Lighten up about backpackers

We love to hate backpackers, but maybe they can teach us a thing or two.


AFTER two booze-filled days at the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival, I just wanted to spend a quiet night at the hostel. But then a shuttle bus arrived, people starting jumping in, and next thing I know I’m riding up the mountain with a bunch of backpackers.

These were proper backpackers, complete with elephant pants, GoPros and lotus blossom henna tattoos. They were real-life Hobbits, characters in a Coca-Cola ad, Instagram accounts come to life. They were cheerful, naive and clueless as hell. And (God help me) they were so much fun. 

We expats love to hate backpackers. So ignorant! So obnoxious! And rude! But the truth is that what we’re really judging isn’t real. It’s a Chang Beer-drinking, Buddha tattoo-sporting caricature. Sure, those people do occasionally wander in from Khao San Road. But hang out at a budget hostel and you’ll find mostly sensitive, humble people. They might not, say, know the TNLA from the MNDAA, or be able to distinguish Vice President-1 from Vice President-2, but they’ll usually ask good questions and make a sincere effort to understand.

And even if I’m wrong and backpackers are mostly uncouth douche nozzles that just want to get high and spend too much on shitty cocktails – what of it?

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What really bothers us about backpackers isn’t what they do, but what they have. While we’re spending our days in hot offices and smelly taxis, while we’re rationing out the good chocolate and praying the air-con repair guy actually shows up this time, backpackers are having the time of their lives.

What did they do to deserve this good time? Well, who knows – maybe that elephant pants girl spent years slaving away in a cubicle. Maybe that student on holiday will eventually devote his life to Malaria research.

But it’s easier to cast them as entitled rich kids bumbling from beach to beach with mum and dad’s credit card. It makes us expats feel like we’ve earned something, that we’ve received something in exchange for the curiosity and wonder we’ve lost.

But there’s nothing special about us. Most of us can’t even carry a conversation in the local language, the bare minimum for foreigners in our own countries. We’re here because Myanmar happens to have a demand for foreign intellectual capital. We have no business looking down our noses at anyone.

What we can do is lighten up and (gulp) maybe even hang out with backpackers from time to time. After all, backpackers are fun. On the whole they’re an approachable, cheerful sort that make you feel welcome and wanted and cool. They ask questions, get excited about small things and make problems feel like adventures. They’re nice to you for no reason. They smile, laugh, play cards, sing songs and have sex. And maybe they can teach us a thing or two.

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