Sunday, August 21, 2011

Reason #24 to love Taiwan

The lack of "backpacker ghettoes".

Although I’d like to see more tourists discover Taiwan, I have to say after traveling for a week in a tourism-heavy country that being relatively non-touristy has its advantages. Of course, those huge Korean, Japanese and Chinese tour groups muck up Sun Moon Lake, Alishan, the National Palace Museum and Taipei 101 but otherwise you can often enjoy the best of Taiwan relatively peacefully.

It also means that when you are enjoying what Taiwan has to offer, you’re enjoying the same things that the locals (or domestic tourists) are. You have more chances to interact with and possibly even befriend locals.

In both India and Turkey, it has seemed very much like the backpackers have their “downtown” and stuff to do, the upmarket tourists have their little private getaways and tour buses, and the locals have their own completely separate lives. I do feel that I’ve had more friendly interactions in Turkey than in India with locals not trying to sell me something, but generally speaking I feel like everything is split between “tourist ghetto” and “local area”. It’s very hard to cross between the two unless you’ve lived in that country for awhile. I did cross that line in India because I studied there and lived with a family, but in my travels around the country I did feel quite segregated.

Take the town of Puri in Orissa, India. It has, for all intents and purposes, two downtowns. One has a relatively clean beach, isn’t all that attractive but has upmarket hotels and a few temples. It caters to locals and domestic tourists on weekend trips from Calcutta. Down the road is the backpacker downtown, where there are hostels, pensions, Internet cafes, restaurants serving cheap food and bhang lassi and a disgusting beach. One traveler I met came across a dead cat on that beach. Almost all would talk about how every local walking the sands either wanted to scam you, sell you marijuana, or take you home for a “traditional family dinner”, at the end of which you’d be presented with a massive bill.

And ne’er the twain shall meet.

Hampi is similar – there seems to be an area where locals live, and an area where all the backpacker stuff is. There are a few local places in the backpacker area, and you never see foreigners in them (we went to one for breakfast every day because the food in the backpacker cafes was so lackluster. Give me good idli and dosa anyday over some flabby banana pancake). Cochin is just about the same.

In Goreme, there is more local life – I’m writing this in Word from a tea garden full of old local guys who hang out all day chatting and, seeing as it’s Ramadan (Ramazan), will start drinking and eating as soon as the sun goes down. That said, I do feel segregated from locals: the things I’m here to see aren’t the things they bother with, and the best you can hope for is a random friendly encounter or some domestic holidaymakers enjoying what their own country has to offer.

I don’t think I even need to start in on Bangkok, which has its “real” downtown and then it has Khao San Road, or Luang Prabang, where the entire main strip is hotels, souvenir stands and restaurants for tourists.

In Taiwan it’s really not an issue. I live there, but one could easily be a tourist in Taiwan, visiting Tainan, Taroko Gorge, parts of Taipei, Lugang or other points of interest and have plenty of chances to meet and mingle with locals. The downtown you visit is the same downtown they visit. Dihua Street is actually a market that locals patronize. Locals from Taipei County and beyond visit the same Old Streets and shop in the same places (including the artists’ market near Red House – nothing like a strip of souvenir stands in Turkey, Nepal or India. Not even close). Most of the people you meet in Jiufen are domestic tourists, and the temples are of course full of locals, not tourists looking to ogle (which is how I felt in some of the larger shrines in Tokyo – very few local visitors).

Yes, I do want to see more tourists, especially independent travelers, coming to Taiwan to see what the country has to offer. At the same time, as a long-term expat, I rather enjoy the fact that it doesn’t have backpacker ghettoes.


J said...

Backpacker ghettoes don't seem to be common in East Asia- I didn't see any in China (though Lhasa came close) or in Korea or Japan. My guess would be that it has to do with having a large middle class that's used to Western levels of comfort but some members of which still want to travel on a budget. Local budget travelers would therefore have similar demands as Western budget travelers and tourist businesses could serve both.

Jenna Cody said...

Dali, Lijiang and Yangshuo (Guilin). All total backpacker ghettoes in China.