I am a backpacker. There’s no denying that. I live in Southeast Asia. Bangkok, Thailand, to be exact, though right now I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia. As a backpacker, I don’t really live in one particular place. Living in these two epicenters of backpacking culture in Southeast Asia – I am constantly immersed in this transient and very unique lifestyle, both as an active participant and as someone outside of it. This has led me to few interrelated insights that I feel inclined to share.
Travelling is an inherently selfish enterprise – we do it for ourselves, for experiences and encounters that will enrich our own lives and broaden our perspective of the world. The paradox is that the places we come to visit and the hosts that welcome us become a backdrop to our own self-fulfillment. In extreme cases, it’s this kind of self-centered mentality that has led to the hedonistic, drunkenly reckless atmosphere that has overwhelmed Khao San Road or the island of Koh Phangnan. It has given rise to exploitative and unethical tourism practices in Thailand’s tiger temples, hill-tribe treks, or elephant riding tours . Essentially, these are manufactured experiences aimed at satisfying and garnering profit from our drive to consume what Southeast Asia has to offer.
It is because of this mentality that the majority of us only superficially experience the cultures of Southeast Asia. If you stand back and really take a critical look at the types of experiences that we predominantly indulge in, you begin to question their cultural authenticity. If we’re not experiencing the cultures of Southeast Asia, what are we really experiencing?
The reality is that we, as backpackers are immersed in a culture of our own creation; a culture quite separate from that of our Southeast Asian hosts. One of the most interesting aspects of living in Bangkok and Siem Reap is being able to see how the successive, never-ending waves of backpackers that come through these places create a distinct community of their own.
The average backpacker in Southeast Asia is a transient being – carrying only the essentials (and maybe a ukulele) in their large travel packs – that moves along a well-established circuit through the divine guidance of his or her travel bible (a.k.a Lonely Planet) and recommendations from other backpackers. They wear clothes bought at local markets, (in actuality, it’s generally not very “local”, rather a type of backpacker uniform: tank-tops with local beer logos on them, for example). They stay in budget accommodation where they mingle with other backpackers. They like to hit all the checkmarks when they are in a new place – see the sites, eat cheaply at “local” places, go partying, if possible – and move on. It can be an amazing and addictive culture, but it can also distance itself too far from the “backdrop” that is Southeast Asia.
And this, I think, is really the most critical point – we have to remember that we are guests in a country, to a culture, within a society, that is not our own. The people that live and work here are not simply “the locals”, the outsiders in the backdrop of our backpacker community. They are our hosts to a place of the world we are unfamiliar with, a place they call home and generally want to share with us.
To be frank, backpackers can be pretty terrible guests sometimes. The lack of cultural sensitivity aside, even worse is the prevalent sense of entitlement that seems to be programmed into the general backpacker mentality. For example, we feel entitled to bargain incessantly because we assume that people are trying to scam us – we’re told, “hey, it’s the culture to bargain here!” and we fight for 50 cents off that Chang beer tank-top as if the world depended on it. We haggle with the tuk-tuk driver – who makes less than $10 a day – to cut another 50 cents or else we turn our backs and walk away. I see this every day in Siem Reap, and it’s quite frustrating. Yes, it’s true that bargaining is part of the culture. But we can take it too far. And the reality is that if you are a backpacker, then you likely have a higher level of income than most of your hosts here who are trying to offer you goods and services to make a living.
Although my thoughts may sound overly negative, I do genuinely think that backpackers are generally an amazing group of people with a great courage and desire to see the world. That being said, there is a lack of critical thinking and self-reflection when it comes to the impact of our collective way of life when we travel. If we could harness the power of travel to be more critical, self-aware, responsible and honest, then backpacking could become a force for social good.
This brings me to Operation Groundswell. We have been leading backpacking programs in Thailand and Cambodia for six years now. Every year, we refine our itineraries, meet new partners and forge deeper relationships with our existing ones, and come up with even crazier ideas to connect backpackers to Southeast Asia in more engaging and fulfilling ways. Part of our mission is to get ourselves to critically question the ethics and sustainability of backpacking in this part of the world. What impact does the backpacking community have on Thai and Cambodian culture and society? How do backpackers connect to places and people? How can we contribute our time in this part of the world in a more fruitful and productive way?
In all Operation Groundswell programs, we weave on and off the backpacker circuit – as both insiders and onlookers – to get a real sense of the issues that surround this industry.