Top positive review
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Travellers don't have to be tourists.
on 20 December 2000
Dervla Murphy listens to the places she visits. She enters into a dialogue with them, then invites the reader into the conversation. She writes as if talking to an intimate, a fellow traveller. Her style is direct and uncluttered - no one who pushes a bike round the world has time for frills.
At 67, Dervla Murphy is still repairing punctures. Her tour of Laos was frustrated by an injured foot; when she tried to use her bike as a wheeled walking aid, it proved a recalcitrant companion, every bit as independent as herself.
From the first page, Dervla Murphy makes clear one of the tenets of her faith: if you travel, do so as an individual - don't allow the tourist industry to define you as a 'passenger' and package you like goods in transit. Assert your own individuality, that way you'll respect the uniqueness and individuality of the places you visit.
Murphy rails against the invasive nature of Western economies. Her fierce adherence to individuality and personal autonomy shines out against the efforts of slick tour operators. These market Laos to 'visitors', who are progressed routinely down the days of a holiday with anodyne efficiency. Murphy's is a rambling adventure - she could drive a tour guide to drink within the hour.
Laos is an ancient culture, knocked about a bit by various military protectors. It is now exposed to a more pernicious invasion - the get rich quick attitudes of Western-influenced tour operators. Sex tourism is on the increase. 'Wives' - of both genders - can be bought and sold. A pretence of cultural superiority - and a very real economic one - is maintained; Thai television advertises skin-lightening cosmetics!
Laotians are instinctively friendly. Over the years they've learned to resist, passively, with a smile. Murphy gleefully describes the pot-holed roads as "a plot to sabotage tourism".
But the roadside trees have been felled to make way for the automobile - people used to gather in their shade, linger, and talk. A slow life in which people had the time to respect one another has been eroded in favour of the hermetically-boxed speed of the car. Yet children in Laos still climb tress - they get to explore a world and take risks in ways denied Western children. Except now, of course, they're being sold cigarettes... and being sold to tourists.
Murphy reminds us there is more to travel than getting there fast, getting drunk cheap, getting laid easy, then getting back without either catching anything or being caught. She conjours the atmosphere and adventures of travel, has time to meet people - fellow travellers, businessmen, locals - and treats them as favoured guests who, like us, are welcome to enter her world for a while.