Nineteen years ago, secure in the knowledge that I was going to be a great traveller, I sat on a minibus on a highway between Shizuoka and Tokyo in central Japan glowing with a sense of superiority over the other boys in my Japanese exchange tour class. I silently gloated over the knowledge that I among them understood the essence of travel. On that 5 hour trip, I decided how travel was supposed to be. Travel was adventure. It was machete wielding, rough sleeping, experience-having adventure. There would be no gilded pillows, no Caviar infused dining experiences. I would embark on a lifetime of travel in the proper manner. I could already see my worn walking shoes and scruffy backpacker beard making its way across the unexplored regions of the globe. While I may not have sworn it to myself right then, that trip was when I relegated cruise-going, five-star chasing travellers to the status of amateurs (what can I say, I may have been an arrogant child).
Despite the vehemence of my ideas of how travel should be undertaken, the journey to my thirties is littered with trips that must be a great disappointment to fourteen year old me sitting in the back seat of that Japanese minibus. Each trip I have taken since my fortnight in Japan in 1996 has been structured, planned and booked – at least in part – by a third-party. In Egypt, I booked an Intrepid tour because my companion was not comfortable backpacking across a country that was essentially a desert framing a river. (As it turned out the Intrepid experience was a highlight of the trip – up there with Siwa Oasis – and the connections with other travelers made the experiences all the more rich. I was even forced by work commitments (another reality of the thirty-fraternity) to dip my toes into the murky pool that is luxury resort travel in Fiji. While that week was incredibly relaxing and still contained enough excitement to be memorable, it left me feeling that I had betrayed that opinionated young boy with his nose to the window as he crossed Tokyo Bay.
The stereotype of the unwashed hippie backpackers seems today to be synonymous with the cultural and social homogenization of the modern traveller’s world. (Chuck Thompson is particularly effective in his exposition of this ideas in ‘Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a rogue travel writer’.) Not even this could dissuade me from the belief that roughing it was the only way to be a legitimate traveller. Last year, however, everything came together and my partner and I were finally able to break free of the shackles of tours and itineraries and we escaped to Laos. What I realised was that independent travel is not as simple as you might think. Planning and undertaking independent travel brings with it a whole host of issues and challenges that your friendly bar-side backpacking guru might conveniently forget to share. I would certainly recommend taking a trip that is completely independently organised – just remember to plan ahead. We spent months selecting locations, scouting routes and transport methods. We argued over priorities and relegated experiences. We bought a guidebook, discarded a guidebook and bought another. We looked at Trip Advisor reviews of hotels, attractions, bus services and even prepared multiple currencies as a failsafe. The pre-travel organisation in itself was eye-opening, and by the time we reached the airport we were fairly sure of our plans.
In fact we were confident enough to leave Australia having only pre-booked our flight from Perth through KL to Vientiane and our return trip fourteen days later. While I would agree that travelling in this fashion is liberating and there are certainly plenty of opportunities to engage with authentic cultural experiences, it rapidly became clear that many of the experiences are rubbish! After the initial joy of discovery, Laos was underwhelming and the reputation of open friendliness had clearly been as overstated as the country’s value for money. To add insult to injury, the extra running around required to experience all a country has to offer is incredibly tiring. Despite the trials however, Laos was a fantastic journey and I feel that my need to be an independent traveller has been sated. We eventually found ourselves in the tourist hub of Luang Prabang and that is where I realised that my teenage dreams of gruelling adventure travel were never going to be the same because I realised that I loved ticking off the must see boxes and sleeping on soft bedbug-free mattresses, just as much as I love getting down and dirty in roadside dust and gastro inducing culinary delights.
In Luang Prabang we were able to experience all of the elements of the culture, packaged conveniently to suit the time available to us. I will definitely be planning my own trip next time, I’ve simply learned that a mix of experiences makes it a lot easier to survive – when you actually out there and not a fourteen year old on a minibus! Laos will always be the trip that forced me to let go of my narrow view of how one should travel and removed (most of) my guilt at skipping Laos a few days early to recline in the luxury of a KL hotel before returning home.