Bad Karma – Bad Travel Writing

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Bad Karma: Confessions of a Reckless Traveller in Southeast Asia by Tamara ShewardLife’s full of mysteries; like why anyone was surprised that politicians fiddled their expenses or how Michael Winner has had so many glamorous girlfriends. But my big mystery today is how did Tamara Sheward ever con a publisher into accepting her manuscript?

I love travel but I have mixed feelings about travel writing. It’s a bit like football – you can love watching it but you wouldn’t want to read about it. Travel writing ranges from the intellectual and sanctimonious to the trite and plain silly; Bad Karma is firmly in the latter camp.
The premise of the book is simple. Australians Tamara and Elissa attempt to get off the backpacker trail and ‘do’ Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. All in three weeks! So you won’t need me to tell you that they didn’t exactly go for total cultural immersion – it’s more a case of collecting stamps and visas in their passports. Elissa ought to know better – she’d been teaching English in Japan so you might suppose she’d have a bit of sensitivity to different cultures because cultures don’t get much more different than in Japan. However, as we’ll later learn, she has all the charm and charisma you’d expect from a compatriot of Sir Les Patterson and a vocabulary to match.

“Passing through some of the most beautiful countries in the world, they almost completely fail to actually go and see anything.”

Tamara comes from Cairns – a hub of the southern hemisphere backpacker trail so she has good reason to dislike backpackers. She’s also done a few stints working in London and all the normal European and US backpacking destinations. The book opens with her spouting about how she’s come to hate backpackers and how she wants to go somewhere she won’t encounter drunken Australians pissed up on cheap bear screaming ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie – oy oy oy’ at the tops of their voices. She’s sick of “pseudo-spiritual” Yanks, “vocabulary mauling” Kiwis and “Canadians and their bloody flags”. Oh and she doesn’t like the French – but that’s not unusual.

Apparently after returning from her last journey she’d spent her evenings poring over maps and guidebooks – though later chapters would suggest there’s a lot of poetic license in that claim.

One night in a bar she comes across Wazza, a very drunk Australian who lives in Cambodia and has succumbed to his feelings of home-sickness and popped back to good-old Aus. He tells Tamara – through a slur of beer fumes – that if she wants a place with hardly any foreigners she should try South East Asia. And Tamara, being as shallow as she is, needs no better advice than that of a drunk in a bar.

And so the girls are off to give S.E. Asia their best shot. Tamara admits she thought the Khmer Rouge was a cosmetic and Laos was something you got in your hair at school but you might suppose she’d have read a guidebook or two before setting off. Even a teensy bit of homework would have been a good idea. You could call them ‘innocents abroad’ but I think I’d substitute ‘ignorants’ for innocents. The title refers to them as ‘reckless’ travellers but the actual travels are a mix of stupid (going to places with nothing to see) and predictable (going to places every other backpacker already visited).

Tamara meets up with El at Bangkok airport and straight away they head off to find a cheap dive on the Khaosan Road. This is the point at which I started to doubt the sincerity of the ‘I want to see the real SE Asia and keep away from backpackers’ premise. If there is any place on earth where you are less likely to avoid backpackers than Khaosan Rd then I’ll eat a wombat. But let’s give them some credit – they only spend one day in Bangkok, griping about drivers ripping them off (do ALL Australians do that when they are travelling or only the ones I’ve met?) and failing to find most of the things they vaguely set out to look at. Their tirade against local food – pig head on a stick anyone? – starts in Bangkok and pretty much carries on throughout the book. What a good thing that these days you can get Pringles just about anywhere.

“If the principle of Karma is that good deeds in this life are rewarded in the next then I strongly suspect that Tamara and El will be coming round again as cockroaches next time.”

After a day in Bangkok, they head north on the train where they fall in with a bunch of soldiers in the bar-car and drink far too much before being sent off to bed by a ‘Train Nazi’. I’m sure that drinking too much and giggling at what silly words the Thais use is funny for a while but if I’d been one of the soldiers, I’d have been tempted to push them off the train. Their first stop up north is a disaster – if only they’d read the guidebook instead of just looking at the name of the town and thinking ‘hmm, sounds interesting’. They find themselves in a town that doesn’t like foreigners. The Lonely Planet enlightens them that the town was used as an American Airbase during the Vietnam War so the anti-farang (foreigner) policy is quite understandable. Oh if only they’d actually bothered to read the blurb before they got off the train.

And so it goes on – lurching from one badly chosen town to the next, they blunder through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and eventually touchdown in Cambodia although the brief stop in Cambodia seems to be solely to get a stamp in their passports. Their ability to miss out on anything worth seeing on the grounds that to do so might be too ‘predictable’ is irritating and pathetic. If I read a travel book I want to know about what they saw, why they went there, whether it’s worth a visit – not where I have the best chance of ‘scoring’ a few foils of out-of-date Valium.

Drinking themselves into oblivion, swearing aggressively at locals and breaking taboos, these are two of the most inept and unpleasant backpackers you could come across. The irony is that Sheward really doesn’t seem to see that she and El are the very backpackers she professes to dislike.

Sheward’s book is full of mickey-taking about other travellers. The overly sincere spiritual types doing their yoga and rebalancing their chakras come in for plenty of gyp as do any other travellers who drink too much (definition of too much = even more than Tamara and El) and look set on having too good a time. Quite how Tamara and El find any moral high-ground from which to look down on this latter group was a mystery to me. They track down so much illicit Valium that it’s a wonder they could remember enough to write a book about it afterwards. (An aside – if you want to look like a really ‘cool’ druggy traveller, is Valium really an appropriate drug of choice?)

Passing through some of the most beautiful countries in the world, they almost completely fail to actually go and see anything. They bumble from one ill-chosen backpacker venue to the next reaching their nadir in Na Thrang – the only place I visited in Vietnam and vowed to never go back to. And yet for them it was one of the few times they made a proper decision on a destination. So why do they choose it? In the Apocalypse Now bar in Hue (most big Vietnamese cities seem to have a bar by that name – suggesting a much more forgiving attitude to the past then could be expected) the girls hear about a near-legendary lady by the name of Mama Hanh. Mama Hanh organises booze and drug parties off her boat – maybe a bit of snorkelling thrown in. Would you take a detour for something like that? Not me – I’d go the extra few hundred miles for a jaw-dropping temple, a stunning mountain or a world-class museum but I’d not go an inch out of my way to get bladdered with a bunch of silly backpackers. And yet Sheward writes as if it’s all just so clever and so funny that you or I would actually want to read about it. It’s like the annoying lad in your office who’s just come back from holiday and wants to regale you with too much detail about his 18-30 in Ibiza. You just don’t want to know.

More by accident than design they do actually do a little bit of sightseeing in Saigon – but only then because they are trying to keep away from the hoteliers whose family they gravely insulted by misbehaving at a solemn dinner for their ancestors. They find themselves on a bus full of American Vietnam War veterans on a trip to a Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels. At the tunnels the angry US Vets take umbrage with the local version of how things played out back in the ‘American War’ and refuse to visit the museum or go down the tunnels. The girls are packed off to join a group of respectable family tourists who don’t appreciate the f-ing and blinding when Tamara gets stuck in a tunnel.

If the principle of Karma is that good deeds in this life are rewarded in the next then I strongly suspect that Tamara and El will be coming round again as cockroaches next time. Probably cockroaches in a dodgy window-less room on the Khaosan Road. Now that’s what I’d call divine justice.

Verdict – save your money. You weren’t learn anything worth knowing about South East Asia from this book but you might learn more than you want to about silly Aussie backpackers.

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Bad Karma
by Tamara Sheward

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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