Noom, my friend in Bangkok, wants to go to India. He’s recently converted to Hinduism because he made a deal with the elephant god, Ganesha, and the big trunked guy paid off in spades. Now, a Significant Event in his life is to go to India, bathe in the Ganges and make the sacred pilgrimage to the eight Ganesha temples surrounding Pune. Well, ‘wash river/eight Ganeshas’ is his desire, the rest just pesky little details. That I get to fill in on his behalf.
I’ve never been to India, but have always wanted to go. Noom’s ‘wash river’ coincides with my desire to spend a few days in Varanasi. And I’ve already begun setting the stage so that when we get there he knows I’m not dipping so much as a big toe in that water. I’m not usually overly concerned about water quality, but since this particular river has dead bodies floating about, I think it probably best to avoid contact.
I want to spend days in the markets of Delhi, wouldn’t mind seeing the Pink City, and definitely want to spend a night in a plush hotel with the Taj Mahal peeking through the window. And ya’ll assumed I wasn’t a romantic. What I don’t want to do is spend eight days based in Pune facing long boring drives daily to go see yet another statue of an elephant. You have to do the Ganesha shrines in order. Lots of back tracking. So it works out to one a day. I’m still trying to figure out how to make Noom happy and avoid that eight day excursion at the same time. Maybe we’ll visit the Dhundiraj Temple in Varanasi eight times instead.
New country to visit with numerous states each unique unto itself. Just getting a lay of the land means major internet research. You can get a feel for the areas and attractions off of tour websites. Suggestions, warnings, and the little details about daily life as a touri in India means turning to traveller tales from previous visitors. Unfortunately most people who post these tales don’t travel First Class. Or even Tourist Class. Most travel tales are posted by backpackers.
TravelPod is one of the sites I peruse. Sometimes Lonely Planet, too, but LP aficionados exist in their own world and pretty much demand you stay loyal to the itineraries and activities outlined by the LP guidebooks. LP has an on-line forum, even a gay and lesbian section, so there is some information of use there. But you really have to dig for it. And buy into the whole backpacker subculture. The posts on TravelPod on the other hand are often quite amusing. Some are written so well I end up reading their entire six month journey of posts from one end of the earth to the other. The problem, however, is that backpacking is not just a mode of travel, but a state of mind. Unfortunately, it is a mind that does not function too well.
The lure of cheap travel I get. The lure of fellowship amongst the backpacking community I can almost understand. But why you would want to run into the same white faces country after country when those countries are populated with nonwhite faces is beyond me. I have no desire to go to India to hang out with a bunch of Germans. Or Americans. Or British. Canadians, okay . . . at least they’re good to make fun of, eh? And if you are planning an evening of drinking to oblivion, there are no better bar mates than a bunch of Aussies. But I find it strange that these folk all form a tribe apart in backpacker fellowship while busy telling you how they immerse themselves in the culture of the countries they are visiting. Cuz that’s how you get down and dirty with the locals. By hanging out with a bunch of Europeans.
Travellers who backpack are fanatical about the scene. Backpacking is a god that demands obedience and sacrifice. I read a post from a woman who on her backpacking world tour spent a few days in Bangkok. She’d decided to treat herself during the stay and booked into a ‘ritzy’ hostel in the Siam area. She paid $75 a night for a shared room. Uh, that would be ‘shared’ with a complete stranger. With a communal bath down the hall. If she had expanded her horizons beyond her backpacker world, she could have hit Agoda and booked a nice private room in the same area with en-suite bath for an even cheaper price. But backpackers seem to travel with blinders on. While turning their noses up at the rest of us. Because we are Travelers Who Just Don’t Get It. And for that, I thank the gods.
Another backpacker telling his tale recounted how on his short trip to Bangkok he’d wanted to see the Grand Palace. But it was closed. Yup, you know the rest . . . met a friendly local guy who instead took him to a tailor where he got a few nice suits made for a mere $400. He didn’t know he’d been scammed. And missed out on buying some jewelry, too. I’m glad he viewed his unexpected good fortune as a successful day. Other backpacker tales are not so uplifting. Being scammed and ripped off is a routine part of their travels.
I have a friend who is too old and has too good of a job to still be backpacking. But it is in his blood. His preferred mode of travel. He has been to Bangkok three times. He has gone to the Chatuchak Weekend Market on each trip. On his first visit to the market someone stole his camera. His laptop disappeared on trip #2. And on the last visit he got away easy, only losing a cell phone. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been to the Weekend Market and haven’t so much as had a shoelace ripped off. I’m pretty sure the universe has it out for backpackers. Backpackers have bad karma. Or maybe it’s just they need to bathe more often.
I’d been to Thailand probably 20 times before I ever made it over to Khaosan Road, Bangkok’s backpacker haven. Talk about culture shock. Lots of street-side cafes. With prices higher than anywhere else in town. That’s if you can get served. The waitstaff have perfected the art of invisibility on Khaosan Road. While you are waiting for acknowledgment, or even longer for your poorly prepared food to arrive, a constant plague of street hustlers stop by your table trying to sell oversized lighters, ‘magic wallets’ and other things you have no use for. They make the beach vendors in Pattaya seem tame. Street vendors, those with an actual stall, are much more aggressive and charge prices higher than at Patpong’s night market. And remember the Land of Smiles? Well, it’s border closes at Khaosan Road.
On my first trip to the area, I walked into a small store, camera bag over my shoulder as usual and instead of the beautiful smile and warm greeting I typically get in Bangkok retail establishments, I got a gruff, “Bag!” grunted at me. Confused, I looked at the saleslady who promptly issued her demands, “Give me bag. Leave here.”
Nice. Welcome to my tiny store, I’m sure you are a thief come to rob me blind. Not her fault. Dealing with backpackers day to day must be a horrendous life. Maybe next time she’ll get lucky and come back as a cockroach instead. Every store has the same attitude and the only smiles you see from Thais on Khaosan Road are those grinning about the extra 100 baht that just got off a sale to a dumb backpacker farang. So explain to me please, how can traveling as a backpacker be a cheaper option when everyone is charging you more?
If you are a backpacker, you gravitate to the websites for backpackers. I read one that provided information for visitors to Bangkok. One of its suggestions was to always take a tuk tuk because taxi drivers will try to rip you off by not using their meter. Uh, yes, tuk tuk drivers are known for their honesty in the backpacker world. The example used was on a ride from Sukhumvit back to Khaosan. In a tuk tuk. I’m not sure you could even talk a tuk tuk driver into making that trip. Why anyone would want to expose themselves to Bangkok’s foul air puttering along in a tuk tuk for an hour confounds me. But this website promised you could make the trip for a mere 300 baht, so I guess that’s the way to go. Glad I visited that site because all this time those damn rip off taxi drivers have been changing me 150 baht for that ride.
Many of the tales on TravelPod start off with warnings: I got ripped off for $500, $800, $1,200. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe part of the allure of backpacking is to be ripped off for the amount of money you’re saving by doing the trip on the cheap. Maybe I just need to adjust my thinking. Many tales describe horrendous ‘bus’ trips from one backpacker haven to the next, cramped into tiny vans overflowing with fellow backpack travellers at prices that come close to what airfare would have run. Others of hostels that nickel and dime you to the point you could have saved money by booking into a real hotel. And then there are the scams.
Evidently one of the more popular scams for India is at the airport upon arrival. The taxi drivers take you to the wrong hostel, one which will give them a kickback for your delivery. And then over charge for the trip. One pundit bragged about how he’d outsmarted his driver and refused to take the wrong accommodations. His driver took him to three ‘wrong’ places before tiring of the game and finally delivering him to the hostel he’d booked. Savvy backpacker got even by not tipping the driver on the $45 fare. Um, everywhere else I read that should have been a $5 trip. Tops. But good on him, he showed that guy. I guess, if you are a backpacker you have little choice about participating in this scam. Not being a backpacker, I’ve already made a note: have hotel limo meet us a airport.
I see backpackers in the airports of SE Asia frequently. I love their youth and enthusiasm. They are easy to pick out. Wearing fisherman/parachute or linen pants, scruffy beard, scraggly hair, a leather necklace and string anklet, carrying an outdated copy of a Lonely Planet Guidebook, they have a 50lb. metal framed bag tied with bungee cords strapped firmly to their back as they plod along bent over from the heavy load. Knowing I’m a Traveller Who Doesn’t Get It, I feel appropriately unworthy as I zip past with my 20 lb hard sided suitcase rolling along behind me on its wheels.
Returning from Saigon on an Air Asia flight to Bangkok, my seat mate was a young backpacker. Wrinkled shirt, frayed shorts, and cheap plastic slippahs, it was easy to tell. Him trying to squeeze a man-sized backpack into the overhead at the start of the flight kinda gave it away, too. But he was cute as all hell, so I chatted him up. He was on his fifth month of travel and ready to call it quits. The year long excursion he’d planned wasn’t going too well. His wallet was stolen in Bali. He’d lost $300 in cash in Phnom Penh, and spent three days in Siem Reap sick to his stomach. He’d had to pay the boys in brown $150 on Koh Samui for getting stoned at the full moon party. The Germans he’d befriended in Jakarta and who’d’ he’d met up with again in Chiang Mai and shared a room with, checked out early and took his laptop with them. I empathized with him and told him how frustrating it had been for me that the buffet breakfast at Centre Point In Bangkok hadn’t changed but three of their hot dishes one morning; the horror of having to eat eggs benedict two days in a row enough to drive any traveller to the breaking point. And people say I have no sympathy.
Lonely Planet makes millions of dollars off the backpacker crowd every year. So they down play the problems associated with this form of travel. They play up the backpacker travel nirvana of meeting the real locals, immersing themselves in third world culture, but never bother to mention the only locals backpackers meet are the bottom feeders, those trying to squeeze a buck out of a group of people whom they don’t respect. Young and inexperienced, backpackers are easy to take advantage of. Internet savvy by age, by relying on the backpacker websites they miss the obvious scams and ready themselves to endure the scams that the rest of us never experience.
So I’ve been educated about Noom and my trip to India. From Rosey & Ben from Denver I’ve learned not to hire a cheap private car tour off the streets of Delhi. Dropping you off at your first destination, your driver will flee with all your worldly possessions. Instead, Noom and I will use the hotel’s chauffeured limo service.
Byrne from Ireland told of his twenty-seven hour train trip from Varanasi to Delhi, nine of those hours spent waiting at the station for a train that was eight hours late. Instead, Noom and I will fly; a long one hour twenty minute flight. But we’ll wave at the trains as we zoom by overhead.
In Varanasi, from Gloria and Sue from Britain, I’ve learned there are at least three hostels called Ganga Fuji Home, and several more willing to claim the name (It’s the #1 hostel as blessed by Lonely Planet). The touts all get a commission from the fake ones so you’ll never get to the real one. Instead, Noom and I will stay at the Nadesar Palace Hotel, picked up from the airport by the hotel’s limo service. Sure, we’ll not get to experience the color and smells of Old Town from our hotel room, but we’ll suffer with using one of the Palace Butlers to escort us through the maze of streets and to the gats where the hotel has reserved viewing spots.
We could spend hours dealing with touts and having to visit numerous rug merchant shops in an attempt to get tickets for the train to Agra according to Richard from Barcelona. Instead we’ll secure our train tickets by navigating through the Indian Railways website.
David and Julie from Quebec didn’t fall victim to any scams in India, but this fun lovin’ couple invented a new game they called “Dirt or Tan” taking (and posting) numerous shots of their dirt encrusted sandal-clad feet after a day of hiking through the bazaars of Delhi. As fun as this game sounds, Noom and I will take the boring route: we’ll wear shoes.
Thanks to countless TravelPod tales, I’ve learned that the backpacker youth are a resilient group filled with the wonder of travel. And ripe for the picking, eagerly participating in a plethora of scams designed just for them. I’ve learned a ready supply of cash is a necessity for international travel, a swollen bank account required to replace the funds you mistakenly hand over to the locals. I’ve learned that backpacking requires months of travel because you’ll spend day after day waiting in bus and train stations and another day or two in route because of the mode of transportation you selected. And I’ve learned that backpacking may be an idea that just doesn’t travel well.
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