Before we left on our trip, and for far too long at the start of it, I spent much of my time worrying about whether or not I would be a good backpacker. I read post after post on backpacking forums where travellers posted the contents of their backpacks only to be laughed at in the comments . More than two pairs of trousers was scoffed at. Two pairs of shoes? Forget it! “You’re bringing a hairdryer? Are you off to India or Ibiza love?”, “65 litre bag?? I travelled around South America for 2 years with a bumbag of underpants and a passport!”. If you’re preparing for a trip of your own, or have already been through this stage, then you might have found yourself in the same boat. One filled with judgement and insecurity – worried you’ll stick out like a sore thumb as you make your way through hostels around the world.
The impression I got from various blogs and forums was that one has to be part Bear Grylls and part tie-dye-vest-and-elephant-pants-wearing hippie to be considered a true, bonafide backpacker. Packing a hair dryer, wearing make-up or fashionable clothes, and basically just caring about your appearance was too superficial to be a ‘real’ backpacker. Eating at a western restaurant instead of having local food every day was a sin. Bringing your mobile phone meant you wouldn’t be enjoying the experience. Taking photos for social media meant you didn’t care about the sights you were seeing. Planning too much or too little meant you were missing out. Moving too quickly or too slowly meant you were missing out. It was a minefield.
Well, I’ve been backpacking for over two years now and have travelled through many different countries, meeting every different type of backpacker you can imagine along the way. And I have to tell you something: NONE of those things matter. None of them make you a good or bad backpacker, and if anyone judges you for doing any of them then it says a hell of a lot more about that person than it does about you.
In my opinion there are two things that make you a good backpacker: Respect and Kindness. Respect for the local culture and the environment, and kindness towards the people and the animals you encounter along the way. These are what will make you a great backpacker and an awesome traveller – and they’re far more important than whether you’re carrying a suitcase instead of a backpack or eating pizza for lunch!
Read on for my tips on being a real good backpacker!
Respect the local culture
Did you know that in Thailand it’s rude to show people the bottom of your feet, a thumbs up is equivalent to sticking out your tongue at someone, and it’s very offensive to criticize a member of the royal family? In China it’s good manners to leave a little bit of food on your plate as it shows your host that they fed you enough. If you’re in Laos and someone offers you water, it is polite to accept it even if you are not thirsty. When you’re in Vietnam it is custom to use both hands to pass money – and you should never pass anything over someones head! In the Philippines beckoning someone with a finger is a derogatory gesture only used for dogs, so you should use your whole hand to call someone over. In Japan you shouldn’t eat or drink on public transportation, and slurping your bowl of noodles loudly is a sign you’re appreciating your food. All across South East Asia it’s polite take off your shoes before you go inside a building, never stick your chopsticks upright in your food, bring a small, wrapped gift when visiting someones home (although it is seen as rude to open a gift in front of the giver so they will open it once you have left), and you should never raise your voice – even when you’re in a dispute.
You might not see written signs telling you these things, and if you do them local people most likely won’t say anything to be polite – but unbeknownst to you, you may have offended them. Respecting local culture doesn’t just mean abiding by obvious rules and not doing anything to get into trouble, it means taking the time to find out about these smaller, but still very important customs and traditions. After all, isn’t this why we travel? To learn about the world and broaden our horizons. Arrive in each new country with an open mind and a willingness to learn, and you will leave each new place with a better understanding of the people and the culture.
Respect The Environment
Protecting and taking care of the environment doesn’t stop when you leave your house. I’m sure there are many people that recycle back home but think nothing of buying 6 plastic bottles of water each day in Asia and sticking them in a bin somewhere along the street. In most of the countries we’ve been to environmental awareness is really low – people still burn their rubbish and in a convenience store you’ll be given plastic bag after plastic bag even if you’re just buying a bar of chocolate. Be mindful of how much plastic you use, and get into the habit of refusing plastic straws and bags when you can.
Littering is a huge problem across SE Asia, and it’s difficult when you arrive at a beautiful waterfall to see plastic bottles and bags all over the ground and people dropping more packets around you. Look after the natural beauty of the places that you visit and don’t litter – but take it one step further and remove litter that you do see. I’ve made it a habit to bring a bag with me when we hike and if I do see things lying around I pick them up and take them with me.
Too often it’s easy to go along with the local way of doing things – but what if people are doing harmful things to the earth simply because they don’t know any better? You can help to educate people as you travel, and even if you can’t clean up every waterfall and mountain, you can help to not make them worse.
Remember – ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’!
Be Kind To Animals
Elephant riding, playing with tiger cubs and monkeys, riding dolphins and swimming with whale sharks are popular tourist attractions across South East Asia and in other parts of the world. Most people don’t want to face it, but by taking part in these activities you are contributing to animal abuse. Take elephants for example, they aren’t a naturally submissive animal so they are made to submit to humans by going through a process known as “the crush” – where baby elephants are taken from their mothers and forced into a training process that can include being restrained and beaten for several weeks. Yet a common phrase I hear from travellers is ‘I really love elephants so I want to ride one’. They don’t understand how harmful it really is.
Elephants are not meant to be ridden or painted, tiger cubs aren’t meant to be drugged so that they can be posed with for pictures, and whale sharks and manta rays shouldn’t be herded close to shore so that humans can swim with them. I’m sure a lot of tourists know taking part in these activities is probably not great, but think “everyone else is doing it so it’s fine”.
As travellers, we are responsible for finding out if an activity is harmful to animals and avoiding it if it is – we can no longer claim ignorance and turn a blind eye to the abuse while claiming to care about animals. The general rule I go by is that if you’re allowed to touch, ride upon, paint, or hand feed the animal then it should be avoided.
There are lots of places you can go to interact with animals that can really help them: rehab centers, animal shelters, sanctuaries etc. Here you can visit for a day or volunteer longer term to help care for, protect and rehabilitate these animals. Here is a list of ethical animal tourism in southeast asia, the 10 Best Sanctuaries Worldwide, Ethical Elephant Sanctuaries in Thailand, 5 Ethical Animal Sanctuaries Across Asia. It’s easy to find out online if an activity is condoned by animal rights groups, check out the WWF foundationor local animal groups online to find out.
Be Kind To People
When you’re on the road, away from your family, friends and home comforts, a little kindness goes a long way. I can distinctly remember times when a small act by another backpacker has made my day immeasurably better. The two British girls we met on a train in Sri Lanka who, after hearing how long we were away from home for, gave me a packet of hula hoops and some squash so that I would have a taste of home. Friends of friends of friends who welcomed us into their homes when we needed a place to stay and looked after us like we were family. People who heard that we were feeling homesick and offered any advice they had from their own experiences, or just a shoulder to cry on. I might not meet most of these people again but I won’t forget their kindness when I really needed it.
Travelling can be an isolating experience, and can leave us all feeling lost, alone and homesick at one point or another. Showing kindness and support to people you meet along your trip is something that will make you not only a great backpacker, but also an awesome human being. A little act of kindness to someone who needs it goes a very long way when you’re a very long way from home.
Respect and be kind to yourself
To be the best backpacker you can be, you’ve got to be true to yourself and what you want. Along with being kind to people, nature and animals, be kind to yourself while you travel. Everyone has their own travelling style and you’ve got to figure out your own way, which will take time. It’s really important to remember that doing things differently doesn’t mean doing things wrong, that even the most well travelled paths were first carved out by someone taking a chance.
Stay where you like, eat where you like and pack how you want to. If you love make-up then bring as many products as you like, if you love music then bring your instrument, if you are into fitness then bring some equipment in your pack. Pack every piece of your personality into that backpack and carry it proudly – all 65-plus liters of it.
I really hope this post will help anyone who is feeling the same pressure I was feeling before I left. I’ve learned so much about travelling over the past few years and I’m still learning now. Don’t worry about doing everything right immediately, arrive in a new country with an open mind and treat everyone and everything you encounter with kindness and respect and you will be doing a great job already.
Happy travels, and thanks for reading!