Escape from the ‘real’ world. Could you backpack forever?

Escape from the ‘real’ world. Could you backpack forever?

2 July 2010

Backpacking Life

“I could get used to this”

For many, travelling is the ‘time of your life,’ an inspiring, fun-filled adventure that happens but once in a lifetime. It’s a mere ‘weekend break’ in the grand journey of life, something you ‘get out your system’ before resuming your position in the ‘real world.’

But what if you decided you’d rather not go back to the ‘real world’? I’m having too much fun! I don’t want to swap my backpack for a briefcase, just yet. An interesting idea, you think, but a far-fetched fantasy nonetheless! Or is it?

In a hostel in Penang I met a 70 year old Californian who had been ‘on the road’ for 40 years and there was no sign he was about to cease roaming any time soon! He goes home every now and again to save up…but always finds himself back out here again. The travel bug firmly lodged in his system. Another chap I met on the same trip, an Australian cyclist had been journeying around the world all his life, funding his trip through travel photography and giving slide show presentations of his adventure. His mission was to visit every single country in the world, which he had amazingly achieved, with the exception of just one, the impenetrable North Korea.

My personal favourite has to be a guy that one of my friends ended up on a boat with after responding to an innocuous flyer pinned to a tree. (You may have seen them…‘Sail the world’  ‘Live a sea gypsy lifestyle.’)  The sailor being a nudist Frenchman in his 60’s who had been floating around Asia for twenty years on a boat he built himself, occasionally picking up the odd tourist to fund his nomadic existence. No house, no clothes, no worries.

The thought of ‘settling down’ and getting a ‘real job’ is as bizarre and unnatural to these long-time backpackers as the thought of endless roving is to most.

And while I’m not suggesting you shed your clothes and build a boat. (Not yet anyway) what I definitely am suggesting is that maybe there exists a different way to live your life than you’d ever thought possible, a different path than the one that leads to the inevitable 9 to 5.

But hang on; you’re thinking. This all sounds very good and well, but I’ve already blown a load of money on Chang and silly tribal headgear, and that was just last night! I’m not gonna lie, filling in the ‘occupation’ space on my Visa form with the profession, ‘backpacker’ is a great buzz, but something tells me that this ‘day dream’ can’t last forever. Being a millionaire in Laos is one thing, but the truth is I’m running out of money fast!

Okay, so you have a point, and I hate to break it to you, but sadly, money doesn’t grow on coconut trees. Traditional backpacking practice is to work your guts off at home to save up for your ‘gap year’ then return once the cash has run out. Some travellers fund a few months in Asia with a stint working in Australia for example. Bar work, fruit picking and other agricultural grafting is a way to make your time out here last longer.

But, it is possible to earn and travel in this part of the world, and although you may not make mega bucks, the cost of living is considerably less in Asia, so your pocket money goes a lot further, and the lifestyle could be more rewarding than you ever thought.

Probably one of the most popular ways to fund your travelling is to get yourself a job teaching English. Young enthusiastic students eager to learn will make your working day seem less work, more play. I’ve met tons of travelers in all different parts of South East Asia; Hanoi, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai, Pnomh Penh. It’s usually the bigger cities that give the best pay and have the biggest expat communities that are easy to integrate into, but there are opportunities out in the countryside too, where you’ll earn less but very often the cost of living can be dirt cheap. Most jobs require some kind of teaching qualification, (which can be taken out here) TEFL or CELTA being the most highly regarded.

The beauty of teaching is that it won’t drain all of your time. You can use your weekends and holidays to try new things, explore your creativity, invest time in hobbies, learn to play the ukulele perhaps, and most importantly…explore the country of your choice and immerse yourself in a different culture.

Other than teaching, depending on your skills and interests, there are adventure companies that employ foreigners as guides or instructors, from rock climbing to yoga schools. If you have a passion for the chosen activity, you’ll be one of the lucky few to have ‘a doing something you love and getting paid for it job.’ One of the most evident of these being a dive instructor. Tales abound of backpackers learning to dive for the first time, getting the bug and months, years, decades later they’re in the same place still living the dream, many with businesses of their own. Koh Tao must have some kind of magnetic rock that ensures no one can leave after doing their PADI course.

And then, there are the people you meet out here who are doing things well, just a bit different. Entrepreneurs, freelance writers, photographers, artists, TV producers, folks setting up meditation schools, wakeboarding schools, trapeze schools! I’ve met people starting their own charities, making documentaries or just making a living blogging about their trip! Not bad eh. Since I’ve been travelling and living in South East Asia, I’ve met so many interesting people who just seem to have an attitude to want to give it a go! (Whatever it may be) It makes you realize what an exciting place this is and how much opportunity exists here for the open minded individual.

As backpacking numbers increase despite the drop in tourism, it seems to me that many young people today, (me included), are leaving home in search of something different, see if there is anything else, tick off all the boxes and ultimately make sure they’re not going to miss anything before resigning themselves to a ‘conventional’ life.

I once heard a quote that said; “the only problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” With the recent global meltdown, hitting the West harder than the East, it seems that the lifestyle of the ‘rat’ and indeed ‘Western society’ have been placed into question. To the office worker who hates his job and toils at his desk every day of his life to get a 2-week holiday in the same destination as the fisherman works every day of his, it begs the question what are we working for?

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12 Comments For This Post We’d Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Evelyn Lim says:

    Hi there, I am not exactly a backpacker. I come from Singapore, the modern island city in SEA. I have been to some of the places you have mentioned in your posts. Having traveled both far and near to home, I can safely say that SEA offers a diversity that you cannot find elsewhere in the world.

    I love the design, concept and feel of this website! I wish you every success with it!!!

  2. Sally says:

    Wow, that is the only words that comes to mind right now! as I am on my final year in Uni and still do not know what I should do! I am puzzled about doing what is “right” to do – working in a 9-5 job or start my own business and have a stressful life ahead… or keep it basic, and do a little business teach some English move to an amazing island and travel forever… anyway enough about me, I think you gave found the answer on your own post. you have meet people that can make a leaving out of it. You answered your own question, just believe in your dreams and good luck!
    I will be checking for you updates
    x

  3. Bessie says:

    Great post pondering what so many consider – I can just live this dream forever! :)

    Myself personally, after 14 months backpacking, I got exhausted moving around so much, and wanted to be somewhere for a while to make friends and get past the sometimes difficult problems being in a new town pose, like where to buy water and finding bandaids.

    But I’ve found it quite possible to keep the travel alive, like you mention teaching English in Korea, and starting an online business. Loads of people take similar paths, and keep the dream of travel alive. I say, when there’s a will, there’s a way!! It’s definitely possible to push off the ‘rat race’, it’s just a matter of priorities.

  4. Adam says:

    Great post. My wife and I went on a year long RTW in 2008-2009, and while it was the best decision we ever made, we were ready to come home at the end. We just missed friends and family too much to keep going. We weren’t out of money, either, so we could have kept going a few months longer at least. We also missed that stability. Traveling got old for us after a while, and we just didn’t get as excited as we should have to see and do certain things. Travel became our lives, and seeing another temple or going on another trek got monotonous after a while, just like working and going out with friends does at home.

    Now that we’ve been home for nearly 11 months, we both have the itch (we actually got it again a few months after our return) again to get back out of the road. The only problem is leaving careers again. Ideally, we’d love to be able to travel for half the year and live at home half the year, but we have yet to find a way to do it.

    I used to envy those who could travel indefinitely (and I still sometimes do), but it just isn’t for us. Everyone is different, and while we definitely plan on going on an extended trip again sometime down the road, we could never just keep going. To each their own. Because long term travel, while sounding glamorous, does take its toll after a while.

    Great post, though, and thanks so much for sharing.

  5. pipi says:

    Great post! I recently came back from an AMAZING SEA trip and didn’t want to leave! With only a year left until graduation, at this point, I am contemplating what to do next, and trying to examine if becoming a (permanent?) backpacker is a positive or even feasible option for me. Your post has shown me it is possible, that there is a way, if we are willing. But I am still very uneasy about just letting it all go, giving up the stable and safe life I have built here!

  6. Tran says:

    If you define “backpacking forever” as having the freedom and flexibility to work and move as you please, I think more people would answer yes. The key is figuring out how to work and play at the same time….

    • steve says:

      I found that possible by becoming a Adapted PE teacher with kids. I get paid to play, then, when not teaching, I tour and play some more. But, I admit, I like my safety bubble as a base for my income and lifestyle, and then and only then, can I venture out of the “real world” to travel

  7. Michael says:

    After being in SEA 3 times in a total for 6 months I’ve decided to take the big step within the next year or so.
    I just can’t get on with my 9-5 desk job after seeing how life can be.

    I’m gonna start a dive business somewhere in SEA – Philippines or Thailand. Only thing I have to do now is save up so I have something to start out with.

    Fingers crossed that it’ll work out

  8. Prime says:

    The rise of the digital nomad means that backpacking is no longer for those who are into their sabbaticals or gap year. Yes you can backpack forever because you can build as career or a business on the road thanks to technology and social networking

  9. how i wish i could afford to do backpacking more often.i’m from SEA region and there’s really so much to explore in this part of the world.I’m from the Philippines and I believe we have the best beaches in South east asia

  10. Luke says:

    I dislike this post entirely. It started off good with the comments about bar work, and fruit picking as these are accessible low skilled jobs that enable the person to save a bit and move in short bursts suitable to the backpacking lifestyle.

    However when people then discuss backpacking as either teaching, setting up a website business, opening a bar or whatever then this become s a little bit more than backpacking don’t you think?

    Professional jobs -not backpacking jobs- require a different subset of skills and are in fact therefore not classed as backpacking jobs.

    Having lived and worked around Asia and the Middle East for the last 8 years -straight out of Uni- I rarely met a teacher, newspaper editor, handyman, salesman, property developer or business person call themselves a backpacker. I did meet one or two and they were in the worst and lowest paid English teaching jobs available because they would only work for a few months.

    If you do decide on a professional job to fuel your need for adventure then I would consider seriously the commitment. The worst thing you could do is gain the trust of a company or school, have them pay for your visa and expect you to be there for you to act like you on holiday or leave after a short stint. Most places grant a minimum of a year visa.

    These are “real jobs” never mind what the author leads you to think and you will be joining the rat race trust me. It doesn’t change anything just because the weather is hotter and the food is different. There are beautiful places everywhere in the world, you just got to know what you have got.

    Working abroad is hard work and it is a commitment and I’ve know people to make something of themselves out here. I have also seen people go rock bottom. However I feel the options are immense for expats’ but fortunately not for backpackers unless you have a certain sub set of skills already.

    So after all the differentiating between what is and what is not, here is a link to a site that has mostly back packing jobs.

    After all backpackers are looking to backpack are they not.

    http://www.jobsabroadbulletin.co.uk/

  11. Stacey says:

    I moved to a new country to have an adventure… 3 months later the new and exciting novelty has worn off and I have gotten itchy feet again. I love the quote “The only problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” I can totally relate to this. Fortunately my job of being a vet tech means I can work in various places around the world, but I seem to have gotten caught up in the rat race again by moving to a new place. I can’t wait to break free again.

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