I broke the rules on my first Contiki tour. In fact, I broke the golden rule.
These were holidays for "18 to 35s" – you saw the slogan plastered over magazine pages and on the side of buses back then, on brochures in travel agents and posters on walls. Holidays for 18 to 35s.
And yet I wasn't 18. I was only 17. Back in Australia I couldn't get a beer in a pub to save my life, and yet in Europe I was allowed to set off with a busload of party animals and essentially wander into any bar or club I pleased thanks to the continent's lax rules.
That was a wild three weeks. I almost got a tattoo in Amsterdam of a heavy metal band I was into at the time. Phew. I partied in some pretty exotic places. I drank in the world just as I drank in the lemon Hooches. I made new friends and went a bit crazy and probably saw some amazing sights, though I don't really remember them that well.
I went on that tour because that was what you did back then. That was how you saw Europe, through the bottom of a beer glass. That was the thing every Antipodean traveller who'd spent a bit of time hanging around Putney and Shepherds Bush and who wanted to see something of the continent would do. And so I did. And loved it. Wouldn't change a thing.
And I'm sure there are plenty of people my age who would say the same.
Travel experiences, I've realised, are like tattoos: they mark your era. They show not just who you are now but who you were back then. In the same way that you know someone with a faux tribal tattoo was born in the early 1970s, and someone with a few Japanese or Chinese symbols is probably in their late 30s now, you know how old a traveller is by the classic experiences they indulged in during their backpacking heyday.
Been on an overlander from London to Kathmandu? You were probably born in the 60s. Bought a campervan and driven around Western Europe? Chances are you're a child of the early 70s. And if you went on a boozy Contiki tour and did a Full Moon Party and went tubing in Laos, then hi friends – you're from the early 80s.
This is what the backpackers from my generation were all doing. They were discovering south-east Asia, though a different south-east Asia to the banana pancake generation who came before us. My brethren were riding down a river on inner tubes in deepest Laos, getting drunk and jumping off high things. They were drinking buckets of Thai whisky on the beach at Hat Rin.
They were exploring Europe, too, though with the safety net of an organised bus tour, leaving the details to someone else and concentrating on getting boozy and hooking up with fellow passengers to a backdrop of Euro beauty.
It's easy, as you get older, to catch yourself becoming nostalgic about these era-defining experiences. You can look at the way school-leavers and university grads are travelling these days and shake your head and say it's not cool, that they're not having the right sorts of adventures, that they're not doing the proper things.
But that's not really true. So many of the experiences that defined my era of early travels just don't exist anymore, and that might seem a little sad, but it's actually a very good thing. Those rites shouldn't be around anymore. And for that, we can only blame ourselves.
We ruined tubing, for starters. We took a good thing and we butchered it. We all piled in to Vang Vieng en masse and turned what had been a laidback and pretty innocent good time into an appalling cesspit of mushroom raves and broken bones. It had to end.
We were obnoxious drunkards in Europe too, with little respect or regard for culture. We treated the continent as a drinking venue, not a tourist destination. Not as someone's home.
That seems to have changed now: Contiki tours still exist, but people don't go on super-budget camping trips where they wash their own dishes and clean out their own tents when they get too drunk and have an accident. Passengers are more respectful now, they go on tours to actually see places, to learn about food, to travel sustainably, to have a bit of fun while also keeping a lid on things.
Thailand's Full Moon Parties rage on, but they're nothing like they used to be, nothing like a scene from The Beach (which we were all reading): they're far more commercial now, far more popular. And as with tubing, with mass popularity has come mass problems on Koh Phangan, in this case drug busts, assaults and the odd arrest. There's talk the Thai government has had enough, and you couldn't blame them for that.
Things change over time. Tastes change. Fashions change. And even more importantly, ideas of what's acceptable and unacceptable, reasonable and unreasonable, right and wrong – they change too.
I think it's OK to acknowledge that, to look back at the era-defining travel experiences that you indulged in and remember them fondly, but at the same time admit that they probably shouldn't be happening any more.
Should tubing still be happening the way it once was? Definitely not. Are travellers better off actually taking in some culture in Europe instead of just getting boozy? For sure.
You just have to look back fondly and recognise that things have now changed, and probably for the better. But as a certain tour company's slogan puts it: no regrets.
What were the era-defining experiences from your backpacking days? Do they still exists? If not, why not? Are younger travellers doing things better now, or worse?
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