Julie, a young Quebecoise currently backpacking around Southeast Asia, reacted yesterday to my post titled Post-Backpackerism. Allow me to trans-quote:
I’m divided. I wouldn’t go so far as to call you a snob, because there’s a few things you said on which I agree, such as drug abuse, especially in Laos. And I know, you read up on the region before you visited, which is really not the case of all backpackers, I have to say), and you know that the Thai government, for instance, is bending backwards to replace opium farms by ‘normal’ ones. It’s not bright to shoot up with every sort of thing, and not even hide to do it, especially when you can partake of the cheap local beer and help the local economy at the same time… Heh heh!
That being said, I’m divided about your thoughts on frequenting other backpackers… For me, one of the most extraordinary aspect of travel is to meet people from all around the world, and I’ve met so many who are adorable, nice, with whom I’ve made close connections and with whom we had deep conversations (which you have to agree is impossible with locals.) I agree, though, that if backpacking cannot happen without getting drunk all the time and that the only contact you have with other travellers is over a joint or a fourth beer, well, that just sucks.
I think I agree with you on that point, because I had moments of total fatigue at being around other backpackers all the time; I just didn’t want to see them anymore, much less talk to them. I spent a lot of good times with Thai and Lao monks, and I had dinner in a friend’s family sitting on the ground with 15 other people who didn’t speak a word of English…
Anyway. My two cents.
Following Julie’s post, I spent some time thinking about why I reacted so strongly at walking around Pham Ngu Lao… And why contact with backpackers was a turnoff right now. Thing is, I actually love meeting other travellers from all around the world, and it’s often been the highlight of my travels as well. On this trip, for instance, I met a Canadian from B.C. who was going around Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle, and an American who travels 4 months a year and who had interesting stories to share about Thailand and India.
The thing is, these two encounters took place off the beaten path, and not anywhere near a ‘backpacker Mecca’. I met both of the aforementioned travelers in a guesthouse near Ben Tre, so when we saw each other we both had a glimmer of recognition: ‘Hey there. You’re far from home too, are you?’
Why this doesn’t work for me in Pham Ngu Lao or Kao San Road, though, is that these places attract backpackers not because it’s off the beaten track, but because it specifically caters to them. There, I don’t feel adventurous or far from home, I feel a bit cheap for being in a place that was made famous for being accessible.
Part of the reason I have this attitude, obviously, is because I travel with Helene, so I don’t feel that much of a need to share my experience with other travellers. There’s also the fact that I live in China, so on a day-to-day basis, I find tricks to communicate with people with whom I have no common language. So far, one of my most memorable moments in Vietnam was when Helene and I sat in a very small cafe in Ben Tre, and Helene shared coins from Canada, USA, China and Hong Kong with a young girl who dreamed of studying in Canada. We speak in limited ways, but the glimmer in her eye was unmistakable.
So, in short, it’s not that I dislike backpackers. But I tend to dislike spending time in places where things are touristy, even if it’s specifically for backpacking tourists, and I don’t feel a great amount of kinship for the people there. But meet me off the beaten track, somewhere far from civilization, and you’ll find me more than eager to talk and share a drink.
As a post scriptum to this topic, Helene and I actually moved back to our first hotel this afternoon, a little outside the city center. The hotel is more expensive than the guesthouses in Pham Ngu Lao (although still very reasonable and super-friendly), and already our experience walking down the street feels more genuine. The restaurants are small and cozy, and the staff is curious and friendly. The cyclo, motorcycle and taxi drivers don’t harass you, and there are no hawkers pushing photocopies of Lonely Planet. Also, the foreigners are fewer and far between, and when they meet us, they actually wave hello.
As one traveler to another exploring outside the beaten track, I wave back.