Every major city in Southeast Asia has a backpacker ghetto – Khao San Road in Bangkok, Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon, Boeng Kak Lake in Phnom Penh. For those of you who have spent time in this region, you know what we’re talking about.
No matter the country, the scenery is the same:
- travel agents with cheap transport and tours, usually on brightly painted buses
- shops bursting with pirated CDs and DVDs
- cheap restaurants offering quasi local and western food
- tattoo artists
- book vendors with the latest genuine recycled and knock-off Lonely Planet guides
- guesthouse lobbies showing reruns of Friends and recent movies on pirated DVD
- basic and cheap accommodation
- dreadlocks and pajama pants
- “We buy everything” signs from the latest entrepreneur taking advantage of a broke backpacker
While backpacker ghettos have their advantages – inexpensive food, accommodation and travel services confined to a small area, they can be a real disappointment. You don’t feel like you’re in the country you just spent all this effort to get to and foreign tourists outnumber locals who are jaded by tourism and address you with eyes glazed over.
Dreadlocked slackpacker trustafarians and uber-travelers, who in their own version of the “Amazing Race”, compete with everyone and serruptitiously lord over other travelers in their extraordinary ability to (fill in the blank):
- travel forever – “Oh, you are only traveling for one year? That’s a pity. I am on my fourth year, have visited 275 countries and have exhausted ten passports.”
- haggle – “You paid too much for that t-shirt” (subtext: I haggled a poverty-stricken Cambodian for this t-shirt and paid 25 cents less for it than you did).
- seek adventure – “Just yesterday I was airlifted to Everest base camp after a gun-run in the Panjshir Valley”
- endure dirt and odor – “I once went without a shower for 100 days…after I parachuted into the Hindu Kush.”
Getting out of the ghetto while the getting is good can make a big difference to your experience and sanity – Phra Athit Road vs. Khao San Road in Bangkok or Ben Thanh Market vs. Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon. Find a routine with the coffee, soup, dim sum or curry stands and make a connection with the locals.