Travelmag Banner

From the Hippie Trail to the Millie Circuit

Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s when large numbers of baby boomers from Europe and North America first started pulling on backpacks and heading for Asia, they followed a route that has since been celebrated in memoirs, novels and reunion concert parking lots as ‘the Hippie Trail.’ Today, the children of those baby boomers are again heading off to Asia, and in far greater numbers than their parents ever did. But are their trips anywhere near as, well, trippy?

The classic hippie trail began in Europe and ended either at the beach in Goa or in the mountains near Kathmandu. On the way travelers passed through Istanbul and Tehran, Kabul and Lahore. Along the route were guesthouses and hotels, places where people from all over the world stopped to meet and be young together.

Those who negotiated the Trail’s many twists and turns did so in a variety of ways: cars, minibuses, discount bus coaches, even trains in the Eastern European countries. There were many hitchhikers stranded on route, lonely kids stuck in scary places who’d spent their last Iranian Rial and were waiting for some passing member of the tribe, or anybody but their parents really, to show up and help them out.

Today such a scenario is almost inconceivable. The young travel with cell phones, email accounts and often their parents’ credit cards. They also head in their greatest numbers to a different part of Asia, the Southeast, where the tourist industry is well developed and the political situation, though not exactly stable, is certainly more predictable than it is in Iran, Nepal, or any of the countries that end in -stan. 

The trip for these young people – sometimes called Millennials, or Millies for short because they came of age with the start of the new millennium – typically begins with an inexpensive flight to Thailand and a stay on Kao Sarn Road in Bangkok.

Once a backpacker ghetto whose chief appeal was its location close to the major sights, the Kao Sarn Road area is now a sight in its own right and even affluent types staying at the Five Star hotels in other parts of town come to stroll along its busy lanes. There are hundreds of places to eat and shop and in high season upwards of five or six thousand people from all over the world staying in the vast number of guesthouses in the area.

As recently as four or five years ago almost all of the people staying on the Road were young. But as the accommodations have gone upscale the average age of those staying has gone up too. This doesn’t seem to bother the Millies, who not only don’t seem as defiantly tribal as previous generations, but also appear to enjoy their creature comforts more.

In keeping with their generation’s traveling style – they prefer short, well informed forays to long, novelistic quests – the Millies use Kao Sarn Road’s many travel agencies like a vast page of hyperlinks. Signs posted outside agencies there suggest a huge number of places to go, ways to get there, and things to do once you arrive. There are buses to Angkor Wat, trains to Malaysia, boats to a  half dozen different islands, and although there is still no single indispensable destination save Kao Sarn Road, word of mouth (often in the form of online message boards) has led to the establishment of some tried and true circuits. One trip that puts the emphasis on natural attractions explores Laos and Northern Malaysia in addition to Thailand. Let’s call this one the…

Nature Circuit

The Nature Circuit usually starts with an overnight train to the border in Laos. After a night in the capital at Vientiane, Millies continue on by bus to the riverside town of Vang Vieng, a happy backpackerville where travelers disappear for much longer than they were anticipating.
 Like many spots on the circuit, there isn’t a whole of interaction with locals here. The travelers Vang Vieng is a quieter, greener version of Kao Sarn Road, a backpacker ghetto in a bucolic setting with mountains, river rafting and beautiful caves and caverns to explore

As was the case at many spots on the hippie trail, a good deal of locally grown pot and opium is on sale here, but it’s consumed in quantities dwarfed by the amount of Beerlao chugged down in the many bars in town. Probably the best beer brewed in the region, Beerlao is especially cheap in the country where it is made and lubricates every activity in Vang Vieng from movie watching to river rafting.

A five hour bus ride north from Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang is a gorgeous French colonial town and one of the regions only world heritage sites. In town are some of the best places in Asia to sit and watch the world go by, while outside are some of the nicest waterfalls anywhere.

Luang Prabang is often the start of two day river trip north through some of the most beautiful scenery in the region to the Thai border. The trip ends with a short bus ride to Chiang Mai, the biggest city in the north of Thailand and a great place to use as a base for visits to the surrounding hills. From Chiang Mai, many choose to visit the small but extremely popular tourist town of Pai, near the Myanmar border.
After returning by overnight bus or train to Kao Sarn Road, many Millies next follow the well trod path of their GenX brethren and head south to the breathtakingly beautiful island of Koh Phangan, where they may or may not participate in a Full Moon Party, but almost certainly will not participate in the Half Moon, Quarter Moon or No Moon parties that have proliferated on almost all the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. .
These quintessentially GenX beach raves are not really a Millie thing, but Koh Phangan is so beautiful and the Millies respect for history such that many come anyway, but only one for the classic Full Moon Party. Millies have had enough of piggy back marketing and prefer the singular and authentic.

After the Full Moon Party, Millies take advantage of the fact that the Malaysian border is a reasonably short train trip away and head south, often by train. No visa is required to enter Malaysia, which is convenient because at this point many travelers are not only nearing the end of the thirty day visa they received on arrival, but are also nearing the end of their cash reserves. A stamp at the border means they need not worry about over staying their Thai visa, or returning immediately to Bangkok for an extension.

Not far from the Thai border, the Perhentian Islands off the Malaysian coast near the town of Kota Baru, offer probably the best diving and snorkeling in Southeast Asia. Thailand is green and lush, but Malaysia is greener and more lush and the coral reefs less visited. Millies are catching on and coming in droves, sometimes after a raucous Full Moon Party.

In search of a bit of peace and quiet they stay in rustic guesthouses, drink in moderation (Malaysia is a Muslim country after all) and perhaps try to decide if they are up to another Southeast Asian circuit, say one focusing on art and cities and hitting Cambodia and Vietnam while still departing from the Kao Sarn hub. Let’s call this one the….

Culture Circuit

The Culture Circuit features a more city centric introduction to the region. Leaving Bangkok, Millies start off with a journey that has been infamous for years: The overland route to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

For a long time the only vehicles making the trip – the only vehicles that could make the trip – were four wheel drive jeeps. The road is still awful and break downs are common, but some buses do negotiate it now.

When pickups dominated, the Cambodians would meet travelers coming from Thailand at the border and jam six or more in the cab and an equal number in the bed, where the dust would nearly suffocate them. GenXers thought this was cool in its way. Millies won’t put up with it and demand better.

Just outside the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world and a major destination for tourists of all sorts. Seeing the ruins completely takes a week, but Millies save the details for a travel channel documentary and take the place in quickly before hopping on a bus or boat and continuing on to the capital at Phnom Penh, site of another of the great chill scenes in Southeast Asia: the complex of guesthouses restaurants and bars known collectively as “Lakeside.”

Here, a dozen guesthouses with long, greenery filled decks jut out into a vegetation clogged lake. Each one doubles as a bar and restaurant with comfy chairs and often a pool table. Cannabis is openly sold and consumed. (Phnom Penh has long been the home of ‘happy pizza,’ but Millies will find that many dishes may be ordered ‘happy.’)

In the last few years a number of bars catering to Millie age people have opened up around the lake, which is rapidly becoming the local version of Kao Sarn Road – just as the city’s Riverside district has long resembled Bangkok’s ‘adult entertainment’ center of Sukumvit Road.
 For those who are curious about the problems of the developing word – and many Millies are – Phnom Penh is also a place to get up close and personal with severe poverty, the ravages of genocide, and the mixed blessing of the presence of practically every international aid organization in the world.

Only six hours by bus from Phnom Penh, the booming Vietnamese metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City is now on many a Millie’s itinerary as well. The more adventurous enjoy renting a four dollar an hour motor scooter and joining the millions of people their age circulating on their scooters all over the city. (Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was once called, is one of the few places in Asia where the 80’s inspired a baby boom)

The Pham Ngu Lao area is were most backpackers stay and is close to the sights, including the War Remembrance Museum, where Millies can check out one of those tanks that Uncle Bob the Marine was always going on about.

The rest of the Millie Trail is Vietnam is largely determined by the long skinny shape of the country. Tour buses take people in stages from the south to the north. Hue, on the other side of the mountains in the middle of the country, is the ancient capital and a place some stop, but the real destination in the north, and a growing star on the Millie Culture circuit, is the beautiful city of Hanoi.

In a time when the old bohemian arts section of most Western cities have filled up with high income professionals and only the most successful of artists, Hanoi with it fine French Colonial buildings, many lakes and tree lined streets is attracting many Millie age people. There’s a bit of the Left Bank of Paris to the place and young painters are colonizing it, creating an interesting scene.

Millennial age French, Chinese, and American artists come together here in a place that seems more their own, and though the complete absence of the sex tourism that blights the other Southeast Asian capitals is part of the appeal, the beauty of the town, as well as the fact that it is only now coming out from under stern communist control, is still the major draw.

It’s a place, in short, where Millies need not jostle so much with the other generations that have staked out similar places around the world, a place where they can take their time a make the best of what’s still around.

Of course, not everyone is quite so impressed. One self-proclaimed ‘backpacking veteran’ – whether he was a war veteran who backpacked or just somebody who backpacked a lot he didn’t say, was sitting on a bench near a lake in Hanoi’s historical district. He’d just finished telling everyone within earshot about a year he’d spent back in the 70’s living on Freak Street in Katmandu. He looked up and watched a half dozen Millie backpackers exit a minibus in front of a three star hotel.

“They’re all backpack and no backbone,” he scoffed, watching them lift their huge, new packs out of the back of the van. “But boy,” he smiled, as they pulled the big packs on their backs, “their gear sure is nice.”

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific