Backpacker Ghettos

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.

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  1. Cameron says

    The uber-travelers are exceptionally irritating…they don’t seem to realize that everyone is has their own experiences at their own pace and within their own budget, it’s not a freakin contest! I just recently got back from a week in Prague (it was my boyfriend’s first European trip, my fourth) and we were cornered by a group of them in the airport who were seemingly appalled about how few/what unexciting trips we’d been on. We live in New York, for God’s sake; we can only afford to travel so often!

    We’re used to the trustafarians though. Except here they masquerade as hipsters…

  2. says

    @Cameron: Your comment couldn’t be more timely because we are in Patagonia — and like all well-worn travel trails, it has its share of uber-travelers, and they do their best to make everything — down to cooking in a hostel kitchen — a contest. Thankfully, there are more than enough cool travelers to offset. The great irony is that travel is supposed to educate and broaden the mind. But for a few unfortunately it only seems to broaden the ego. And perhaps unknowingly (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt), uber-travelers and their behavior only serve to make others feel inadequate about their travels.

    In the end, you just gotta go where you need to go, do what you need to do and for as long as you need to do it.

    Prague! Cool. One of the places we call home since we lived there for five years.

    “Trustafarians masquerading as hipsters.” I love it — am still laughing.

  3. says

    I’ve noticed in all my years of travelling, no matter what you’ve done and where you’ve been, you’ll always run into another traveller who’s dome more. Luckily, they weren’t reeking with braggadocio. As mentioned above, it’s not a contest. I will pass on tips to greener travellers to hopefully spare them some grief.

  4. says

    @Ken: Agreed. There’s little point in competitively comparing travel experiences, either qualitatively or quantitatively (number of countries). As for the ghettos, pass it on, but let’s hope we don’t create more backpacker ghettos in the process.

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