To most people, the word “backpacker” has a certain glamor. They imagine a great adventure, scenic mountain views and cozy little hotels or hostels meeting other interesting people. To be fair, this is not far from the mark. However, in many places that have exploded recently in popularity, the word inspires a certain derision in the local inhabitants. Be forewarned that your predecessors in these lands haven’t always had the best fashion nor particularly behavior standards.
If you want to step outside this stereotype and dig in with the locals, here is what you need to do.
In Southeast Asia, a backpacker can be spotted from a mile away. Typically they are clad in the following apparel: local beer company tank top (Bia Saigon, Bintang, etc.), garnish and horribly patterned quick-dry pants, and sandals matched with a generally unkempt appearance.
Many men choose this as a time to grow out their beards and their hair and this typically completes the look. A lot of locals laugh at this and will clump you into a generic backpacker category if this is how you choose to look.
A Little Ironic
There are two ironies to this. The first is that in trying to break away from their normal routine clothes, most backpackers are physically indistinguishable from one another. The second is that the backpacking experience is all about the opportunity to grasp freedom and see new things, this does not mean that you need to be free from a little personal hygiene and upkeep. So try to follow these rules.
Just dress normally. Wear what you would normally wear at home. If you go to most random villages in even the middle of nowhere, the people wear clothing we all have seen before, whether it is pants and a jacket in a cool climate or shorts and a t-shirt in a warm one.
Avoid “tribal” or “traditional” clothes for the obvious reasons that most locals don’t even dress that way and that there is just something nauseating about a westerner wearing an Asian bamboo conical hat—if you don’t understand why this is, then take ten minutes on Wikipedia reading about western colonialism. Chances are you are visiting a place that was once a European colony and nothing stirs old resentment like a white guy in a rickshaw.
For most people, they only get a chance to go backpacking once. Maybe they have saved up for months and finally quit that job they hated or maybe they have just finished school. Either way, it is rare opportunity to travel for an extended period of time.
For this reason, many see this as an opportunity to go unkempt. This may be tempting, but try to be honest with yourself. If your beard, is only some tangled patches on your face and you have fourteen-year-old boy mustache then maybe you should keep shaving.
Likewise with growing your hair out. It sounds stupid, but wash your face and comb your hair. If you have any aspirations of getting a date with someone in one of these countries and even if you don’t, you should maintain a respectable appearance. Same goes with all those cheap beers in hostel bars so try to get out and exercise when you can. Do it at least for yourself. Taking this time to keep yourself together will help keep you balanced as you have these life changing experiences.
For the love of God, you are a guest in whatever country you are in. Try to be a little respectful. If you a spending three weeks trekking across Myanmar then take ten minutes to learn basic courtesy words like please, thank you, hello, goodbye and so on.
This will not only make your life easier in basic transactions but convey to people that you actually care about their culture. Furthermore, respect norms. For example, many Buddhist temples have customs are clothing such as not exposing shoulders so take the time and put on a t-shirt.
Just Roll With It
True backpacking is about getting immersed in another culture. Be ready for whatever. Eat what is put in front of your and drink what you are given. DON’T BE PICKY! The reason you are on this trip is not to eat at McDonald’s or drink a cup of Starbucks (although both can be a little taste of heaven after a few weeks of no fast food), but to experience local culture.
Try the unfamiliar and always go for street foods. Don’t worry about the flies buzzing around or the unrefrigerated meat. You might suffer a few days of digestive discomfort, but the more you expose your body to this, the less likely that is to happen. Get a little dirt under your nails and enjoy!
Get Some Local Friends or Do it Yourself
More likely than not your hotel or hostel will be able to help you with your travel arrangements. Many of these places, however, are working on commission and if you want to save a little money or see somewhere actually worth seeing, you are going to have to do a little work.
Think about where you come from, would you go to the famous local tourist attraction or do you have some secret spot? The same rules apply.
When making travel bookings, go directly to the train or bus station. English may be an issue but you can download an offline dictionary of most languages onto your phone and you can always push through. Even if they don’t speak your same language, these places are used to travelers going to the same places so the ground has already been well-tread for you.
Further, get out to some bars and cafes or use Tinder or other apps to meet locals and ask for recommendations. Even if you have no romantic intentions, this can be a great way to know what places to check out. Don’t be shy. If you are hanging in a coffee shop for a couple hours, then try to ask the people next to you a few questions. You never know if you are sitting next to a gold mine of information.
It’s Pretty Simple
It’s not that hard. Dress decently, learn a few local words, be polite and break out of the backpacker bubble. If you do these things you really get off the typical track and discover something wonderful.