The Great Untold Myth of Backpacking

Backpacker arriving at Tailay beach by boatThis 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.

Pancake, PhuketSo, 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?

Minnie Mao's CaféThis 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 ColcloughBen 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.

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10 Responses to “The Great Untold Myth of Backpacking”

  1. Great post…

    Whenever an article like this appears, I fondly remember reading William Sutcliffe’s tome “Are You Experienced?” for the first time (when I was in Asia for 9 months. Kudos, Ben?) 😉

    Amazon link:

    Not only is it hilarious but it absolutely shatters some of the rose-tinted views of backpacking in the modern age.

    After reading this I never could look a fellow backpacker on the eye and not burst out laughing when they said they were travelling “to find themselves”.

    October 11, 2010 at 10:37 am
  2. I love this post, and completely agree with you…… there is very little difference between backpacking and package tours. (I have experienced both ;))

    I have to say though, rocking up to a small family run hotel in an Old town somewhere in Spain, and negotiating a room in rudimentary spanish is potentially less ‘bland’ than the backpacker ‘ecosystem’ you speak of. 😉

    October 11, 2010 at 3:53 pm
  3. I totally agree with you Emma. I’ve found travelling independently in Europe or even the States, generally a lot harder and consequently more rewarding than many of the backpacker havens. I guess there are less people around to do everything for you.

    October 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm
  4. Travel definitely has become the latest status symbol. I think a big part of it is because young travellers are unencumbered by family and career obligations that come later in life. They can’t buy a fancy car but the fancy car owner probably can’t travel much either. It is just a different way to keep up with the Jones’ while looking like Indian Jones.

    Travel really is easier than ever and as the world gets more homogenized, there will be less truly exotic and authentic experiences. I am amazed by the transformation of the world in my lifetime. A shopping mall in Thailand, Hungary or anywhere else in the world looks pretty much the same as your home town.

    Great post!

    October 11, 2010 at 9:38 pm
  5. Really enjoyed this post from Ben and delighted that he offered it for inclusion on 501 Places. I agree with so much of what Ben says here – we crossed the backpacker trail of SE Asia many during our month in Laos/Cambodia last year (never made it to Vang Vieng and never had a banana pancake!) and it is a path so well trodden. I never thought to draw the parallels with the standard package boozing holiday but there it is – a compelling comparison.
    The irony, as Emma suggests, is that to find those off-beat ‘magic travel moments’ (trying hard to avoid the word authentic here) it may be easier to look much closer to home than we might expect.

    October 11, 2010 at 11:00 pm
  6. Great post!

    These attitudes always amaze me. Backpackers leave home to explore the world in their own way, even if that actually means following a well trodden back-packer trail, but criticize others who choose a different way.

    The one-upmanship games are surely no different than vying for the corner office, a world I thought we were all so proud to have left behind.

    I guess people will always be people, no matter how far they travel 🙂

    October 12, 2010 at 2:18 am
  7. Ben,

    A great read, and from someone who’s obviously seen both sides of the coin. My thoughts on this subject are that in a way, the world is becoming smaller. For what was once, only for the truly adventurous, has in some ways become all to easy. The internet era, and cheaper air travel (god bless it), I believe has developed a new demographic.

    It used to be the Backpacker on the left and the Package Tourist on the right (or vice versa, i’m not taking sides). Today there seems to be three variances, The Backpacker, The Package Tourist and the Independent Traveller, with some cross over in between. I feel there now seems to be many a beaten path, across certain countries and continents using the funnel as you described above, and the truly adventurous traveller is becoming more of a minority as the years go by.

    Thanks Andy for a great post.

    (Thanks Andy for brining this to us)

    October 12, 2010 at 1:29 pm
  8. Just because the funnel is there doesn’t mean you have to follow the sheep down the tube. It’s plenty easy to get off this treadmill and have a richer and more interesting experience. It’s just that many backpackers—especially 20-something ones or gap year kids—don’t bother. It’s too easy to treat traveling like college, but a moving one.

    October 15, 2010 at 4:11 pm
  9. Great post, and I laughed along – both as someone who has claimed to be a ‘backpacker’ and looked down on organised travel, and as someone who has managed a backpackers hostel and laughed at said backpackers who think they are ‘original’ or ‘real travellers’ or ‘rugged’.

    Now I will even take one of those open top bus city tours (though no more, really no more organised than that). While I hate grocery shopping at home, I revel in visiting foreign supermarkets. While a mall is a mall is a mall in so many places, give me shopping for groceries where I can’t read the labels over that ‘hidden’ backpacker beach/temple/vista any day for an authentic travel experience!

    October 15, 2010 at 6:31 pm
  10. Isa #

    I love your post! I did two backpacking trips myself and what I like most about this way of travelling is just entering a plane without having planned the rest of the trip. this is freedom to me 🙂

    October 28, 2010 at 11:13 am