Review: Visiting the Neighbours – Australians in Asia

Cover of Visiting the Neighbours

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia by Agnieszka Sobocinska (New South: 2014).

Visiting the Neighbours: Australians in Asia gives an overview of more than a century of Australian travel in South-east Asia. It demonstrates that the Australian relationship with Asian countries is long and complex. Focussing primarily on private travel, the author, Agnieszka Sobocinska provides a book which will cause many readers to reflect on their own relationship with Asia.

The breadth of Sobocinska’s work is ambitious. Using diaries, letters, travel books and other sources, Sobocinska looks at the experiences of Australian tourists, business people, travel writers, soldiers, humanitarians, drug traffickers and more. Sobocinska shares glimpses of their experiences to demonstrate that contrary to the proclamations of various Australian politicians, Australia’s engagement with Asia is not new and it has a complex history.

While Visiting the Neighbours focuses on the twentieth and twenty-first century experiences of Australians travelling in Asia, Sobocinska acknowledges the fact that Aboriginal Australians have had a trading relationship with the Macassans (who lived in what we now know as Indonesia) for centuries. In the twenty-first century Sobocinska notes that nearly twice as many Australians visited Indonesia than visited the United Kingdom.

The book unfolds in a broadly chronological sequence starting at the time when the British Empire reached around the globe. The issue of race is a theme that runs through much of the book. Sobocinska shows that travel in Asia forced Australians to think and in some cases, re-assess their views on the White Australia policy. She continues to examine race issues by reflecting on the post-colonial relationships that some of the Australian travellers developed with locals when they visited to give humanitarian service as well as the experience of travellers on the ‘Hippie Trail’ of the sixties and seventies. Sobocinska points out that the travellers on the Hippie Trail had little to do with the local populations, preferring to hang out with fellow western travellers: Continue reading