Mar 13, 2011

Parents, The Unconventional Backpacker

Not sure if it’s just because we’re getting old and jaded, but some of the backpackers that we’ve been encountering in Thailand have been really pissing us off with their ignorance and self absorption.  Sure backpackers by and large are young and usually 20-something out to discover the world.  And 20-something’s can be (but of course not always!) by definition, ‘self absorbed’, but whatever happened to being socially aware and socially sensitive.  How and why do you travel if you aren’t interested in any of this?  We had 2 minor incidences so far,
both in Thailand, which isn’t that surprising as Thailand is a magnet for backpackers.  But still, it was irritating at the time.

Ok, the first incident happened as we were on the local train headed for Ayutthaya, which was a 1.5hr ride away, although the train was headed somewhere beyond that.  We had tickets for the 3rd class carriage, which we were under the impression included unreserved seating on a first-come-first-serve base.  When we boarded the train was pretty full and many Thai people were standing.  We were surprised to find a few seats so settled ourselves, as did other backpackers.  Jim and I soon realised that we were sitting in the ‘reserved seat’ section of 3rd class and our tickets did not allow for us to occupy these seats.  We vacated the seats without hesitation when the rightful occupants arrived.  However other ‘rightful owners’ were not so lucky as the backpackers which were wrongfully in their seats refused to vacate, not likely realising the situation nor willing to.  They really gave foreigners a bad name.

The second incident happened the other night as we took the ‘foreigner backpacker special’ bus from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai.  When we got on, most of the seats were either occupied or were ‘hogged’ by a single person with their belongings or their whole body spread out.  Mostly single seats were dotted about.  None of the backpackers offered to allow us to sit together with our children and most pretended not to notice us.  In the end, Jim was lucky as a girl moved to sit with her boyfriend (thus vacating 2 seats), and I was able to at least sit across the aisle from Maddy.  

Signage on the LRT in Bangkok
The attitude that we encountered in the latter incident was in sharp contrast to the kindness that we’ve been receiving from the local Thai people whenever they see our children.  They would never let us be separated from our children on public or private transport (ie the mini buses departing from Victory Monument)) and would always reorganise themselves accordingly.  In fact on the LRT in Bangkok, there are signs which ‘remind’ the public that you should offer your seat to pregnant women, the elderly and also to children. Imagine that—people would actually get up and offer their seat to children, and we experienced this many a time too!!  But again, only Thai people would do this, never other tourists.  Case in point:  on a Saturday when we boarded the LRT at Mo Chit station in Bangkok after visiting the Chatuchak Weekend Market, the train was occupied by a good proportion of foreigners, and those who were lucky enough to have gotten a seat (not us), were all pretty happy and relieved.  It was the Thai people who got up, 3 of them in fact, to offer their seats to our children. Children in Thai society seem to have a level of consideration that is not usually seen in Western Society.  Never before have we encountered a society who collectively and instinctively look out for the welfare of (small?) children.  On the street random strangers would warn of on-coming traffic or a potentially dangerous situation (as they saw it).  LRT train security would perk up with attention when we approached the platform, keeping a protective eye on the girls that they didn’t get too close to the edge.  Thais regardless of age or gender would aid with the children without hesitation, such as steadying them on a crowded train or helping them enter or egress.  Thais actually seem to ‘see’ children, and I don’t think it’s only because we’re foreigners.

Monks Get Seating Privileges Too

We typically travel using the local transport options.  The bus trip to Chiang Mai was one of our first this trip where we were totally immersed with foreign backpackers and it was an eye-opener that left us a bit jaded.  Backpackers usually set out with multiple intentions:  to have fun, meet new people, party, see the world.  It’s sad that being sensitive and kind to people that they meet, locals and other travellers alike, is not a primary motive, as evidenced by thievery and other injustices that they do to each other.  Travelling should be about the people that you meet, not just about you having a good time.  We have met some great backpackers on our trip, past and present, but sadly it’s the poorly behaved ones which seem to stand out.

These experiences have caused us to question whether we were like them when we were young backpackers ourselvs.  We don’t think so but we do know that we probably wouldn’t have ‘seen’ the children either.  After all for most young people, kids are probably the furthest thing from their mind.  Parents travelling with children, backpacking no less, well, we probably seem so odd to them that they don’t even notice nor care to comprehend our situation or our needs.  We are finding ourselves in a strange ‘limbo’ of neither being a ‘typical’ backpacker nor a ‘typical’ family who is on a short holiday.  As such, the people that we do tend to relate to are ‘older’ backpackers, who are rare and few and far between, At times on this trip we’ve even been fortunate to be in the same place and time to meet other ‘families on the move’.  There are plenty of families out there doing what we are doing, and in our short time on the road so far, we have been able to meet Mummy T and Z ( in Ubud (Bali), Karina ( in KL, Ana, Bryan and Ricky ( in Bangkok, and Colin, Tracy, Noah and Hayley ( in Melbourne just before we left. 

Don’t get us wrong—we are having a GREAT time and meeting some really nice people but these incidences together with our own circumstance as ‘older backpackers with young children’ has given us a unique perspective from many of those around us.  And one’s perspective plays a strong role in shaping your experience.  Although we've travelled to Thailand before, this time we are definitely having some different experiences.  Any other travelling families out there have similar experiences/challenges with being an ‘unconventional’ backpacker?  Feel free to share any comments you have!


  1. I understand your dismay! When Mike and I backpacked Asia pre-kids I was a 20 something year old. However, I have always been a bit of an old soul and at the time Mike was entering his 30s. We experienced the same sort of ignorance in young backpackers....not covering up at temples, showing too much affection in public...they were there for a party with other backpackers, and didn't seem to have much interest in interaction with the locals.

    One of the things I am excited about for our upcoming trip to Asia is how different it will be traveling with children. The Asian love of children will open so many doors for us that travel without children never could.

    I'm glad you've had the opportunity to meet with other traveling families, something I am really looking forward to.

    Great Post!

  2. Hi
    Since i've ever only been an 'older' backpacker, we've encountered similar issues before, just that this time travelling with kids, you have other issues/perspectives to deal with too!

    The Thai love of children has just made it so much easier on us with respect to the welfare of the kids. It's when we've found ourselves back among the 'westerners' that we really notice the differences in attitudes towards the children.

    Thanks for your comment Amy :)

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