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What is Backpacking

Here in the United States the word “backpacking” tends to be defined along side “Camping” and “Trailing.” That is well and good but the Backpacking I would like to discuss here (and which will be the basis of The Backpackers Journey) is Backpacking for international travel. This would also be the definition attached to the term to the rest of the international community.

Backpacking, as defined on Wikipedia, is “a term that has historically been used to denote a form of low-cost, independent international travel. Terms such as independent travel and budget travel are also often used. The factors that traditionally differentiate backpacking from other forms of tourism include the use of a backpack or other luggage that is easily carried for long distances or long periods of time; the utilization of public transport as a means of travel; a preference for inexpensive lodging such as youth hostels; a longer duration to the trip when compared with conventional vacations; and an interest in meeting the locals as well as seeing the sights. It is typically associated with young adults, who generally have fewer obligations and thus more time to travel. They also have less money to spend on hotels or private vehicles.”

This is a very accurate definition of backpacking, in my opinion; and it covers the majority of what we want to guide you through here at The Backpackers Journey.  There is another thing though that this definition does not touch on that we would like to dive into a little bit.  This would be, what is the “spirit” of backpacking exactly, and why does it draw millions of folks from around the world to it.

In short, backpacking is the thrill of the unknown, the excitement of what is over the next rise and the uncertainty of exactly where you will be laying your head down to sleep the next night.  Backpacking is a combination of pure adventure, the thirst for knowledge and the search for ones self.  It is the meeting of new people, the strangeness of new cultures and the fear of what is in the bowl sitting in your lap. Backpacking is all of this and so much more.  Unfortunately one cannot explain the spirit of backpacking anymore than they can explain the color red or the temperature hot.  It is just something that you need to experience for yourself to understand what all the fuss is about.

I feel like we have written something of a sales pitch here to get you out backpacking then really defining what backpacking is. To be 100% honest, all we have described IS the draw of a backpacking trip BUT it is not what brings us back to to this year after year (or makes us never come home).  There is no such thing as a “perfect” backpacking trip.  To be honest, that is not what a great backpacking trip is at all.  Believe it or not, the secret to  true (and honestly the most memorable) backpacking trips is the disasters, the unplanned destinations, the lost passports and even the hours of waiting.  A wise man once said “You can have a great TIME or a great STORY, never both.”

Case in point:

Thursday Feb 10, 2011 a group of backpackers and myself crossed the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos on tiny speedboats.  The plan was to go to the border checkpoint, pay our fees and get our Visas.  Then we were to head to the docks and board a “slow-boat” down the Mekong river towards Luang Prabang.  The boat would take us half way to the city the first day to the town of Pak Beng by nightfall where we had reservations at a hostel.  We would spend the night at the bar parting with fellow backpackers, pass out, wake up in the morning and re-board the boat and reach Luang Prabang that next evening.  Oh the best laid plans of men…

We reached the Laos border and found ourselves confronted with pure chaos.  There were over a hundred people crowded in a very small area trying to get their passports to one of 2 windows.  No one knew what was going on and there were no officials outside the small building to explain.  The border control people were not taking passports from individuals but every once in awhile a Laotian would force their way in through the crowd of people surrounding this window with a stack of 15-20 passports and shove them into the hands of the official on the other side of the window.  This gave me an idea; I grabbed all of our passports of our group, stacked them up and proceeded to do the same.  I shoved my way through the crowd and upon making it to the window reached over the people in front of me and shoved the stack into the official’s hand.  He grabbed them, put a rubber band around them and handed them off to the other workers.  Part one accomplished!

Now how to get the passports back? I noticed people that had been there awhile were still awaiting their passports.  They had been there over 2 hours.  This concerned me so I forced my way up to the payments window where you are supposed to get your passport and pay and then go.  When I got there I found a small official taking a passport up and pressing it up against the window for 5 sec, then put it down and do another.  I realized this is how they were “calling” people to come up and get their passports with Visas.  I flipped out! I being slightly a control freak took charge.  I pushed people out of the way got to the glass and started calling out the names of people on the passports and having them come up.  Silence and shock was all around.  All the backpackers were ecstatic that I was taking charge and within 15 min the area ten percent of the people got their passports.  There of course was a coordinated groan when I called my own name and went, “Wait that’s mine,” so another backpacker took my place in calling names and me and my group headed for our boat.

Even with our taking control of the Visa process at the border it took a long time to shove off, but we were all extremely happy when we did.  People on the boat kept thanking me for taking control of the process and / or saying “hey you were the guy at the border” so the little bit of celebrity was kind of fun.  People started breaking out the alcohol, turning up the music and having a good time. 

This of course ended up being very short lived.  As dusk was falling our boat slowed down and made its way to the left bank of the river next to another larger cargo boat.  We thought that we were getting fuel or something but that was not the case.  As the boat hands tied the boat to the shore the captain said that it was getting to dark to traverse the river so we were staying here for the night.  We could sleep on the boat or the beach he did not care but we were not moving anymore tonight.

To say the least we were pissed.  We had prepaid money to stay in the town and now it was all but gone and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere.  So as you can see this went absolutely no way as we had planned. In all accounts this day was a disaster.  Wasting half the day at the border and because we were late we were marooned on a beach in the middle of the jungle with only the food that was on the boat!  Yes this could have easily been the worst day but believe it or not it became one of the most amazing nights and experiences we could have ever hoped to have.

A group of us decided there was no way we were all sleeping on the boat so we headed up a sandy hill, collected firewood and started a fire. (Ok I started the fire, military training does come in handy some times.) We found larger pieces of driftwood and surrounded our fire and sat to enjoy the evening. 

About 30 min later a group of local tribesmen and women came out of the woods.  In very crude and basic English they offered to make another fire, boil water and make soup for us. It would cost us a total of 15 dollars that night to feed all 20 of us and the soup was filling and delicious.  They also offered to sell us stacks of wood for our fire so we did not have to trek through the jungle at night which we agreed to readily.  The tribes children joins us around the fire and we tried to communicate to them with gestures and the such mostly with no luck, but still we had so much fun. I even performed magic tricks for the kids and adults which shocked some and really shocked others.

As the evening drew on the tribes folk left us to the night.  After an hour or so of laughing and joking people moved closer to the fire to try and get some sleep.  I stayed up the whole night keeping the fire going, collecting more wood and enjoying the beautiful night sky filled with the most amazing collection of stars I had seen in forever. 

The sun rose and the mountains around us misted up and a fog settled on the river as the boat and us woke and started to prepare ourselves to leave. 

We got on the boat and headed to Pak Beng where we met up with the other 2 boats that were heading to Luang Prabang that day.  They consolidated all the passengers on 3 boats down to 2 and we headed off down the river.  The trip was uneventful and relaxing and we JUST made it to Luang Prabang before nightfall.  Thank god or we would have been sleeping on the boat again!

Now everything could have gone as planned and we all could have made it to the village at the halfway point and it would have been another night in another hostel, but thank god it was not.  This became an adventure, something different and off the beaten path. THIS is what backpackers crave, the escaping the norm and finding the different, finding the new and unknown.

So to conclude: What is backpacking?  Backpacking is a mostly cheap and affordable means of travel that affords a person the ability to sit face to face with the people who live in the countries they travel to, the chance to meet other travelers like yourself, share in the adventures of discovery and the knowledge that no matter how bad it gets you will make it out the other side. Sometimes you may even make it out in a better condition or state of mind then when you began.

We hope this has not scared you off of this amazing way of travel and has maybe got you excited to go out and try this for yourself.  So start planning, get moving and get out there.  There is a whole world out there waiting for you!

Ready to start your own backpacking adventure? Then lets Get Started!  Time to go out there and find your own great story.