Yeah yeah, you’re travelling with a backpack. So, you took some time away from home and maybe your job to travel in a location you always found intriguing. Whatever, you’re learning new things and doing new things.
But if your travels aren’t 100% pure, authentic and approved, are you REALLY travelling? Or are you just one of those much-maligned, supposedly superficial “tourists”? This test will help you find out!
You’re Not a ‘Real Backpacker’ If you…
1. Eat Western Food
When you travel, you’ll hear the words “well, I try to ONLY eat local”. Often said as you’re tucking into lasagne. There are those who seemingly eat so local, they’d rather starve than eat a rice dish from a town further than five minutes away because it’s not local enough. People get very pious about eating local and very sniffy about Westerners eating familiar food. For me, there’s a difference in refusing to try any local dishes because they’ll never match up to a Big Mac and fries, and eating Western and local when you want. I ate pasta when I wanted, and local food when I wanted. After being food poisoned, the familiarity of Western food was bliss, and sometimes knowing a Western portion would be bigger than a local dish compelled me to eat Western. Equally, in Cambodia and Vietnam, local dishes excited me so much they were all I wanted!
Additionally, eschewing a dish because it’s French is ridiculous – many countries have an international (read: colonial) history, many foreigners have emigrated and many local chefs also make exceptional international cuisine. In an effort to seem authentic, you may miss out on great food.
Real backpackers eat whatever they want.
1b. Never order delivery
To add to our travel sacrilege, we also ordered delivery. More than once. It’s often frustrating because after 45 hungry minutes, we would be told they cancelled our order. But delivery and restaurant dishes to go sure came in handy when Ale got food poisoning or when we were too tired after travel to trawl a new city at night for food (and there’s also a good movie on).
2. Go to Khao San Road (or other backpacker enclaves)
“Khao San Road is not the real Thailand!!”
If it’s in Thailand, it’s the ‘real Thailand’. It’s not all of Thailand, certainly not all of Bangkok, and only represents one side of a much larger, diverse and wonderful city – the same as Chinatown, Soi Nana, Soi Arab and Little India. You will see lots of white Westerners, drunk and behaving badly. You will be hassled by hawkers. You will not find it pretty. The rats and the sleaze scene put me off staying there, but I went for a stroll there to see it for myself, and have a dance. It is neither as fun nor as disgusting as they say, but for people starting out on their trips it’s a firm base to meet people, buy supplies and get your hair braided like a 12 year old European girl in Majorca.
3. Stay in hotels and nice guesthouses
Staying in dorms is nice for meeting people you’ll eventually love or hate. Places with a communal atmosphere lead to chatting with inspiring people. They’re also much cheaper. Here’s the thing though. If you’re travelling as a couple, you probably want to have sex or at least share a bed. If you’re with pals or even solo, you may want your own space. Booking a double room feels like a relief after sleeping in dorms. Tents offer privacy but a bed and large room feels delicious after four nights in a tent that shakes furiously in the wind. There’s also bathrooms. Showering off the city dirt for half an hour in a warm shower that you can call your own is incomparable. Not to mention the convenience late at night, or if your stomach is playing up!
4. Do anything on the beaten path
The proverbial beaten path. That well-trodden tourist path that makes you feel like everything is so done. Real travellers find the unfound, locations where there’s not a European for miles. Or something.
With the growth of tourism, a lot will be on the beaten path. I have been taken to places which feel tacky, where every stop is crafted for you to buy souvenirs, and you’ll see ten European nationals haggling for “local handicrafts”. There are often stops which involve visits to see people from local tribes. Presumably you shove your camera in the face of a woman who has been translocated from her village and feel like you’re shooting for the NatGeo, even if you know deep down it’s unethical.
It’s great to find somewhere you didn’t expect. It’s great to wonder and explore places yourself but find the balance. Recommendations and the bible of South East Asian travel, Travelfish shaped my trip immensely, but I also shared my recommendations. I went on touristy tours but I also walked for hours to see what cool things I could spontaneously find. I found some of the most interesting parts of big cities that way.
5. Travel for less than 16,000 months
“Is that ALL?” was the most common thing I heard from people when asked how long I was staying in a location. Everyone seemingly planned to travel until the next millennium, spending at least a year in each location to “really get to know the place”. Whatever that entails.
Not everyone has the time, budget or inclination to stay travelling for extended periods of time. Those with more time are luckier, but not more authentic.
For people travelling for less time, we make the most of it as best we can, and do the most that we can in the time! In our case, it involved some sacrifices but almost everything we wanted to do, we did. For that which we did not, there’s the rest of our lives to revisit and reexplore!
Really, the answer is that there’s no way to be a “real backpacker”. Getting caught up in the quest for authenticity can mean missing out on things you really want to do, and forgetting what really matters – you’re here to be happy.
You’ll meet so many people, and unfortunately those who are self-righteous at home are self-righteous abroad. I rolled my eyes at their faux authority on countries they’d only been in for three weeks. How you see the workd is not important. What matters is being respectful, open-minded and enjoying yourself.
In a world where the majority could never visit abroad or even travel around their country, you made it here. So, forget about what you feel you “should” do, and do what you want to do!