Backpackers are everywhere in South East Asia. In addition to viewing the sites, experiencing transportation and enjoying the challenge of conversing with locals, one other reoccurring theme in our wayfaring is running into other backpackers. Travel forums, guidebooks and the ever-present Lonely Planet have helped make traveling possible and affordable for any kind of budget. Some are charming; some are odious. But in general, our interactions follow some basic guidelines. Here’s a brief rundown of our Backpackers Code of Conduct.
1. Recognize what kind of backpacker you are
Backpackers are a sub-category of general tourism, which can be further be categorized into many subsets. Here are some examples:
• Young party animal hostel-goers
• hard-core perma-backpackers with dreads and/or facial hair
• broke youths on vacation
• flashpackers who drink cocktails instead of beers
• robust retirees on an adventure
• 30-something job jumpers
It is important to recognize which sub-type you belong to in order to direct your research, tailor conversations with others and avoid any unpleasant surprises or disappointed expectations if you decide to travel with others.
2. Greet other backpackers
A friendly nob, a knowing smile, a warm “hello!” (always in English, the international travelers’ language) is a sufficient way to acknowledge the presence of other travelers without committing yourself to a full conversation or sharing a taxi. Completely ignoring fellow backpackers, particularly in an area with few tourists seems elitist and lame.
3. Eavesdrop on other backpackers…
…while pretending not to eavesdrop, obviously. You can first try to deduce their country or from which part of the world they come. You also might pick up juicy tips of where to go, or the best price to score a tuk-tuk. Usually you can also amuse yourself by figuring out which ‘type’ of backpacker they are (see #1).
4. Play the “where do you think they’re from” game
We loved playing this in international airports, but it’s infinitely more fun when everyone around is dirty, sweaty and wearing some version of the same silk pants on sale in Vietnam for about $4. Since everyone speaks at least passable English, it’s helpful to able to talk about people within earshot in a second language – French, our language of choice, can be treacherous due to the huge amount of Frenchies that (also) seem to be backpacking around Asia.
5. Strike up a conversation if they seem cool/nice/interesting/useful
A typical conversation will probably start with sharing your experience, whether similar or completely opposite, at the same site/location/village/city/transportation. Then you’ll ask where each other is from (our French/American status often causes momentary confusion). Then will come the inevitable question that all backpackers use to compare themselves to others: how long are you travelling? The usual follow-up includes listing which countries you’ve visited thus far, and where you’re planning to go next. In most cases, you can continue trading travel stories for several minutes (or hours). You might even meet some kindred spirits that you’ll hang out with for a few days.
6. Enjoy when you cross paths again
I was pretty convinced that most of these fleeting friendships would remain just that – a moment of pleasant contact with people we’d probably never see again. After all, we have our own agenda, budget, pace and path. Now, after 3 months traveling in South East Asia, I am surprised to report that we’ve see and re-seen at least 10 or so fellow backpackers. When you see a familiar face on the road, it’s weird and really exciting (if you like them), or awkward (if you didn’t). As one example, we shared an insanely crowded bus crossing the border between Cambodia and Laos with a smiley couple from France who friendly, had similar travel expectations as us and were outfitted head to toe in Quechua. We later ran into them some weeks and 2,000 kilometers later in a remote village in Northen Laos. Small world!
7. Names are hard to remember
You may have an entire conversation with someone without asking his or her name. Or, they may have an inpronounciable slavic name. Or you just may be suffering from traveler’s short-term memory syndrome where you can only keep details – like names of obscure villages, or how to say “thank you” in the local tongue – in your head as long as they are immediately useful. The names of all the great people you’ve met will probably slip out of your brain quicker than you expect. When referring to people, Seb and I come up with nick-names (ex: Quechua couple) or just refer to people using this formula: nationality + distinguishing detail (ex: those Swiss girls who kept chowing Oreos, or that Australian guy who loaned us a bottle opener).
8. If someone’s in a bind, help out
Out trip across the Cambodia-Laos borer was pretty rough. After several bumpy, sweaty hours in a mini-bus, we were dropped off at a roadside shack with nine other travelers. Following the Backpackers Code of Conduct, we observed each other and had some discreet conversations as we waited for our connecting bus. When an already full-of-locals bus pulled up and told us this was our ride, we all looked incredulous and annoyed. After many minutes of rearranging and squeezing, we did our best to accommodate all our bodies and luggage. We actually broke out into applause when they finally were able to secure the bags and shut the door. Comfortable, it was not. But it was a funny way to break the ice and we all spent the 2-hour trip talking enthusiastically to our neighbor (or the person setting on our lap).
If you see someone struggling to place their pack in the overhead rack, help out. If someone is on their last drop of water on a blistering hike, share your extra bottle. If you see someone short just 5 baht (about 10 cents), hand over a coin. Traveling is hard enough as it is. You will surely be grateful when someone helps you out.
9. Don’t steal stuff
Whoever the douchebag is on Koh Tao who stole my Birkenstocks, I’m talking to you. Backpackers are on a set budget and travel with a very limited stuff, so they probably really need whatever they’re packing. Don’t steal. Also, those Birks were perfectly formed to my huge pie-slice shaped feet, so good luck with that…