Trekkers, seekers and entrepreneurs
Shradha Ghale Nov 4, 2017 The Kathmandu Post
A fascinating new book explores how Nepal was rebranded as a destination for trekking and dharma tourism
Generations of tourists have been drawn to Nepal since it opened its doors in the 1950s. Those from Europe and America came seeking what they imagined had been lost in the West.
From maharajas and palaces, to countercultural utopia, to Himalayan adventure and spiritual enlightenment, Nepalis quickly learned to sell them the version of Nepal they yearned for.
“What tourists think of as a quest is for Nepalis an industry,” Mark Liechty writes in the preface of his recent book Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal.
The book traces how different generations of Western tourists have projected their fantasies onto Nepal and how Nepalis turned those fantasies into business ventures. Nepali tourism represents a “fortuitous convergence” between disparate longings.
Among the various phenomena Liechty analyses, one that struck me most was the rebranding of Nepal as a destination for Western trekkers and seekers. Here I focus on this theme.
Tourists arriving in Nepal in the 1960s differed from the current breed. They were mostly middle-class American and European youth in search of a land uncontaminated by modernity.
They had left home to escape the materialism and war mongering that afflicted their societies, and found what they sought in the “exotic, cannabis-friendly, cheap, and welcoming streets of Kathmandu.”
These hippies and backpackers had little money and plenty of time. They travelled by road all the way from Europe, stayed at cheap lodges on Freak Street, smoked hashish, read, dreamed and hung out with the locals.
As public transportation barely existed at the time, most of them just walked all over the city soaking up the local atmosphere. “Even the most dazed potheads managed to meander over to the Central Post Office…or down New Road to check out the propaganda at the Chinese bookstore or American library.”
By the early 1970s the ethos of the global youth culture had begun to change. The sixties’ anti-establishment spirit gradually gave way to conservative and consumerist values. In the new social and economic climate, “‘experience’ was not something to be sought existentially, but to be bought in packaged form.”
The face of Nepali tourism changed accordingly. Realising tourism’s meaning lay in money making, Nepalis sought to replace the scruffy and unprofitable hippies with clean-cut and free-spending foreigners.
To that end, Nepali entrepreneurs and authorities harnessed an available resource: Westerners’ historical infatuation with the Himalayas.
Once abhorred as desolate and dangerous terrain, mountains had undergone a radical reassessment during the nineteenth-century Romantic era. Now they symbolised not just physical courage but also moral and spiritual purity. For those looking for a cure for the malaise of modern civilisation, there could be no grander destination than the remote Himalayas.
Nepal geared up for the task of fulfilling such Himalayan fantasies. Its already world-renowned mountain and jungle landscapes were now rebranded as “trekking” areas for adventure-loving foreigners. Fittingly, the government lost no time in declaring these areas “national parks” for “wildlife conservation.”
As environmentalism gained momentum across the globe, conservation became a reliable means of promoting tourism interests in Nepal. It is no coincidence that all the commercial trekking routes in Nepal lie in protected areas.
By the 1970s Freak Street’s appeal had worn off and Thamel emerged as the hub of Nepal’s adventure tourism market. A full-scale service economy featuring trekking companies, gear shops, restaurants and mountain flight operators took shape.
Guidebooks arrived to help trekkers carry out their adventure. These guidebooks “made possible the thrill of getting into beautiful and remote parts of Nepal without the uneasy sense of unpredictability.” The number of trekkers multiplied each year.
Coverage of Himalayan adventures in the western media further boosted the industry. In the late 1990s, amid the success of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air and the IMAX movie Everest, the Everest region witnessed a “virtual stampede” of trekkers.
“A trek is something one not only does but, crucially, buys,” Liechty writes. “Unlike the hippies, trekkers came to Nepal in search of a commercial service—an adventure.” These adventure consumers were “more cautious, less open to conversation, more afraid of being cheated, and seemingly less curious.” There was another difference: hippie travellers had little money but lots of time; adventure tourists were cash rich and time poor, and wanted to squeeze out maximum experience within the shortest possible time.
The hippies had romanticised Nepal as a timeless land that offered a refuge from the hectic and cutthroat world back home. In contrast, the new tourists saw the country’s “backwardness” as a condition that tested their endurance. Here intrepid souls could “time-travel, experience the thrill of alterity, and then return to the comforting if monotonous routines of their modern lives.”
Liechty sees “dharma tourism” as just another variety of adventure tourism. “Like other adventure tourists, dharma types come to Nepal seeking expert (spiritual) guidance in an exotic landscape and pay for the privilege. In lieu of trekking guides and mountain experiences, they seek Lamas and meditation retreats.” Seen in this way, the craze for Tibetan Buddhism and the desire for a packaged Himalayan trek are essentially the same phenomenon.
For Liechty it is not surprising that the dharma tourists have reduced Buddhism to a tool of self-therapy. Underlying their reductive understanding of Buddhism is the modern Western fixation on “self.” In this view, the self is an autonomous agent entirely responsible for its “own success, happiness, improvement and—if you’re Buddhist—liberation.” The answers lie within the individual.
One achieves transformation not through engagement and action, but through a solitary inner quest.
This “profoundly heavy cultural baggage” stands between Western seekers and the basic tenets of Buddhism. Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy holds that all things and phenomena are interdependent; nothing exists as an isolated, fixed entity, and the “self” is ultimately an illusion.
Yet many people from the West are drawn to Buddhism precisely because they see it as a path to “self-healing” and “self-discovery,” to be achieved through the practice of “meditation.” “In this light,” Liechty writes, “‘meditation’ appears much less an ancient spiritual practice and much more an artifact of late modernity as the modern ‘self’ seeks solace and healing in a tradition that fundamentally denies its very existence.” Within Tibetan Buddhism, meditation is chiefly associated with incarnate lamas or serious renunciants who have achieved advanced states of consciousness.
The emphasis is on living a life of non-attachment and compassion rather than on sitting cross-legged and gazing inward. “Ironically,” writes Liechty, “Western Buddhists have elevated ‘meditation’ to a place it never had within Tibetan Buddhism.”
Like Nepalis who cashed in on the mountain obsession of foreigners, Tibetan Buddhists reimagined their religion to satisfy the demand of Western consumers.
To illustrate this point, Liechty traces the origin and evolution of Kopan Monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu. The monastery was established in 1969 by a group of Tibetan refugee monks and the disillusioned granddaughter of a New York City billionaire. From the start, Kopan’s aim was to bring Buddhism to the West.
The monastery “explicitly welcomed” students from the West, offered Buddhist studies accessible to them, and rigorously adapted Buddhist teachings to their requirements. Over time Kopan became an international hub of “Tibetan Buddhist outreach to foreign seekers.” As more and more seekers flocked to Kathmandu, various other Buddhist enterprises cropped up in Thamel. “Not to be outdone, in 1982 Kopan Monastery established a branch in Thamel.”
The “seeker scene” in Kathmandu witnessed a gradual “hippie” to “yuppie” shift. Early students at Kopan mostly included young “hippies, freaks and travelers.” By the 1980s Kathmandu had started receiving clean-cut and well-heeled dharma tourists. Hotels sprung up in the Bodhanath area, including ones run by local monasteries. Increasingly Buddhism was marketed as a cure for the suffering self. Lamas turned into therapists. Monks took part in experiments that measured the health benefits of meditation.
Liechty’s critique of dharma tourism has special relevance at a time when yoga, meditation and “mindfulness” have become a multibillion-dollar industry. Today there are companies that offer a dizzying range of Buddhist experience, from “spiritual adventure tours” and “yoga treks” to “enlightened travel” in Nepal.
Affluent seekers can spend the day meditating and listening to lectures by Tibetan lamas, dine at a fancy restaurant in town and then retire to a luxurious suite at the Hyatt Regency, a short distance from Bodhanath Stupa.
Just as Nepali business people have tapped into tourists’ fascination for the Himalayan wilderness, enterprising Tibetans have “transformed Tibetan Buddhism into a branded product and peddled it worldwide.”
Liechty shows how the longings of tourists who come to Nepal are historically constituted. Still, while he offers a critical yet sympathetic portrait of the earlier hippies and budget travellers, his assessment of trekkers and seekers might seem a little uncharitable at times.
One might also ask whether the tourists who visit Nepal can be divided into such neat categories. That said Far Out is an academic work of the rare kind —clear, riveting, theoretically grounded yet free of unwieldy jargon. Liechty treats his subject matter with a touch of irony.
Most importantly, his analysis of tourism trends in Nepal sheds light on one of the defining phenomena of our age, namely the commodification of experience. As someone attracted to both trekking and meditation, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking for the most part.