Backpackers: a community that's always on the go
At age 29, looking at what lay beyond his third decade, Lars Berg knew things weren't quite right. The San Francisco software product manager itched for something more. His cubicle, he says, had become "both too much and too little," and he couldn't shake the growing feeling that he needed to make some serious changes.Skip to next paragraph
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Three months later, with about $7,000 in savings, Mr. Berg packed a bag, bought a guidebook, and caught a plane for Australia. There he met a friend from college, and for the next 10 months, the two joined the largest and fasting-growing seminomadic community roaming the globe today: backpackers.
Berg traveled through Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Italy, Denmark, Norway, England, and the Netherlands before heading back to the US. He stayed in low-priced guest houses, slept in hammocks, traveled in the backs of pickup trucks, and ate cheap food on the streets. And along the way, he met thousands of other travelers doing the same.
Over the past two decades, this kind of travel has become increasingly popular with young people from countries with strong currencies, who, instead of taking a vacation from their lives, decide to turn their life into the vacation.
They need relatively little money to move through the developing world for long periods, provided they forgo a few comforts. Most travelers interviewed for this story reported being on the road anywhere from six months to two years. Some mix work with their fun, such as picking fruit in Australia or teaching English in Korea, to earn money to extend their travels.
Statistics on these independent travelers are hard to track, because most travel off the radar. But judging from the huge growth of the segment of the guidebook industry aimed at backpackers, the numbers are large.
Lonely Planet, the most successful budget-travel-guide company, started with one book, "Across Asia on the Cheap," published in 1972. It now releases more than 650 guidebooks in 14 different languages. Rough Guides started in 1982 with one guide to Greece, and now covers almost 200 destinations.
Today, in places such as Bangkok, Thailand; Katmandu, Nepal; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, backpackers have commandeered entire streets. In cyberspace, sites like BootsnAll, World Hum, and I Go U Go address the nuts and bolts of such travel, as well as the more ethereal side of long-term travel. BootsnAll reports a quarter-million visits each month, and the Lonely Planet's site gets 1 million.
As the numbers have swelled, a kind of culture has grown up around these travelers. There have even been a slew of backpacker novels that followed Alex Garland's 1997 novel "The Beach," which was set among the backpackers of Thailand and made into a movie. (That film did not do well at the box office, despite Leonardo DiCaprio's leading role.)
Riding the crest of this tide come two new books by writers who have emerged from this wandering generation. "Vagabonding: an Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel," by Rolf Potts, attempts to put long-term travel into a kind of existential perspective. In an age when backpackers are too often seen as hiding behind a faux authenticity while looking for the next party, this is perhaps overdue. Meanwhile, "First Time Around the World," by humor writer Doug Lansky, takes a more hands-on approach.