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Getting off the "Banana Pancake Trail."

  • stevebram

    Joined Travelfish
    28th July, 2009
    Posts: 2

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

    (reprinted courtesy of BootsNall Travel, original piece found at: www.bootsnall.com/articles/09-07/thailand’s-banana-pancake-trail-and-5-insider-tips-for-escaping-it.html)

    There’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?

    It’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

    Guidebooks 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

    Here’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 Method

    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

    Southeast 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.

    #1 Posted: 28/7/2009 - 08:19

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  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
    6th June, 2009
    Posts: 6377
    Total reviews: 10

    Steve
    I would suggest it's even easier than you portray. Go to places that have no sights. Nothing to see. Places tourists don't go - because there's nothing to see. Take a bus to Roit Et or Yasothon - where there are no backpackers or any other tourists. Then go from Yaso to Lueng Nok Tha, through Saimun and Kut Chum. Stop and spend a day in each place. You want to experience "Real Thailand" - don't go where there are "stunning sights", just go where people live normal day to day lives and you'll see and experience real Thailand. And it will be very cheap. What you won't do is talk to hardly anyone - because in the sticks hardly anyone speaks English. And you won't know what you are getting when you order your food - it might be crap and taste horrible, or it might turn out to be delicious. But if you want to see "stunning sights" well, chances are other people have discovered these sights and go there too. Rare is the stunning site that no one visits. And if Thai's visit it, and westerners don't, does that make it somehow "more authentic"? Not really.

    #2 Posted: 28/7/2009 - 13:53

  • BruceMoon

    Click here to learn more about BruceMoon
    Joined Travelfish
    27th December, 2008
    Location Australia
    Posts: 1941
    Total reviews: 6

    stevebram

    Great writing. Great tips.

    I'm on your train too.

    While the other half prefers the flashpacker benefits, and I am not averse to luxury, like others we do tend to orient ourselves towards cities. That said, we try and go 'off the beaten track' as often as we can (we thus tend to use the flashpacker as a base).

    Perhaps because LP articulated the Banana Trail as a series of cities - a bit like joining dots on a child's drawing - so many travellers appear to believe that visiting all the 'dots' in a short time will allow them to 'see' SE Asia. Fact is that so many rarely speak to locals, spend much of their time gas-bagging to other farang, spend money on western styled food, and seek entertainment that is similar to the norm back home.

    As an example, recently I was on a bus with some western travellers. They'd not ventured away from any city they'd visited. Their conversation was about which place had the best hamburger, best pizza, best... They acknowledged that they'd never eat local food as they'd surely get some disease!!!

    The question I often ask myself is What ideas of SE Asia do these people take home? How do they explain SE Asian culture, life, etc?.

    Again, great post.

    Cheers

    #3 Posted: 28/7/2009 - 14:51

  • Thaiman

    Click here to learn more about Thaiman
    Joined Travelfish
    12th November, 2008
    Posts: 201

    Agree wholehartedly with everything stated.I'll use Singburi as an example because that's where my wife's family live.I've been going there for 20 odd years or so and basically it's still the same as it was when I first started visiting.There is no Western influence there for the simple reason there is nothing for Westerners to go there for.Over the years I may have seen a dozen falung.No attractions whatsoever apart from the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand.Think there may be a KFC and Pizza Hut but I don't take any notice. Just to walk around and watch life is an experience in itself.The people are friendly,there's no hustle and everything is cheap.I may pay an extra 5 baht for a bowl of noodles but who cares.This to me is the real Thailand.Guess it may be easier for me,or anyone who lives in Thailand,but is a lot harder for backpackers etc to leave their comfort zone and venture into the unknown.But it is well worth it.
    Had another good example of 'getting away from it' acouple of years back.We hired a motorcycle in Sangklaburi and went to the 3 Pagodas Pass which was OK but nothing great.On the way there I noticed a sign indicating a waterfall so on the way back we turned off the road and headed in the direction.After leaving the main road we didn't pass a single vehicle to the waterfalls and on arriving there wasn't a vehicle to be seen.No food stalls,no people and no rubbish.Only place I've ever been in Thailand where there was no infrastructure in such a place.And it was magnificient.
    So there are such places where you can have a real Thailand experience.

    #4 Posted: 28/7/2009 - 15:37

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
    6th June, 2009
    Posts: 6377
    Total reviews: 10

    "This to me is the real Thailand.Guess it may be easier for me,or anyone who lives in Thailand,but is a lot harder for backpackers etc to leave their comfort zone and venture into the unknown.But it is well worth it."

    Thaiman, I would add this addendum that it's well worth it if what you are seeking to do on your vacation is learn something about Thai culture. Some aspects of Thai culture will suck for some people. You don't konw until uyou try.

    My sister in laws boyfriend, who was from Denmark, came out here for a visit. He hated it. Didn't like the food, didn't like the atmosphere - the place ain't for everybody.

    A lot of people come out here to relax and just unwind - get away from life for a while. If you are traveling around for that purpose, then stay on the beaten path. But if, as the thread suggested, you want to see real Thai culture (and that means people - people, not things, are culture) then yes, get off the beaten path. It's so easy to do. Go to the smaller provinces and then go out from there.

    #5 Posted: 28/7/2009 - 17:39

  • Thaiman

    Click here to learn more about Thaiman
    Joined Travelfish
    12th November, 2008
    Posts: 201

    'well worth it if what you are seeking to do on your vacation is learn something about Thai culture'
    That's very true MADMAC and I know there are a lot of visitors who are just not interested in that side of Thailand.They'd just rather keep company of their own country men, keep eating their own type of cuisine and spend their whole holiday in Pattaya,Patong Beach etc.That's fine by me-horses for courses.It leaves a lot of Thailand unspoilt by Western inflence.I know[not well] a man who spends 6 months of the year living in Pattaya.Never leaves Pattaya and does not associate with Thais.

    #6 Posted: 29/7/2009 - 15:11

  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
    6th June, 2009
    Posts: 6377
    Total reviews: 10

    I'll bet he "associates" with Thai women.

    But yeah, you got it. I chose to live in a remote province in Isaan, so obviously it appeals to me. But for some people they come out here and ask me "How can you stand it?"

    #7 Posted: 30/7/2009 - 01:55

  • Thaiman

    Click here to learn more about Thaiman
    Joined Travelfish
    12th November, 2008
    Posts: 201

    'I'll bet he "associates" with Thai women'

    I'll bet you're probably right.

    #8 Posted: 30/7/2009 - 04:12

  • BruceMoon

    Click here to learn more about BruceMoon
    Joined Travelfish
    27th December, 2008
    Location Australia
    Posts: 1941
    Total reviews: 6

    Steve

    I posted my support, above.

    Here I seek merely to add extra perspective to your great observations.

    1/.

    Ask a local. There are two additional focii here.

    a.

    I've often found that Thai people rarely go visit places beyond their immediate vicinity: and often those that they do visit are national &/or religious icons (ie. not Royal Palace, Ayuthaya, etc.). So, if I asked a Bangkok resident about a non-national icon likely as not they've no idea. For example, ask them what is worth seeking out at (say) Pak Kret, they'd likely look at you and ask where it is.

    So, from a western tourist perspective where western locals know much about their region (and little about the people of their region), often Thai people know little about places (and much about people).

    b.

    Aside from asking a local "what/where would you do/go", there is the other conundrum that those 'locals' that many tourists encounter are employed to assist tourists. Given this, the places recommended may turn out to be attractions that are marketed towards locals. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Rather, the point being that the 'locals' recommendation may]/u] only be another 'attraction' place, not a place that has its own beauty/peace/etc. and one overlooked by locals.

    To explain, with a car I've been to some wonderful places in Thailand that are just awe inspiring. They were not on any map, nor recommended by locals. I've even discussed my 'find' with locals who seem amazed that my 'find' had any tourist appeal.

    For example, I was driving from Mae Cha to Ban Arunothai on a back road on my way to Doi Ang Khang, and I asked some locals what to expect on the road, and whether there were any 'nice' places. The answer I got was that it was a farmers road. That it held a detention centre near Na Wai (the circumstances revealed it to be a most detestable place of cruelty), and the route was heavily policed appeared not to be noticed by those locals. In any event, there is along that route the most incredible valley. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. For a valley view, I'd rank it as the best in Thailand. But, no-one refers to it.

    2.

    Again, one doesn't need to only focus on National Parks for overnight camping. In fact, many mainland National Parks appear to have highish entry prices, structured roads/paths, and a lot of litter.

    The road route I mentioned above would allow the motor bike rider to set up camp in any number of places. I've travelled many a highway (and not only in Thailand), where a short diversion down a local road reveals great scenery, little or no habitation, often a babbling brook or river, and oodles of land for overnight camping.

    Similarly, between Sa Kaew and Chanthaburi and there were literally dozens of places along that route that allow for overnight camping. The karst limestone scenery, the little creeks crossing the road, etc., would be on a western nations' tourist trail, but (fortunately) is overlooked in Thailand.

    3.

    I fully concur with the use of good maps. Maybe I'm lucky that I was 'indoctrinated' when much younger. And, I was taught to triangulate. Perhaps its for that reason I can readily venture beyond the pancake trail.

    But, its not only mapping, its 'reading' the landscape. I've often been flabbergasted when tourists tourists claim a major river is behind them when they are standing on a hillside looking into a valley and the creek in front is babbling away from them. Or, that the sun is merely there for a suntan - not a directional guide. etc. etc.

    I look for mountain ranges. Not only are they harder to farm and then more likely to hold scenically attractive vegetation, but also waterfalls, caves, etc., etc.

    4.

    I like the term Fibonacci Method to denote 'getting away from the (tourist dominated) centre'. That's a cool way of presnting the idea.

    In cities, I go look for modern/modernist architecture. Nothing reeks more about the local elite lifestyle 'haunts' than modernist built/refurbished architecture. In these places, sure there will be western food (for the lacklustre westerner here is great western food, cooked well, at less than back home prices [but no hamburgers or banana smoothies]), but 9 times out of 10, there will be a WOW!!! style restaurant with an amazing mix of fusion/local food. For example, ever tried rock lobster Gaeng Pah (jungle curry)? Or, Duck Gaeng Hung Lay (burmese curry)? Or what about Kow Neuw Mamuang (mango & sticky rice) presented like a Creme Caramel, with the sticky rice as a custard, and the mango caramelised in smallish pieces layered on top, with palm sugar glaze? All so stunning, beeeautifuuuul, and oh-so memorable!!

    5.

    Plan for a festival.

    Yep, I agree. Though, I'd probably revisit Luang Prabang for the NY festival in April. But, how many travellers have heard of the Surin 'Annual Elephant Roundup' in November (look here. But, don't expect to just rock up, beds and tickets are limited. Or, the rocket festival at Yosathon, I could go on...

    Cheers

    #9 Posted: 30/7/2009 - 07:29

  • BruceMoon

    Click here to learn more about BruceMoon
    Joined Travelfish
    27th December, 2008
    Location Australia
    Posts: 1941
    Total reviews: 6

    Don't you hate it what the 'language' goes wrong...

    Here tis again, corrected (Somtam, PLEASE, a CORRECT/EDIT function).

    -----------------

    Steve

    I posted my support, above.

    Here I seek merely to add extra perspective to your great observations.

    1/.

    Ask a local. There are two additional focii here.

    a.

    I've often found that Thai people rarely go visit places beyond their immediate vicinity: and often those that they do visit are national &/or religious icons (ie. not Royal Palace, Ayuthaya, etc.). So, if I asked a Bangkok resident about a non-national icon likely as not they've no idea. For example, ask them what is worth seeking out at (say) Pak Kret, they'd likely look at you and ask where it is.

    So, from a western tourist perspective where western locals know much about their region (and little about the people of their region), often Thai people know little about places (and much about people).

    b.

    Aside from asking a local "what/where would you do/go", there is the other conundrum that those 'locals' that many tourists encounter are employed to assist tourists. Given this, the places recommended may turn out to be attractions that are marketed towards locals. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Rather, the point being that the 'locals' recommendation may only be another 'attraction' place, not a place that has its own beauty/peace/etc. and one overlooked by locals.

    To explain, with a car I've been to some wonderful places in Thailand that are just awe inspiring. They were not on any map, nor recommended by locals. I've even discussed my 'find' with locals who seem amazed that my 'find' had any tourist appeal.

    For example, I was driving from Mae Cha to Ban Arunothai on a back road on my way to Doi Ang Khang, and I asked some locals what to expect on the road, and whether there were any 'nice' places. The answer I got was that it was a farmers road. That it held a detention centre near Na Wai (the circumstances revealed it to be a most detestable place of cruelty), and the route was heavily policed appeared not to be noticed by those locals. In any event, there is along that route the most incredible valley. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking. For a valley view, I'd rank it as the best in Thailand. But, no-one refers to it.

    2.

    Again, one doesn't need to only focus on National Parks for overnight camping. In fact, many mainland National Parks appear to have highish entry prices, structured roads/paths, and a lot of litter.

    The road route I mentioned above would allow the motor bike rider to set up camp in any number of places. I've travelled many a highway (and not only in Thailand), where a short diversion down a local road reveals great scenery, little or no habitation, often a babbling brook or river, and oodles of land for overnight camping.

    Similarly, between Sa Kaew and Chanthaburi and there were literally dozens of places along that route that allow for overnight camping. The karst limestone scenery, the little creeks crossing the road, etc., would be on a western nations' tourist trail, but (fortunately) is overlooked in Thailand.

    3.

    I fully concur with the use of good maps. Maybe I'm lucky that I was 'indoctrinated' when much younger. And, I was taught to triangulate. Perhaps its for that reason I can readily venture beyond the pancake trail.

    But, its not only mapping, its 'reading' the landscape. I've often been flabbergasted when tourists tourists claim a major river is behind them when they are standing on a hillside looking into a valley and the creek in front is babbling away from them. Or, that the sun is merely there for a suntan - not a directional guide. etc. etc.

    I look for mountain ranges. Not only are they harder to farm and then more likely to hold scenically attractive vegetation, but also waterfalls, caves, etc., etc.

    4.

    I like the term Fibonacci Method to denote 'getting away from the (tourist dominated) centre'. That's a cool way of presnting the idea.

    In cities, I go look for modern/modernist architecture. Nothing reeks more about the local elite lifestyle 'haunts' than modernist built/refurbished architecture. In these places, sure there will be western food (for the lacklustre westerner here is great western food, cooked well, at less than back home prices [but no hamburgers or banana smoothies]), but 9 times out of 10, there will be a WOW!!! style restaurant with an amazing mix of fusion/local food. For example, ever tried rock lobster Gaeng Pah (jungle curry)? Or, Duck Gaeng Hung Lay (burmese curry)? Or what about Kow Neuw Mamuang (mango & sticky rice) presented like a Creme Caramel, with the sticky rice as a custard, and the mango caramelised in smallish pieces layered on top, with palm sugar glaze? All so stunning, beeeautifuuuul, and oh-so memorable!!

    5.

    Plan for a festival.

    Yep, I agree. Though, I'd probably revisit Luang Prabang for the NY festival in April. But, how many travellers have heard of the Surin 'Annual Elephant Roundup' in November (look here. But, don't expect to just rock up, beds and tickets are limited. Or, the rocket festival at Yosathon, I could go on...

    Cheers

    #10 Posted: 30/7/2009 - 07:31

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  • MADMAC

    Joined Travelfish
    6th June, 2009
    Posts: 6377
    Total reviews: 10

    The Rocket festival in Yaso is pretty cool... and you're right, better book in advance because the hotels are full.

    #11 Posted: 30/7/2009 - 13:33

  • stevebram

    Joined Travelfish
    28th July, 2009
    Posts: 2

    Loved all this feedback and insight --- really builds and develops on the ideas of the story. Great new insights.

    Thanks so much!

    -Steve

    #12 Posted: 28/8/2009 - 10:09

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