I hate backpackers. They suck.
You know what I’m talking about.
They sit in authentic-seeming cafes that are secretly made just for them, wearing technicolored tie-die pants and scribbling seriously away in twee Moleskine notebooks. They congregate in great hordes in backpacker-approved areas, drinking beer out of strange, unwashed receptacles and showing one another their interesting, “ethnic” tattoos.
They carouse until late hours of the evening, and are fond of playing dub-step music right above your head when you’re attempting to drift off to sleep. They will, as a friend recently reported, freak out when they’re overcharged 12 baht for a lousy Khao San road hotel room, and will trek for miles to ensure they get a somewhat-cheaper pad thai lunch—and they will decide that looking at rice paddies for days on end “gets kinda annoying.”
By any measure, they are a pox on humanity.
However. I’m being a hypocrite.
Because by any standard, I too am a backpacker when I travel abroad. I’m in the right age demographic. I’m traveling independently. I’m not exactly over-endowed with money. I even write things.
So why do I hate my fellow backpackers so much? Why can’t we just kumbuya, maybe have some poorly advised sexual relations, go zip-lining together?
Herein lies the contradiction: I’m pretty sure most backpackers hate other backpackers, too. Sure, they might hang out with each other. Make out with each other. Drink curious blue liquids out of buckets together.
But I suspect many of these backpackers are secretly thinking of one another: “If only you weren’t here. Then I’d be having a real adventure.”
This is likely the root of the problem.
BE A TRAVELER, NOT A TOURIST!
Most backpackers adhere to the Anthony Bourdain view of travel, wherein the milling and zombie-like hordes are “tourists” and the clear-eyed and intrepid and attractive are “travelers,” who grab unsuspecting exotic locales by the nuts and seize the day, or something like that—I may have become lost in the metaphor.
Third world countries like Cambodia, where I live, tend to attract more of the Traveler flavor, who started trickling in here after the war ended and have never really let up, eager to tell their friends about the Killing Fields, avaricious tuk-tuk drivers, and that time they did shrooms in Sihanoukville in roughly the above order.
Travelers here in Southeast Asia, like in all locales, really like to feel that they’re the only person ever to gaze upon the curious expanses of the Irrawaddy, the towering pyramid of Koh Ker, or that sparkly and probably mythological white-sand beach that requires a water-buffalo ride and a small-scale vision quest to reach. They are concerned with street cred.
Travelers (capital-T) not so secretly wish that they could be intrepid explorers of a latter era, able to claim they had fair-and-square discovered a place to those mouse-like folks back home—never mind how many natives were actually contentedly living in it at the time. (I submit Angkor Wat as a sterling example of this principle).
Unfortunately, this is all but impossible these days as the world becomes ever flatter and more globalized, forcing Travelers to either take greater and greater risks (hard, expensive) or live in a state of what can only be called denial—denial that they are not the first Westerner to set foot in the Deep Dark Catacombs of Prince Wazoo of Ancient Eastern Laos. If they can convince their friends back home that they are intrepid—well, that’s probably enough.
Showing the folks back home how sexy and adventurous you are is a major priority indeed, and this explains the Moleskine notebooks, which usually harbor profound observations that will make it into a critically-acclaimed book someday. Or at the very least, a Tumblr blog called “Epic Adventures” or “GETTING OFF THE GRID” or “Sexy Girl 24 Globetrotter.” Extra points if these blogs include a photo of you eating a tarantula.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THESE SWORN NATURAL ENEMIES MEET?
In some exotic locales, a chance meeting between backpackers becomes something of a Texas standoff, involving two somewhat unwashed people wearing Camelbaks, water sandals, and practical waterproof travelers pants in an earth tone.
There will be a lot of side-eye and glaring and pretending the other doesn’t actually exist, or, preferably, can actually be willed out of existence. They will take photographs at opposite ends of the attraction from one another, and will mutter darkly under their breath if their fellow Westerner accidentally ambles into a shot, entirely ruining its profound authenticity. The two backpackers will be forced to circle one another like jackals around a kill, sizing one another up.
If a conversation does occur, there will often be protracted one-up-mans-ship. This can escalate quickly.
“Oh, you didn’t take a row-boat steered by a triple amputee down the Clackabacky Rapids of Sudden Death? What a shame—that was the highlight of my trip,” says one backpacker, looking intensely bored as he chews on an imported Kudos granola bar.
The rival counters, clutching her bottled water with dogged intensity:
“I rode a mossy log down the Clackabacky Rapids of Sudden Death 20 years ago, when the triple amputee was just a double-amputee. We were nearly eaten by a crocodile. It was way better back then, I’m telling you.”
This conversation may continue for hours, but one thing is clear: these two will continue to not-so-secretly think the other totally sucks. Or at least has a stupid face.
Travelers do occasionally come together in dive bars, where they can continue to one-up each other over beverages and local, somewhat unsuccessful approximations of Western cuisine. Later, they may come to some form of mild understanding over some of the local booze: preferably the hyper authentic variety renowned both for its extreme potency and its ability to induce sudden, horrifying blindness.
DO TOURISTS HATE EACH OTHER?
Not all tourists hate one another—tourists, of course, being what your average Traveler so fervently wishes to avoid with every atom of his or her being.
The average visitor to Disney World or the Louvre or Big Ben may harbor a certain white-hot hatred towards the people in front of them in an ever-expanding line, but they likely do not loathe the others simply for having the audacity to be there.
The average Tourist, for that matter, is not generally under the impression that they are expressing some sort of innate, wild pioneer spirit by taking Billy and Bobby and the ol’ lady to see Mickey Mouse, Niagara Falls, or Rome over the summer holidays.
When Tourists do manage to infiltrate an adventure-travel destination, the Travelers in the vicinity will often react to their presence as if they had suddenly been assaulted by a swarm of camera-toting bees.
The Travelers will often decamp en-masse from a formerly lovely spot when the Hawaiian-shirt attired masses make their appearance, speaking loudly among one another about the evils of tourism, tour guides, and the Industrial Entertainment System, or something like that. I think the argument all comes down to capitalism—those sort of arguments almost always do. Try not to be too offended if this happens to you, Tourist: hey, now you’ve got that beauty spot all to yourself!
If a Traveler happens to stand really really close to your tour group so he or she can listen to your guide’s informative spiel, while still managing to look bored and unconcerned, do not be alarmed. That is just a Travelers special way of expressing how useless tour guides really are!
SO, YOU’RE BASICALLY A HYPOCRITE.
I was drinking the Anthony Bourdain Kool-Aid from the age of 15 on, when I acquired a copy of “A Cook’s Tour” at a London book-sale and was forever turned into the sort of warped person who considers drinking cobra blood and contracting unmentionable parasites an enviable tourism goal.
I can also successfully blame my up-bringing: my grandfather was known for telling stories of drinking still-warm deer blood from the twitching carcass when he went hunting in Korea, ye these many moons ago.
Both my grandparents are in fact fond of telling me exciting adventure travel stories from their years in Asia and Europe, then ending it with a rather depressive—yet–haughty “But of course, I’m certain it’s ruined now” postscript. (Love you guys!)
So you could say that blood-drinking and adventure travel, the somewhat snobby kind, are endeavors I was destined to pursue from an early age—and you should direct all complaints to my relatives.
How do I travel? Usually scornfully, if I’m on a particular banana-pancake-suffused track.
I am not sure scornful travel is particularly pleasant, as one does spend quite a bit of time wishing that men who wear Angkor Beer tank-tops in public, revealing their lobster pink shoulders and hairy nipples, would kindly cut it out. That takes a lot out of you.
Further, this does cut down on my social opportunities, as if I step into a backpacker bar with reasonably priced mixed cocktails and esoteric local beer, there is a very high probability that I will be forced to listen to a man with remarkably poorly-maintained dreadlocks tell me how “Into the Wild,” like, changed his life.
And if that happens to me one more time, so help me Christ, I will move to Iowa and sit in a corn field and never talk to anyone ever again.
That’s a lie. Also that book was OK. I don’t want to know what you thought about it.
Also; I don’t carry a Moleskine notebook, but I do write about travel and in fact even occasionally have a rudimentary, deep thought. You’re reading this, for example.
SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT ALL THIS BACKPACKER HATE?
This is an interesting philosophical question. I suppose we could start with an international Anthony Bourdain ban, but I’m pretty sure the damage has already been done. It is too late for that.
I might ask why it really matters, if this is a problem actually in need of fixing. The essence of backpacking is a prickly desire to get away from it all, to bust out of one’s old paradigms—to make discoveries, even if they are not exactly new to science.
Adventure necessitates novelty: many backpackers would rightly wonder they’re even bothering if everyone else has been down the same old beaten track. Basically, backpackers are hipsters wearing about 20 percent less chic clothing.
Furthermore: I have derived some measure of pleasure out of somewhat confrontational one-ups-man-ship discussions at various bars around the world. Inadvertently, we learn from one another. Sometimes we even befriend one another, allowing us to swap travel tips and mildly disapprove of each other with the great equalizer of the Internet.
So I say: backpackers, keep on hating on each other.
Something would be forever lost from the adventure travel world without that small, pedantic spirit of superiority. We might as all just book ourselves on package tours, then.
(And have you seen those people?)