World's best backpacker destinations: Seven party towns that have grown up

It's not just the backpackers who get older.

Travellers themselves might progress in years, they might switch from hostels to hotels, go from party towns to resort towns, move from solo travel to family style – but the same thing can happen with destinations.

Sometimes, the places you used to visit as a backpacker go through the same period of change – they grow up, they mature, they morph into something different. That can be a good thing, but it can also be bad.

If you used to visit these hotspots as a destitute but hard-partying backpacker, you might be a little surprised to see what they've become today.

Koh Pha-Ngan, Thailand

Home of the Full Moon Party. Inspiration for The Beach. Thailand's Koh Pha-Ngan has long been a notorious backpacker hotspot, where you drink Thai whisky out of a bucket, dance on the beach, make out with strangers, then crash out in your $7-a-night bungalow. And you can still do that, in places. Elsewhere on the island, however, you can now spend $300 or $400 a night at a luxury resort with an infinity pool and a day spa. That's progress. Right?

Lagos, Portugal

tra15-online-backpacker Backpacker party towns that have grown up. Young woman traveler looking at the sea in Lagos town, Algarve region, Portugal. Travel and active lifestyle concept

Photo: Shutterstock

Lagos used to be the backpacker party town, a meeting spot for all those wanderers of Western Europe who'd got sick of the cathedrals and art galleries and just wanted to get drunk in the sun for a few weeks. These days there's still good nightlife in Lagos, and a decent backpacker crowd, but it's not exactly limited to budget travellers. High-end villas and luxury hotels have arrived in Portugal's Algarve region, and with them a whole new clientele.

Vang Vieng, Laos

AAKG1T Tourists drinking at riverside swing bar while tubing down the Nam Xong river Vang Vieng Laos tra15-online-backpacker Backpacker party towns that have grown up.

Riverside bars were all the rage in Vang Vieng a few years ago. Photo: Alamy

If you backpacked through south-east Asia any time between 2000 and 2012, then you would know all about Vang Vieng. This was the home of "tubing", the infamous booze-soaked river trips that involved slides, swings, tractor-tyre inner tubes, often illegal riverside bars, magic mushrooms, and plenty of injuries and even a few deaths. Is it a bad thing that tubing as we knew it is gone? No. Definitely not. However, the Vang Vieng of old has also gone, the one-time backpacker secret now the home of luxury boutiques and high-rise hotels. Is that a bad thing? Maybe.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

tra15-online-backpacker Backpacker party towns that have grown up. SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA - January 8, 2018: Tourists stroll along Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia on January 8, 2018.

Photo: Shutterstock

Once the modern international airport goes in, it's all over. Siem Reap, Cambodia's gateway to Angkor Wat, used to be relatively difficult to access, a place you would have to get to via somewhere else. That made it more popular with long-term travellers, often backpackers, than anyone else. And then, the airport got upgraded. In 2001, half a million people flew through Siem Reap. Last year, more than 4 million called through. There are direct flights now from Seoul, Shanghai, Singapore, and many other Asian hubs. No wonder the place is almost unrecognisable.

Byron Bay, NSW

Laid back ... Splendour in the Grass at Byron Bay.

Still alternative? The Splendour in the Grass music festival at Byron Bay. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Byron still fancies itself as an alternative, hippie paradise, but that's like your rich stockbroker mate claiming he hasn't changed since his student days. It's not true. Byron Bay is now pretty fancy: there might be a couple of cheap hostels left, and the odd shop still selling crystals and dream-catchers, but they're small fry compared to the proliferation of luxurious boutique hotels and upmarket restaurants that now line the beachfronts.

Hvar, Croatia

tra15-online-backpacker Backpacker party towns that have grown up. HVAR, CROATIA - AUG 12, 2012: Tourists enjoy beach in beautiful old town Hvar on the island Hvar in Croatia.

Photo: Shutterstock

This beautiful island in the Adriatic Sea was always a tourism hotspot; that is, until war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, and the visitors stopped arriving. When that war ended it was the backpackers who paved the way for a new boom in the late '90s and early 2000s, turning Hvar into a party town that began attracting mainstream tourists, and then big-money investors, and now it's all fancy resorts and good times.

Cusco, Peru

tra15-online-backpacker Backpacker party towns that have grown up. Cusco, Peru - August 08, 2015: People selling and buying fruits at a market in the steets.

Photo: Shutterstock

Like Croatia, Peru had its share of bad times. While the Maoist guerrilla group the Shining Path was active in the '80s and early '90s, few people visited this South American beauty. Around the late '90s, however, adventure travellers started streaming back into the country, particularly to Cusco, in the high Andes. Cusco then was a niche destination, with only small guesthouses and a few hotels available. It was a place young people went. Now, however, it's mainstream. Everyone is going to Cusco, from budget adventurers to luxury package-holiday tourists. The city has changed.

Which former backpacker havens do you think have changed the most? Have you gone back to any old favourite places and been disappointed?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: Lessons every traveller needs to learn before turning 40​

See also: 13 signs you're too old to be a backpacker

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