For the working class, the daily grind is moving from one deadline to the next, struggling to tie up loose ends and making endless plans with long-lost friends that we are never going to come good on. Weeks turn into months, and sometimes, even years, when one day you realise, you’re all burnt out. What you need is a break: A getaway from the endless emails, and the anxious panic that each ring of the smartphone brings.
So, you plan a vacation. As far away as your wallet can afford. An empty white beach is always a good idea. Idyllic weather, lapping waves, crystal blue water, crispy prawns and fried sea bass with basil and garlic — that’s what you need.
And so it begins. The travel agent for the tickets, hotels.com for the bargain deals at a beachfront hotel, the bank for the yearly statement. And slowly it all starts taking shape. You apply for leave and it’s duly approved: worked hard the last year, old boy, you deserve a break!
Time grinds to a halt. Days take weeks to pass. Your focus is now entirely on that empty strip of sand, with a fresh coconut by your side.
The airport is a fine mess. Multiple flights landing and taking off at the same time. But you’re numb with excitement. The die has finally been cast. You’re on your way and nobody can do anything about it.
And then it all comes crashing down.
The idyllic beachfront of your dreams has turned into a nightmare. Hawkers peddling pendants with a 100 per cent guarantee to cure you of all your aches and pains, screaming children running about, throwing whatever they can find in whichever direction their bodies can turn, the beachfront itself crowded by visiting Europeans who have reserved all the loungers with their towels while they nurse an early drink at the bar.
This isn’t what you signed up for — what about the money-back guarantee?
The truth is, there is no idyllic beachfront left. They have all been discovered, then forgotten, only to be rediscovered again. What were loosely populated by native islands, now have highways and Starbucks, McDonalds and nightclubs. All this upgradation, if you will, has come on the back of the hordes of western (both American and European) tourists that have turned towards places like Thailand and the Philippines as cost-effective holidays. And both, Bangkok and Manila have obliged.
What the customer wants, the customer gets, which in this case, is an iced mocha latte and a deep pan pizza. So much so, that the local flavour in the restaurants has also changed, to ensure that the visitors keep coming back. The Tom Yam Goong soup, a longtime mainstay of Thai Cuisine, now has the spice level of a chicken corn. The red and green curries are now more sweet than sour.
The disappointment doesn’t end here. Even the markets have been affected. With the foreign exchange heavily in their favour, western tourists are not hard pushed to haggle with local traders. Over time, the traders have become used to this, and when we hapless Pakistanis, who do not have the luxury of a strong currency, try and bring the price down, we are met with a friendly but firm, “Oh no can do, no no”.
Still, Thailand remains a great destination. But the old classics like Koh Samui, Phuket and God forbid if you’re so inclined, Pattaya, are now heavily commercialised, and perhaps, too westernised as well. Still, there are some gems still hidden in these islands — lonely strips of white sandy beaches, and crystal blue water — and of course, seafood to die for. However, if you’re looking for that ‘unknown paradise’, perhaps it’s best to venture further away, to islands like Koh Tao (which while is part of the Samui, Phangan, Tao troika) has far less tourists than the other two, and most of them are those interested in diving to see the coral reefs surrounding Turtle Island. There is of course, Koh Phi Phi as well, on whose beaches Leonardo Di Caprio’s The Beach was filmed. And Bangkok is a world unto itself. Smelly and dirty. Dangerous and mysterious, it continues to cater to every vice and virtue a human being can throw at it. As that old song goes, ‘one night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster’.
But if you’ve had enough of the swadikas and are looking for something beyond the great kingdom, there are great options in the Philippines as well. Beyond the postcard that is the island of Boracay. With over 7,000 islands, the country is overflowing with natural beauty to rival any other across the world. The island of Palawan, also known as the last ecological frontier of the Philippines stands out in particular. And with low rents and cost of food and beverages, it’s a destination worth exploring. As long as you can brave the international airport in Manila, which has been wrestling with its counterpart in Islamabad as the world’s worst airport…
To be fair, tourists will continue to be on the lookout for cheap beach getaways in the east. So that empty beachfront really is a pipedream in the end. However, one sure way of really getting a break from the grim realities of urban life, is to leave your phone, laptop and tablet behind.
You’ll be amazed at the results. Life will go on.