In our times, where news are going within splits of seconds around the planet, where travellers sit in stylish bars using their laptops, tablets or smartphones to check their emails and watch a youtube video, where Westerners sit in their clublike bars anywhere in Thailand, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta to watch the sports events of their favourite club life in TV while filling their beer-bellies with Heineken, it's hard to imagine that Southeast Asia was once a completely unknown part of the world for Westerners.
Marco Polo. After all we know he was the first Westerner who came to Southeast Asia.
The first Westerner who travelled through the world region of Southeast Asia was probably the famous Italian merchant Marco Polo. In the mid 13th century he came from Beijing, which was ruled by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in that time, travelled through what is now Yunnan in south China and went via Lopburi in the Angkorean Khmer empire (what is nowadays a historical town in central Thailand) onwards to Pagan in nowadays Burma / Myanmar. On his way back to Europe, Marco Polo sailed along the south Vietnamese coast, the Malay Peninsula and through the Strait of Malacca.
Much less known than the legendary traveller from Venice is another Italian traveller, the Franciscan friar Odoric of Pordenone, who travelled in the years between about 1314 and 1330 CE through India, Sumatra, Java, Borneo and from there to Beijing. Odoric left, as well as Marco Polo, a written record of his travels.
Both early Western visitors of Southeast Asia have one thing in common: they didn't have any impact on the countries through which they passed.
Things changed dramatically with the arrival of a Portuguese fleet in the years from 1509 CE on. After the discovery of the real searoute to India, the Portuguese set up a number of posts along the Asian coastlines. The two most important were the one in Goa / India and the one in Malacca, which was conquered in 1511 CE and from then on without interruption under European control until 1957, when Malaysia gained independence from the British empire.
Magellans flagship 'Victoria'. The Portuguese seafarer Magellan (Fernao de Magalhaes, 1480 - 1521) was the first who started the circumnavigation of the globe for the Spanish crown. He could't finish the voyage, for he was killed in the Philippines. Juan Sebastian Elcano led the expedition in 1522 back to Europe and fullfilled the circumnavigation.
The next step was the first encounter of a small Spanish fleet under Fernando Magellan with what was called then the Philippine Islands in 1521. The Spaniards took over Manila in 1571. What followed was the colonialization of the whole Philippine Islands and even the christianization of the vast majority of the local population there in the following decades and centuries, as well as the colonialization of the verymost parts of Southeast Asia by the Dutch, the British and, as latecomers, the French.
European colonialism had a deep impact on the Southeast Asian populations. It shaped the societies and after their independence the national elities founded modern nation states, following this European concept, what didn't exist here before. That includes also Siam / Thailand, which was the only country what could avoid being colonialized, but had to pay great contributions to the colonial powers and the significant development in the colonialized countries around Siams (shrinking) territories.
More and more Westerners came to Southeast Asia, on the search for trade opportunities. Most of them came in the name of their states, namely many Spanish, Dutch, British. France established a good relationship to king Narai of Siam (Ayutthaya). This went so far, that they built a fortress at Thonburi (now part of Bangkok) and got concessions from the king to extend their influence in Siam considerably. In fact this was meaned to establish a first French colony in Indochina, which was thwarted by a certain fraction of the Siamese high nobility, who saw that coming and commited a palace revolution in 1688 (the 'Siamese Revolution'). It cost the Siamese weeks of fighting after that to get rid of the French in Thonburi.
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution. The border between two zoogeographic regions in Southeast Asia, crossing the Indonesian Archipelago between Bali and Lombok and Borneo and Sulawesi, is called after him the 'Wallace Line'.
Among the remarkable Westerners of former centuries are Simone de la Loubere, a French envoy of Lous XIV in Ayutthaya and Lopburi in 1688, Stamford Raffles, who was governor of Java, Bencoolen on Sumatra and unforgotten for the foundation of Singapore, Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, the brilliant botanist and geograph who explored Java and parts of the Batak countries on Sumatra, Alfred Russel Wallace, who lived for years on the Indonesian Islands, particularly Borneo, and contributed a great deal of work and brilliant ideas to the development of the theory of evolution, which was in the 19th century still named after both, him and famous Charles Darwin, and Henri Mouhot, the French explorer of parts of Indochina, who was a step-maker for French Imperialism in the region. The list could be extended, of course.
Success and impact of the European colonizers was coined by their superior military techniques and the western economies who targeted on the exploitation of the nature as a source of merchandises and the exploitation of human labour. This concept was adapted in the following times by the local elities and succeeded after the independencies respectively foundation of the new Southeast Asian states as we know them now in the post-colonial era.
After the end of World War II the time of direct colonialization came to an end in Southeast Asia. The European powers had exhausted themselves in two great wars in Europe; after these massive disasters there was no power left to maintain the rule over all the foreign countries with their many people.
Indonesia declared independence directly at the end of World War II, Burma got independent in 1948, the three countries of 'French' Indochina, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1953/54, Malaysia and Singapore in 1957. As a footnote in history, the Portuguese, who established the first colony remained longest: East Timor then suffered a terrible fate of a genocide committed by the Indonesian army, occupying the part of the island in 1975, directly after the last Westerners in rule in Southeast Asia left it.
Some Westerners remained after the colonial era in the world region. Some worked as specialists, others continued business or even farming.
Tourism in Southeast Asia
Interestingly, the trigger for western tourism to Southeast Asia was the American Vietnam War between 1964 and 1975. An important American recreation base was Pattaya in east Thailand, where also a major American navy base was placed (and still is). After the war many GI's remained in Thailand, partially being married with Thai women. The military recreation infrastructure was the trigger for the development of a modern tourist infrastructure. Many of the former GI's came back spending holidays in Thailand, followed by other tourists without war background. Thailand became a popular holiday destination.
While more and more Westerners came to Thailand to spent their holidays there, more and more also decided to spent their lifes here; particularly elder Westerners who were retired. Tourism grew considerably and spread out to some of the neighbouring countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
In the recent years Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam opened their borders for mass tourism, following the Thai example and building up a tourist infrastructure.
Nowadays there must be hundred thousands of Westerners living in Thailand in long-term and many millions of Westerners come every year to Southeast Asia to spend their holidays here.
There are basically three types of Westerners in Southeast Asia: that's residents or so called ex-pats, who live here in long-term, backpackers or travellers, who spent here more time than just holidays and tourists, who usually work in their home countries but spent a few weeks of their holidays here.
These Westerners are either working here or they spent their retirement in Southeast Asia. The majority of them are male and stay in Thailand.
It's Thailand because Thailand is in certain points a great destination. It has a good infrastructure, one can meanwhile get almost anything what is necessary for a comfortable life, it's still a cheap country and the people are friendly, welcoming and helpful. Thailand is clearly the easiest country to travel and to stay in Southeast Asia.
A very much reputation coining part of Thailand is it's flourishing sex industry. Although prostitution is officially abolished in Thailand since 1960, the definition of prostitution is so unclear that all these redlight bars in parts of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket are tolerated. If people meet there and decide to spent more time together, than it's their affair. If there is money changing the owner, well, that's not a matter of police work.
So, since polygamie and prostitution is to the greatest part (about 94%) a Thai affair, a minority of establishments is specialized on Westerners. In these certain bars in certain parts of certain places it's easy to come in contact with a waitress. Since the waitress is very interested to find a mate with some money in the pocket, Westerners have a great choice of potential 'girlfriends' in such bars. Lookout or age doesn't matter.
Once found a girlfriend (not seldom within hours after arrival), some Westerners find it appropriate to decide marrying their new mate. A great deal of Westerners are married with such Thai girls; rather not so much because they would like the idea of a marriage as such, but because it's difficult to get a residence permit without. A marriage is a door-opener for a visa which allows to stay longer than the common tourist visa does. Besides it means integration in a Thai family and therefore into the Thai society. Ostensible, at least. The next step is to build or buy a house and pack it full with all the common lifestyle equipment of the western middle-class. A big car must be and shopping every day, and they all are happy. Thailand is full with Westerners following this pattern. In a much smaller scale the pattern appears also in Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam.
Some get children with their wifes, others get kicked out after the house is built and they run out of money. I heared countless stories of Westerners who were abandoned by their wifes and their families, who are always more or less in the background. No money, no honey, it's said. Many Westerners waste all their savings on their Thai wife and her family and have to go back finally to their home countries, without a cent in their pockets, maybe even in dept, after the great party in Thailand is over.
Others might count a bit better or get a monthly pension so that they can't run completely out of money. If they are old, the Thai wife, which is maybe twenty, thirty, fourty of even fifty years younger, will patiently wait until they die, to receive the house and all the other belongings and her part of the heritage in full. By the way, Westerners (foreigners in general) are not allowed to own real-estate in Thailand and most other countries here. Many of these guys are not aware of the fact that most of 'their' property is in fact owned by their Thai wifes respectively the family behind.
These Westerners are not very interested in the country and society they live. They enjoy their consumer life and don't mind their own mental limits; most probably they know nothing better. They don't want to learn something new. It's according to the lifes they lived before in their home countries - they didn't care much for their own society, country, culture, politics, history and so on. They did their jobs, spent time with peers and colleages, led a family life and the rest was focussed on football or something meaningless alike.
There are plenty of documentaries of Westerners who live in Southeast Asia. Recently I saw one made by Swiss TV. The interviewed, some Swiss living in Pattaya, were asked why they married a Thai woman. They said, they were much nicer than western women, more lovely, more womenlike. Not emancipated. The Thai wifes would serve them whatever they want. One of them added the Thai women were so very clean, while western women would smell for fish. Another guy wondered why his Thai wife would love him, but she really would, he added.
These interviewed were all Swiss, meeting frequently at the same places. There is some trouble among them, but no talk about it. All of them were quite well-to-do, it seemed.
One of the group was an elder owner of a real-estate company. He built himself a palace with outer buildings for some twenty Thai (mostly female) for his party service. He boosted about how many people came to his parties and so forth. Then he showed the TV crew a spot where his company will build a new recreation complex. On the spot there were yet still Thai People living, in simple cottages. They will be removed, for little or no compensation, against their will. That, nevertheless, doesn't matter for the manager or the other western guys around him.
A part of the Westerners establish themselves as businessmen. Some run a guesthouse. In the verymost cases they run a bar. Then it's all about alcohol and girls. Many of these guys are pimps, some more, some less. They make a lot of money with the fellow Westerners who come as guests. The waitresses (bargirls) are for rent. When renting a girl, the customer has to pay a 'bar fine' to the bar owner. The bar fine is meaned as a compensation for the girl, which can not work in the meantime in the bar when she is with the customer. For a deeper insight into Bangkok's nightlife I can highly recommend Stephen Leather's novel 'Private Dancer'.
A Western Monk
Some western residents develop peculiarities they probably wouldn't adapt in the west. Here a Westerner, dressed as a buddhist monk, smoking and drinking in a tourist restaurant in early afternoon. Real monks are not allowed to have food after noon and generally not in public. Image by Asienreisender, Kampot, 2015
It seems that a great deal of the Westerners who live long-term in Southeast Asia are alcoholics. Many of them drink a great deal of alcohol, not seldom starting in the morning with some beers as breakfast. Spending an evening with some of them and meeting them again next day it normally turns out that they don't remember much of what was the talk about the day before. They are moody, unreliable and unpredictable, and come often in trouble, sometimes of violent kind. I found it mostly a good idea to keep them on distance.
Once I met a Belgian professor emeritus in south Thailand. He was drinking all day, but he was always under control of himself and had retained a good memory. That made him very exceptional. We had great talks and spent some time together. He told me that he was drinking his whole life already. When he was working at his university it was always common to drink among the scholars. Not to drink meaned not to be sociable; it wasn't accepted. Kind of an unwritten law.
I heared other such stories in the past. Someone said once to me he wouldn't have made his career without alcohol. When one wants to make a career, he has to be appreciated and being liked and supported by his superiors. If they all drink and you don't, you are not part of the certain circle. So you better drink, don't you?
Though, here in Southeast Asia it seems so that most of the Westerners drink for the contrary reason. They never had an opportunity to make a career, anyway. Verymost of the residents have a lower-class background.
Backpacking became popular in the 1970s. It's an easy way to travel without being bothered by too much baggage, even able to carry it for a few kilometers. A backpack is just more practical than a trunk. But it's also a mean of difference.
A part of the backpackers around here are actually tourists, coming to Southeast Asia to spend a few weeks of holidays and then continuing their work or study; others are travelling for longer. Longer means normally for a few month. These backpackers sometimes emphasize a difference between 'tourist' and 'traveller' and feel as travellers.
Western human material, entering a bus at at the tourist trap of Si Phan Don, Laos. The bus is lousy, delayed, slow and overprized, there is no transport alternative and the Laotians in charge treat the tourists like cattle. When dropped at the Laotian/Cambodian border, they get blackmailed again for extra bribing money for the rotten border officials. Image by Asienreisender, 4/2013
There was a kind of travellers around in the 1970s, 1980s and also in the 1990s who travelled long-term, means for years, until their money, mostly savings, were gone. This kind of traveller seems to be almost extinct.
Backpackers are usually younger, in their twenties, at least not much older than 30, only some few are older. Many of them fill a time between high-school and university to travel for a time. Although they consider themselves different from 'ordinary' tourists, they follow usually a tourist pattern. They are a mass-appearance and are guided by the popular guide books like 'Lonely Planet', 'Rough Guide' and so on. Following the guide-book recommendations or those of online sources as tripadviser, they mostly visit places who are popular tourist spots and frequented by other backpackers, and that's therefore fashionable. They barely leave the touristic infrastructure.
Paradigmatic for this kind of travellers seems to be the movie 'The Beach', where the protagonist, Richard, says at one point that the beach was "a beach resort for people who don't like beach resorts".
These guys like parties, music, action, booze. They collect tatoos and make sure everyone can see them. They wear cool sunglasses and make their eyes hidden behind. They are kind of a self-marketing agents, presenting themselves most of the time and their lifestyle accessories like iPhones and certain brands of clothes and other consumer goods. They are not particularly interested in the country in which they have their parties. That's just backdrop. You find this kind in places like Vang Vieng or the party islands in the south of Thailand like Ko Samui, Ko Phangan, Ko Tao etc. with their notorious fullmoon parties.
Backpackers in Laos
Backpackers in one of the bars in Vang Vieng / Laos, where non-stop American soap operas like 'Friends' are running on the screen. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Not seldom those backpacker communities appear like a wild-run nursery school, with the notable difference that the nurses are replaced by local bar girls and self-declared tour guides.
These backpackers have little own opinion of politics, history and contemporary society. They have usually little knowledge of natural sciences and technology. Their statements to whatever the talk is about are very poor. They don't want to learn much about the countries they travel in, except maybe the names of funny fruits and exotic drinks. Despite of their lifestyle anarchism, most of these guys are completely conventional minds, sticking to conventional opinions, given by the mass media. It's all affirmative. After all they are as one-dimensional people as the mainstream society in their home countries is. One-dimensional people in a one-dimensional globalized society.
Tourists in the Royal Palace in Bangkok. A 'I was here photo' with a historical 19th century palace guard. Other tourists queued for getting the same photo done with themselves on it. Image by Asienreisender, 2006
The tourists, the ones who spend a few days or weeks of holidays here, maybe represent the greatest variety of Westerners in Southeast Asia. They come from the most different backgrounds. For they have so limited time, they have little chance to escape the tourist infrastructure. Travelling needs time, much time. Experience allows realizing alternatives.
So, a great deal of these tourists spent their two, three weeks in a holiday resort at a beach with food and day-trips all inclusive. Whole families, not seldom. Others, single tourists or couples, are as ambitious as they are in their jobs and try to visit most of Southeast Asia within ten days. That ends up spending verymost of their time in the inefficient transport system.
Tourists who appear in groups on package tours have their focus very much on their ingroup affairs. Who says what and has which attitude, who is the funniest guy, who looks like Brad Pit, how are the women dressed, who makes the most stupid jokes or has sex which whome else in the group and so on. When they gather in front of the monuments they do visit and mutually photograph each other in front of them, they have usually not the faintest clue what the funny pieces of architecture mean. When they are finally back home they show the fotos around to their friends and family, tell their funny stories, have claimed their status and then forget it.
Tourists are the ones who spend the most money on their trip; compared to western prizes, Southeast Asia is still cheap, although far no more that cheap than a few years ago. Besides, when having holidays one does not want to life short, so they are rather generous. That makes them the most beloved among the Westerners here. They bring a good deal of money into the country and leave after a short time, being replaced by others of their kind - the ever running tourist industry.
What all of the Westerners have in common is that they are mostly ignorant about the state of the world. Although many seem to feel that something is really very, very wrong, most of them have no clear opinion. They don't care about the waste of resources, they rather represent, promote it themselves. They don't bring to mind living in a totalitarian, free-market society in which everything is a commodity, for sale, also they themselves. They think it's a natural state of any human society, unchangable. They are not aware or they don't care for the fact, that the military-industrial complex is the strongest and central part of the global industries. That it is so important, that about 50% of the scientists worldwide work at least part-time for it. That the whole modernity is based on it. They are unaware or don't mind about all the negative impact of imperialism and war which happens every second and leads to devastated societies worldwide; that every hope of a change to somewhat better, like it was expressed recently in the 'Arabic Spring', is suppressed and stifled in tyranny and violence. They are limited and selfish.
Verymost of the Westerners I meet have no idea who Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden are and what they did or do. They don't understand the news or they are not interested in it. They have no background knowledge of the economy. They know much more about football and other sports than about politics. They are deeply corrupted, because they are satisfied with consumption. They want to be an integrated part of the society, so they basically accept things how they are. They are opportunists.
The ones who have an opinion are mostly among the most scary guys. There is much to hear about a 'Jewish world conspiracy', of overpopulation, of too many lazy criminals on all levels of society. The suggested 'solutions' are war, law-and-order, prisons up to concentration camps, the murder of the greatest part of the worlds population (always any outgroups, preverably the dirty 'negros'), for they 'live on our costs' and take what is ours. In other words: kill the poor for the maintainance of the wasteful western lifestyle.
In many cases their mastermind is the English pastor Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 - 1834), a British national economist and social philosopher, who had a considerable influence on western thinking. Malthus developed a semi-scientific population theory and published a great deal of ideas to treat the poor as bad as possible to reduce their number and population growth. Although Malthus had rather moral motivations than scientific arguments, his afterlife in scientific publications until today is remarkable.
I literally never heared somebody in Southeast Asia reasonably critizising the global economic system with it's sophisticated ideology, which is based on profit and waste, as the source of the worlds destruction. The system of money, status and power is accepted and believed of being an essential part of human nature and therefore not to change. This strong misbelieve is a central part of contemporary mankinds doom.
The verymost Westerners don't realize that the devastating system has a deep, distorting, destructive influence on their own whole lives.
At the end there is to say that first there is no moral superiority of the West over the Orient. Second, that the western intellectual superiority is very limited. Limited on some rather abstract technical knowledge always combined with the background of making profit with it (including all scientific advances), and also limited on a small fraction of Westerners. The mass of the western people are as simple minded as the Orientals.