Backpack without Being a “Backpacker”

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.

The Hobbiton

If you want to step outside this stereotype and dig in with the locals, here is what you need to do.

The Look

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.

Agness

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.

Attire

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.

yoga pose at bagan temple

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.

Appearance

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.

picnic in the street

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.

Behavior

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.

Breakfast in Seagull cafe

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.

Jet skiing on Thulusdhoo island

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.

Interacting with locals

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.

Birds park in Kuala Lumpur

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. 

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22 Comments

  • good tips! a few words in the local language is a must!

    Except in Poland of course! That language is impossible to get your tongue around!!! :P

    But seriously, it’s been 13 years since I went to Poland and I remember trying to learn a few words. i had some friends in Krakow. And every attempt I made result in riotous laughter. :/

  • Great post, it gave me a chuckle. Travelling has become so much easier now with so much information out there and some great apps that are very helpful. This site, for instance, is a great source of info :) “just roll with it”…I agree…relax and enjoy :)

  • Fun post to read particularly now as we’re traveling throughout Europe and we see SO many young kids with two backpacks, one in front, one in back, traveling together. It’s summer so of course it’s high season, but it’s fun to sit back and watch how they travel in comparison to how us “old folks” travel. There are actually a few similarities and I will admit to ordering from Starbucks – often! :)

  • ‘Such a funny piece, but yet so true. I really liked it especially when you said “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.”

    It’s amazing what travellers wear when abroad!

    ‘Remember when I went to Taiwan last year and wore dresses and ankle boots? Somebody asked me why I was dressed like that, and wouldn’t it be too warm? Er. No, it wasn’t too warm as I went in October! And why wouldn’t I be wearing a nice dress, or should I be wearing a tank top and shorts or something? I don’t dress in a tank-top in Berlin where I live, so why would I wear a bikini in Taiwan?

    I usually wear dresses and ankle boots at home, so that was what I wore! And between you and me, the locals couldn’t do enough to help me and welcome me whenever I got lost or needed some help. :D

  • I normally just wear a pair of trousers and regular type shirt (usually cooler than T-shirts). If it’s cool, a light jacket. If it’s raining – water ;)

  • Great article guys.

    We live in sydney and the backpacker district is not far from our apartment, in fact we often see the orientation course the backpacker travel companies use for the new arrivals. And why is it that all backpackers seem to want be experts at Hackersacks and slacklines.

    My advice when travelling in larger cities, if you want to avoid being approached for money or worst still the victim of crime, is to dress normally, walk with purpose, and to not look in awe at EVERYTHING you see (like your head is spinning like a top).

    looking forward to your next post

    Shaun and Mark

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