Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thailand’s “Banana Pancake Trail” and 5 Insider Tips for Escaping it

Thailand’s “Banana Pancake Trail” and 5 Insider Tips for Escaping it

thaisunsetThere’s a story that’s been handed down for years from one backpacker to another as they parley in guesthouse lobbies throughout Thailand. It’s usually told by an elder of the tribe, anointed in patchouli oil and sipping a watermelon smoothie. The story is tinged with inaccuracies and a hint of self-righteousness, but that rarely distracts from the narrative. It follows this basic script [with brief editorial notes]:

“Once upon a time there were two travelers [named Tony and Maureen Wheeler] who decided to write their first Lonely Planet guidebook [actually their second] called Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The book became so popular that it was nicknamed “The Backpacker’s Bible” [true] and travelers could recognize the yellow cover from a hundred yards away [I’ve heard up to a mile]. Soon business were literally [figuratively] fighting to get a mention in the book and they all ended up serving western breakfasts and Pad Thai which isn’t even a real Thai dish [sure it is, in fact it’s the national dish]…And now everyone who comes to Thailand just follows The Banana Pancake Trail…”

So what is the Banana Pancake Trail?

bananapancakeIt’s a reference to the track laid down in 1975 by the Wheelers, the ruts etched deeper and deeper into the landscape with each of the eighteen subsequent editions of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. The name comes from the fact that westerners, while traveling, are famous for enjoying certain creature comforts—particularly familiar foods.

Not long after the first edition of the Backpacker’s Bible hit shelves savvy business owners noticed that if their menus boasted banana pancakes and muesli alongside the traditional Thai breakfast soups johk and kao tom they seemed to fare better with budget travelers.

But the Banana Pancake Trail has come to embody more than just menu items. It’s a reminder that for many young travelers a trip through Southeast Asia (Thailand in particular) often ends with the unsettling feeling of having followed someone else’s footsteps a little too closely. This inevitably takes some of the thrill out of the adventure.

Because of this, the conclusion drawn by the self-styled road warrior delivering the Lonely Planet lecture is that Thailand has become a destination best left to package tourists. They assert that it’s no place for “real” travelers anymore. But the fact is—that’s just not true.

Actually, Thailand is still rich with every attribute that made it attractive to the Wheelers way back when: incredible food, welcoming people, remote white-sand beaches and accessible cultural heritage. It also still holds plenty of gems for those looking to get away from the crowds.

Here are five recommendations on how to uncover them:

1 - Ask the right questions

thaiislandsGuidebooks like the Lonely Planet make a habit of recommending that you ask locals for up-to-date advice. But in a country that sees as much foot traffic as Thailand, this question becomes skewed. The friendly Thai people are quick to name spots where they think you might be happy, places where the other tourists seem to visit. When asked, they’ll usually refer you to locales firmly on the beaten track: Khao San Road in Bangkok or the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Pha Ngan.

The right question in this case is not “where should I visit? Eat? Stay? Etc.” it’s “Where would you visit? Eat? Stay? Etc.” One of my favorite places in Thailand is a tiered waterfall called Ti Lor Su. Tourism officials at the waterfall told me that it gets ten-thousand visitors annually but that more than nine thousand of those are Thai citizens. No offense to the Wheeler’s, but I’d rather to put my faith in a statistic like that than a book when deciding where to visit. Three days after hearing backpackers complain about the prevalence of other backpackers in Bangkok I spent an entire day cliff jumping at Ti Lor Su and never saw another soul.

2 - Be intrepid

thaibeachHere’s a secret: every single one of Thailand’s National Marine Parks (and there are 22 of them) allow camping. I once considered sharing that tip to be a crime, like giving away how Houdini did the Water Torture Trick. But like Houdini’s escapes, a bold spirit is required for making use of any good travel secret. Thailand is full of remote corners and beautiful sites just waiting to be uncovered. Anyone who has traveled the country thoroughly will rave about places that get little mention in the Lonely Planet. In 2006 I spent two-weeks camped with a handful of friends on an empty beach less than an hour by boat from some of Thailand’s most overrun tourist traps. We paid seventy-five cents a night.

3 - Learn the value of a good map

I first learned about the usefulness of real topographical maps from my surf buddies. It’s common for surf-vagabonds to study maps with burning intensity. By comparing the layout of well-known breaks to the position of unexplored beaches and reefs they have found hundreds of previously unknown waves.

Thailand is a great place to apply this sort of thinking: you want to see the far north but don’t want to be at a place as clogged with tourists as Chang Rai? Check a map to find someplace geographically similar but smaller. The people will inevitably be less burnt out on visitors and the cost of living will be significantly cheaper.

4 - The Fibonacci Spiral – Think concentric circles

A Fibonacci Spiral constantly increases in diameter as it expands outward. This is exactly how I recommend traveling through Thailand’s tourist mainstays. Here’s an example: because of their guaranteed customer base, the food near Khao San Road (Bangkok’s ground-zero for backpackers) has seen a huge drop in quality. Even if you’re staying in this area try walking a Fibonacci spiral away from your hotel when looking for some place to eat. The further you get the fresher the ingredients will be, the richer the flavors, the friendlier the service and the more authentic the experience.

When making your spiral be sure not to avoid residential neighborhoods. The best meal I ever had in Bangkok was at a small restaurant built into someone’s garage with two plastic tables, a matron who didn’t speak a word of English and a clientele of locals from the neighborhood. It wasn’t just my best meal because of the cultural realism either. The food was better and less expensive by a power of two.

5 - Plan for a Festival

songkranfestSoutheast Asia on a Shoestring makes passing mention of festivals and national holidays but backpackers rarely let such things dictate their plans. This is incredibly convenient for the rest of us, because Thailand boasts some of the world’s best festivals at times that don’t line up with the Commonwealth of Nations’ school holidays.

Try to set your trip for Loy Krathong, held on the full moon in November, and make your way to Chang Mai. There you will witness the waterways filled with floating Krathong (banana leaf rafts lit with candles) and the night-sky speckled with flying lanterns. It’s truly a stunning sight.

If you’re visiting in the spring shoot for Songkran, one of the world’s most unusual, fascinating and brilliantly chaotic festivals. Songkran marks the Thai New Year and spans from April 13th-15h. During the celebration businesses throughout the country shut down (particularly in Bangkok and Chang Mai) and citizens partake in a national water fight. The streets are filled with revelers signing, spreading mud paste on each other’s faces and dumping water on each other. It challenges Spain’s famous Tomatina Festival for both messiness and enjoyment. Both Loy Krathong and Songkran offer excellent opportunities to connect with locals.

At the end of the day, finding a way off the Banana Pancake Trail is simple—all it takes is a spirit for adventure, a thirst for something new and a willingness to split from the pack. The only downside is you might have to try a new dish for breakfast. I’d say it’s certainly worth the trade-off.

Additional photo credits: Pancake by on Flickr, Songkran Festival by Wyndham on Flickr, All other photos by Steve Bramucci

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