These Malaysians want more people to give backpacking a chance

For most of us, having a thirst for adventure is the reason why we explore foreign lands.

Regardless of what stage of life we are in, there’s no denying that deep down, there’s always a yearning to see and experience something new, and to escape whatever stressful situation we constantly find ourselves in our daily lives.

Backpacking, for some people at least, is said to be a good way to temporarily relieve stress, as it helps one to unload any negative thoughts by replacing them with good feelings and fresh experiences.

This travel style is fast gaining popularity again in today’s post-lockdown world, as more people begin to embrace the world as is, without all the frills and curated experiences of luxury tours. Not to mention, backpacking usually costs a whole lot less than that of other travel styles.

Apart from that, some folks also feel that backpacking adds that extra “zing” to their lives. Perhaps, this is the reason why a lot of younger travellers prefer to travel this way.

Backpacking gives you a sense of freedom to explore as you pave your own way, without the constraints of a dull routine, says artist Lisa Anthony, 27, who loves to backpack.

“Backpacking simply means ‘living out of a backpack’. I find thrill in not knowing what my next step is, where I’m going to sleep or what I’m going to do at the destination,” she says in an interview.

“I’ve spent years living away from home, both to study and work. In fact, my interest in backpack travelling stems largely from having an independent lifestyle,” Anthony explains.

Anthony enjoyed backpacking through parts of Europe, where she visited Ghent in Belgium, a university city.Anthony enjoyed backpacking through parts of Europe, where she visited Ghent in Belgium, a university city.

Backpacking involves less planning, too, Anthony says, and the flexible schedule allows one easily make decisions on where to go, what to eat and where to stay. “I can set my own plan without the fear of disappointing anyone for not meeting their expectations,” she adds.

“I find enjoyment in the spontaneity of on-the-spot planning. I’d usually only have certain things set and confirmed, such as the duration of my visit, flight tickets and how to get around. This was what I did for almost all of my backpacking trips – I would take public transportation or rent a car to travel around the place,” shares Anthony, who has visited 15 countries so far around the globe so far. She prefers to backpack alone, but has no problem travelling with a small group either.

Free and easy

Senior account executive Michelle Chang, 27, also prefers to backpack on her own. She feels that while going on holiday with friends is fun, it doesn’t always give her much freedom to do what she really wants to.

“You get to visit the common tourist spots, but usually not anything beyond that. That’s why I very much prefer to travel on my own or with maybe another two people, as this allows me to see more of the ‘untapped treasures’ and experience more of what the world has to offer,” she says during our interview.

Chang prefers to travel solo or in small groups as this gives her the freedom to visit what she really wants to see, like this Pink Cathedral in Da Nang. —  MICHELLE CHANGChang prefers to travel solo or in small groups as this gives her the freedom to visit what she really wants to see, like this Pink Cathedral in Da Nang. — MICHELLE CHANG

Having the freedom to explore also gives one the freedom to eat whatever and whenever one wants. Chang recalls her trip to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam with her sister. After spending an entire day exploring the city, the siblings wanted to visit a local restaurant that served snails, or “oc dao” in Vietnamese. With the help of Google Maps, they found one shop hidden in an alley.

When it was time to order, they realised that the menu did not have any pictures, or any English description. “It was all in Vietnamese. We tried to use Google Lens to figure things out but to no avail, as the results we got were ‘bicycle’ and ‘slippers’. The waiters were friendly, but they weren’t able to explain or understand us.

“So we just tried our luck and pointed to a bunch of things on the menu! It was exciting but also a little nerve-wracking at the same time,” Chang said.

When the waiter brought their orders, the sisters were relieved and happy that none of the dishes was too extreme.

“Every part of the experience was memorable and worth repeating. We ordered eight dishes and each one was marvellous. Even the price – we only paid RM60 for everything,” she said.

Going to a place you have never been before warms your mind up to trying new things and learning about new cultures and traditions. Anthony points out that travelling can also promote tolerance and understanding among people.

“You’re more willing to accept other people’s views, even when it doesn’t align with yours. People can have completely different ways of doing one thing, but that shouldn’t stop us from engaging with them,” Anthony shares, adding that after seven years of backpacking, it is easier for her to embrace each other’s differences now.

Brand new you, maybe

Going on a backpacking trip, especially if you’re on your own, can be scary, but let the uncertainty of the journey push you forward, Anthony says.

Both she and Chang have a positive outlook on the benefits of backpacking, as is the experience has given them the confidence to be independent and not be held back by fear.

Anthony, for one, is one of those people who often turn setbacks into opportunities. She shares, “You can put me in any country and I can figure out how to get from one point to another. Things don’t always go according to your plan, but being able to think on your feet and come up with a solution is a skill that can only be learned through experience, and I have done just that. ”

Chang once backpacked in Hoi An, Danang in Vietnam. One of the attractions there is the basket boat ride. — MICHELLE CHANGChang once backpacked in Hoi An, Danang in Vietnam. One of the attractions there is the basket boat ride. — MICHELLE CHANG

She talks about a time when she backpacked in Italy with her brother. “We missed our train one day, but instead of dwelling on the problem or ‘waiting for the issue to resolve itself’, we decided that it was just another challenge and came up with an alternative plan.

“You’ll realise that the windows are never completely sealed and that we are still able to find ways to (get out of a predicament) and create memories,” Anthony notes, adding that no matter where we are, we are bound to encounter some setbacks.

For Chang, she says that language barrier is a common situation people face while travelling abroad, but that should not stop you from trying to connect with locals.

“The lack of confidence and unwillingness to communicate will slow down and dampen any journey. Believe it or not, some people would actually rather not speak with others who cannot speak the same language as they do, for fear of miscommunication.

“Thankfully, after going on several backpacking trips, I have gained more confidence when it comes to communicating with locals. I can ‘talk’ to people without worrying that we can’t understand each other,” Chang says, adding that hand gestures is an effective communication tool too.

There are also apps that can help you translate foreign languages, or you can go “old school” and get one of the many useful travel phrasebooks that can be easily found in bookshops.

And once you’ve bonded with locals, it becomes easier for you to ask them for advice on where to go, off-the-beaten-track places that are not teeming with tourists, for example. Or perhaps even their favourite eatery, one that everyone goes to daily for a quick lunch, or home-cooked dishes.

“What I love most about travelling is that I get to meet people from diverse backgrounds, including locals and travellers. You’d have a chance encounter with people of cultures other than yours. Remember to pick their brains for some street tips!

Anthony riding on a dromedaries while travelling in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.Anthony riding on a dromedaries while travelling in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

“You can have a nice chat with them, too, and this is usually when you can unearth some wonderful food destinations,” Anthony says.

Economically feasible

While most people think that backpacking is a cost-effective way to travel, it’s actually not always easy on the wallet, especially if you like to travel at the last minute. Good financial management is essential, as it all comes down to having an effective budget.

Of course, backpacking can sometimes be relatively cheaper than other styles of travelling. For Anthony, the bulk of “savings” she normally makes is on accommodation. Backpackers’ hostels and budget hotels are the accommodations of choice for most backpacking adventurers, who prefer to spend their money on experiences and visiting memorable attractions.

Chang says that cheaper accommodation options – and even ground transportation – are everywhere, and easily accessible these days as many are listed on booking apps and platforms.

Both she and Anthony agree that a stay at a fancy, more expensive hotel is unnecessary as you would spend most of your time exploring the place and its surrounding areas anyway. So really, you only need a place to store your bag, and to shower and sleep in – a hostel is good enough for this purpose.

Anthony reveals that she only spent RM25 a night at a capsule hotel while backpacking through Sabah!

That said, though, people who prefer to backpack are not “cheap tourists”. Chang says that while backpacking is a cheaper way to travel, people backpack for many reasons.

One of them, she notes, is to see the world from a different perspective.

Most people backpack on their own, but there are those who still prefer to have a travel buddy or two. — KETUT SUBIYANTO/PexelsMost people backpack on their own, but there are those who still prefer to have a travel buddy or two. — KETUT SUBIYANTO/Pexels

“Some people like backpacking not because they cannot afford or are on a tight budget, they simply just want to experience things differently (from what is usually portrayed on television, movies and the media) and at their own pace. Backpacking helped me get out of my comfort zone and at the same time, helped widen my outlook on life too.

“Backpacking is like a package of learning opportunities and adventure, one where you’d most likely stumble into many unexpected yet interesting things. Learning new cultures is definitely an experience worth having,” she concludes, adding that Malaysia is a great place to start your backpacking adventure.

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