Friday, January 12, 2007

Post-Army Backpacking Israelis in Southeast Asia

In Israel, there are essentially three rights of passage: the bar mitzvah, the army and the post-army backpacking trip. When it comes to the post-army backpacking trip, the tiyul shehroor, Israelis go either "south" or "east." Going south entails a trip to South America, to places like Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Many more opt for east, as in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Israeli backpackers are ubiquitous. I have encountered Israeli backpackers all throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and especially Thailand. Perhaps if the British had offered Thailand rather than Uganda, the offer would have been accepted.

The sound of Hebrew fills practically every hostel and guesthouse across the Orient. There are even places that cater to Israelis. I was in Vang Vieng, Laos, a pleasant town 150km north of Vientiane known for its relaxing tubing on the river. While I was there, I found a restaurant called "Sababa" (Groovy), complete with a Hebrew menu. They served chicken schnitzel that would make any kibbutznik homesick. Also ala carte were falafel, humus and Israelis salad.

Meanwhile Bangkok is chock full of Israelis. Kho San Road is complete with numerous guesthouses with not just signs in Hebrew, but also whole storefront windows in Hebrew offering rooms, tours and treks. There are restaurants like Shoshana's that cater to the Israeli diet. Shoshana's is owned by a Thai woman who speaks Hebrew and makes a mean shakshouka. Meanwhile, her wait staff of Thai girls all speaks a little Hebrew. Shoshana's was the original place in Thailand for Israelis, she predates the buildup of establishments that cater to Israelis. It used to serve as the focal point for Jewish life in Thailand. Now there is a Beit Chabad as well. When I stopped in, the Beit Chabad was abuzz with Israelis checking their emails and eating at the kosher restaurant.

Israelis come to Southeast Asia, not only because it is cheap, but also because it is neutral ground. Many in Southeast Asia have never heard of the conflict in the Middle East, and do not take sides. Whereas Israelis traveling to Europe or America can expect some discussion of the situation in Israel, in Southeast Asia it is beyond the scope of daily life.

I have met a few other travelers who did not speak as highly of Israeli backpackers. Those endearing Israeli qualities that some Israelis possess such as being straightforward and sometimes impatient have resulted in the creation of unfavorable stereotypes of Israelis. The most troubling example of this that I found was in a guesthouse on Kho San Road which had a sign at the check-in that said, "We don't accept Israelis (impolite and steal)." Notwithstanding these stereotypes, in reality, all of the Israelis that I have met have been warm, welcoming, and utterly respectful of cultural norms and values; even more than some Europeans and Canadians that I encountered (I haven't seen enough Americans out here to judge).

Backpacking Southeast Asia for Israelis equals an opportunity for freedom and a chance to decompress from army life. I have heard similar sentiment from many Israelis. Some compared their army service to the novel "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, while others painted a much grimmer and more difficult picture of their service. This time for them represented a chance to leave it all behind.

On my way out of Thailand, I shared a minibus to the airport with an engaging Israeli named "Levi," who had just finished his army service and was on his post-army trip. He had been an officer in the intelligence division. Levi noted that the army is a very restrictive place, based on discipline and routine, while the life in Southeast Asia is the complete opposite. It is a life of freedom and opportunity for a little soul-searching. On the Israelis abroad in Southeast Asia, Levi stated that some come to travel for the sake of traveling, the chance to see new things. Some come to find themselves after an experience that stifles individuality; they come to find themselves after functioning as a soldier for multiple years. Others come for the party life, the drugs, drinking and dancing on a beach till the wee hours of the morning. Some simply come because it is the normal progression of Israeli life, and since everyone else is doing it, they come as well.

Levi asked a pointed question of himself and all Israelis doing their post-army trek, “why should I fly so far away to find something that is already in me?” The idea of looking for yourself in your travels is a question that I can acutely understand. The phenomenon of post-army Israelis backpackers will be a topic I return to, as I am now in India, the other favorite destination abroad.

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