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The Mekong River (Laos), February 23rd 2009
The time that a backpacker was somebody who travelled the world with his or her backpack in search of unknown destinations and adventures, is a long way behind us. The backpacker of today has become part of a worldwide community. Being a backpacker has reached some kind of cult status. Backpackers are not travelling anymore to explore the world, but to say that they are backpacker.
The big question is: are you a backpacker or not? Travelling with a backpack is no guarantee anymore to be one. But who is a backpacker? In the first place is a backpacker somebody who chooses his travel destination depending on the presence of a backpackers scene. Countries that are hot at this moment in Southeast Asia are among others Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and also parts of India. If you ask these guys if they also considered countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Philippines or Indonesia, they stare at you with open mouth. You hear them thinking: “there is nothing to do in those countries, is it?”. When a backpacker reaches his destination, he looks always for a hotel or guesthouse in the so-called backpacker’s ghetto. This is the area in the city where all backpackers clot. The hotel rooms in these areas are characterized by small windowless cells with paper thin walls in where you will find a bed and fan. The shared bathrooms are often so dirty, that your feet will stick to the floor. But it is understandable, because a real backpacker travels on a tight budget. Everything is too expensive. Also the food must be cheap. They unravel the Lonely Planet guidebook in search for the cheapest street stalls and restaurants where they sell cheap fried rice or noodles. The only things that are allowed to cost a little bit more are the beers and joints.
The backpacker’s ghetto is also the place to do something about your looks. After all, you are not only a backpacker in your heart, but you also want to have the looks. You want that other backpackers can see that you are part of the group. So, at the evening of your arrival, you will visit the local tourist market in search of a new outfit. An absolute must for women is the so-called ‘turd catcher’. It is a wide airy cotton pair of trousers, often in striking colours or designs, of which the crotch hangs on the knees. On top of that, you wear a tight sexy shirt with as much flesh as possible. Wearing a bra is not necessary. The men choose massively for a shorts (preferable with a Hawaii design), with on top of that a ‘funny’ t-shirt or a shirt with a print of the local beer brand. A funny t-shirt is a t-shirt with a funny text on it. If you can not laugh about these texts, you are probably not (yet) a backpacker. The choice for the footwear is simple: flip-flops. But this is not all yet. The first step is to be dressed as a backpacker, but you also want to radiate that you are a long term traveller. Nobody wants to be a freshman. Men have an advantage. The can grow a beard. The longer the beard the better, because it proves that you are already on the road for a while. And as a bonus: female backpackers ‘love’ male backpackers with a beard. And that is funny, because if you have such a beard back home in the West, the same women will find you a pig or a computer nerd. Another strategy is to have coal black foot soles. This shows that you are already wearing you flip-flops for a while. If you are still working on these things, there is a last possibility. Just dress untidily. Be sure to wash your clothes only once in a while and take care of some tears in your shirt or trousers. You will really look like an experienced backpacker.
A backpacker is often also characterised by the fact that they left the protection of mother’s wings for the first time. There is also no father who can correct the deeds of the often young adults. They are really free for the first time of their lives. The backpacker with courage seizes this opportunity to take a tattoo. Some are smart a take only a small butterfly on their shoulder or on one of the ankles, but others really want to have a remembrance of their life as backpacker. They choose for a spider web or a couple of Chinese signs in their neck. The less heroic backpackers are only taking a henna tattoo or are buying some knotted bracelets for their wrists or ankles, of course with some profound meaning. A meaning that is not understood by non-backpackers.
The main goal of the backpacker is, as mentioned before, not to explore the world and learn about different cultures. So, interaction with local people is avoided as much as possible. That is the reason why you choose as much as possible for backpackers-busses. These are the busses that are way too expensive, but that do pick you up at your hotel and that you share with other backpackers. But in the unfortunate situation that you have to take a local bus, you seclude yourself as much as possible from the local people by wearing your Rayban sunglasses and putting the earphones of your iPod in your ears. Subsequently you sink unashamed in your seat, and put your feet with coal black soles, at the arm rest of the seat in front of you. Don’t forget to put your daypack on the seat next to you, to decrease the chance that a local will occupy it. Backpackers are also indifferent to local beliefs and traditions. If you see for example a sign at the entrance of the temple where they ask you to dress properly (no shorts and shirts that cover the shoulders), just ignore it. You know that it is the local custom, but you are of the opinion that they can not ask it from you with these kinds of high temperatures.
At the end of the day you go to an internet café, because you have to maintain your circle of ‘friends’. Facebook is the way to do it. You can tell your friends about the adventures you had, upload some pictures of you, your new backpacker friends and your new tattoo or dreadlock hairdo. So, it is the perfect way to promote your backpackers image. And that is important. Because if your friends are unaware of your backpacker’s adventures, you’d better stayed at home.