Don’t let the giant backpack fool you—just because they carry their life on their back for a couple of months as they go, it doesn’t make them a traveler. Just because they stay in cheap hostels without the comforts of home, it doesn’t make them a traveler. Even if they opt for the 20-hour bus rides over the flights, it still doesn’t necessarily make them a traveler.
Yes, you can spot the classic white-privileged tourist with the high socks and camera around his neck from a mile away, staying at the nicest villa in the most impoverished corner of the world looking for an exotic vacation in an undeveloped environment. Those who never leave their comfort zone, usually indulge, and always spend without a worry of the footprint they’re leaving behind.
However, there’s also the hidden tourist. The one without the large budget and with a different façade. And it might be you. I’m talking about the privileged, party backpackers.
In my travels across Southeast Asia I’ve unfortunately come across these shameless, selfish, and disrespectful tourists under the traveler’s guise far too often. They are indeed backpackers and they are keeping costs low—arguably lower than myself. And yet, their main motivation is to see and to have fun.
While it might not sound like much of a crime to want to enjoy yourself on your travels, allow me to explain. When you got to a new part of the world you are an outsider. You are coming to a foreign land and you are surrounded by new people, new foods, new culture, and new sites, all of which are someone else’s way of life. You are in someone’s home even if you’re not physically in their house.
A traveler relishes in the opportunity to meet these new people, try new foods, embrace the culture, and visit the sites. A traveler cares about the community and this new special world they are lucky enough to experience. And most importantly, a traveler understands the responsibilities and rewards of respecting this new world.
Alternately, touring as a tourist inherently implies an invisible wall separating them from the land, people, and culture they are visiting. They may not understand this, and in their pursuit of fun and enjoyment there is a disregard for this new world that they may not even be aware of. They are going to see for their own benefit, whereas the traveler goes to experience and immerse.
Within this grey area of tourists versus travelers comes the party backpackers. And I admit that I get it: You saved money, you worked hard, and now you want to reward yourself with a trip to the other side of the world where the alcohol is cheap, the views are beyond your wildest imagination, and food is a culinary experience. You want to chill, you want to drink, maybe do some drugs, and you want to live your best life.
However, there’s a fine line between enjoying yourself and enjoying yourself at the expense of the people, places, and things around you.
Picture this: a boat-trip down the Mekong River. The scenery is lush and inspiring, the boat is a more glamorous version of a wooden log, and you have all day to enjoy the zephyr as you cruise along the river.
This was the beautiful route I chose to get from the Thailand/Laos border to the city of Luang Prabang. For six hours I had time to relax, enjoy a couple of cold beers, read, meet some amazing new people, and experience this route that so many throughout history have taken before me.
And yet, stumbling onto the boat at 8 a.m. already drunk and each with a bag of beers in hand was a group of five backpackers. Loud, rowdy, and making a commotion on their way down the boat, they sat down next to me. Within minutes they were smoking cigarettes, without using anything for an ashtray and throwing the butts into the Mekong. At one point, one girl stuck her toe in a guy’s mouth while he was napping. Another flashed the entire vicinity while she voluntarily showed off her “flexibility.” It wasn’t long before one girl started crying hysterically and another was passed out on the floor. One vomited over the boat’s side and one even fell overboard trying to dance on the tables.
Sharing their travel stories unprompted, it was clear that this was normal behavior and that every destination was an opportunity for drinking, chilling, and “having fun.” Getting off the boat was a disgusting mess of garbage, cigarette ash, and sticky floors from spilled beer.
While for some of you this might be reminiscent of spring break, or normal behavior on a night out, I’m here to perhaps controversially tell you that you are in the wrong.
Just because you paid for your boat ticket and you have enough money to buy as much beer as you want does not make you better than the locals that are servicing you nor does it give you authority to destroy the property you think you paid for. You are not better than anybody else just because you have more money. And you are certainly not entitled to behave like an idiot because you are trying to have fun.
If you want to get smashed and party, GO HOME. You can do those things there. You don’t need to travel around the world and be in a new place to act in the same way you would at home. If you don’t want to open yourself up to what’s around you and you are not responsible enough to treat traveling like the biggest privilege in the world, then you my friend, are a really shitty tourist.
I’m not saying you can’t get drunk while you’re traveling and that you can’t let loose. But there are certainly times and places where and when it is appropriate. But it’s not all the time and it’s not everywhere.