I have been travelling the world now for 25 years and so much has changed in that time. Travel is easier, it is more open and more people are doing it, and that is all amazing, but so much has been lost along the way. Maybe it is time we all looked back to the heyday of backpacking in the nineties and noughties and returned to a more simple way of travelling the world.
At the start of the movie ‘The Beach’, that quintessential backpacker call to arms that played on every bar’s dodgy DVD big screen in Koh San Road in the early 2000s, the main character laments the drunken tourists hopping from party island to party island as he searches for something real, something genuine from his own travel adventure. Even then, 20 years ago, there was a distinct difference between backpackers in the late 90s and those who forged the hippy trail 30 years earlier. This is the films clumsy way of interpreting the earlier novels theme of a declining paradise, but it does serve to highlight how while a lot of things may be the same, the backpacker bubble has definitely changed a lot since then too.
It has been 23 years since the film was released, and there is a certain level of nostalgia that comes with watching the protagonist navigate his way through party hostels, meet new friends and arrive in what is in reality Maya Bay in a self discovery rite of passage. But just like the film predicted, when the crowds come so does the gentrification, the development, the technology, and ultimately the fundamental change to the whole travel experience. In many ways thanks to advanced technology and social media that is something that has happened to travel in general since the late 90s.
Younger travellers setting out on their very first gap years in 2023 will watch the Beach and wonder why someone didn’t just Google Earth the damn island. They’ll call bullshit on the fact that anything could be kept a secret from any backpacker who has access to Insta and laugh at the fact no one was live tweeting the whole island experience or filming it on reels. They will laugh at the archaic Apple monitors in the internet cafes and wonder why we had to seek out an IDD phone once every couple of months to ring home and remind frantic mothers we were still alive. In a lot of ways the film showcases a type of travel that has now been lost.
Travel has changed.
Modern travellers often balk at the idea of turning up to a new destination without having everything booked in advance, much less finding a map and swimming to an island to see where it leads. I genuinely get emails now asking how to find accommodation somewhere if AirBnB has nothing suitable. There was no social media to speak of at the turn of the millennium, unless you count the very first time Tom from MySpace started saying hello, no endless groups taking the exact same photo for Insta or getting in everyone’s way doing the latest Tik Tok dance craze, no instant booking apps to have every aspect of your trips organised and planned out with a tap of a screen. No apps at all for that matter. To travel in the late 90s and early noughties was in many ways tantamount to disappearing for months on end. And it was fantastic!
I once spent months on various islands in the Mekong with only a few hours of electricity a day and zero connection to the outside world. No internet. No phone. You could write a letter of course, but there was no way to post it straight away. Coming back to civilisation meant getting a boat to the mainland and figuring out when the next available transport to a big city was, which usually wasn’t frequent so that meant a day or two stuck wherever you happened to be and learning to enjoy that element of wasted time. My first introduction to Cambodia involved getting on the wrong bus in Thailand and then deciding to change my plans for the next few weeks when I was told where I was and had to pay for the visa at the border! Travel meant a full disconnect from your life back home, if you wanted it, and it meant having the freedom to explore on a whim. That level of freedom would terrify most people now in the era where taking a gap year has become normalised and to a large extent, packaged.
Backpackers used to have the Bible of course, that battered copy of Lonely Planet that was inevitably out of date when it got to print, but all it took to get ‘off the beaten path’ was just head somewhere that wasn’t featured in their pages. Does anyone remember those streets in Goa or Agra with rows of hostels with massive ‘featured in Lonely Planet’ signs outside them? And all the cheaper and better hostels being in the next street over without those signs? Backpackers used to turn up to a new destination with no plan and walk into a few hostels to find a place to stay. We didn’t get ripped off with cleaning fees or hidden charges in certain apps, because we used to haggle the price of our stay before our packs hit the bunkbed!
If there was a golden age of backpacking in the sixties, a glory days era to look back to, the late nineties and early noughties would certainly be a beloved silver age.
I know that in many ways this is the ‘back in my day’ ramblings of an aging man. There is more than a dash of rose tinted nostalgia at play here, the travel experience has undoubtedly improved exponentially from the silver age of backpacking, I won’t deny that at all. I’ve stayed in more than my fair share of airless, windowless cupboards with a dingy mattress on the floor instead of the spotlessly clean boutique hostel dorms that are the norm now, the quintessential night bus experience didn’t come with air con and wifi back in the day, relying on an old copy of LP is not as good as having awesome travel blogs and up to date information at your fingertips and to be honest with you finding an IDD phone was a pain in the arse! So please don’t get me wrong, travel today is great. It is far more accessible to people, it is far easier, and this is not in any way an elitist rant on how much better we used to do it versus the kids of today. Travel is still as amazing today as it has always been and no one way is better than another.
But saying that, I have been travelling the world for 25 years now, give or take, it is an entirely different world now than it was then, and for all the improvements, some things have definitely been lost along the way.
Backpackers at the turn of the millennium were a different breed. Backpacking the world was still not seen as a normal thing to do back then and those that did so were those who purposely chose a different path to the safe societal route. That sense of completely removing yourself from your life back home, of reinventing yourself, of simply allowing yourself to be in the moment and appreciate the little experiences has disappeared. That wild spirit of adventure has been lost. That sense of spontaneity from changing your plans at the last minute or turning up to a new city with nowhere to stay has gone. It sometimes feels like travellers today can’t do anything without pre booking everything in advance and having that comfort blanket of their phone surgically attached to their hands.
And that is a real shame.
Getting Back To Basics.
This last year I have taken a fair few trips by myself, not for the work I do with this website or with various brands or DMOs, which also comes with its own set of restraints, but just solo trips, by myself and for no reason at all. I simply booked a flight on a whim and went. Trips to random destinations I simply liked the look of, and I have attempted to recapture at least some of that magic that I felt when I first started travelling.
I didn’t post any of these trips to social media, the photos I took are for my own personal memories and mine alone. I didn’t plan much in advance beyond a basic route with the major things I wanted to see or do and I figured little things like food and accommodation out as I went along. I simply explored and enjoyed the destinations I was in. Much like my very first gap year, most of my memories and tales of these trips are locked away in my head.
And it felt amazing!
No social media. No being in constant contact with everyone. No mobile phone. No pressure to put my life on display to make everyone back home jealous or chase the dopamine hits of endless ‘likes’.
And that is what I would urge everyone to do just a little bit more wherever they decide to travel over the coming years. Of course take all the photos you like, hell, you don’t have to make sure you keep those film reels safe anymore so fill your boots, but look up from the camera once in a while too! Stop the endless social media uploads and live in the moment a little more. Save the apps for essentials and emergencies and wing it just a little bit, find out where the best food stalls or hostels are by trying a few out, not by reading reviews on aggregate sites! Leave the smartphone in your pack for emergencies and go out exploring without it! I dare you!
Again, the world has changed so much and there really is nothing wrong with being able to contact a hostel before you get on the plane and pre book your accommodation, there is nothing wrong with social media or any of the other apps and tech that have come along to make things easier for travellers. Hell, I couldn’t do my job now without some of them! But as we start to move past the last few years and travel again, maybe it’s time we regained a little balance in our travels. Maybe we can stop and smell the roses a little bit more and recapture some of that wild spirit of adventure that travel should be about. Maybe we can pretend for a moment that we can go back in time and once again travel like many of us used to in 1999.
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