This week’s guest post is written by Ben Colclough, founder of Tourdust and an avid traveller. Ben shares with us his views on the world of backpacking, challenging some of the common myths that are associated with the backpacking community. He also recalls some of his own travel experiences and how they shaped those views.
I recently saw some interesting research that showed travel is the dominant status symbol of our age. So in the social hierarchy of our times, are flash cars and designer labels easily out-weighed by tales of intrepid travels? It certainly seems believable. Many of us will have witnessed the game of top trumps that takes place when two experienced travellers meet, as they strive to outdo each other with tales of near-misses and $2 hostels. That status seems to reside in the authenticity of an experience rather than the luxury of a holiday; tales of meeting local people or enjoying ridiculously cheap transport (budget airlines included) demonstrate a degree of adventure, savviness and street-smarts far greater than lording it up in the Maldives could ever do.
I have to admit I’ve experienced it myself – both as a recipient and sadly as a bragger too! Just this week, over a curry in a fantastic Nepalese restaurant, a friend I hadn’t seen for a while told of an incredible mountaineering trip in Uganda. I was both fascinated and incredibly jealous and I’d be a liar if I denied his reputation had gone up a notch in my estimation. And of course on the other side of the fence, I’d be pleased as punch to show off the Mongolian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Russian and Vietnamese stamps in my passport to anyone who asks (there I go again…)
But while there are certainly travel adventures worthy of this social status, I think it is time to blow the lid on the status that backpacking in the broader sense seems to demand. There is a myth that backpackers are worthy of respect in a way that their package brethren never could be. The reality is that backpacking often involves little more than a boozy jaunt with university chums – as anybody who has travelled the East Coast of Australia can pay testament to. The backpackers are all doing exactly the same thing, moving at the exactly the same rate and coming from exactly the same socio-economic background.
So, if somebody says they’ve backpacked for months on end, don’t be intimidated – it is easier than you could ever imagine. Backpacking in destinations like SE Asia or Australia is like travelling in a gigantic funnel. You’ll end up going to the same places and doing the same things in roughly the same order as everyone else.
There is a backpacker infrastructure that takes care of it all for you. Your hostel will happily arrange your tour guide and book your onward travel and next bed. Local transport can be ignored as you swan from one hostel to the next in an air conditioned minivan full of other backpackers. A backpacker ecosystem surrounds you in a cosy world full of home comforts, international movies, internet cafes and English speakers.
At some stage you have to ask yourself in what way is a backpacker cafe serving burgers, pizzas and banana pancakes (they all do) different to a greasy spoon on the Costa Del Sun serving up bacon butties, builder’s tea and a fresh copy of the tabloid papers? In what way is a backpacker mini-bus different to a package coach holiday?
This all dawned on me when travelling in China (there I go again, bragging). We’d invited parents out to join us for a week and passed through Yangshuo – a rare laid back backpacker oasis for China. Until then the parents had a degree of respect for our intrepid journeys, but when they saw the banana pancake cafes et al they laughed as the mystique was shattered and they realised what backpacking really entailed.
None of this means I don’t love backpacking – I do. In fact I am allergic to travelling with a fixed itinerary, I feel trapped, claustrophobic and start looking for the exit. I’d much rather be in a hostel than a bland hotel and I’ll continue to enjoy socialising with my fellow backpackers. I would just recommend anyone who hasn’t tried it yet to give it a go – oh and for us ‘travellers’ to stop looking down our noses at the ‘tourists’ on their package holidays.
Ben Colclough is a founder of Tourdust Adventure Travel. Tourdust was set up to help travellers connect with great local operators without having to buy into expensive packaged tours. He writes on the Tourdust blog about adventure travel and the challenges of responsible and green travel. You can follow Ben on Twitter.