By Mark Liechty
Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt
Since opening up to the outside in the early 1950s, and especially after the arrival of Westerners in large numbers from the late 1960s onward, Nepal has been hailed (by some) as being “Far Out” culturally and geographically. In this 387-page book, anthropologist Mark Liechty tells us how, why, and by whom, then he analyses the impacts of it all.
According to the publisher’s abstract, “Far Out examines how generations of counterculturally inclined Westerners have imagined Nepal as a land untainted by modernity and its capital, Kathmandu, a veritable synonym of Oriental Mystique. The book examines how the idea of Nepal changes through time in ways that reflect shifting forms of countercultural longing in the West, and how Nepalis have engaged the changing images of Nepal that tourists bring with them...”
I can think of no one better to fulfill that promise than Mark Liechty, an anthropologist and insightful writer who has spent many years researching Nepal’s culture history, with special attention to Kathmandu’s urban life. His previous books on Nepal include ‘Suitably Modern: Making Middle-Class Culture in a New Consumer Society’ and ‘Out Here in Kathmandu: Modernity on the Global Periphery’. Both are good reads.
In ‘Far Out’ Liechty continues his in-depth discussion of what has made Nepal, especially Kathmandu, such a globally alluring and popular destination. The book has 12 chapters organized in three parts. His goal in them “is not to portray tourism as something that happened to Nepal, but as an encounter?cultural and economic?between people who share a complex, historically constituted world stage.”
To that end Part One: ‘The Golden Age’ begins with the necessary historical background about the opening of Nepal to the West. In chapter 3, for example, he describes the ‘Mountains, Monsters, and Monks’ as they were perceived in popular imagination of the 1950s. Those “monsters” include the elusive Yeti, in popular lore. The next two chapters then take us deep into the stories of two tourism destinations and the persons who ran them. Chapter 4 is all about the historic character of Boris Lissanevitch of Kathmandu’s old Royal Hotel and who helped usher in Nepal tourism’s ‘Golden Age’. Chapter 5 introduces us to John Coapman who started out as a hunter, then became a somewhat controversial entrepreneur who founded Tiger Tops resort in Chitwan, one of the early gateways to adventure tourism. For history buffs, these two essays are essential reads.
Part Two of the book is all about ‘Hippie Nepal’, and is a major contribution to the story of Kathmandu as a special destination to the Western world’s young dreamers beginning in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Chapter 6 is entitled ‘The Great Rucksack Revolution: Western Youth on the Road to Kathmandu’, followed (in ch.7) by ‘“Kathmandu or Bust”’–Countercultural Longing and the Rise of Freak Street,’ (ch.8) ‘“Something Big and Glorious and Magnificently Insane”,’ (ch.9) ‘The Age of Hippies’, and (ch.10) ‘Nepal’s Discovery of Tourism and the End of the Hippie Era.’ The latter serves as a transition into Part Three: Adventure Tourism, where (in ch.11) we encounter three themes: ‘Trekking, Thamel and the New Tourism’. Part Three concludes (in ch.12) with “Imbibing Eastern Wisdom: Nepal as Dharma Destination.’
Scattered throughout the book is mention of American Peace Corps volunteers (I was one) who both preceded and then paralleled the Hippie Era and the rise of Adventure Tourism in Kathmandu and other outposts such as Pokhara, Chitwan and beyond. Most of the Hippie chapters describe foreigners on their quest for drugs, sex, and the Dharma, but in ch.12 there’s a special section called ‘Nepali Hippies: Fellow Travelers on a Journey of the Mind,’ which describes some of the locals who joined the Hippie movement, and the effects of their presence to this day.
All in all, this is an excellent study of some of the key events and movements that have impacted Nepal in the modern era (since the 1950s). ‘Far Out’ is a highly recommended read.
Mark Liechty, the author of FAR OUT: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal (University of Chicago Press 2017) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and History at the University of Illinois/Chicago and a frequent visitor to Nepal. His book is available in hardback, paper and e-book editions. Check its availability at local booksellers.
The reviewer is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal magazine and can be contacted at email@example.com.