The word ‘backpacker’ is getting me down lately.
It seems that the name itself has become tinged with negativity and there’s a strict stereotype for what the character of a backpacker is ‘supposed’ to be like.
We have several very enthusiastic ‘trolls’ on our Facebook page who like to tell us exactly what a backpacker is and why they are the scum of the earth.
Our trolls will tell us:
Backpackers are tight asses. They smell. They drink too much beer. They are disrespectful to local cultures. Backpackers ruin every beautiful destination. They create Full Moon Parties on deserted beaches in Thailand. They turn beautiful rivers in rural Laos into mushroom shake and bucket fuelled party zones and transform secluded islands in Halong Bay into debauched ‘Love Islands!’
One troll said, and I quote “Backpackers are like cancer. They destroy everything that they find.” Wow. Harsh.
Is this criticism deserved? In some ways, the backpacker party scene of Southeast Asia has generated negative response over the years, and for some good reason. There are certain travellers who come to Southeast Asia who could do with educating themselves about the culture before they travel and acting appropriately.
But are all backpackers beer-swigging louts? Is this fair? Do some backpackers actually come to Southeast Asia to experience the local culture? Can we tar all backpackers with the same brush?
Can a T-total vegan yogi be a backpacker? Can a family be backpackers? Can a person in their 60s or 70s be called a backpacker? Can a rich person be a backpacker? Apparently not!
Comments we’ve received on Facebook include:
“You’re not a backpacker if you don’t wear a backpack.”
“You can’t call yourself a backpacker if you stay in hotels.”
“You’re not a backpacker if you do organised tours.”
“You’re just not a backpacker if you haven’t travelled solo.”
“You’re not a backpacker if you’re on holiday for 2 weeks from work and you still have a job”
Personally, I’ve done a mix of these things above. I’ve worn a backpack and I’ve travelled with a suitcase. I’ve stayed in smelly dorm rooms with 20+ backpackers unable to sleep for someone having it off in the top bunk. And, I’ve enjoyed splashing out and treating myself to a nice hotel after a hike or whilst staying in a busy city.
When I first arrived in Asia, as a nervous 23-year old solo traveller, I’d pre-booked myself on an organised trek in Nepal. Nowadays, at 33, with 10 years of travel under my belt, I prefer to travel independently with my boyfriend, making plans as we go. That said, we do organised day trips occasionally when we feel like.
The longest backpacking trip that I’ve ever been on is the one that I’m on right now. It’s been a year and a half that my boyfriend and I have been travelling without a fixed abode. However, along the way, we’ve had ‘bases’ in several places, renting small apartments with kitchens in Goa, India (where we did a Yoga Teacher Training Course) in Pokhara, Nepal and now, here in Koh Lanta. It’s nice to stay in one place for a while and cook our own food, which we miss when we travel.
We enjoy a mix of touristy and non-touristy places. Sometimes we stay at cheap guesthouses, eat local street food and explore by local bus. Sometimes we eat clay oven Italian pizza, drink wine and staying in a hotel (with a swimming pool no less!). And, with Southeast Asia being so cheap, especially in low season, we can afford to treat themselves once in a while.
So, would I call myself backpacker these days?
Or have I become something else? Would my righteous 23-year old self call me a backpacker? Or would she turn to me with a look of superiority and say one of the following statements:
“Oh my god, you eat in restaurants? I only eat street food.”
“Koh Phangan. Are you serious?”
“I only have one T-shirt and one pair of shorts. I don’t wear shoes.”
“I only take local transport overland. I never fly.”
“I haggle for everything. You’re so stupid if you don’t.”
“You don’t couchsurf? Oh, I only couchsurf. It’s much more of an authentic experience.”
“I don’t speak with fellow Westerners. I only make friends with locals. Are you not a local? Ok, sorry we have to stop talking now.”
Despite all of these rules. You know what, I STILL CALL MYSELF A BACKPACKER.
And you know why?
Because to be a backpacker you don’t have to have dreadlocks or wear a Singha Beer singlet and walk around barefooted (I’ve always thought that was so dangerous anyway!).
You see, it doesn’t matter if you are 18 or 80. You like your privacy and you can afford to stay in nice hotels with swimming pools or you like the energy of a dorm room. It doesn’t matter if you want to travel to Paris, or you want to explore the depths of the Amazon. It doesn’t matter if you have a suitcase or a backpack. Whether you go away for a 2-week holiday to ‘backpack’ during your work break or you are a digital nomad who spends their life working and travelling, it doesn’t matter!
THESE THINGS are not what makes you a backpacker.
What makes you a backpacker is your spirit of adventure. Your curiosity. Your zest for life.
A backpacker is someone who says yes to life and yes to adventure.
A backpacker is someone who can take a walk down a street that they have walked down a million times before and notice something different.
A backpacker is someone who wants to taste new foods, hear new music, read interesting books, have new conversations, learn new languages, meet new people, discover new facts, hear other people’s opinions and have their own values questioned.
A backpacker is someone who is open to new opportunities and is thirsty to learn more every day about this amazing big beautiful planet we live on.
In my opinion, you can be a backpacker and never have left your home country! And, you can travel the world and never really have been a backpacker…
Tell us… Do you call yourself a backpacker?
What does the word mean to you?