by Hank Leukart
March 22, 2006
Be careful which backpackers you wish for
Picking friends while backpacking is harder than it looks.
Stina, Hank, and Christian in front of one tier of Thee Lo Su, Thailand’s largest waterfall
AN SOP RUAK (The Golden Triangle), Thailand — When you’re traveling on the cheap in a foreign country filled with non-Westerners, it’s exceptionally easy to meet and become friends with other backpackers because we’re an easily identifiable breed. This is one of backpacking’s biggest perks and most annoying curses. It’s a perk because it’s always fun to make new friends, but also it’s a curse, because sometimes the thing that makes instant friendship so easy is the very thing from which you’re trying to escape while on vacation.
Backpackers are often a strange group. They usually fall into a few major categories: adventurous post-high school or post-college students in transition looking for a good time; young, humble couples looking for a romantic vacation without the white gloves; and single, quarter- and middle-aged eccentrics who, probably due to their peculiarities, don’t appear to have jobs or a stable life in their home countries. With so many backpacker varieties to choose from, it’s hard to decide with whom to connect and who to avoid.
Traveling from Sukothai to Mae Sot in a tiny minivan, I met two German girls traveling post-college with a thirty-something American from Boston named Alex. As the minivan twisted and turned through the pastoral Thailand countryside nearing the “Death Highway,” we bonded over our close-quarters and motion sickness. After we arrived in rural Mae Sot near the Burmese border, we decided to stay at the same guesthouse and ate a few meals together. I watched in utter pain as the Germans spent five minutes each with Thai waitresses, trying to explain in English how exactly they wanted their Thai dishes modified to their liking. While Alex and I shared American sarcasm, I had little else in common with him, a masseuse spending six weeks in Asia for Oriental massage lessons — other Americans usually are the last people I want to meet when traveling in foreign countries. The four of us enjoyed each other’s company for a short while, but the three had traveled to the border to renew their Thai tourist visas, while I was on my way to remote Um Phang for a jungle trek. It became clear that we our time together was destined to be short-lived.
In Mae Sot, I met a friendly, helpful Canadian named Peter who had been traveling in Asia for five months — and also seemed, based on his bloodshot eyes and paranoid demeanor — to have been smoking opium daily during his trip. He gave me some great travel advice, but we weren’t a match. Robin, another Canadian hailing from Victoria (a less than three-hour trip from my home, Seattle) was thrilled to discover me, a fellow techie; he suggested that we travel together through Northern Thailand. I love vacations — they’re a great way to escape over-privileged North America, daily monotony, and the computer nerds with whom I work. Sorry, Robin.
In Um Phang, I ran into Jim, a Brooklynite who seemed like the guy reality shows would love to make famous with a “New Yorker” title below his talking head; he was friendly, but much too, uh, American to have as a backpacking friend in Southeast Asia. He had two Australians in tow (Erin and Garth), who seemed like they could be my best friends back in the States. They filled me with great Australian travel advice and asked tens of curious questions about working in the tech industry. Unfortunately, their separate jungle trek included The New Yorker, and I had already chosen another trek.
Luckily, my one-person jungle trek became a three-person trek when two Danish friends found their way to my guesthouse: Christian, an artist, and Stina, a schoolteacher. As we set off rafting, it became clear to me that these two were surprisingly well-adjusted, friendly backpackers, with the added advantage of being European. As I got to know them better, their sparkling Danish wit (is this common?) and interest in teaching me Danish and about Denmark’s geography and culture won me over, and before we knew it, we had spent six days together.
Then, a funny thing happened.
Stina got sick.
After taking an often-maligned malaria medication for over a month, an ulcer had formed in her throat. What do you do when a week-old friend gets sick and needs to spend a few days resting? You don’t want to leave her stranded, but also, you don’t want to ruin three days of vacation nursing a person you just met back to health.
And so, with heavy hearts (at least mine was), we traded e-mail addresses and bid farewell as I entered the final stretch of my two-week vacation. With two months of travel left ahead of them, they could afford the downtime, but I couldn’t. I gave Stina one of my paperbacks and my supply of Midol and Tylenol to keep her sickness company; I secretly paid for their final night in our hotel; and I rode off into the Thai countryside on a tuk-tuk — an open-air Thai taxi powered by a lawnmower engine. I know — the lawnmower engine ruins the mood.