I’ve been travelling around Southeast Asia undercover. For almost three months, I've been posing as a young, carefree backpacker. Like Maxwell Smart, I am equipped with a few key items. I’ve got a backpack, a solid tan and a few beer-themed tank tops as my disguise. It also helps that I am legitimately unemployed. However, I've had a few close calls. My lack of scooter-inflicted wounds, absence of any tattoos, hate for cigarettes, disregard for drugs and penchant for comfy hotels is a suspicious combination in these parts.
Feeling a bit like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, I've often felt as though I missed out on some kind of youthful adventure. Those who know me know that I grew up too quickly. That seriousness followed me into my teen and adult years. Whether I was babysitting, working at my parents' gas station, serving in a restaurant, writing for a newspaper, selling books at a university book store, working in the public service or climbing my way up the political ladder, I have always had a job. Most of the time, I had two. Not surprisingly, I have always considered quitting a job to go travelling reckless and irresponsible. With the results of the last federal election, I am without a job for the first time in almost twenty years. With some money saved and affairs in order, I was bound and determined to take advantage of this fork in the road. I wondered if travel could be more enjoyable without a needy boss, cranky press gallery, opinionated stakeholders and a motorcade? The answer to that was pretty clear. The real question was, could I be a backpacker?
My first real test was in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. So many young travellers stop here for a short visit but then never leave. It's why some refer to it as Stuckville. It’s not even that beautiful when you compare it to other places in the region. I first learned of it's stickiness when I came across a fellow traveller who was handing out flyers for a bar. Notably, he was wearing a backpack of liquid that he offered to spray into your mouth in exchange for your promise to go to the bar he was promoting. After declining the mystery shot, I asked why he was handing out flyers instead of visiting a local Wat or hiking to a waterfall. He told me that one night he’d gotten drunk, took too many drugs, and subsequently, lost his wallet. He was now handing out promotional flyers in exchange for free lodging and food until his pre-scheduled flight home in two weeks. There was no hint of dismay in his voice. To him, this was a cool story. To me, it was an absolute nightmare.
My backpacker skills were questioned further when I found it difficult to make friends in Sihanoukville. It was a strange feeling. In other places, everyone had been eager to make a new friend or at least find a brief reprieve from solo-travel. Not in Sihanoukville. I finally asked a girl in my hostel if she was having the same trouble. She was not. Turns out, I simply had not been there long enough. She had been in Sihanoukville for three months and had a large group of friends. They all worked at the local bars and either lived there permanently or had no immediate plans to leave. Since everyone already knew one another, there was little need to chat with the new traveller sitting at the bar. It took one night out with the girl from the hostel to confirm that it was the seedy party scene and cheap drugs that kept people from leaving. I stayed for the amazing food, nice beaches, and cheap beer. I also got my scuba certification. All in all, I stayed in Stuckville for 15 days. Admittedly, the longest I've stayed in any one place.
Laos was the real test of whether I could hang with 20-something backpackers. Turns out I can but barely. In addition to hiking up beautiful waterfalls and biking through the stunning countryside, I partied with the best of them. Tubing down the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng remains a rite of passage for any backpacker in Southeast Asia. Apparently, it used to be far more popular and proportionately unsafe with more than a dozen bars, zip lines, and Tarzan-esq ropes along the riverbank. Soon more than 20 backpackers were dying annually from drowning, drugs, alcohol or a combination of the three. Eventually, the government stepped in and shut down almost every bar. What remains is a far more relaxed environment with just two tamer bars along the route. Now, the most dangerous part of the whole day is walking barefoot from your hostel to where you get your tube and a drive down to the water. Besides your bathing suit and waterproof bag for your money, there's no good way to bring shoes with you. So, you don't. Thankfully, luck was on my side that day and no rabies shots were required.
It was at the tube/lifejacket pick up location that I almost outed myself as an imposter. Even though one of my new friends had grown up in Australia, she had never learned how to swim. The lifejackets required an additional deposit that she had not factored in when deciding how much money to bring with her. Having walked in our bare feet from our hostel, neither of us were going back to get more. And so I handed over most of my money so she could rent a lifejacket. While my allotted beer money was significantly reduced, my new friend would float worry-free in a lifejacket - for her sake and mine.
With no guides, no instructions and no signage, our group unloaded our tubes from the truck, walked down to the river, and set adrift. There was no going back now. But given it was the dry season, the water was slow and the journey was relaxing. With arms or legs linked, we floated effortlessly together enjoying the sun and beautiful mountains rising up from the riverbank into the bright blue sky.
Before we knew it, we could hear the music of the first bar. About 30 minutes down the river, a Lao lady waded in the middle of the river waiting to catch us and push our tubes towards the bank. Then we climbed up the riverbank and to the waiting crowd of fellow tubers. Since our group had started "late" around 1:30pm, the party was well underway. After a few games of beer pong and volleyball, we climbed back down to the river, grabbed our tubes, and continued our journey. After another 45 minutes, a man threw a rope out for us to catch. If you managed to catch it, he pulled you in. If you didn’t like so many in our group, you had to stand up in the few feet of water and navigate your own way to shore across the rocky bottom and through a decent current while trying to hold on to your tube. Once ashore, there was basketball, ping pong and fire-limbo. We stayed until the sun sank behind the mountain and begrudgingly made our way back down to what would now be a cold trip to the pickup point. It was an awesome day. If I had stayed longer in Vang Vieng, I would have braved another walk barefoot to do it again.
After warming up and getting some food, we headed to the very popular Sakura Bar. This is a fairly regular bar where you can buy alcohol...and balloons. Balloons? Yes, I was confused too. Now in Vietnam, I've discovered that this is a pretty common drug across Southeast Asia. In between pouring beers and mixing drinks, bartenders fill balloons with Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. I watched backpacker after backpacker "do a balloon" for $1-2 each. They'd breathe it in without a thought to what it was doing to their brain. The high or dizzy spell would last no longer than a minute. So they would belly up to the bar and buy another. "If dentists use it, it must be safe, right?" they'd say. Despite being asked, offered and even given one, "doing a balloon" was not for me. "I'll stick to alcohol, thanks," I'd say while trying to limit the condescension in my voice. If you buy two vodka drinks, you get a free Sakura Bar tank top adorned with the bar’s very distasteful slogan…”Drink triples, see doubles, act single”. These shirts are the best advertising money can buy with thousands of backpackers wearing them across Asia. While the hangover showed my true age the next day, the shirt will keep my cover as a backpacker on the Banana Pancake Trail.
The Banana Pancake Trail is basically the route around Southeast Asia that most backpackers follow. Backpackers, the relatively uncultured and picky eaters that they are, eat them every day for breakfast. When your stomach is still reeling from last night’s dinner and you need something in your system before your trek into the jungle or day stuck in a wetsuit, banana pancakes are a dependable and delicious choice. This is one backpacker tradition that I can get on board with.