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A Guest in a Place Others Call Home: Backpacking Culture in Southeast Asia

This blog is part of a series where we unpack our Backpacktivist Manifesto using video, articles, music, and other forms of media. We invite you to critically reflect with us on what it truly means to be an ethical traveler.

A backpacktivist is a guest in a place others call home. Adhering to local traditions and customs allows us to understand the value of cultures different from our own. It opens the door for a greater understanding of our similarities, not just our differences.

Written by our very own Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator, Sidney Jhingran, this piece is a reflection on the backpacker culture that has taken over the region. With a critical look on the positive and negative effects of this transient lifestyle, Sidney unpacks just what it means to be conscientious in our travels.

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. Like I said, I’m a backpacker; I don’t really live in one particular place. As I live in these two places – 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 thus 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, or has given rise to exploitative and unethical tourism practices such as Thailand’s questionable tiger temples, hill-tribe treks, or elephant riding excursions. All of these are essentially 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 and services that we predominantly indulge in, you really have to wonder how much perspective these really provide. So, if we’re not experiencing the cultures of Southeast Asia most of the time, what are we actually experiencing?

The reality is that what we, as backpackers, are immersed in, is a culture of our own creation; one which is quite separate from that of our Southeast Asian hosts. One of the most interesting aspects of living in Bangkok and Siem Reap is really being able to see how the successive, never-ending, waves of backpackers that come through these places constantly reproduce and actively 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 that they have bought at local markets, though it’s generally not very “local”, but 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” which 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, but 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 pretty terrible guests sometimes. A 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.

My thoughts may sound overly negative, though 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 an overwhelming lack of critical thinking and self-reflection when it comes to the impact of our collective way of life when we travel. If we can harness the power of travel to be more critical, more self-aware, more responsible and more honest, then backpacking can become a force for social good.

And 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 have 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?

On 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.

Questions for Thought…

  1. Sidney says, “travelling is an inherently selfish enterprise”. Do you agree or disagree?
  2. When travelling, what is the difference between a “manufactured” experience and an “authentic” one?
  3. If you’ve travelled before, have you encountered the “backpacker culture” that is referred to here? Did you find it was disconnected from the “local” culture?
  4. How can we act respectfully when exploring regions that are unfamiliar to us?



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