A Traveller's Manifesto

Backpackers : you’re not big, you’re not clever and you’re not Buddhist. Put the souvenir T-shirts and the Lonely Planet down

Feature by Rachael Ann Fulton | 05 Mar 2012

Whether you want to traipse the white sand beaches of Koh Samui or absorb spiritual serenity at Borobudur, tourists do their utmost to ruin the experience for you. Our planet’s most idyllic natural landscapes are invariably disfigured by the presence of horse-faced gap yah students and dishevelled backpackers, all of them pursuing the elusive meaning of life and losing all concept of personal hygiene as they go.

Amidst the matted dreadlocks and weather-beaten faces of the backpacker community you may find the occasional stunner. This person is usually female, and usually French. Whilst you may look as if you were bludgeoned at birth with an ugly stick and raised in a small space with no natural sunlight (Scotland), she looks as if she has spent her life cycling dans-la-campagne in the French sunshine, the basket of her bicyclette brimming with quinoa, flaxseed and fresh bread from the supermarché. On the travelling circuit, these girls are normally found scaling volcanoes and engaging in other sickeningly outdoorsy events. By comparison, British girls are usually found vomiting Chang beer and fried rice over their friend’s flip-flops. 

Despite the occasional belle française, the scourge of backpacking blights an otherwise attractive crop of young people. By the third month of living from a grotty rucksack, sleeping in flea-infested hostels and binge-drinking buckets of vodka and shrooms, those who are normally easy on the eye can make you wish you’d grow cataracts.

Seasoned backpackers and gap-yah students repeatedly fall victim to the same aesthetic afflictions. They acquire an outer crust of dirt and dead skin cells as their sun-charred bodies become dappled with missing patches of tan. Fungal skin infections caused by hot weather, sweat and infrequent showers spread white blotches across their backs and chests. Monstrous scabs from mosquitoes that just keep on biting, despite the maniacal slathering of DEET, pepper their limbs. Their hair looks like they've been changing plug sockets with wet hands. Couple this with a near-constant hangover and the travellers in no way resemble the T4 Shipwrecked lovelies they hope to emulate.

Western travellers’ clothing choices are also dubious. Under no circumstances should the mass-wearing of vests saying ‘I WENT TUBING IN VANG VIENG, LAOS’ be permitted, especially if you are still in Vang Vieng. In this situation, everyone knows you went tubing, because they went with you. They watched you leap onto the rope swing of death and they dragged your drunken ass out of the water before you drowned. They don’t need reminded. Besides, if you don’t go tubing in Vang Vieng, there’s not much else to do except get high and watch Family Guy.

Then there’s the jewellery. Spiritual Cambodians at Buddhist temples will envelope you in intoxicating plumes of incense, wrap a piece of wool around your wrist and sell you faux enlightenment for ‘a contribution to the monks.’ Wearing said piece of tatty wool for the next six months through sea salt, bathing and grotesque toilet conditions does not make you a Buddhist, nor does it make you enlightened. It makes you grubby.

Tattoos are also popular when travelling. It is simply insufficient to upload 2000 Facebook photos, keep a diary or rely on the incredible data-storing capacity of the human memory to record your travels. No. Everyone knows that in order to truly remember an event, you must pay a stranger to permanently imprint an image or sequence of words onto your body. Travellers can turn themselves into atlases with the popular outline-of-country-I-went-to-that-like-totally-changed-my-life tattoo, or choose to emblazon themselves with a lizard or another animal indigenous to the country they’re visiting. Or, like my friend recently did on a trip to Thailand, they can have their arm drunkenly inked with the phrase ‘Fuck Bitches, Get Money’, and return to explain this choice to their mothers.

On their quest for bohemian self-discovery, Western travellers frequently exclaim their need to experience real culture. They condescendingly dismiss the well-trodden tourist trail, considering themselves superior to its meagre cultural offerings. They don’t want to see what everyone else sees. They want to go off-road, man.

This idealisation of uncharted territory is a hangover from childhood Indiana Jones obsessions and exposure to the glorification of slave-mongerer Christopher Columbus. Freud might have also argued a subconscious sexual theme in our desire to explore unspoiled lands, but regardless of intention, the outcome is the same. We want the Travel Trump Card that no-one else can trounce. We want to rub it in everyone’s faces for years to come, telling our grandkids about how we spent our youth ice-fishing with Inuits and body-painting with Amazonian Quilombolo tribes.

Travellers want all this, but home comforts too. When they open a menu they want to be able to admire the complexities of the ethnic food and still be able to opt for a cheeseburger and curly fries. When street-food induced diaorrhoea has ravaged their insides from Mumbai to Mexico City, the proximity of good old Western stodge soothes their gastro-intestinal tract and stops them from missing their mummies so much.

The obsession with ‘going off the beaten track’ while travelling is usually spoken by someone who has not experienced the horrors of the beaten track itself. Traversing over landslide rubble on your hands and knees, scrambling from the wreckage of an overturned coach, being chased by rabid packs of street dogs and robbed at gunpoint are all events that frequently occur in the civilised parts of developing countries. The advantage of built-up, well-populated areas is that there are people there to protect you and apply a tourniquet to a severed limb if need be. You do not have this luxury when going Bear-Grylls in the Peruvian mountains or navigating yourself by compass through the Sumatran jungle. In the red Cambodian landscape of Ratanakiri, they sometimes bury their own people alive. Just imagine what they might do to you.

Tourists become frequently irked by the proximity of other tourists during their travel experiences, despite the blatant hypocrisy this situation entails. It’s as if backpackers expect a private audience with the Angkor Wat sunrise or a personal tour of Halong Bay and are pissed off when they don’t get it. While people enjoy a French breakfast from a Scandinavian Bakery in the middle of Cambodia, you might overhear them announce, “It’s a lovely place, but it’s just a bit touristy for me,” without pausing to acknowledge the irony.

Westerners believe their faux-bohemian aura and feigned cultural superiority differentiates them from the rest of the travelling masses. They shun the identikit tour groups that flood from coaches at historical sites and temples. They sneer at Chinese business convoys in matching fluorescent tour caps and T shirts. They moan at the uncouth nature of other people’s telescopic zoom cameras and shoot evil stares at the cheery family who wander into the background of their sunset snapshot. They like to think that their baggy-pants-and-sandals-wearing approach to cultural exploration blends them unassumingly into laidback Asian life. This is a fallacy. How many native Cambodians do you see rocking harem pants, top knots and RayBans? Not many.

Tourists must come to terms with the fact that ‘real culture’ is practically inaccessible, and that they must instead succumb to the melting-pot limbo zone of backpackers that exists in travel hotspots across the globe. A diluted version of local culture, forcibly bred with the demands of the white hoards of conquistadors, that educates us while pandering to our bratty First World needs.

Once you have abandoned all hope of chipping away your own, personalised chunk of authentic local culture amidst the plethora of fakery and myriad of travellers clambering for the same goal, you are able to appreciate this travelling society. A community where German dermatologists can banter Welsh butterfly enthusiasts, Parisienne plumbers can discuss wine with Dutch architects and post-military service Israeli kids can share joints with hipster Londoners. The multi-faceted backpacker culture that allows you to eat croissants while overlooking the Mekong Delta and discuss Scottish independence with a Spanish sex tourist in Vietnam should be appreciated, rather than shunned.

It’s embarrassing that we European travellers wander the world wearing baggy clothes, flirting with Buddhist ideology and speaking broken Standard Grade French to impress pretty Quebecois. But we have to consider our alternatives. Austerity cuts, -15 degree winters, a shitty job market and the existence of vaginally-bejewelled airheads on fake-reality TV. Enough to make anyone want to disappear into the jungle and become a grubby backpacker with a lizard tattoo.