Are you a traveller, a tourist or a backpacker?

Posted on 11 April 2012

Let’s start with the common clichés.

Travelling solo to a country completely alien to your previous life is one of the most exciting, surreal and intense adventures possible for anyone to attempt. It will be wonderful, fulfilling and rewarding, (insert adjective ad nauseum). You will live through exciting new experiences, be exposed to different cultures, become more tolerant and understanding as well as, finally, finding yourself. This myth, along with the necessity of lugging hiking boots with you no matter where you go, is built into most young Westerners’ psyche. Taking on the challenge of ‘doing’ Asia or South America is integral for growing as a person – a modern pilgrimage.

The truth? It is also terrifying, stressful and intimidating.

When you first walk through the departure terminal these feelings begin to sink in, once the wheels of the plane leave the ground they really take hold and then you are faced with up to 20 hours in an uncomfortable seat while forcing down uncomfortable food contemplating what you have got yourself into. The feelings you will go through range from euphoria and excitement to dread and panic.

This generally depends on the length of time you are planning on going abroad for and what you will be doing once you arrive. You could be going for a few weeks, a few months or over a year. Time is the criteria I use for differentiating between the various types of travelling. Not the only one of course – otherwise I would have to describe one man who spent over six months floating down the same stretch of river in Laos on a inner tube getting drunk as a traveller; I do not. I am still not quite sure how I would describe him. Something about exceptions and rules.

So are you a traveller, a tourist or a backpacker?

The traveller

Travellers start out with a smaller bank balance; just enough to get them started wherever they land as the goal is to get a job as soon as they can. Working in several different places to fund their travels within a country while using one particular town or city as a home base. They will be living overseas for a number of years. Saving is an unfortunate necessity with this type of travelling. Otherwise you might find yourself in Australia with only 100 dollars in your account, equal to four days accommodation in a dirty dorm, and end up having to take any job available, like being bussed off to the arse end of nowhere, waking up at 4 am, and then spending twelve hours digging bamboo shoots out of the dirt in the rain or out at sea scraping pearl shells in a human production line with numb hands.

The tourist

Tourists have it slightly easier; preparation required: go to travel agent, book package holiday, pack Speedos and condoms (pretty much the same thing) and forget sun block. Read hotel pamphlet for possible activities. Do not go anywhere without a large group of packaged compatriots. Accents and pidgin English are universal languages, if they do not understand you – speak louder.

The backpacker

Backpackers are self-sufficient travellers who save lots of moola before they leave and are experienced by others as a maelstrom of drinking, flag-patched backpacks, wild stories and sexual escapades. Generally backpackers will have up to six months of travelling planned, coinciding with a holiday from university or a gap year after high school.

Like a WMD, they target a region that is to be ‘done’ and then land in it, flitting around, touching down in a particular spot for a few days or a week, seeing the highlights and taking the photos that they have seen in their Lonely Planet Guide before moving on to the next earmarked page. Despite this bad rep, backpacking actually requires the most planning and dare I say it – discipline. Starting out with a budget that is only going to exponentially shrink the moment they land, backpackers need to do the most research and planning about where and what they are going to do.

If you are planning on backpacking, according to the above criteria, don’t plan on doing too much. Set yourself reasonable goals and allow yourself the time to enjoy each of the places you visit. A different hostel every night, a different town or region every few days is exhausting. Do not feel like you have to do everything. The most important thing is that you appreciate the places you do visit. The same is true for travelling in general, trying to plan for a year in advance is impossibly terrifying and intimidating. If you are backpacking: have an idea where you will be for the next couple of weeks and if you are travelling then maybe plan for the next three months. It is important to remain flexible.

Some of the most interesting places you will discover will come from meeting with other backpackers while you are moving around. This is one of the responsibilities of travelling – sharing trips and destinations with other like-minded souls. The dirty opposite side of this coin is that once a place has become too popular the essential character and reason why you went in the first place is lost. The island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand is the quintessential  example of this. Its growing popularity led to rapid development on the sand bar which forms the habitable area of the island. Paved streets and large concrete buildings were built haphazardly, slowly sucking up the original natural beauty. Just off Phi Phi Don lies Phi Phi Ley, the location of Maya Bay –  better known as ‘The Beach’ from the film by the same name. Once you have witnessed the mass migration of speed boats from the mainland and surrounding islands to this one area and a beautiful beach inundated with so many people you can barely see the sand (think of any great migration you may have seen on National Geographic) you should be convinced that if you do find a truly magical spot you may not want to tell absolutely everyone. Do not let this little bit of cynicism turn you into a hoarder of places. One of my favourite places I have ever visited came from this sharing of knowledge between travellers. An additional benefit of this tension between tourists flocking en masse to popular hot spots and the desire of backpackers or travellers to avoid these kind of places is the discovery of alternate destinations found by these nomad souls as they struggle to get out beyond the frontier of newly created tourist traps.

Does it really matter?

There is also one other term that has come into common usage – ‘flashpacker’ – referring to those who just have too much money and don’t rough it to the extent deemed necessary for ‘real travelling’. It is frequently used by those masochistic souls who believe running out of money in a foreign country, sleeping in a tent or on a beach, riding a cart from town to town while not washing or shaving for weeks is the only real way to experience a country. I don’t agree with this Romanticist ideal of the suffering traveller. By the same token, however, if someone was visiting Europe or America, would they be told the real experience of those countries is only through the eyes of the homeless? Perhaps, but this is not a social critique so that topic will be left for another day.

The point is this: no matter what you find yourself doing, or which of these superficial categories you find yourself in, be glad that you have taken the leap into a different goldfish bowl. Enjoy and appreciate wherever you may be and do not judge too harshly. Take lots of photos.


Image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr

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