This post is by David VanArsdale, one of our contributors.
I don’t understand the people who buy express passes at amusement parks. They pay extra to skip the lines and walk straight to the roller coasters. Yes, waiting in those zig-zagging lines sucks. Yes, you’re sweating so much that your underwear is sticking to your ass. But I’d argue that your ass sweat and the long lines are all part of the experience.
Simply put, vacationers are the people with the express passes. Travelers are the ones waiting in line with swamp butt—and they’re better for it. Vacationers can say that they’ve been to a country. A traveler can say they’ve been to a country and had a richer experience.
I don’t mean to be a prick. And it’s not that I hate on vacationers, its just I think they’re missing out, and I’m comfortable admitting that I connect more to backpackers and I think there’s a higher value to it. And I’m ready and willing to defend my position. Vacationing is about comfort, fun, and relaxation. Traveling and backpacking are about transcendence, growth, and my personal favorite: adventure.
Vacationers rarely go on true adventures. There’s this interview with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, that really hits home. He talks about the people who claim they go on “adventures” to Mount Everest: “You get all these high powered plastic surgeons and CEOs. They pay $80,000 and have all these Sherpas who put all the ladders in place…You get to a camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a little chocolate mint on the top. And the whole purpose of climbing something like Everest is to affect some sort of spiritual and physical gain. But if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you started and you’re an asshole when you come back.”
I am in no way comparing myself to Yvon. But his philosophy is something that I’ve taken with me. For me, it’s the “process” of traveling that I truly love about backpacking. It’s the entire experience. It’s the uncomfortable and awkward situations contrasted by the feelings of bliss and relaxation.
I began forming my own thoughts about backpacking, traveling, and vacationing when I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I started to see that vacationers were coming to Camobia to see the temples of Angkor Wat. Backpackers were coming to Cambodia to see the temples and Cambodia.
Siem Reap Hostel has an indoor pool with volleyball nets, its own bar and order-out kitchen, and open third floor balconies with comfortable lounge chairs and TVs. I started to feel like I had stopped traveling and started vacationing because of how nice the hostel was. It was far from a 5-star hotel, but to me, it might as well have been…and it felt incredible. But I have to say, when you stay at such a nice hostel (versus a modest one), it can be easy to get lost there. You don’t want to leave the confines and you start to lose your sense of reality. On the second day, it almost didn’t feel right to enjoy Mai Tais by the pool because of my morning run, which snapped me out of LaLa Land and opened my eyes to the real Siem Reap.
The luxuries of this hostel were severely contrasted by the surrounding area, which I wouldn’t call poor, I’d call it complete poverty. I went to Siem Reap to see the ruins, and I saw them both: the deteriorating temples of Angkor from the early 12th century, and the ones 50 meters from my hostel door. There are some absolute shit areas around there, literally. The water is dirty, poop brown. And I saw people bathing and pulling water from that river.
I like to take walks or runs when I travel (a little tip I picked up after my buddy JP). After the locals have seen you for the 4th or 5th time, I feel like they’re more willing to interact with you. Also, it helps me get my bearings and it forces me to see the country as it is. In Siem Reap, a majority of the people live in poverty. The people live in shacks. I’m not sure why they put numbers on them, but my best guess is because it gives them a sense of community. “039…That’s my home.”
In regard to Yvon’s philosophy, I’m not sure how much I “compromised the process” but I kept the backpacker’s mentality and an open mind to both enjoying life and experiencing Siem Reap. We ate a bag of grasshoppers from the Bug Lady on the corner. We went to dinner with our tuk- tuk driver who took us to his local. We partied until 4AM in the dive bars with the uneven pool table in the back room.
I started to realize that to backpack is to travel…and sometimes, to go on vacation. I not only stayed at a great hostel and watched the sunrise over Angkor Wat, but I also spent time away from the developed parts of the city and saw the poverty that exists in Cambodia. It’s this balance that I love about backpacking. We get to experience these countries as they are—not just for what they’re known for. And we’re better for it.
-photos and article by David VanArsdale