Thursday, November 8, 2012

Backpackers vs Travelers: Why Everyone Prefers the Latter

I have never lived in a place that wasn’t a tourist destination. I know that every city/town receives out of town visitors, but some more than others, and having lived in South Florida (Ft. Lauderdale, Delray Beach) Boston, New York, London, and Hanoi, I certainly have a knack of picking them.

Traveling is one of the most wonderful things in the world. Coming from a family of avid travels, and being one myself, I can never get enough of seeing new places, trying out different foods, listening to various languages, learning about culture and traditions specific to the region I’m in. I am not sure I’ll ever tire of it and actively encourage everyone to the same. When we travel, not only is a new world open to us, but we are also stimulating the local economies of the places we go, which is important. I know from personal experience that my hometown of Delray Beach depends on the influx of tourists and snowbirds in the winter. And despite the year rounders complaining that when this happens, it’s impossible to get a table for dinner anywhere in town, we all knew that the small businesses that we loved so much (like: Sandwiches by the Sea, Ciao Café etc) are directly benefiting from the flurry of activity that takes place in these months.

Every city I’ve lived in has had their own unique brand of travelers; South Florida was: retirees, families, and Spring Breakers (though only for a few weeks, thankfully); New York had a lot Japanese, and other Americans;  London had a little bit of everything; and then there’s Vietnam, where the majority of the travelers we stumble across are of the backpacker variety.

While those dwelling in NYC take on an irritated view of tourists (“Seriously, he just stopped suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk to take a picture upwards at a skyscraper. I ran right into him, spilled my coffee and was late to work!”) the expats living in Southeast Asia take on a certain disdain to backpackers.

As I said previously, I fully support anyone’s decision to travel, especially as I feel in order to be an educated, well-rounded person you need to be aware of the world around you. However if you’re going to travel, there is a way to do it, and in a lot of ways today’s stereotypical “backpacker” is doing it incorrectly. 10, 15, 20 years ago, the word “backpacker” meant something different than it does today. Being a backpacker back then simply meant traveling around the world with limited luggage and a shoestring budget, but these days it has a whole new connotation,  one that has made the term a bit negative. Today’s traveler is the pasts backpacker. Which one are you? (Side note: traveling with only a backpack doesn’t make you a “backpacker”)

I have a game that I play called “Pass/Fail” and, as my expat friends and I sit outside at a café or bia hoi, we judge what those visitors are wearing and give it a “Pass or Fail.” It’s not the nicest game but it’s entertaining. Jokes aside, when traveling to a foreign country, it is imperative that the culture of that country is taken into consideration when dressing oneself. Even if you are only carrying a backpack or small duffel, you can pack for almost every occasion/country.

Backpackers: They’re easy to spot. The men are wearing a singlet with some kind of local beer as the logo (if they’re wearing a shirt at all), shorts, and flip flops. Sometimes they’re wearing some kind of ridiculous headgear. The women wear tank tops, Aladdin pants, and flip flips. Both of them have about 50 woven bracelets on. They wear these outfits every day, everywhere they go, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. I will say that the men are worse. That taking off your shirt in a bar, or at dinner is not appropriate. (My mother and I were at dinner on ma May and a young man was in a pair of silk boxers, no shirt, adjusting himself and shirtless, really disrespectful) Walking down Khao San road is a nightmare, women in just bikini tops and men shirtless. This is blatant disregard for decency and disrespect for the conservative culture in Thailand. Also, for whatever reason, backpackers are always dirty. It seems to be a badge of honor to not wash their clothes or even shower regularly.  It’s disgusting and inexcusable.

Travelers:  Keep their clothes on, unless they’re at the beach or pool. They also make use of the incredibly inexpensive and abundant laundry services around town. They shower.  They don’t look like idiots. They have a small bag but still manage to have appropriate attire: long trousers, shorts, shirts with sleeves, shirts without sleeves, one pair of decent shoes, one pair of sneakers, one pair of flip flips. It’s really not that difficult.

Call me crazy, but when I’ve made the decision to visit a country, I’m doing it because I am interested in seeing and experiencing it.  I want to do things that I can’t do at home, eat food that is new and exciting, leave my comfort zone, meet locals to get a feel for the “real” country.

Backpackers: For whatever reason, backpackers seem to have a superiority complex, truly believing that the country/establishment they’re in is lucky to have them and should cater to their every whim.  They waltz in like they own the place, make loud and boorish demands, and treat everyone around them like they’re second class. They speak to and about the locals as if they’re stupid, often make jokes at their expense to their friends. They are annoyed that the locals don’t speak English and can get quite aggressive about it (news flash: you’re not in an English speaking country, the world doesn’t revolve around you), they make complaints and judgments about the country despite having no solid basis for doing so. Why is this? Because backpackers don’t really experience the country, they stick to their own designated area, drinking and carousing into all hours of the night, hooking up with each other, and sleeping all day. (Why they need to leave their country to do this is beyond me)  Occasionally they drag themselves out of bed and do something cultural, but only scratch the lonely planet surface.

Travelers:  May use Lonely Planet (no disrespect) but also take initiative and explore.Do they go out? yes. Do they party? Sure. but it's not just about that for them. They do other things. They talk to the locals. Eat street food. Are mindful that while they’re on holiday that they are GUESTS in this country. Don’t draw unnecessary attention to themselves. Are respectful to and about the people, tradition, and culture around them. Make the most of where they are.

Traveling responsibly is essential regardless of age, nationality or budget. When you make the decision to visit a country, you have decided to experience it and understand it, which is part of what makes traveling such a magical thing.

Backpackers: View every country as their own personal playground, and view their presence in the place as a gift they are bestowing to the locals around them. They are the ones who walk around drunk in Muslim countries, who are scantily clad in conservative countries, who don’t bother to adopt the local mentality but rather shove their own (often inappropriate) behavior everyone around them.  They expect for the country to adjust to them, not the other way around. It also creates unrest and draws incorrect conclusions about western culture from the locals and the locals don't respect the foreigners because they behave like animals. the backpackers leave thinking the locals are unfriendly

Travelers: Have done their research, know how to dress and conduct themselves in a proper manner. They have fun, do what they want without disrupting the society around them. They understand that where they are is different than where they’re form, but they appreciate it and don’t deride it. After all,  one of the main factors of traveling is being somewhere different than where we’re from.

One of the most defining factors of a backpacker vs a traveler is the things they say and how they say them.

Backpackers:  The number one way to determine whether you’re conversing with a backpacker is if they describe the places they’ve visited as “doing” a country. Example: “I’ve done Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. “ What does that even mean? You’ve DONE it? Just because you have a patch sewn on your rucksack and a stamp in your passport doesn’t mean the country has been properly explored. I’ve lived in Vietnam for almost three years, I lived in NYC for almost four, and I can safely say that there are things and places that have not yet been explored. There is always more to discover and to suggest otherwise is both ignorant and insulting. Another choice phrase is using the word “little” to describe a local countrymen, but not in reference to their physical stature. Example:  “I was at a café and this little man came up to me tried to speak to me.” This terminology is insulting to the people in which its describing and also a demonstration of the arrogance that comes from those thinking they’re better than the residents of the place they’re a GUEST of.

Travelers: Describe their travels as just that, travels or “places they’ve been to.” When discussing the local people they use adjectives such as “interesting” or “lovely”

This is a tough one, because everyone is in a different position financially. Some people are on a shoestring budget while others have plenty of money to spend which they do. Neither is better, it’s just how you handle it. One of the most fortuitous things about traveling in Asia is that, aside from places like Singapore, Shanghai, Bhutan, and Hong Kong, you can visit them without breaking the bank. It makes opportunities open to a variety of budgets which is wonderful. Believe me, I get not having a ton of money, and I am, by no means, a high roller but I am fundamentally against visiting a country and not stimulating the economy.

Backpackers: Have less to spend, which is fine, but they tend to be obnoxious about it. What’s most bothersome about this is that, despite their financial status is, they still have a lot more money than a lot of the people in countries they’re visiting. They are the ones arguing with the hotels and street vendors about a dollar. (The difference for the backpacker is a few beers but for the person they’re arguing, it’s about feeding their family) Now, before anyone jumps down my throat, I will agree that the locals do try and exploit as much as possible (it can be frustrating to argue down the price of fruit or the price of a motorbike taxi) but let’s be honest, isn’t that what the backpackers are doing too? Waltzing in like they own the place, complete disregard to everything around them, and then leaving? These people are harmful to a destination, they bring little money, make it very competitive. You look at places like Bhutan and you realize why they have a minimum spending requirement.

Travelers: Have a budget, of course, but are flexible with it. They don’t freak out about spending a little bit of money and aren’t rude or disrespectful in their bargaining. They understand that they are responsible for contributing to someone’s livelihood.  

I’m sure I am going to get a lot of negative and angry comments from people calling me snobby and uninformed and while I’m not trying to offend anyone, I find it increasingly annoying to watch people come into the city that I have called home for three years and treat it like trash. I’m tired of traveling to other cities and listening to people complain about the most ridiculous things. I don’t understand how people can make the decision to buy a plane ticket, visit a country and then not embrace the opportunity. As I said, being a backpacker doesn’t mean traveling with a backpack, but having the attitude that the rest of the world owes them something. I am not suggesting that people stop traveling, I am just imploring them to do it responsibly and respectfully. To understand that it’s a gift, one that should be treasured.

*This was inspired by countless conversations I’ve had with expats, particularly AH and PL. So thanks for that.


  1. As somebody who nearly always travels with a single backpack I understand a lot of what you're saying. There are rude travelers and there are respectful travelers. Sometimes there are smelly people, we call them hippies. Otherwise, just call people rude, ignorant, smelly, arrogant travelers.

  2. understood, but I did clarify, several times, that carrying a backpacker does not make you a "backpacker"'s the attitude that makes you one. I also often only carry a backpack. Nice luggage doesn't make you a good traveler. :)

  3. This is hilarity!! My husband and I recently had our first international experience. One of the things we were very entertained by were the other travelers-- some were drunk all the time and some were just as curious as us about their surroundings. As much as we tried to soak it all in, we probably fell somewhere in between what you designate "backpackers" and "travelers". Hopefully as we become more seasoned in our international exploring, we'll be more on the travelers side. There are definitely parts I look back on that probably came off as arrogant, but it was our ignorance as to what to look for or expect or even know what to research before we went. Anyway, this is really funny and very insightful. Thank you.
    PS There were two backpacks and a suitcase between the two of us.

  4. Vietnam is beautiful and peaceful.I would like to come here once. Hope you can share the experience.
    Activities in Vietnam

  5. I second Alice.
    I've been living in Vietnam for many many years, and the flow of backpackers (we have to found another name, the phonetic of that word starts to hiritate me actualy!) has been in constent increase. Fair enough!
    But there is one common denominator between a vast majority of them: they simply stink all the time!

    I know it may sound rude to say that. And i am one who always tries to stay objective and not jump to conclusion. But it is the sad truth. After countless accounter of that species, you can easily and statistically conclude that they stink. [here, i said it again]. Although i am a very polite and respectful person, i think i will eventually ask them directly why.

    Backpackers: Why do you have to weare dirty clothes all the time? Why do you have to stink all the time? Why… Why??? it does not make sense to me. I've done some backpacking (in the sense that i had only 1 bag with me when traveling Australia), and i was still able to clean myself everyday, change clothes, and even wash my clothes when needed. Are you carrying only a small perce to have the weare the same clothes all the time.
    Why do you have to smell like you haven't taken a shower for days and days? Especially in hot and humid countries. Why…why… why?
    Everytime i get a terrible swif of sweat in a bar or on the street, you can rest assure that he/she has the characteristic described by Alice (t-shirt, pants….). It became one of those unexplained fact of life to me.

    Every hostel has showers, even the cheapest one in Vietnam. And you can wash your clothes for very very cheap in Vietnam. And guess what, probably 99% of hostel offers laundery services for peanuts.
    It's around a dollar or 2 max to make a big load. Granted, your clothes might smell like a field of lavender from the south of France. But they are clean. You know: "clean", "hygiene"; just a couple of concept the human race has been improving on for centuries now. Why do you have to be become a cave man all over again?

    I know there is the "tight" budget argument coming up all the time. But here is the simple math:
    1 deodorent = 40,000VND (As of time of writting, it's just under 2 USD).
    I use deodorent everyday, and one "stick" lasts for about 1.5-2 month. And to be really nice, we will say 1 month only.
    So if you travel 12 months (which is quite a long journey already) here is what it would cost.
    12 months x 2USD = 24$.
    Are you that much on a budget that 24$ in one year is too much? Especially to smell good, and not polute people's air?
    24$ is probably what you spend in 1 or 2 regular days of drinking. 24$ for 1 year!

    So if there are any backpackers reading this post: please answer us?

    Is it an unspoken code of conduct? am i so outdated that i did not realised that stinking became so cool?

    Maybe i'll try to see if Gillette or Rexona wants to sponsor by donnating free deodorent in hostel. That might solve the problem.

    So one last time, because it feels good to say it and is totally true: YOU STINK! GO SHOWER!