Video Night in Kathmandu

In Video Night Iyer chronicles Asian trips that he takes to Bali, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand, and Japan. His essays are humorous and poignant, as he notices everything about the culture he his visiting. He is especially aware of the mix, or crossbreeding of cultures -East and West, that has taken place and seems to be accelerating because of the electronic media, and his accounts are not only observations of this phenomenon, but also an analysis as he attempts to understand what he has encountered and attach a deeper meaning to it. .

Iyer is not wholly from the East or the West, and he attempts in his essays to remain unprejudiced and unbiased. However, because of his Indian, British, U.S. background, he is also especially attuned to the way cultures interact, and he is visiting places that also are no longer wholly East or West. In each essay, he begins by presenting his first impressions leading up to arrival, and then he starts to inspect and understand the big picture.

Pico Iyer:

"What results then, is just a casual traveler's casual observations, a series of first impressions and second thoughts loosely arranged around a few broad ideas. The only special qualification I can bring to my subject, perhaps, is a boyhood that schooled me in expatriation. For more than a decade while I was growing up, I spent eight months a year at boarding school in England, and four months at home in California-in and Indian household. As a British subject, an American resident, and an Indian citizen, I quickly became accustomed to cross cultural anomalies and the mixed feelings of exile. Nowhere was home, and everywhere."

(Video Night in Kathmandu. New York: Knopf, 1988, 24)

The term "Globalization" keeps coming to mind as Iyer recounts his travels. Each place he visits is profoundly influenced by the economics of popular culture and consumerism, most apparently from the United States.

Pico Iyer:

"To mention, however faintly, the West's cultural assault on the East is, inevitably to draw dangerously close to the fashionable belief that the First World is corrupting the Third. And to accept that AIDS and Rambo are the two great "Western" exports of 1985, is to encourage some all to easy conclusions: that the West's main contributions to the rest of the world are sex and violence, a cureless disease and a killer cure; that America is exporting nothing but a literal kind of infection and a bloody sort of indoctrination. In place of physical imperialism, we often assert a kind of sentimental colonialism that would replace Rambo myths with Sambo myths and conclude that because the First World feels guilty, the Third World must be innocent …This however is simplistic …"

(ibid, 13)

Thus, as Iyer sets the stage for his trip in Video Night in Kathmandu, he indicates that he will be reporting on this interaction of Western culture and Eastern. However, he remains without value judgment on that cultural interaction. He is also aware of his identity as a "tourist." Equally as dangerous as the assumption that the First World is corrupting the Third is, in his words, "that the Third World is hustling the First."

Pico Iyer:
[The danger as tourists is] that we begin to regard ourselves as beleaguered innocents and those we meet as shameless predators. To do so, however, is to ignore the great asymmetry that governs every meeting between tourist and local: that we are there by choice and they largely by circumstance; that we are traveling in the spirit of pleasure, adventure and romance, while they are mired in the more urgent business of trying to survive."
(ibid, 15)

Iyer the tourist begins his grand tour with Bali, and the essay he writes is typical of the way he experiences and writes about his travel destinations. Long considered a tropical paradise in the minds of Westerners, there has been tourism in Bali for over 200 years. What Iyer finds in Bali is that it is now a vacationland for everybody. There is a development of upscale hotels and resorts, a lower-priced lodging and entertainment market for the younger, more hedonistic traveler, and the "real Bali." The "real Bali" however, seems to be what the Balinese expect the "artist-type" traveler is looking for; it doesn't ring quite true for Iyer. He vacillates between the feeling that the tourists are ruining the paradise, and that it is Bali, truly a paradise is just too easy for the tourist, and questioning whether or not it really ever was a paradise. Iyer keeps returning to this dialog in his travels, how the expectation of the location, the preconceived idea, is often so different from the reality. Of course, in this situation, Iyer concedes the reality is that the West is responsible for the cognitive dissonance; can tourism and paradise co-exist?

Pico Iyer:
"Say Bali, and two things come to mind: tourism and paradise. Both are inalienable features of the island, and also incompatible. For as fast as paradises seduce tourists, tourists reduce paradises ... Hardly has a last paradise been discovered than everyone converges on it so fast that it quickly becomes a paradise lost."
(ibid, 30)

Iyer arrives in Bali and notices at once the mix of restaurants and tourist clubs with Western and non-Balinese names, menus and entertainment offerings.

Pico Iyer:
I had come into town the previous afternoon watching video reruns of "Dance Fever" on the local bus. As I wandered around, looking for a place to stay, I had noted down the names of a few of the stores: the Hey Shop. The Hello Shop. Easy Rider Travel Service. T.G.I. Friday restaurant. And after checking into a modest guesthouse where Vivaldi was pumping out of an enormous ghetto blaster, I had gone out in search of a meal. I ran across a pizzeria, a sushi bar, a steak house, a Swiss restaurant and a slew of stylish Mexican cafés. Eventually, however, I wound up at T.J.'s, a hyper-chic fern bar, where long-legged young blondes in tropical T-shirts were sitting on wicker chairs and sipping tall cocktails. Reggae music floated through the place as a pretty waitress brought me my corn chips and salsa. After dinner, I had made my way to a nearby care for a cappuccino. Next to the cash register were enough stacks of old copies of Cosmo, Newsweek, and the London Sunday Times to fill six doctor's waiting rooms. (ibid, 30) Wandering around after dinner and coffee he notices goods for sale (for example, tee shirts with Western television characters), and in general, all of the influence of the West on this paradise. But, he makes these observations without condemnation. As a tourist, he also takes part in the enjoyment of Paradise.

Pico Iyer:
"And the beauty and the curse, of Bali was that a piece of this paradise was available to everyone who entered. For $2 a night, I was given my own thatched hut in a tropical courtyard scented with flowers and fruit. Each sunny morning, as I sat on my verandah, a smiling young girl brought me bowls of mangoes and tea, and placed scarlet bougainvilleas on the gargoyle above my lintel. Two minutes away was the palm-fringed beach of my fantasies; an hour's drive and I was climbing active volcanoes set among verdant terraces of rice ... And all around were dances, silken ceremonies and, in a place scarcely bigger than Delaware, as many as 30,000 temples. Thus, the paradox remained: Bali was heaven and hell was other people."
(ibid, 32)

Iyer's confusion over his experiences is what makes his travel writing so engaging. He writes the dialogs that are taking place in his mind as he travels. He makes his observations, he notices everything, he interacts with the people, and he comes to conclusions. Then, these conclusions force him into more observation, talking with more people, as he searches to understand the realities of cultural interaction.

Pico Iyer:
"When I consulted Bima Wasata, a pamphlet put out by the village of Ubud to explain its culture to foreigners, I found Buta, or the force of evil, defined as follows: 'Evil power can be many things. It might be too much money from tourism, or the imbalance number between locals and visitors, or the local people who think about moneymaking work.' All three kinds of evil, one could not help but notice, arose from tourism."
(ibid, 46)

"Thus I went back and forth, unable to decide whether paradise had been lost, or was losing, or could ever be regained. And my greatest problem with Bali was, finally, that it seemed too free of problems. In many respects, it struck me as too lazy, and too easy. A real paradise, I felt, could not just be entered. A real paradise must exact a price, resist admission as much as it invited it. And a real paradise, like a god or lover, must have an element of mystery about it; only the presence of the unknown and the unseen -- the possibility of surprise -- could awaken true faith or devotion. (ibid, 48)

Iyer's inner dialog about Bali comes to a conclusion when he again visits 18 months later. On this visit he sees even more Western influence, and fears the worst has happened to this tropical paradise. However, he becomes ill shortly after arrival. In the fever of his illness, he has dreams of the magical Bali, and the essay ends: "I was delighted. Caliban was back, and the spirits were active and both had survived even their shipwrecked visitors from abroad." (New York: Knopf, 1988, 58)
Each stop on Iyer's itinerary in Video Night in Kathmandu is treated the same as Bali. In each location he presents his perceptions of the physical reality, but he also then shares his inner dialog as he attempts to make some sense out of what he has experienced. East and West, tourist and local, U.S. popular culture and local religion; all become part of the whole. Neither can exist without the other.

Iyer does not view Globalism as a form of domination by the First World. Upon his return to the West, he notices the growing influences of the Third World in London and California. He notes the importance of Japanese ideas and products on Western popular culture as proof that Asia has taken what the West had to offer, and developed it. One of his acquaintances from China visits him in New York, and takes special notice of urban poverty and crime, viewing it as a tourist commodity. "If the nineteenth century was generally regarded as the European century and the twentieth as the American, the twenty-first, I thought, would surely be the Asian. (ibid, 363.)


Pico Iyer was born in Oxford, England in 1952 to Indian parents. He spent his early childhood in the U.S. and went to school in Great Britain (Eton and Oxford). As a travel writer, his work has appeared in several popular magazines such as Time and The New Yorker, in addition to his several books. Iyer has traveled extensively throughout the world, especially in Asia, and now has homes in California and Japan. His recent books include, in addition to Video Night in Kathmandu: and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East (1988); Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places in the World (1993), Tropical classical: essays from several directions (1997), and The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home (2000).


Why Travel? Why Write About It?

Iyer's writing is classified by most as travel writing. His stories are easy to read and entertaining, and a good way to get at the more complex issue of seeing connections between cultures and how they interact. Iyer notes the changes that American popular culture has had on the East, and how each country has reacted differently. Iyer is traveling by choice, in search of intellectual excitement and entertainment. An earlier traveler, Olaudah Equiano was not, he was being transported to the West from Africa as a slave. Both authors are sharing biographical stories about their travels, each for a different reason.

Globalism or Imperialism?

Iyer doesn't view the interaction of American culture and Eastern culture as a negative thing, or a positive one. He's still trying to work it out. It is interesting to note his descriptions of the tourists in Bali, the three distinct groups (Australian college age students out for a cheap, good time; upscale, wealthy tourists at luxury hotels, and tourists seeking the "true" culture of Bali). Each group is satisfied with what it finds. And each group despises the others. I think it is interesting to see how the Balinese respond to these different types of tourists. Can tourism and paradise co-exist? Are the Balinese being "colonized" by the demands of the tourists? Are the tourists is search of the "true" Bali guilty of Said's "Orientalism?"


Iyer is a contemporary traveler. It is interesting to also read early Twentieth Century and Nineteenth and Eighteenth Century travel narratives to experience how much this genre of literature has changed. The British travelers of the 1800's for instance, approached their journey much differently than Iyer, and had very different travel experiences. A search for "description and travel" in a library subject catalog will return thousands of hits such as Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Lewis and Clark in the early U.S. to David Livingstone in Africa and Sir Richard Burton in Asia.



An interview with Pico Iyer, adapted from the radio series Insight & Outlook hosted by Scott London was in the January 1996 issue of The Sun magazine:

Minnesota Public Radio's program The Savvy Traveler" interviewed Pico Iyer. The interview is available here in Real Player format: (and photo of Pico Iyer)

Link to Video Night in Kathmandu at (dust jacket photo)

Link to web page: "World Hum, Travel Dispatches from a Shrinking Planet" a wide collection of current travel writing and a travel blog:



Possible discussion questions and further study:

The final chapter in Video Night in Kathmandu is titled "The Empire Strikes Back." What does Iyer mean?

What are some experiences you have had when traveling, and what do you look for when you go to a new place? Something strange and exotic, or familiar and comfortable?. What cultural interactions are "interesting" to you?. Are your hosts giving you what you really want or what they think you want?

Tourism brings an economic benefit to the Asian countries Iyer visits. Is this good or bad? Is the price paid too great?

What is the "American dream" to you? What is the "American dream" in the different countries Iyer visits?

In the cultural interactions that are taking place in Asia, Eastern tradition and religion appear to be losing against Western money and popular culture. Is this true? Is it bad?

Encourage students to do some "cyber-travel." Entering country names into Google will usually get you to a tourism website, which usually represents an interesting juxtaposition of East and West images.


Pico Iyer: Video Night in Kathmandu. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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