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Why “backpacker heaven” is actually my hell

Why “backpacker heaven” is actually my hell

I’m learning that any place Lonely Planet titles a “backpacker heaven” will be my idea of hell. Cheap drinks, crowded dorms, tanned and lithe bodies strolling the streets without a shirt. Backpacker heavens seem to be idyllic spots that have been ruined in the quest to get young foreigners sunburnt and stumbling.

Phi Phi beach on a sunny clear day in Thailand

I feel like a grandma as I smear on some sunscreen instead of sculling a beer, and sink deeper into my book instead of a bucket. But should I feel guilty for skipping some of the world’s best party islands? I don’t think so.

ADPi Eta Rho 21st birthday bar crawl, Chico State, California

I’ve already done it. I was in a sorority and on a sports team at one of California’s favorite party schools. I’ve beer-ponged and champagne-bonged and vodka-shotted with the best of them. I have awesome photos and hazy memories of my four years at Chico State, and that’s more than enough for me.

I’d rather not waste my money. Alcohol is one of the scariest things to spend my money on, because as soon as I start—it becomes easier not to stop. Even though alcohol is substantially cheaper in Southeast Asia than Australia or Europe, a vodka bucket or a few beers still costs more than dinner.

Hiking through the rainforest on Ko Phi Phi island, Thailand

I don’t want to waste a day hungover.Morning is my favorite time of day in a new city: wandering as vendors languidly set up their wares, when the sun is hesitantly peeking over the rooftops, before the streets become a throng of flip-flops, whistles, garbage bags. Southeast Asia has such beautiful scenery: I’d rather spend the morning hiking, diving, rock-climbing or doing just about anything other than sleeping in bed.

There are so many non-alcoholic drinks to try: You can get a beer or a cran vodka at home, but what about a fresh young coconut? Or fresh-squeezed guava juice? Or a mango smoothie? I didn’t think so.

Sleazy streets of Patong at night, Phuket, Thailand

It’s not an authentic experience. On islands like Ko Phi-Phi and Gili Trawangan, the whole set-up seems like a sham. This isn’t like clubbing in Spain or sipping wine in France—an activity I would deem culturally appropriate because odds are, the locals are doing it too. On these party islands, locals are working to serve up the perfect party experience on a tray to young Westerners with cash to spend. The population is overwhelmingly Muslim: the fact that Phi-Phi has to put up signs to keep tourists from bringing alcohol up to the viewpoint says something.

Everyone has different priorities when they travel—and for many, on an all-too-brief vacation, they want to lose touch with reality with a bucket on a beautiful beach. I get it. But I’d rather be fully present to enjoy these small bits of paradise.

How do you feel about party islands? Love or hate them? 

  • kayling05

    I definitely enjoy a good drink (or four) but I’m like you in that I generally keep my partying to home time, except the occasional night out. When I was in Cambodia in January, I had the time of my life seeing temples and other famous sites all day. Only one day did  I indulge in a little too much liquor, and that was Australia Day (too many Aussies in my hostel! I got roped in, I swear haha). And yep, I spent the entire next day (my last in Cambodia) just hanging around my hostel getting over my hangover. Granted, I’d already seen all the temples I wanted to, and I made some new friends who were doing the same thing as me, but still, I felt like I was wasting my time a bit.

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  • camorose

    Dude, I would NOT recommend a champagne bong. Too fizzy–not one of my brighter moments, but luckily, not done sober! And yes, I’m such a fan of a nice cold beer–but I only need a couple to enjoy a sunset, not to party until sunrise!

  • camorose

    Very true–it’s just that whole scene that I try to avoid.

  • camorose

    Exactly! I don’t feel nearly as bad about wasting a day hungover at home but I always feel like I’m missing out on something–even if I force myself to go do stuff if I’m not feeling 100%, I just feel too guilty!

  • Yes! I’m so happy to read this! I’m on my way to Thailand and everyone keeps singing praise for Ko Phi Phi, but it sounds like the last place I’d like to visit. It sometimes seems like all backpackers I’ve met just want to drink. It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one who skips the party destinations. 

  • camorose

    I will say that Phi Phi was pretty gorgeous–but yes, most people there were more concerned with drinking than anything else. I still just think you can do that at home–why travel across the world to spend all your money on drinks?!

  • We’re definitely on the same boat! When I travel it’s not party-scene that I’m looking for. But it’s something different from home that makes a travel more meaningful and fulfilling. And by the way, I always get up the earliest among other travelers in the same room, just for the sake of enjoying the place in the morning.

  • camorose

    Love being the first one up and out!

  • Djamila Said

     I prefer to travel to quieter place and avoid party and too crowded and touristy place 😀
    btw, great blog. I stumble on this blog from google and now I’m reading through the previous posts.

  • camorose

    Glad you like it! I definitely prefer pretty places with a non-party vibe 🙂

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  • I so agree! I don’t like party places any more, I want somewhere quiet… I still loved Koh Phangan island but never went to full moon party there! It’s just not my kinda thing, I guess 😉

  • I feel the same way as you about this.  I just don’t care for them.  I don’t travel to party.  I want to see and experience a place and not get drunk or tan walking around some beach (not a huge fan of beaches anyways).  This isn’t my idea of travel.  Maybe it works for some and it’s fun for them but it isn’t for me.  So I definitely agree with you on this – plus I am getting too old! 🙂

  • camorose

    I’m definitely a sucker for beaches, but I just couldn’t deal with the different mindsets in so many of these places–luckily, they were all beautiful enough for me to find a bit of value in them anyway!

  • I can not agree more. Our last time in the islands of Thailand left us with a  sour taste. Been there, seen it, didn’t like it the first time. lol I’m with you. What’s the point of a beach if it’s pounding techno beats and 50cent. Phi Phi was beautiful, but the nightlife made the island lose charm in my opinion.

  • camorose

    Agreed–really glad I hiked over to Tohko Beach, so much quieter and more relaxing–and still beautiful!

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  • Jo

    so agree….i came to phi phi to be with nature and beauty and it turns out its a haven for people who are drinking and smoking themselves to death (although they don’t seem to care or realise)..either way i have the most beautiful view from my room (the picture with this), with a  hammock and a book, there’s yoga at sunset, a lookout point to hike to, young coconuts n fresh fruit n veggies to eat, barefoot doctor, wonderful massages… so they can do their thing, i can do mine 🙂 FYI i quit drinking, smoking and drugs over a year ago now, and dedicated my life to health and happiness, however others are still where i used to be, so i understand..

  • camorose

    Ahhh the barefoot doctor and the lookout point–my favorite bits about Phi-Phi! Enjoy!

  • Christine Storgeoff

    Super idea here–I very much agree with you, especially with the ideas on alcohol. I’m not against drinking, but yes, when I’m travelling, I”m travelling for the experience of another culture, not just an excuse to get fuzzy-headed in another country. I’d also rather spend my money on other things! Like in Spain, I bought sangria (several times) as it was delicious. But that was drinking to enjoy, to savour the moment. There is a difference between doing that, and drinking just to finish up and have another. But each to their own I guess!

  • camorose

    Exactly–I absolutely love a cold beer on a sunny patio or a glass of wine with friends in a new country. I just hate the “get drunk just because it’s cheap” mentality among so many backpackers!

  • Sarah

    I just googled “backpacker who doesn’t like to party” and found this post. Sometimes I think I’m being antisocial at a hostal if I’m not out partying with the gang. It’s not that I don’t want to get to know them, I just don’t care to drink and dance. I’d rather get a good night’s sleep and see what’s in store the next day. We can all get to know each other sober, too, right?

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  • I am SO with you on SO MANY levels it’s not even funny! I feel like you entered my brain and tore this piece out of it. Thanks for the insightful post. Again.

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  • camorose

    Haha thanks! It’s nice to know that other people feel the same way I do 🙂

  • Colleen Brynn

    I’ve never been to Southeast Asia but I do appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to sleep in. I feel the same about mornings, especially when abroad. Also, too often are hostels just not comfy enough for sleeping in. An example… one night in Rio, I did go out and party, and didn’t get back to the hostel and to bed until after 7:00 am. The room was stiflingly hot by 9:30 so I got up anyway and continued with my sightseeing. This could never be sustainable, though. Best to get enough rest to enjoy the day!

  • camorose

    I certainly agree! 🙂

  • Owen

    I’m with you, and I’m quite impressed! It’s great to come across someone intelligent giving great travel advice, and also to respond to every comment that is posted… Your awesome.

    3 days of rock climbing, I think I’ll skip the booze fueled shenanigans.

  • Charlotte

    I’m 100% with you here! I’m loving being in Asia but as part of a couple we are total nannas heading to bed early so we can get up early for a surf or a swim or to watch the sunrise! Alchohol is a money drainer here in Indonesia due to the alcohol tax – unless you’re keen for an Arak concoction which leaves you crook for a day after woulds!

  • camorose

    Agreed agreed!

  • John Newman

    Is a backpacker just a lonely substance abusing individual who’s idea of backpacking is carring there backpack 5 meters to a taxi, walking 50m to an ATM machine and a slow internet connection?
    Should children be given everything they want, just because they want it?
    Should young, supposedly, adults be given everything they want, just because they want it?
    Is not catering to the desire and supposed needs of would be backpackers, in it self the real problem?
    Maybe would be packpackers should have to pass a test on what to expect outside their own country and how to behave when travel. before they are issued with a passport or can purchase a ticket?
    Maybe the owners of establishments catering to backpackers should be held more responsible for the situations they help tocreate?
    Maybe a major kull of the human race is overdue and the problem will go away, very soon?

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  • MeaganDanielle

    Hi Sean and Camorose – I’m in the same position. Looking to travel to SEA or New Zealand, late 30’s and don’t want the crazy party scene. How do I private message you both to ask recommendations?

  • camorose

    Feel free to shoot me an email at cestchristineblog@gmail.com 🙂