I wrote a few months ago about my first ever trip to Bangkok – such a long time ago! I came here on a multi-month, round-the-world backpacking trip, the second stop of many more to come as I headed ever westward from Japan, on to India, the Middle East, and Europe. I was motivated to do such a journey after reading The Frugal Globetrotter by Bruce Northam – and perhaps, as Ulysses Everett McGill might say – I was looking for answers. I had done all the things people are supposed to do in their 20s – marriage, college, career path, home ownership (divorce, depression, financial stress) – and just wasn’t feeling like that was all it’s cracked up to be.
For me, the object was to stay gone for as long as possible on my limited funds, while soaking up the maximum amount of foreign culture along the way. I wouldn’t say my quest was spiritual, but I was definitely looking for better answers to life’s questions than what I had found so far. As Johnny Cash so aptly says in The Wanderer:
I went out there in search of experience
To taste and to touch and to feel’s as much
As a man can before he repents
So I bought some hikers and a rucksack, a couple of Lonely Planet guidebooks (with copious notes scribbled from many others at the bookstore), bought a couple of one-way plane tickets, and started my adventure. I never took taxis or ate western food, seldom enjoyed an air-con room or an ice cold beer. I wasn’t actually trying to deny myself and live ascetically – I just didn’t want to run out of money and be forced to head home any sooner than I had to. But, to my surprise, one of the great and satisfying consequences of doing my trip this way is that I got to experience those countries in much the same way that a local might, enjoying an authenticity that just can’t be had zipping by in a tour group.
I hiked all over Tokyo, figured out the local buses in Bangkok, took third-class trains in India, borrowed a horse to ride around the Great Pyramids instead of paying tourist prices for a camel – and generally had one hell of an adventure. I can honestly say it changed my life – I’ve spent the great majority of the years since then living and working abroad. If I had spent the same amount of money on a couple of weeks in Hawaii – while that is still a trip I’d like to do at some point – it would’ve just been a vacation.
It wasn’t exactly the Hippie Trail, but there was a great sense of camaraderie with fellow travelers I met, pretty much all of whom had the same idea and approach to travel that I had – we were in it for the long haul. I’m sure there were regular tourists out there, buying the copy watches and fake Dior in Kowloon, paying 20 bucks a cocktail at Roppongi’s nightclubs, enjoying roof-top pools out on Sukhumvit Road. But cloistered away in our backpacker ghettos, we just weren’t a part of that group, mentally or financially. It wasn’t about a two-week frenzy of doing the tourist rounds, it was about being on the road. I mean, being on the road, dude!
Now I’m going to sound like an old guy pining for the good old days here – but I just don’t see much of the long-haul backpacker anymore. I’m seeing many more rolling suitcases – rollies for crying out loud! – amongst the younger set. They don’t travel solo or even in pairs, but in groups, chauffeured from place to place in mini-vans provided by tour agencies back at home. Few are looking for the cheapest possible dorm bed; air-con, wifi, and a swimming pool are the biggest draws now. There’s no need to sit around the guesthouse in the evening gathering information from travelers who’ve just come from where you’re going next – you’re just going home after your two weeks are up, and if you’re not, well that’s what the Internet is for. No need to find someone to listen to your wild travel stories – you’ve already posted them on Facebook. I see almost zero interaction between travelers who didn’t already know each other before arriving.
Here in Bangkok, the guesthouse operators have changed their accommodations accordingly, responding to the demands of these new ‘flashpackers’. There are many more ‘resorts’ in the Khao San Road area, with all the amenities of a 4-star hotel, while those cheap, fan-only rooms are harder and harder to find. Pizza, tacos, apple pie – even tapas – are readily available everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s been a couple of decades since I came here for the first time, and in my dotage, I find that I enjoy tasty tucker and fluffy beds as much as the next guy. I’ve got knees that ache and ankles that blow out now even when I’m not carrying 40 pounds on my back. But I wouldn’t trade those first experiences of the world – for the world – and I can’t help but feel those who fly in and fly out for a fortnight are missing out.
Visiting a dozen countries in one go, on the slow, had an incredible effect on me. It began to dawn on me that there are other plausible ways of conducting one’s life than the few choices one’s own culture presents. There are countries where people wouldn’t dream of getting a credit card, going into debt, or bringing anything into their homes that wasn’t paid for. Families who make a point to eat every evening meal together. Career choices that have a lot more to do with fulfillment than with money. Other cultures have answers that go beyond just working harder or spending more. Spirituality that involves so much more than going to a service on Sunday or voting for a particular party.
These are lessons that perhaps we’ve forgotten at home – it seems I had to travel to remember them.
The differences between a journey and a tour are immense. Yeah, if you’ve only got a couple of weeks, for sure get yourself half-way ’round the globe and check it out. But better still, find a way to make that journey.
I’ve just purchased Bruce Northam’s newest book – The Directions to Happiness – I’ll review it here soon.