“You will totally love New Zealand. It has a great backpacker culture!”
And immediately, I cringed. It was just a reaction that I didn’t intend to offend with, but nonetheless it confirmed something I suspected long before I even arrived in New Zealand. I may be a guy who travels with a backpack, but I definitely did not fit the profile of a ‘backpacker.’*
I Wanted To Be A ‘Backpacker’ SO BAD!
My final year in Korea, I knew this was it. I regretted not doing it earlier, but I was set on traveling across South East Asia with nothing but a backpack and seeing where the wind would take me. There was something about ‘going without a plan’ and ‘meeting other travelers’ that sounded so cool and appealing. That is until I got started and realized, what a lot of people call ‘backpacking’ is not at all what I thought it was.
My Idealization of ‘Backpacking’
Backpacking seemed like the ultimate way to travel. No luggage to slow me down and roughing it when necessary in an attempt to get a ‘real local experience’ and not just a watered down ‘for tourists’ version of a place. It was my impression that ‘backpackers’ rejected the norm to truly be exceptional and of course, crossed paths when like-minded souls were on the same path anyways. I ate that ideal up so fast I nearly bit my tongue. Alas, that ideal crumbles pretty quickly.
Roughing it Just to Rough It
One of the first ways this ideal crumbles is the way ‘backpackers’ travel. Ideally, you would try to go cheap because you can save some money and spend it on things that really matter. Accommodation is a perfect example, where a dorm is cheaper than a hotel room and gives you a sense of community. However, the days where the two were very different are long past and hostels are just as easily advertised in websites like hotels.com as hotels are on hostelbookers.com. I understand a solo traveler spending on a dorm makes sense, but I have often seen groups of 2-3 get a bed where a private room (in the same hostel) is cheaper! It’s madness I tell you!
Commerce is no fool and has adapted accordingly. While in places like Japan where this culture is not as prevalent as in SE Asia, two dorms are still far cheaper than a room. However, it was often the case that a private room in SE Asia was cheaper than a room, because well, people are willing to pay more for less.
Koh Tao: The Thai Paradise, Without Those Pesky Thai People
Koh Tao is a scuba diving capital, offering cheap PADI and SSI courses in some of the clearest waters available during SE Asia’s rainy season. It is the place those supposedly ‘in the know’ advertise to their friends to get away from the ‘overdeveloped Samui and Phuket.’ It has cheap food, cheap accommodation, awesome beaches, and best of all, no Thai people! I know it is a bit much to blame the backpacking community as if they have meetings to plan this out, but I was amazed at how no one mentioned that besides some workers (and even many of those are farang), you are more likely to see foreigners than Thai on the island. It is as if backpackers came to the consensus that it was more enjoyable, without that ‘local experience’ they originally sought. What a silly idea that was.
Khao San Road
Overall, I had a very pleasant experience in Thailand and I feel bad to pick on it, but this place needs special attention.
Khao San Road was already popular long before “The Beach” hit theaters in 2000, proclaiming it a Mecca for backpackers. It accurately portrays it as a place where foreigners go to do foreign things which masquerade as ‘local experiences.’ Did you seriously think Thai people are eating scorpions on a stick on Siam Square?
The history of the place was kind of lost in the shenanigans. The area became famous as an alternative to hotels in the 70s (or so). Many who were not loaded found a place here where local people would allow them to stay in their homes as a base to explore the nearby Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The place became a thing of legend as those who experienced it came back home and told their friends tales of this incredible experience they had in Thailand. Keep in mind, this was all pre-internet travel.
Fast forward 30 or so years and the place is crawling with more foreigners than locals. I know this is the second time I complain about this, but there is nothing wrong with a popular place. Kyoto for example has more foreigners wearing kimonos than locals (you can hear most speaking Chinese), but there is a fundamental difference. Almost everyone I have met in Japan cares and is interested in learning something about the Japanese culture. Whether you came to try on a kimono and nerd out in Akihabara, it is the tourist who is experiencing the local culture. Places like Khao San Road however are nothing like that. You are listening to western music in a western style bar, in a place that has changed to accommodate foreigners, not the other way around.
The Road Most Traveled
One thing that got under my skin was when backpackers referred to places as ‘backpacker friendly’ or shut them down as ‘backpacker unfriendly.’ One guy I met on the Khao San (a sad consequence of not doing my homework) was on a ‘Round the World Trip’ (I’ll bitch about that term later) and I was curious on his route. He skipped Korea and Japan and having lived in one and crazy about the other, I inquired. “When people back home look at my pictures, they will recognize the Opera House in Sydney. No one knows what Japan looks like.”
As ridiculous as this statement sounds, the sentiment was something I heard again and again as people tried to follow the same tracks cementing the Thailand -> Cambodia -> Laos loop as possibly the most beaten path in the world. Again, there is nothing wrong with visiting a place that is famous, but it seems like no one even considers deviating from the route the Lonely Planet told them was “our choice!” Don’t worry if you forgot your copy though, there will surely be a backpacker you can meet that can share theirs.
The Hipsters of Traveling
Much how like hipsters try to be different, all at once in the same way, I feel that backpackers do the same in the travel industry. They all reject the word ‘tourist’ as if it doesn’t say just that in their visa and scoff at those who come rolling in with a piece of luggage. Much like hipsters though, they often reject things, just to reject them, not because they are good or bad. In their attempt to break out of the mainstream, they have destroyed the very things they sought to experience (Tiger Temple anyone?)
And… My Conclusion
I still travel with my backpack, but to be honest, more and more, I find myself feeling embarrassed to even carry it. So many people have given it a label (sorry for sounding like a hipster myself) that is downright shameful. I may have missed the boat on this whole ‘backpacking scene’ as I often found myself the oldest in the group, but I still feel like the ideals are sound.
I want to see a place because it looks amazing. I want to experience something because I feel like it could make the trip. I want to get to know some locals because I feel human nature is inherently good. I wear a backpack because it is actually more convenient than luggage (to me), but am okay with Sidney rolling hers next to me. I stay in a hostel if it’s cheaper, but you are damn right I’ll take a hotel otherwise. I want to see a place that has rarely been seen, because to me, that is pretty damn cool, but am okay with gazing at the Great Wall with everyone else. And if I can’t get blackout drunk every night because “this place doesn’t have a night scene,” I think I will be fine and won’t be whipping out my MacBook to leave a bad review on Tripadvisor. Hell, I don’t even care if I get a beer at all the whole trip. If you want to go ahead and follow the path that every single person has, that is okay too, but don’t think you are better than everyone else if you did it with a backpack.
*Note: Just a disclaimer. To the person who said the beginning quote to me. I just wanted to know that I thought you were pretty cool for trying to help me out :). Totally don’t mean you when I mention ‘backpackers’ in this post.