The great backpacker myths

Backpackers enjoy a beach party in Goa, India. Backpackers are dirty and just want to party all the time, right? Wrong.
Backpackers enjoy a beach party in Goa, India. Backpackers are dirty and just want to party all the time, right? Wrong. Photo: Getty Images

So here's the stereotype, the myth of backpackers.

They're supposed to be young. You're thinking maybe 18 to 22. The sort that wouldn't know any better yet.

They might seem a bit silly but they're probably overly educated – Mum and Dad have got plenty of money to put them through private school. And plenty of money to fund this little excursion that their kids are on too.

They don't look rich though. They look dirty. They're wearing a Bintang singlet that hasn't been washed in three weeks or so. Their tanned arms are full of woven bracelets and friendship bands picked up over months and months of trundling through South-East Asia.

They don't know much about South-East Asia though, because they're drunk 22 hours in the day. (The first two hours after waking up being devoted to hangovers and eating lunch.)

They're scraping by on the tightest of budgets. Most have barely got enough money for a dorm bed, some packet noodles and... 20 beers every night.

They spend most of their time sitting around in the hostels of the world comparing notes about the amaaaaaazing things that they've done on their gap years, not really listening to each other at all, just waiting for the chance to jump in and spin another yarn about their own awesomeness.

Of course there's not a lot of time for this awesomeness to occur when you're always hanging out at the hostel telling stories, drinking super-cheap beers and looking for someone to have sex with. Sometimes that happens, too, and you have to sneak back to your filthy dorm room and go at it while everyone else pretends not to notice.

Then you chuck your Bintang singlet back on, head out to the common room and get back to talking about all the amaaaaaazing things you've been doing on your gap year.

And that's it. That's the stereotype. It's chock full of lazy clichés but for those who've never actually experienced backpacking for themselves it seems to hold true.

You can see it in the comments section of this blog almost every week, people sneering at world travel's great unwashed. They shudder at the thought of staying in a hostel and rubbing shoulders with people like you. And me.

But like a lot of stereotypes, the clichéd image of a backpacker is partially true, but mostly completely false.

Backpackers aren't all young. You might look at the photo at the top of this page and assume I'm too old for this caper, but I'm definitely not the crustiest budget traveller around. I stayed in a dorm in the Lakes District in England last year and I was the youngest guy in there.

Everyone stays at hostels, from the gap kids to the 30-somethings on year-long sabbaticals to the greypackers looking to save a few dollars. Not all will plump for a dorm, but when you've got private rooms in fancy hostels there's really no need to upgrade to a hotel.

Backpackers aren't necessarily poor either. Those 30-somethings on their break from work have got money – they just choose to stay in cheap accommodation for the social side of things. And those doing hotel-stay tours in the US or Europe are paying some serious cash for the pleasure.

Some backpackers, shockingly, don't even have backpacks. Step into any hostel in a major city now and you'll see just as many wheelie suitcases as gnarly old packs.

The truth is that there is no stereotypical backpacker. Some travellers might stay in and eat two-minute noodles every night, but there are plenty out there sampling the street food, or spending up big on the fancy restaurant they've always wanted to go to.

Some might get drunk in backpacker bars every night of their trip, but others will be out exploring town. Some might sit around boring the crap out of everyone with their tales of wannabe adventure, but others will have genuinely interesting stories of how they got here to tell.

There's no way to pigeonhole the modern-day backpacker. Anyone who tries to has probably never been one.

What's your experience with backpackers? Have you found them to be different to the stereotype? Are you different to the myth?

Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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