Communism World Tour: Karl Marx is running out of vacation options
Ever since the collapse of the Iron Curtain starting in 1989, the number of countries calling themselves communist has been on the decline. Sure, there are still quite a few places with governments that have elected “communist” leaders, but that’s not the same as states with a brutal single-party system that makes all other political parties illegal and takes a firm grip on every aspect of its citizens’ lives.
If Karl Marx were alive today he’d be down to only six possible places to go on holiday, and he’d probably be disappointed in most of those, since they have recently been allowing some free market capitalism and foreign investment in order to stay afloat, while they keep many of the horrible parts of the doctrine like a near complete lack of freedom and oppressive policing.
Karl Marx’s travel agent would only have these brochures left, and a few of these are already on shaky ground:
Long known as the most secretive nation on the planet, it’s actually not terribly difficult to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as they like to call themselves. The only real catch to visiting is you can’t do it on your own. You must be part of an official tour group that applies for entry with all details well in advance, but the group can consist of as few as a single person. If they think you are a journalist your chances of getting in are about as good as your chances of getting to sit on Kim Jung Il’s throne while you watch a movie together, but non-journalists don’t usually have a problem.
The other small catch is your group is monitored every minute of the day, and you are forbidden to interact with normal citizens, just as they are forbidden to interact with you. The trips are also not cheap. A 5-day “carefully planned tour” can run around $3,000 per person, including airfare from Beijing. Lately the government only allows Americans in during the famous Arirang Mass celebration, which is an enormous stadium show featuring about 100,000 performers whose choreographed moves and card stunts help show that theirs is the greatest country on earth. Another highlight is seeing the infamous Ryugyong Hotel, if your handlers let you. The 105-story pyramid in Pyongyang was mostly built between 1987 and 1992, after which they ran out of money and the thing was deemed unsafe for occupancy. It’s become such an embarrassment that it’s rarely spoken of, and it’s been airbrushed out of government photos, but there are reports saying they’ve started working on it again as of April, 2008.
Up until the 1959 revolution, Cuba was one of the most popular resort areas for Americans, but since then it’s been officially off limits and subject to a strict trade embargo. Much of the country remains like a dilapidated time capsule thanks to that embargo and the general lack of wealth or major industry, but there have long been beach resorts that until recently have prohibited locals from even visiting. Cuba continues to be popular with adventurous tourists from Europe and Canada, and many Americans continue to slip in, usually by changing planes in Cancun or Mexico City.
The capital of Havana has seen better days, but the eye-catching colonial architecture and spirited locals give it a charm not found elsewhere in the region. Of course the cigar industry is part of the draw, as none of the other nearby islands seem to be able to duplicate the quality. Varadero is the most famous beach resort city, with about 12 miles of gorgeous sandy beaches lined with all-inclusives and other nice hotels that the locals can one day hope to stay in. Now that Fidel’s health has forced him to step down, and his brother Raul is running the show, reforms are coming at a nice pace, and better things might be on the horizon for all.
The People’s Republic of China combines some of the fun aspects of communism, such as a single-party system with power guaranteed by the constitution so there is no need for voting and whatnot, with an economy that has been steamrolling half the world for the past few decades. Starting in 1978 they began reforms that allowed for private ownership and foreign investment, so even though they are still officially “communist” it doesn’t really show when you visit. No need to get into that pesky human rights stuff here, but as long as that doesn’t bother you it’s incredibly easy to visit this enormous country, and it’s quite cheap once you get there too.
Modern Beijing (home of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games) is the most popular stop, and where you’ll find the breathtaking Forbidden City, and the most popular section of the Great Wall of China just outside the city center. And Shanghai has become perhaps the most advanced city in the world in the past decade or so, with dazzling skyscrapers and modern architecture at every turn. Decent hotels for under US$40 are easy to find in both places, and meals are cheap as well. But once you get outside those giant cities you’ll see countless more amazing sights that don’t change every week like in the urban centers. Even some of the hardcore backpacker/independent travelers find that booking tours of China is the best way to go, since they tend to be very affordable and they help you see things that are difficult to reach on your own if you don’t speak the language.
Vietnam is yet another country that is officially communist, but aside from operating under an oppressive single-party system, they don’t really take the rest of it too seriously. Since the late 1980s they’ve given up on the collective farms thing, encouraging private ownership and foreign investment instead. Today it’s still quite a poor country, but market reforms have done a lot to increase output and the standard of living. It’s also incredibly cheap as well, which is only one reason it’s a major draw among the adventurous backpacking and independent traveling crowds. Living decently for around US$20 per day is definitely possible for experienced backpackers, and those willing to spend more can even afford some luxury.
The two major cities are the capital of Hanoi, which still carries an unmistakable French influence alongside its traditional Chinese-inspired city center, and the sprawling Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), which is modern and growing by leaps and bounds every year. But getting out of the cities leads to even more exotic adventures, and cheap tours from Hanoi to the stunning Ha Long Bay (A UNESCO World Heritage Site), are probably the most popular things for newcomers.
While Laos’ northwestern neighbor, Burma/Myanmar, does have a strict military dictatorship, it also has a messed up and corrupt version of socialism, so it doesn’t really qualify as communist. Laos, on the other hand, still officially calls itself communist, even though they’ve been experimenting with market reforms for a while now. Forget looking for parades of thousands of goose-stepping soldiers demonstrating their loyalty to the country, the single-party here doesn’t get too involved in anything, and there is a massive divide between the haves and the have-nots, so it’s not exactly a workers’ paradise either.
This landlocked country that straddles the Mekong River is one of the better-kept travel secrets in an area that is extremely popular with low budget backpackers. Hotel rooms for around US$5 are very common, and meals under US$1 are available nearly everywhere.
Vientiane is the capital and largest city in Laos (the “s” in Laos is silent, by the way), and it’s the mellowest big city in the entire region, although it’s been picking up the pace lately. The city is about 1,000 years old, and there are plenty of temples decorating the place, but the countryside also has its share of sights. The mysterious and ancient Plain of Jars is one of the most famous attractions, and they’d be easier to visit if not for the thousands of unexploded bombs in the area.
Under a monarchy for 240 years, the Communist Party of Nepal started a somewhat bloody civil war in 1996, which finally met its goals of forming a republic 10 years later. In April 2008 the party won the most seats in the new parliament, so this landlocked country in the Himalayas is the newest member of the communism club, although things are still sorting themselves out. It’s hard to imagine this country that has recently been one of the hottest new tourist destinations shutting things down and trying to nationalize everything, but we won’t know for a while yet.
Of course the country is best known for being home to half of Mount Everest, alongside its controversial neighbor Tibet/China, but there is plenty more to see here for those not wanting to meet some insane personal goal of climbing to the top of the world. Trekking in other forms is huge in Nepal, and tours that are suited for people with moderate fitness levels are getting more popular every year. The capital of Kathmandu is also jammed with temples and ancient sites, and is considered one of the major highlights of the whole region.