One of the saddest memories I have as a young backpacker in Bangkok fifteen or so years ago, is reading the flyers pinned to the notice boards of the cheap hotels and restaurants favoured by foreign travellers. Written in English and always including a blurry portrait, they begged the reader to please visit the person depicted in the photo, who was at that very moment languishing in a Thai prison – almost always for drug offences.
This was a time not long after the heyday of Australia’s passionate love affair with the mini-series, and the memory of Nicole Kidman sequestered in the infamous Bangkok Hilton after being duped into becoming a drug mule still haunted me. So too did the image of John Polson and Hugo Weaving shuffling to the gallows as Barlow and Chambers, Australia’s most famous drug traffickers until the name Schapelle Corby entered the Australian lexicon.
Which I guess is my way of saying that I couldn’t do it. Despite wanting to ease the devastating loneliness apparent in those heartfelt pleas for company, I, perhaps selfishly, couldn’t stomach the thought of seeing anyone trapped in that predicament.
These thoughts came drifting back last week when I read about Jake Mastroianni and Lance Whitmore, an Australian and Briton respectively, only in their 20s, but who may spend their own lives in the Bangkok Hilton for possession of significant quantities of ecstasy tablets.
As privileged westerners, we must teach our young people that the world is not merely their playground.
I have always felt such an incredible sense of loss when I read about young people who throw their lives away like this. Even as a young person I could never quite understand how people take such risks so far from home for such temporary thrills.
Don’t get me wrong. I know full well, and immersed myself in, the hedonistic nature of backpacking. I know what it means to be young and feel unstoppable, to exist outside the usual constraints of society. Backpacking, particularly for those of us who did it for extended periods of time, is like a parallel universe; at once surreal but more real than the real world.
But the real world can and does penetrate. And as these young men have discovered, the consequences are usually far greater than they would suffer at home. Unless they successfully appeal to be transferred to prisons in their home countries, Mostroianni will serve two life sentences, and Whitmore will spend 50 years in one of the world’s most infamous prisons.
To see young lives cut down like this is a pertinent reminder that, as privileged westerners, we must teach our young people that the world is not merely their playground. Let us be honest, the west continues to exhibit a culture of entitlement when it comes to its place in the world, and this entitlement filters through to young travellers, who, even as they marvel in what the rest of the world has to offer, often display a remarkable lack of respect towards these ‘foreign’ places.
I’ll never forget the ferry trip from the Thai mainland to the island of Koh Pangang (of Full Moon Party fame), watching incredulously as my fellow backpackers ashed their cigarettes over the side (careful not to get any inside the boat) and then nonchalantly toss the butt into the pristine green waters.
The prevailing sentiment seemed to me, not an awareness of our own privilege in being able to visit them, but an arrogance that implied these places exist for our benefit.
Even Egypt’s Mt Sinai wasn’t spared. Before the tourism industry of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was decimated by terrorism, climbing to the summit of the mountain where Moses was said to have received the Ten Commandments was a popular midnight activity, the reward a spectacular sunrise. With the well-trodden route lit only by the power of the moon and the stars, even for non-religious types like me, there was something sacred about the experience.
Well, there would have been if not for the empty chip packets and soft drink cans that blighted the path from base to summit. This was made all the more shameful by the rubbish bins that remained virtually empty.
From the barely concealed contempt for locals who cannot understand English (in their own country!) to the deliberate and flagrant flouting of cultural norms regarding dress and behaviour, the prevailing sentiment seemed to me, not an awareness of our own privilege in being able to visit them, but an arrogance that implied these places exist for our benefit.
But when this assertion of our right as westerners to behave as we like, when we like, backfires, the results can be catastrophic. Two young men will pay the rest of their lives for their failure to appreciate the gravity of the laws and norms of a country in which they were guests.
Regardless of what we think about the fairness of punishment relative to the crime, young people from the west must be made fully aware that their privilege can only take them so far. Because when that privilege finally evaporates, there is nothing that can restore it.