PART ONE: PREAMBLE
I’m not going to be ANNOYING about this, but I lived in Asia for a couple of years. I taught for a year in South Korea right out of college, and I taught on a Fulbright Grant in Laos for a year after my Masters Program. The years immediately following my returns were spent processing. These experiences changed me and my relationship to the world, because obviously, and they became important in my early writing. My time in Korea was wild and educational and I would never trade that year, but it’s clear to anyone that knows me that Laos (Lao people, Lao language, Lao culture) was quite important. I am going to do my best to ensure that this doesn’t sound like a “white guy moves to Asia and becomes enlightened” story, because that isn’t it AT ALL. I did, however, fucking love my life there. Honestly, if you visit Laos and hate on the people and culture, you’re probably an asshole. There’s no other way to say it.
It has been said by many others, not just me, that Laos tends to have more chill per capita than anywhere else. This is notable in the Lao phrase, “boh pen nyang,” which is frequently used in a variety of situations. It means “it’s nothing.” Someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for a coffee, boh pen nyang, take it anyway. Somebody walks into you on the sidewalk, boh pen nyang. Even things as terrible as a death…boh pen nyang. Language and cultural and intertwined. Boh pen nyang is the bend don’t break mentality of many Lao people, despite immense hardship.
When I lived in Laos, I learned the language in intensive classes, interacted primarily with Lao people every day, with the exception of some of my amazing co-teachers and fellow Fulbrighters. I adopted a boh pen nyang attitude, the antithesis of my New England upbringing, because it was a natural extension of my everyday experiences. My students, who were college-aged but living in a city for the first time, perhaps seeing foreigners for the first time, weren’t always perfect with completing assignments or comprehending materials. Boh pen nyang. Sometimes they were absent because they had to return home for harvests or to help their parents plant rice or run a store. Boh pen nyang. During the rainy season, the precarious power grid would shut off for hours at a time. Boh pen nyang.
I am not saying I “integrated” or something like that. I felt taken care of and happy, but I was always an outsider, which is good. I didn’t want to infiltrate. I wanted to have an experience, to be as compassionate and generous as possible, and then leave my students and colleagues with more tools.
I noticed very quickly the proliferation of backpackers in the capital, Vientiane, where I lived. White European people with dreads and elephant pants, trudging the hot streets in sandals and an expensive backpack over their shoulders. They stuck out worse than I did, which is saying something. At least I wore SLACKS and cut my hair. These damn hippies! But seriously, there was something of a dismissal of backpackers by other expats, though rarely by Lao people. It was hard to get a straight answer about how Lao people felt with so many backpackers QUOTE “discovering” their country, because it isn’t part of Lao culture to judge outsiders and talk shit. But talking shit is part of MY culture. I’m from New England BAYBEEE. My friend Megster and I would sit around downtown Vientiane, have a few Beerlaos, and guess the various ethnicities of these strange, brief creatures. Assuming German, French, or Australian was always smart, but if you were lucky enough to hear them talk, you might get Irish, English, or, rarely, American.
I’m not saying that ALL backpackers are annoying. Absolutely not. I have technically done some backpacking, though my home base was still Laos, and I’ve met wonderful backpackers everywhere. At least in Laos, you’ll seldom meet a backpacker who doesn’t share a similar worldview (about politics, travel, compassion, etc). However, there is SO MUCH loaded into the backpacker lifestyle. It is impossible to consider backpacking in Southeast Asia without acknowledging legacies of colonialism and the continued exploitation of the global south. As an American who lived in Laos, I fully understand the tenuous and problematic nature of white people arriving peacefully. If you’re unaware, google “US secret war and bombing of Laos.” OR, examine the French colonization of what was called French Indochina but we now call Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. The world is better for Southeast Asia now than it has been in the past seventy years, this is undeniable, but this relationship with the outside world, opened by tourism and backpackers, is harmful in other ways.
Because I feel more comfortable and knowledgeable discussing backpackers in Asia, I’ll focus mainly on that. For Americans, who travel less than any other Western nation, Western Europe has always been a backpacking destination for decades, but I’m not focusing much on that. I’m not criticizing you if you had a great time drinking beer in Prague or whatever, but the idea of backpacking as discovery and adventure is mostly about the differences between what is described as Eastern and Western cultures. With increased access, places around the world are opened up to the positive and negative impacts of global tourism. South American backpacking is now quite popular with Westerners in what is known as “The Gringo Trail.”
When did this shit get started? Is it, like it often seems, a rich person’s galavanting through the world, blowing their parents’ money on equal parts yoga retreats and drug-laced cheap beer? Or is there something noble with this idea of selected nomadism, as most backpackers would tell you?
Part TWO: The first backpacker??
Brother, it is supposed that the first “tourist trip” around the world (that is, not for merchant shit or enslavement or “exploration”) was done by one of YOUR PEOPLE.
-Giovanni Careri circumnavigated the globe using only public transport between 1693-1698.
-He is suspected of being the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days
-Giovanni was a lawyer from Taurionova in Calabria. He also worked on some books before suspending his legal practice to travel the world. He didn’t have an established aristocratic origin and therefore grew frustrated with lawyering.
-Since he wasn’t from a fancy family, he needed to finance his trip through thrift and intelligent grifting. He did this by buying goods at one port that would enhance in value at the next port.
-His trip was FIVE YEARS LONG and sounds pretty fucking wild. It is the kind of voyage that would murder most modern people. There was a ton of time just sitting in boats, trying not to die of disease. Also, how’d he do this shit without podcasts? I don’t know. The good thing is that he left behind a book called Giro Del Mondo, published in 1699, that examines his trip in great detail. Apparently, scholars didn’t believe this book was authentic for a long time, but discoveries over the years have authenticated most of his experiences. This dude was legit.
-He apparently loved talking to people and learning about cultures. He was, it seems, the platonic ideal of what a backpacker should be.
-Regarding how to finance his trip, he gave this little piece of advice to would-be travelers: “at Bandar-Abbas on the Persian Gulf, he asserts, the traveler should pick up ‘dates, wine, spirits, and all the fruits of Persia, which one carries to India either dried or pickled in vinegar, on which one makes a good profit’”
-After crossing Armenia and Persia, he visited Southern India and entered China, where the Jesuit missionaries assumed that such an unusual Italian visitor could be a spy working for the pope. This fortuitous misunderstanding opened for Gemelli many of the most tightly closed doors of the country. He got to visit the emperor at Beijing, attended the Lantern Festival celebrations and toured the Great Wall.
-From Macau, Gemelli Careri sailed to the Philippines, where he stayed two months while waiting for the departure of a Manila galleon, for which he carried quicksilver, for a 300% profit in Mexico. In the meantime, as Gemelli described it in his journal, the half-year-long transoceanic trip to Acapulco was a nightmare plagued with bad food, epidemic outbursts, and the occasional storm.
-After leaving Mexico city he visited the city of Puebla de Los Angeles and several towns as he traveled to the port city of Veracruz, where he joined a Spanish fleet headed toward Cuba. After nearly five years of wandering around the world, Gemelli was finally on his way back to Europe when he joined the Spanish treasure fleet in Cuba.
-Shortly after Giovanni’s dope voyage, the concept of The Grand Tour rose to prominence among the elites of Europe and eventually, with the rise of industrialization, American oligarchs.
-The Grand Tour became a right of passage for rich losers in England and throughout Europe.
-It was a way to lend an air of sophistication and a LIBERAL EDUCATION to the traveler. They’d usually travel the mainland of Europe: France, Spain, Italy, Greece (the seats of antiquity), and go to Austria, Germany, etc.
-Pretty much, this was a way for fancy boys to be even fancier. I had to pull this quote, because it sums up what this shit was about: “The British idea of Venice as the "locus of decadent Italianate allure" made it an epitome and cultural set piece of the Grand Tour.”
-These goddamn decadent Italians! So decadent. They’re lazy, gross, and different, but boy oh boy do they like food and wine.
-To me, these “Grand Tours” seem like our modern equivalent of the rich American kid who studies abroad in Spain for a semester. They get to drink wine, stay out all night, learn some Spanish, and then talk about it as a strange mystical land for the rest of their lives. They can say things like “The Spanish just have it figured out, don’t they” and then work 60 hour weeks and never have a vacation.
-Mark Twain mocked the concept of an American Grand Tour in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad. In it, he joins a ship that stops in Western and Eastern Europe and The Holy Land. I haven’t read the book, but it seems to be very critical of how the “old world” is presented to Americans. It’s also kind of anti-Catholic, which is probably a remnant of America’s predominantly Protestant population. He criticizes the affluence of certain institutions in contrast to the destitution of the common people. “This is particularly apparent in the section of the book dealing with Italy, where the poverty of the lay population and the relative affluence of the church are contrasted.”
PART THREE: Where’d modern backpackers come from?
Modern backpackers as we know them didn’t arrive on the scene until much later. For obvious reasons, recreational travel was not available to most people until the invention of commercial air travel. For most of history, you could only afford to go overseas if you were super rich or had massive political power (which often coincides with being super rich!).
-Other than those select oligarchs, you traveled to emigrate or go kill some people in a stupid war.
-However, in the mid-1950’s, something called the Hippie Trail saw a large number of Westerners devote extended time to traveling as cheaply as possible.
-Common destinations in the east included Delhi, Varanasi (then Benares), Goa, Bombay, Madras, Kathmandu and Bangkok. Kathmandu still has a road, Jhochhen Tole, nicknamed Freak Street in commemoration of the many thousands of hippies who passed through. Further travel to southern India, Kovalam beach in Trivandrum (Kerala), to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), and points east and south to Australia was sometimes also undertaken.
-Here’s a quote from the wikipedia entry on the Hippie Trail. It sounds a whole lot like modern backpackers:
“To keep costs low, journeys were carried out by hitchhiking, or cheap, private buses that travelled the route. There were also trains that travelled part of the way, particularly across Eastern Europe through Turkey (with a ferry connection across Lake Van) and to Tehran or east to Mashhad, Iran. From these cities, public or private transportation could then be obtained for the remainder of the trip. The bulk of travellers were Western Europeans, North Americans, Australians, and Japanese. Ideas and experiences were exchanged in well-known hostels, hotels, and other gathering spots along the way, such as Yener's Café and The Pudding Shop in Istanbul, Sigi's on Chicken Street in Kabul or the Amir Kabir in Tehran. Many used backpacks and, while the majority were young, older people and families occasionally travelled the route. A number drove the entire distance.”
-The people on this trail tended to travel light and were willing to diverge from their original plans if something more interesting popped up. They’d go where the action was, or where they were vibing the most.
-There are a bunch of famous people who did parts of the Hippie Trail. We know that many beatniks, including one of my faves, Allen Ginsberg, traveled to South Asia for meditation and drug stuff. The Beatles famously went to India for an awakening and ended up producing a bunch of good shit as a result.
BUT all good things for hippies must come to an end. So too did the first iteration of the Hippie Trail. THE END OF THE TRAIL: “The hippie trail came to an end in the late 1970s with political changes in previously hospitable countries. In 1979, both the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan closed the overland South Asian route to Western travelers, and Chitral and Kashmir became less inviting due to tensions in the area. Meagan Day summarized that "radio stations in Iran swapped Blue Öyster Cult for speeches by Ayatollah Khomeini." Other factors that led to difficult conditions for travelers were the Saur Revolution (1978), and the advent of a military dictatorship in Pakistan (1977) that banned many hippie attractions.”
PART FOUR: The Banana Pancake Trail
This is the trail that I lived on. Honestly, I didn’t know it was called “The Banana Pancake Trail” but it makes sense. I always called it “The Falang Trail” because that’s the word for “foreigner” in Lao.
-It’s called the Banana Pancake Trail because these trails pop up when an influx of Western backpackers to an area leads to a rise in the number of restaurants serving food adapted to Western desires which includes banana pancakes and other Western comfort foods such as yogurt with muesli and honey. I can speak from experience: in the main tourist hotspots in Laos, there are predominantly Western food options with a few Lao dishes thrown in. In places like Vang Vieng, one of the most beautiful places in the world in my opinion, you can more easily get a chicken/bacon sandwich than Laab and sticky rice.
-The banana pancake trail isn’t very fleshed out, kind of like the Hippie Trail, but it refers loosely to Southeast Asian backpacking trails in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It is a conglomeration of spots around Southeast Asia that saw a lot of Western tourism and began to accommodate them because they wanted to make money! Pretty standard. Appeal to the market’s demands.
-The origins of these trails, much like the name, aren’t 100% certain, but it rose to prominence sometime in the nineties once places like Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam become more “friendly” to Western visitors. In case you’ve forgotten, the region was heavily destabilized by the American offensives in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the region hadn’t recovered (see, Cambodian Genocide) until well into the early nineties. Cambodia and Laos were much more closed to tourism until decades after the conflicts. Remember, Laos and Cambodia are still two of the poorest nations on earth, so to say that they’re “recovered” isn’t entirely true. However, they are peaceful and mostly safe (unless you count diarrhea, malaria, and auto wrecks as a danger, which you might!).
-Banana Pancake trails seem to sprout from “Guide Book Travel,” which guides people to the well-known spots rather than sending them off on an adventure into the unknown. Backpackers meet up on well-trod ground, drink, talk, do drugs, and hang out shirtless (even in places where that isn’t the custom).
-To bring up Vang Vieng one more time: Vang Vieng, Laos, a breathtaking mountain village surrounded by rivers, earned a reputation as a somewhat lawless Backpackers paradise. That is, of course, until several Australian backpackers died while tubing on the river and jumping off of clearly marked UNSAFE rocks. Right before I arrived in Vang Vieng, the Lao government had limited tourism there because of how many backpackers had taken drugs, drank a bunch of Beerlao’s, and drowned in the river. I won’t blame either party, whether it was the uncontrolled drugs and corrupt law enforcement, or the recklessness of backpackers feeling invincible in a tiny, poor country, most likely a combination of both, but this kind of shit isn’t uncommon.
Thailand: Bangkok (with its famous Khao San Road), Chiang Mai, Pai, Kanchanaburi, Krabi, and many of the islands, including Phuket, Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan (with its world-infamous Full Moon Party), Ko Phi Phi, Koh Lipe, and Koh Chang
The most common route passes through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City via Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, as well as Phnom Penh and the Mekong Delta. Also people go north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and hill-tribe villages, continuing to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in Laos. Also many head from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, via popular stops being Hoi An and Huế.
-You notice some interesting stuff as an expat in Southeast Asia, mostly that backpackers often try their best but can miss the mark. I don’t entirely fault them for that. It’s difficult to learn enough of the two-four languages and multiple customs necessary in a SEAsia banana pancake trail, but this speaks to a larger discussion of conscious travel. I don’t think that backpackers head to Southeast Asia with malicious intent. They want to see different places and meet cool people. Who doesn’t! However, if you head into these countries without an understanding of the complex recent history of western aggression, then you’re being kind of a dick.
-One thing I noticed on my last trip to Laos was the proliferation of Korean backpackers. Southeast Asia makes up about 54% of all South Korean international destinations. What’s funny is how all backpackers, regardless of nationality, adopt the backpacker aesthetic. Headbands, bead bracelets, elephant pants, dreads, strappy sandals.
My favorite do/don’t helper for travelers to Laos. https://explorelao.com/do-dont/
PART FIVE: Is backpacking good or bad?
I ask this question for the clickbait! Obviously there isn’t a correct answer. To many people in the West, backpacking through Europe or South and Southeast Asia sounds like an absolute dream. Months with no definitive destination, sex with random hot foreigners you meet at hostels and backpacker bars (AKA TRAIL TAIL), smart progressive young people all looking to find something spiritual and social and pure.
-In an ideal world, this is a noble cause. We all have, somewhere in our blood, a nomadic urge to travel in peace. It is stronger in some than others, but it's there. Clearly, it has been a part of global society for centuries. Coupled with that peaceful travel, however, is the devastation of imperialism. Outsiders around the world have traveled with malice, swinging swords or flying bombers, intent on theft and destruction. I’m not so sure the two can be evenly split. Yes, the intentions are totally different, but the privilege to be a backpacker relies on your nation’s relationship to colonization.
-As an American, or a German, Brit, French person, I could get to most destinations. If I was from Nigeria, OR Vietnam, even if I had the money, the process wouldn’t be so simple. And once I arrived, I wouldn’t be able to tote my white privilege around. Backpacking, although available to many more people than ever before, is still the purview of privileged people from colonizing countries. This sucks, but it’s a harsh truth.
-With that privilege comes responsibility to NOT be a piece of trash, to spend your money WISELY and generously, to learn languages, customs, and general etiquette, and to stay as safe as possible so you don’t overburden healthcare systems that are barely built to accommodate citizens of that country.
-The other important truth in examining the “goodness” of backpacking is the role of tourist money in local economies. Many places have become entirely reliant on these funds to support their communities. Without backpackers eating banana pancakes and drinking thousands of local lagers, some places would struggle to survive. I don’t think this is sustainable in the long term, but nothing about our economies are. This whole thing is a sham, anyway. In the short term, you have to acknowledge that backpackers bring tons of money to people who need it.