac and Coke, don’t you think?
But come to think about it, Phuket has always been an island that has sold itself as a cheesy, plastic, sex tourism destination anyway. And to go there, one can’t expect anything else (we were there for a cousin’s wedding and the event itself was great — congratulations Afi and Ili!).
Still, that doesn’t mean the whole of Southeast Asia needs to be like Phuket. We need to be more confident of our own culture and people and its appeal to foreigners.
And come to think of it, Thailand still has great unique destinations such as the northern region of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. And let’s not forget all the beautiful temples and Buddhist culture that so many from around the world come to see throughout the country.
Aside from Kuala Lumpur and LegoLand, we still have great unique tourist destinations such as the east coast and Sabah islands, Kelantan kampungs and Sarawak forests.
So I guess we’re not all plastic and mass commercial after all. There might still be hope for Southeast Asia.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.