Just Like Home – Travelling in a globalised world

Our Travel Writing Competition winner Damien Cifelli urges us to seek out the unique, before the world becomes a buffet where everything's the same flavour

Feature by Damien Cifelli | 01 Apr 2015

The air is misty inside Ta Prohm, king of Cambodia's jungle temples. I struggle for grip, scrambling over the smooth bark of buttress roots and trunks that strangle crumbling stone. Once home to 12,000 people, it is now a ghost town, gradually merging with the jungle. The dislodged vertebrae of corridors buckle beneath the strong hands of nature. Within them shadows move, their diffused contours forming and fading. The giant silk-cotton tree's deciduous fingers push into every crack, its horticultural hands cleaving stone to reveal its innards. I duck under archways overflowing with bulbous limbs, my breath afraid to disturb the silence.

After a while, the mist burns off into the heat of the morning and a small light appears, birthed through the retreating haze.

I continue onward. It grows bigger and brighter.

“Hey Boyzone!”

A middle-aged man in a counterfeit Ralph Lauren polo shirt waves from the distance. He leans from the ludicrous vehicle that got me here, a souped-up tuk-tuk whose design, save for the name 'Mr Heng' on the back, is split in two. One half is a Man United crest, the other devoted to the New York Yankees. And on the back shelf sits Paul Scholes. (A photo, the real one wouldn't last a second in this heat.) The speaker system, far more technically advanced than the vehicle, pumps Prince's Purple Rain into the sultry jungle.

“Chop chop! Next temple OK!”

All aboard the travelling museum of confusing international references!

With a horn blast and a jolt, we speed off through the undergrowth.

“We will go past my brother's shop first, OK?” When there is no answer he turns to face me.

“Hey, all you have to do is look,” he says with a wink.

Welcome to the globalised world.

The joy of travel exists at an atomic level. Those minuscule everyday happenings that are familiar, yet entirely individual and exclusive to their place. The way people talk, the music that they listen to, the way street signs are a different colour, even how the toilets have a button that shoots a jet of water at your netherlands. Something is revealed when these unique elements combine. Described by those enthusiastic travellers the Romans as the genius loci, it's the individual fingerprint of a country that exists beyond the physical. It is the spirit of a place that makes us travel.

But this spirit of travel has begun to dilute, and the catalyst of it is globalisation. A new homogeneous culture has slowly permeated the furthest reaches of the Earth, trickling upwards through the soil and emerging through televisions and headphones in faraway places, absorbing local culture and replacing it with its own. It is not uncommon to fly half the circumference of the earth to be confronted with what seems like the place you have just left. Only you can't get bacon on your cheeseburger. And it's a bit hotter.

As you might have been told in a hostel by a man in harem pants through a haze of incense, it is harder to find an authentic experience these days. Which is true. As more people gravitate to tourist centres, the tourist industry grows. The bigger the tourist industry, the harder it is to involve yourself in local customs and culture. It becomes a vicious cycle of party hostels and fake Rolexes.

But it is worth the effort to seek out the unique and original. I don't mean crossing the Mongolian steppe on foot, seeking out stray yaks for milk and loving companionship. Instead you could just not go to KFC. (Unless you're in Kentucky, maybe.)

My tuk-tuk entrepreneur friend 'Mr Heng' serves foreign visitors by adapting to embrace their needs. In doing so he sacrifices his own culture for the benefit of tourism, diminishing the immersive power of travel.
We are constantly awoken from our foreign dreams by doppelgangers of home, be it a Tesco in Bangkok or a fake Apple store in China. How are we supposed to reach enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree when next door Starbucks is giving free samples to a coachload of elderly Germans?

“Bang nov cham sneh.”

This time the words are Cambodian. The song, as the driver points out, is not. A Khmer cover of House of the Rising Sun.

Two days after my tuk-tuk jungle experience I have acquired upgraded transportation. This time it is a beige Mercedes taxi that, probably somewhere in the mid 80s, became more duct tape than car. The gap where my window should be provides great relief against the Sunday-league shin pad smell of the cab as we tear through thick forests and winding cliff edges towards the Vietnamese border. To pass the time the driver exhibits a unique ability to name at least two international footballers from every country.

“James McFadden, Kenny Dalglish, yes?”

It’s the personal touch that counts.

So what's the harm? If it's just some eccentrics and entrepreneurs hustling their way through a globalised world, where's the problem? Well there is a dark side. In the extreme, this homogenisation can bulldoze the original identity and values that made a destination popular. What might the elderly Buddhist monk of Vang Vieng think as a river that’s probably 40% proof and consisting mainly of urine passes his front garden? Does he marvel at the engagement with local culture as half-naked teenagers in rubber rings are delivered downstream, vomiting on sandbanks to the sound of Tiesto?

The travelling experience here becomes merely a transaction. An agreement that says “Let us desecrate your natural beauty and, in return, we'll pay you to pretend you don’t hate us.” Both visitor and host become commodities making the experience cheap and meaningless. The infrastructure created to attract tourists swallows the place in time. It cannibalises itself in servitude to a fickle industry.

This new 'global culture' is not just the influence of one place but a confluence point of global ideas. And while the sharing and adoption of ideas is undoubtedly a positive thing (no one wants to be North Korea) the problem stems from the source of these ideas. The power to change a whole society comes from places such as multinational businesses selling junk food or global corporations altering traditional cultures for financial gain. The world by its very nature is unpredictable but the new uniform society makes us far more predictable and receptive to selling on a global scale. Who does a homogenised society benefit more than those whose motivations are… you guessed it, money! We live in a new world order of total brand recognition.

From a tourist's point of view, global recognition isn't totally negative. In countries like Japan there is a certain visual similarity brought about by a mutual global influence. Yet these similarities are only surface and are underpinned by fundamental differences. Similarly, the little tweaks and alterations they give adopted ideas has enhanced the travel experience. An entertaining afternoon can be spent comparing the subtle differences between your local newsagent and a seemingly identical Japanese one. Instead of Quavers and KitKats they have curried eggs and seaweed in bags. In place of tabloids and gossip magazines there are infinite manga comics being read by neat queues of bespectacled businessmen.

Of course, there is still the possibility of a backlash against the monotone world, borne through a revival of the local. For example, in Scotland there has been a large increase in Gaelic-speaking schools and Irn Bru routinely challenges Coca Cola for sales. The eternal human need to feel unique may cause a revived interest in a more distinctive aspect of a person's background. When a culture is under threat we begin to cling to it more strongly. Like a near-death experience, we value most what we almost lose.

There are still places with the ability to shock and surprise. Places that can confront prejudice, and have the power to change it. If we allow it, the world will reveal things that will make us contemplate the cosmos or at least just go “Huh, that’s weird.” 

Our disparate, irregular world has not yet been smoothed by global anonymity. As famous weirdo Kurt Vonnegut said, “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And while I have no idea what that means, the world is still full of peculiar places. After all, it is the kind of place you can see mystical ruins to the sounds of disco-funk or buy a brand new iPhone in the middle of the jungle.

“All you have to do is look.”