What was it like to Backpack Southeast Asia 50 years ago?

In an era when love and peace perfumed the air and travellers hopped on hippie buses taking them from Europe overland to Asia, Londoner, Barrie Scott embarked upon what turned into a four year epic adventure (1967-71)! Hitch-hiking, busking, sleeping in a Thai temple with monks, building a boat with some travel buddies and sailing to islands that hadn’t seen foreigners since colonial times, his story sheds light on how the concept of backpacking has changed over the past 50 years. For the better? We ask Barrie what he thinks…

How long did you travel for and where to?

It was four years in total – six months en-route to SE Asia firstly hitching round France picking grapes, Spain and Portugal + Tangier, then France to India overland, Bangkok Jan ‘68 – Darwin Jan ‘69  followed by two and a half years in Australia.

How were your travels perceived by family & friends?

Some said I was screwing up my life by throwing in the airline job I had. Curiously there were more people my age warning me about my future than elders. The 50s and 60s were an era when people were forced to hang onto security but now it was 1967 and the air smelt of possibilities! My folks were mostly okay about my decision, my siblings had paved the way – my brother was in Canada and my sister in Italy. The old man bollocked me dutifully but my mother was great, said she knew it was coming – “just write letters”, she said. When she died 20 years ago I discovered she’d kept all of them.

YY2That’s me at 19 trying to look serious and seaman like

What information was circulating in England at that time about South East Asia?

Very little, especially in my 18-year old world. Air travel was only for the wealthy. Package holidays, even to Europe, were in their infancy. One would rarely meet people who had seen Asia, even in the airline world! There was the British Army back from Malaya, as it then was, and Singapore – but it wasn’t backpacking! Thailand was shown in the odd travel programme – anyone remember Armand and Michaela Denis? Classical dancing and logging elephants…all too exotic to seem real, let alone attainable.

Take us back to your first trip, what got you hooked on this part of the world?

Circumstance and, excuse the cliché, ‘going with the flow’ led me to Bangkok. I discovered there what I termed ‘the law of infinite possibilities’. If you’re open to it, stuff happens.

I’d planned to work a sea passage to the USA from Asia, but new rules about certificates left me on a beach in Thailand with my pockets growing empty – two choices: shameful repatriation to the UK with an airfare to repay – or try something different.

I tried busking. I had about six guitar chords and a head full of blues songs, no sense of dignity (or musical skill), but it paid off. In one afternoon at the weekend market in Bangkok I earned $2 USD – basic food money for a week. I think there was an element of freak show about it. One inspiration was an enormous red headed German, similarly broke, who would stand on his head to collect money. Seeing someone that size and colour upside down was worth a baht of anyone’s money.

YY6This was an island where we were told, they hadn’t seen a European face in 20 years

What was Bangkok like back then?

Bangkok was a land of unique opportunity for me. To settle for a time to get to know the place felt like a fine idea. I remember the town as a series of villages. There were many more khlongs, (canals), way less traffic and little concrete. The people had a friendly easy manner, it was light and cheerful.

I slept in a Buddhist temple, the monk wanted to learn English. Four of us slept in a small room on bare boards: the monk, his servant and a Canadian mate I met. I quickly took to the simplicity of the Asian lifestyle.

It was a taste of absolute freedom, busking and singing my heart out most days to earn  money –  and Bangkok said ‘never mind’ – as did my monk friend Pra Sawai when I had an initial guilt trip about taking money in a poorer country. He said they wouldn’t give you all those one bahts if they didn’t like it. He quietly taught me a lot – a great man. I was irresponsible as hell with little common sense but I never felt any danger from anyone, only kindness.

What about traveller hangouts, like Khao San Road? Did anything like that exist?

Bangkok was a traveller hub, as it is today. You would get to know most of the travellers passing through, normally at one main place people would stay or congregate. It was the early days of such a community.

In 1968, the hub was The Thai Song Greet Guesthouse, Rama 4 Rd,  Hualampong. There were less Europeans in Bangkok as most had turned home after India or were on the backpack route to Oz and would take the cheap deck-class boat, Madras to Penang, bypassing Thailand. There were more Aussies, Americans, and Canadians.

What was the transport like?

Back then, you could hitch hike to Vientiane, on visa day, in nine hours. Getting there was absolutely guaranteed, and huge fun, usually in a lorry, sometimes in the back with the cargo. It was delightfully eccentric (as it is now). You clanked around town on battered buses, young teenagers were conductors, having the time of their lives leaning out of the door whistling frantically.

The hitch-hikers – (or ‘roun’ de worl’’ as we were known), scraped our way through our travels, learning to live cheap. Some rotten sods persuaded the conductors that hitch-hikers didn’t have to pay their fare to which everyone, even the passengers said OK. The first time I got on a bus I tried to pay and they all laughed at me and said “n-o-o – you no pay.” After this I hitched slowly through Malaysia to Old Singapore.

What happened from Singapore and how did you end up buying a boat!?

I teamed up with some Aussies in Singapore, also buskers. One was a jazz pianist and they’d borrow a piano each night and wheel it down to the nightspot of Bugis Street, play and pass a hat around. British servicemen and seamen would drunkenly pour out money. My busker mates were planning to buy a boat and sail to Sumatra and invited me to buy in with them. It was the start of a crazy new adventure!

YY72   Yin Yang 1

We worked for weeks on an old 12m X 4m teak cargo tub called the “MV Yin Yang” and built a cabin out of driftwood. There was a scrapyard for Chinese Junks in the harbour where we found old boat parts. It was a foolish venture, but one that we miraculously survived! We unbelievably made it to Sumatra, passing by amazing small islands on the way, but the boat finally went down in the Palembang river in a fire. Everything I owned – my guitar, rucksack – GONE.


Broke again. I finally had to borrow from my folks (£50 Jakarta to Darwin) and set off towards Australia with Aussie Geoff Gunn from the boat. He had a degree in Indonesian, spoke the lingo and knew the country well – a great travel mate. He’d tell me yarns as they were told to him. One was in Surabaya, South Java, an old guy came up and, discovering I was British told us that in 1945, after WW2, the British Navy lined battleships across the harbour and opened fire. Thousands were killed. There was no bitterness aimed at me. These people had been through so much with the the Dutch colonialists, the Japanese then their own internal strife – they just got on with life.

This memory got buried with a stack of others that I almost forgot it. Then, maybe five tears later I heard a drunken old seaman in a London pub ranting to the world about this very battle. He’d been on one of those ships and could not forget it.

YY9There were a fleet of these boats used for shifting cargo from the ships at anchor. 

Jump to 1999 and I did a Humanities degree focusing on post-colonial history. I asked lecturers about Surabaya and they had never heard of it. I dug deeper: the episode had been subject to what UK calls a ‘D notice’ –  there was press ban and all military records had been locked away for decades. I decided to do a dissertation on the Battle Of Surabaya. I studied old newspapers, military papers, museums and scoured college libraries. Wikipedia have a fair summary now, but back then there was virtually nothing about it in any British book. It was an illuminating and shocking story.

What is it about Thailand that brought you back this time around?

A yearning to see more of it, be amongst it. I love many things about Thailand: Its physical beauty and fertility, big succulent trees, lakes thick with big fish, elephants, wild fruit, fascinating history, some smart kings who assimilated Europe and kept their colonial urges at bay, unlike virtually the rest of Asia.

I’ve been back four times in the last 10 years. Last winter I spent a few days in Chiang Mai for the first time and declared unfinished business. The music bars are great, local and international musicians jam at blues and jazz. Local musicians often don’t speak much English, I don’t speak Thai, but we can speak 12-Bar.

hk 009Here I am today, still enjoying South East Asia

The temples are staggering and the city is something of a gateway to the north border country which entices me. I confess that I somewhat seek that Asian simplicity I knew in the past and came quite close in the north. I did a three-day woodcarving course last visit, wrote about it and took photos. It proved popular and I sold versions of it to four magazines. So, getting a bit superstitious here, I felt Thailand was looking after me again.

When was travel in South East Asia better, then or now? Why?

Can’t possibly quantify it that way. Obviously I like the modern facilities available now and I’m not as keen on  roughing it anymore! There are many great cheap rooms to be had; ensuites, hot showers, little verandas – it’s absolutely amazing compared to how it used to be… Back then we had no aircon or mozzie-screened rooms, no comfortable coaches, internet, 7/11s, ATMs, streets of jolly bars, showers hot or cold, just a brick tank and scoop! Thailand does tourism well, they look after you, transport and excursions work, and they cater for every level. So it has big pluses today.

It comes with new problems though, unless you get way off the track, I feel that local people are in some confusion about the many headed farang; all with different manners, body language, bad habits. One can get lumped in with people you might ‘avoid’ at home, and locals are quite right to be wary – ‘What’s this drunk idiot going to do next?’ Also, the old devil money has done its business and changed attitudes. Mostly, things are friendly, but it can lead to, shall we say, a more limited form of interaction.

A story I liked was a blog of an American boy’s experience of the devestating Tsunami on Koh Phi Phi. He wrote an emotional account of the locals’ big efforts to get all the farangs up a hill to safety. Most businesses were in shacks and smashed to pieces with absolutely no insurance. All the locals had lost their entire livelihoods but they were looking out for him as if he were family. The experience touched him deeply. That’s the Thailand I like and know exists today.

pai2 029

Have you noticed any startling changes over the years?

HUGE CHANGES! Bangkok had no dual carriageways, let alone flyovers, no high – rise buildings. Sukhumvit Road was a narrow dusty lane with a few bars made out of converted open shops to cater for the US army R&R trade on their five-day break from Vietnam. I guess that this was really the very beginning of the tourism boom, probably the most dramatic change that Thailand would ever experience.

About four years ago I looked in on Wat Hualampong, the area where I’d stayed in 1968. It had been wooden huts on stilts over a khlong, trees and frogs – no traffic noise at night only countryside noises. Now it’s a bright jazzy temple on a big fast road with – and I’ve only seen this once – a drive-in prayer centre! You can pull in like at a petrol station, light some incense, get on your knees and pray, put money in the box and get back in the motor in one minute – job done. How times have changed!

What do you think about these changes?

Only one thing that’s more inevitable than change is popping your clogs. The West has continued to accelerate, especially with technology, but the change in this region is staggering! The bulk of the population have gone from living non-mechanised, indigenous  organic lives to a land run by electronics. It took some adjusting to at first. Some say the past is another country so you just have to move on with what you’ve got.

What have been some of your favorite places to travel to? Have they changed with the passage of time or remained the same?

Singapore is the most startling change – from an old colonial shanty town to a cosmopolitan metropolis! I still dream of those old, exotic streets… rats and roaches, yet rich, vibrant, cheerful, intricate and spiced with India. Just beyond town, the kindly Malays in Kampongs living in a canoe world. Old Chinese guys driving cycle rickshaws and junks in the harbour.

What stirred my memory were the gentle manners of speech, at least amongst the older generation, the courteous  use of ‘La’ at the end of a sentence, and the food smells, quite distinctively a Singapore smell.

Today: fancy high-rise buildings and stainless steel, the plush subway system, virtually dirt free, I couldn’t believe my eyes – an incredible achievement! (Although I’m not sure if the folks are so cheerful anymore!).

IMG_1197Bangkok, a city of staggering heights and modernization 

Has the image of the ‘backpacker’ changed?

There are many many more of them today and it’s a big business now. Most travellers have healthier wallets – I know several who do it on credit card, in fact. Credit was different before the ‘80’s. You wouldn’t get a 1960s pinstriped bank manager forking out: “Now then, let me get this right, you want me to lend you the money to go and chill out on a tropical island…?” Haha!

Tourists are all highly catered for and advised by guidebooks, there was only word of mouth before. Seeing youngsters booking hotels on a smart phone in the back of a songthieu and showing the driver the map just amazes me. In a way many are jetsetters compared to us hobos of the past. We either roughed it, lived like the locals or were very rich and only saw the surface. Most of us really couldn’t even  afford to fly home!

We had the benefit of being something of a novelty back then which affected how we were treated. We were considered entertaining. The locals had no TV, so they’d sit and watch us guys… there was a lot of mass staring! A whole village could turn out and follow you down the track.

Once on the “MV Yin Yang”, we pulled into an island near Sumatra and discovered we were the first white visitors since the Dutch, whose three centuries of slavery ended in a brutal war. Children were crying, seeing the solemnity of their parents. Nothing that a blues song wouldn’t mend and one clown amongst us doing somersaults on the deck! We ended up being formally invited to the town hall to watch the latest Spaghetti Western, which they loved. I used to think, and this may be vanity, that we represented a new wave of contact with the West. Hippie diplomats even! Before the hitch-hikers, there were businessmen, military, rich US tourists – not the type that would sit on the ground with you and have a laugh.

It was also not a boozing scene at all. I only drank beer a handful of times in that year and don’t remember any who did more.  Big loud party venues didn’t exist – everything was low key and that was it’s charm. (I enjoy a couple of Changs now I should hasten to add.)

I believe in backpacking, as a force for good. There’s common ground in travelling spirit. It makes young people more resourceful and adaptable. It’s still a great melting pot, mixing with different races and types amongst travellers and locals in exotic locations and having random conversations with people who briefly cross your path. Marvellous.

11 thoughts on “What was it like to Backpack Southeast Asia 50 years ago?”

  1. This is an absolutely fascinating read. I first started travelling in the late 80s and there was already a well developed backpacker industry and circuit in many places. The lack of technology was the big difference. No atms, internet, or even international calls outside of big towns. It is less adventurous now I suppose but like Barry I appreciate the lift in standards and convenience of the technology. I regret the despoilation of once beautiful places. It is still easy to escape the tourist hordes though. Get away from the major centres even in Thailand and you can go days without seeing another fireign face.

  2. I too was one of the lucky ones, who is of the boomer generation that just could not fit into the world most of my old school mates did. I started off in 72 on the hippy trail through Europe and Asia minor, after a chance conversation with someone who had just returned from India. The Thai song greet was the place to connect with other “travelers”, in Bangkok in those days. My trip lasted 15 months from London to Tokyo and back again. I earnt money in Thailand as a front man for a snake oil salesman, and teaching conversation English in Hong Kong and Japan. My life has traveled full circle as I now live in Laos, in a small village on an organic farm. For anyone of the present generation that wants to visit a place that still has no McDonalds then Laos is the place to go.

  3. Reminds me of my first trip to South East Asia & Indonesia back in 1987… Purchased a special ‘circle Pacific Airfare with Garuda Indonesia-Cathay Pacific Airlines out of SFCO- Bali-Java-BKK-HKG-LAX. Only $800 RT! Considered a steal at that time.

    Bangkok was busy, but only with Europeans, US, Canadian and Aussie tourists. No Asian tourists whatsoever like today ! And it was not as crazy as it is presently.

    And we only had 1 written source of info: Lonely Planet’s South East Asia on a Shoestring. That was our travel ‘bible’ back then

    Only one back packer hostel in Chang Mai being run by this Aussie if my memory does not fail me. He helped me get on a 3Day,2 night trekking expedition into the ‘Golden Triangle ‘ border near Laos & Burma(Myanmar today). Elephant riding, jungle trekking through bamboo forests and fields of ‘poppies’. At night we would sleep in a bamboo hut with the local mountain tribe. Tea & rice with some kind of protein( tasted like chicken) was the typical meal. After dinner, an elderly man would come and let us smoke from his pipe. That would send us very quickly into Morpheus’ dream world ..

    Last day on our expedition we would descend a river on bamboo rafts! Such an adventure for the times! Unforgettable !

  4. Thanks Barrie, that was a great read.
    In 1988 I ventured to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, ran out of money after 6 months, but stayed for another year. Indonesia, India, Nepal have also provided much adventure and truly amazing things have happened. I really identifyied with the feeling of being a bit of an ambassador too – not in a plummy foreign office way but as a kind fellow human who likes to have a laugh. They say lots has changed in the last 25 years too, but even back then it was so easy in many ways and it was funny how many backpackers would travel by following the book

  5. Well funny you should say that, I have a Freind who first came in 1950 after the wAr, now he lives in Bkk and is 91

  6. I found this article amazing, from someone who went backpacking for three years in the naughties i find it intriguing to view the life of a backpacker in a world without mass tourism, the internet and smart phones. it was much harder to travel back in the 60’s and 70’s but i suspect much more adventurous and rewarding. I think the indigenous population of thailand have grown tired of the backpacker, Before i set off i imagined something simialr what Barrie wrote about but my own recollections of the Koh San road and Ko Phangan are of over crowded beaches and bars filled with gap year students getting leathered in almost overwhelming numbers for the locals. The world is a smaller place and navigating yourself around it has become so simple you find anyone and everyone in the farest flung places. Sadly, these days, travelling to Vietnam to mix with the locals will most likely result in you having a beer with dave from essex

  7. I was traveling in S.E. Asia in that era, maybe our paths crossed?
    When I went to Laos in 1971 I only met about 3 other foreigners; Thailand was cheap, Laos was even cheaper which was just as well as no-one had much cash.
    No credit cards made life much more exciting or stressful, depending on your outlook but I learned to appreciate the good times much more having experienced some lows.
    Having no ticket home left my travel plans open to sudden change; I was heading from Australia to the U.K. but diverted to Africa when in India; Mombasa to Capetown on $50 was shall I say “interesting”, I will always remember being so hungry I couldn’t sleep.
    Many trips to Thailand and surrounding countries in the past 10 years; still love the place as much as I ever did.

  8. Great! 🙂

    Here´s one more article about backpacking in southeastasia in the 80s:

    Sorry, only german language. But some niche pictures (Boracay,…)

  9. I really enjoyed this post and it’s great that someone who backpacked around Asia all that time ago got the chance to go again recently. I often wondered what it must have been like in the days of the Hippie Trail. Travel is so easy for us now, globalisation and development and a Mcdonalds in every town mean that places can start to look a little samey. Sometimes I think this ruins the romance and exoticness of travel a little bit but at the same time I am glad for AC, Wifi and budget airlines! Still wish I could have experienced Asia the days before mass tourism. Thanks for the insight – it’s fascinating to hear travel tales from so long ago

  10. Great interview! laughed at “I teamed up with some Aussies in Singapore, also buskers. One was a jazz pianist and they’d borrow a piano each night and wheel it down to the nightspot of Bugis Street, play and pass a hat around.”

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