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What no one tells you about travelling the world as a backpacker


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“Backpacking defines who I am,” says Michael Huxley, a travel blogger and backpacker who has visited over 100 countries in the last 15 years and is the creator of Bemused Backpacker.

Backpacking has always been popular, but with a recent rise in low-cost flights, cheap hostels and Airbnb, more and more people are taking the opportunity to travel the world without breaking the bank.

Image credit: Bobby Hendry on Unsplash

However, the readiness of budget travel is not the only reason why people are going abroad more.

A report from the Boston Consulting Group suggests that the millennial generation, defined by them as people between the ages of 16 and 34, are keener than older generations to travel abroad as much as possible. At the same time, the United Nations determines that nearly 200 million travellers (20% of all international tourists) are young people.

Many young people think of travel as a way to escape from the stress of the daily routine, experience different cultures and broaden their perspective on the world.

But what does "backpacker" mean exactly?

"Being a backpacker is a philosophy of life,” says Javier Liébana, a globe-trotter who has travelled solo around Southeast Asia.

“A backpacker is someone travelling long-term that wishes to immerse themselves into a new experience, a new culture, and push themselves. It is someone willing to open their mind and experience how you can live with very little,” explains Gemma Thompson, founder of Girls That Travel and a solo travel blogger who has visited over 30 countries.

"Backpacking is definitely more immersive than being a traditional tourist, and more challenging as well,” Gemma says.

However, even though backpacking might sound more familiar to us now than 20 years ago, it is not a new phenomenon at all. Backpacking emerged during the 60s with the popularity of the Hippie Trail, a route extending from Europe to India.

Nevertheless, some old-school backpackers argue that the nature of backpacking has changed since then.

“I think what’s different now is that backpacking has become far more commercialised with companies offering you travel packages,” says Michael. "You used to get travellers like myself who would buy a plane ticket and see where they ended up. I think that sense of adventure, in a lot of ways, has been lost.”

However, backpacking has also seen positive changes with the rise of technology and social media. For instance, imagine travelling without relying on Google Maps or being unable to book a flight or hotel last-minute.

The trendiness of backpacking has also meant that more travellers are going abroad without fully researching their destination. “People have become so reliant on social media and the internet that they forget how important it is to research the country they are visiting,” says Charlie McGrath, director of Objective Travel Safety, a company that runs safety training for backpackers. “You need to know about the political and cultural situation of the country, as well as its history and religion. That can save you a lot of trouble.”

Safety is paramount to a successful backpacking trip since backpackers are often seen as easy targets. In 2017, two young Australian backpackers made headlines after they were reportedly kidnapped, assaulted and robbed at gunpoint while travelling through Guatemala. In the same year, a British backpacker and her Canadian friend were found dead after feeling unwell in a Cambodian hostel. However, these are only two tragedies among many positive trips.

“The three main risks you can encounter are violent crime, disease and road traffic accidents,” says Charlie.

Another way to enjoy your adventure of a lifetime without any undesirable surprises is to be aware that every country is different.

In the West, being caught in possession of drugs such as cannabis might only land you a small fine, but the same discovery in countries such as Thailand, China or Indonesia can result in penalties up to life imprisonment or the death penalty.

The Daily Mail reported that Australian backpacker Jake Mastroianni is currently serving a double life sentence in one of Thailand’s worst prisons after being found in possession of ecstasy in 2014.

“The problem by taking drugs is that it is illegal and all you’re doing is putting yourself into the hands of criminals. Most people get away with it but they don’t realise that penalties are really harsh,” affirms Charlie.

Playing by the rules of the country you are visiting also involves resp­­ecting the local culture and their customs. The Times reported that in January 2018, ten backpackers were arrested for producing "pornographic" pictures at a party near a temple in Cambodia.

­­However Michael, who has experienced Dengue fever, nearly drowned in Thailand and has been held at gunpoint in Central America, still believes that none of these events happened because he was in a so-called dangerous country. “The media scaremongering gives backpacking a certain reputation but if you look at the actual reality it is not true. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's all about understanding the risks that are out there and being prepared for any eventuality.”  

According to the Office For National Statistics and The Foreign Commonwealth Office, from the four million UK citizens who travelled abroad between 2014 and 2015 (the latest statistics available), only 17.517 needed consular assistance around the world, counting serious crime as much as losing their passport.

In terms of travel safety, travelling the world is relatively safe.

“From all those who travel, very few get into trouble. Those that do make the headlines,” says Charlie. “Travelling is such a good education and I would really urge people to do it, besides the risks it entails.”

Backpacking is an amazing way to push yourself out of your comfort zone, indulge in a complete different culture, discover places you had never imagined, learn to live a simpler life, meet people with similar beliefs or to simply bring to light more about yourself. But the list doesn’t stop there. “Living in a city like London, we complain about everything, while in places like Cambodia, where people have so little, they are much happier than us. I think that is one of the humbling things that travel teaches you. For me, it’s a crime not to travel,” says Gemma.

Backpacking can completely change you and your outlook in life. “It has definitely made me the person I am today. Each culture and place I’ve experienced has made me look at who I am and what I want my life to be,” says Michael. But it can also change the world. “If more people travelled there would be a lot less hostility to other cultures and there would be less racism. The world would be a better place,” he believes.

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