Traveller vs. Tourist

In Vang Vieng, Laos, tourists tube to visit the infamous river bars. Tom Bishop CC BY 2.0

Is there a difference? Or are there other factors at play?   

I found myself with too much time on my hands. My first term of teaching had come to an end, and I was allotted a handful of weeks to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. Did I choose to volunteer or do anything of value or meaning during this time? Of course not.

Instead, I chose to join the onslaught of tourists who follow Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” journey, and I made my way to Cambodia and Laos. It was both incredibly refreshing and, more importantly, exciting, to travel around for a bit and forget about any and all responsibilities that anxiously awaited me back in Bangkok.

I felt normal again. I felt human again. Most people don’t up and quit their lives, abandon their families, and turn a blind eye to what society expects us to do with our lives after graduation. But backpacking, taking a couple of months to meet other tourists before the normal nine-to-five jolts us back to reality—this is something many people do. I felt like I was one with the majority. I didn't stand out amongst these tourists. I could crack jokes that people actually understood, and I could join any crowd with ease and essentially no language barriers. With this feeling of ease came a feeling of joy, and I didn’t think I could have any more fun than I was already having. . .until suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.

I could feel the burning gaze of the hostel staff as one wasted foreigner broke a bottle of whiskey on the floor, making no move to pick up what was left of the bottle.

I felt ashamed as embarrassingly drunk tourists made their way down Laos streets in bikinis after tubing on the Mekong River for the day. I could feel the burning gaze of an entire hostel staff as one wasted foreigner broke a bottle of whiskey on the floor, making no move to pick up what was left of the bottle. Instances like these made me deplore these backpackers, who thought themselves so worldly having only travelled around with other, fellow backpackers and not even attempting to learn so much as “sorry” in the language of the country they were visiting.

The longer I was around them, however, the more I felt like I was one of them.

I visited Cambodia and Laos, and I only knew how to say “thank you” and “hello” in both Khmer and Lao. Having lived in Thailand for seven months now, it's safe to say I can hold my own in the most basic of conversations, from asking for directions, to telling an attractive local (in hopes of impressing him) that yes, I am indeed single. My basic Thai skills were all but useless during my month of travel, and I was once again back to square one. I felt like I did seven months ago, wandering aimlessly around Bangkok in hopes of finding someone who spoke any English and feeling ignorant for doing so.

The thought occurred to me that not everyone has the chance to leave their home country, travel to another, and attempt to travel "with purpose." I may be teaching English in Thailand, but I wouldn’t have been able to do so if I was absolutely needed at home, had a proper job in place, or had graduate studies planned for after university. So many factors come into play when deciding to work abroad, and not everyone is so lucky to get the chance to do what it is that I’m doing.

So what are they to do? They follow Lonely Planet’s guide, they connect with other travellers and they have fun until the real world beckons them back to wherever it is they came from. This made me realize that I'm no different than these backpackers that I thought to be ignorant—I'm simply just lucky.

I would like to think that if everyone had the chance to live in a country where their native language isn’t spoken, they would learn whatever language that was, as I have, as best they could in order to hold their own. Not everyone has the opportunity to leave their home country to pursue a career abroad. I felt guilty, to say the least, for thinking I was better than anyone who was backpacking. I felt guilty for thinking I knew better than anyone else. While there are a handful of backpackers who simply make the majority look bad, not everyone who packs up to travel the world has intentions of partying every night and surrounding themselves with only like-minded people. I found that I was wrong, once again.

Being respectful, immersing yourself and appreciating the fact that you have the means and ability to travel is something everyone can do. Learn how to say basic words in whatever language you will need to navigate a country. Catapult yourself from your comfort zone, and maybe even have a beer with the locals. Make friends with fellow travellers, expats, what have you, but realize the potential and amazing connections you could have if you just attempted to connect with the people of the country you find yourself in.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Kelly Iverson

Although Dorothy was quite content, Kansas was no place like home for native Kelly Iverson. After studying abroad, she returned with an itch for travel no amount of scratching could alleviate. She lives in Bangkok, Thailand, where she teaches English.


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