Don's diary: A global nomad

September 6, 2002

Setting off for an expert meeting on backpacking, I find, despite my supposed expertise in the subject, that I am overloaded. Every time I travel, I swear I will travel lighter next time.

The train/tube/train rush-hour crowd fight goes OK - not too many delays. Check in at Heathrow with just enough time for coffee and a lustful gaze at duty-free shop. Why does the metal detector always manage to find the piece of metal I miss? On the plane at last, I manage to read some papers for the meeting.

7am: Bangkok, 29C. You can taste the pollution in the air. Check into the university accommodation (glad I chose the luxury, air-conditioned option), shower and then catch up with some sleep. After ploughing through some work, I venture out of the hotel with fellow conference delegates Clare (Sheffield Hallam) and Andy (Chester College) for a few drinks and discussion of various places of work and mutual friends.

Gather for the research group meeting. The nationality list reads like a travel atlas - Australians, New Zealanders, Brits, Germans, Israelis - all very laidback and friendly. Backpacking as a subject at last seems to be getting some recognition - not before time, I think.

Listening to the keynote speech, "Backpacking: Diversity and change", I question whether backpacking is an "ideology". Later discussions turn to the lure of spending a few weeks on the banana-pancake trail.

The next paper, on traveller identity, suggests that "a Samsonite says 'don't touch me', while a backpack speaks volumes". I wonder about the wisdom of all this luggage-speak. The conference dinner provides many funny stories - especially from the New Zealand contingent about NZ women and their increasing position of power within the country.

My turn to present research this morning: on backpacker transport in New Zealand. Only 15 minutes, so I have to be quick - an hour would be better. Try to relax and beat the nerves, but it goes well and far too quickly. Get some useful feedback and my head is full of ideas, which I try to get down on paper as fast as possible.

There appears to be a group consensus emerging about the gap between the theoretical constructs of backpacking and practical application of the work. Not having a sociology background and being much more applied, I find myself agreeing with adherents of the latter camp.

Out and about in Bangkok today. The sky-train has opened since I was last here - a great improvement in getting around, although it does not seem to have eased the traffic congestion. Head off down to the Khao San road to experience the famous backpacker enclave again. Sit over a bottle of water contemplating my status: am I a backpacker or traveller?

Back at the accommodation, I meet Ken from Unitec in Auckland, New Zealand. We discuss our respective universities in depth and talk about future collaboration.

Quiet day, wandering around the campus. Surprisingly busy. Visit Thai equivalent of a Wimpy for lunch - Ja strange experience.

On leave at last. The bustle of the city gets to you after a while, so I head out of Bangkok for the Angkor temples at Siem Reap. Despite loving the study of backpacking, the reality of 12 hours-plus on the worst road in Southeast Asia really does not appeal. Decide to bash the credit card, take the easy option and fly.

A quiet afternoon in Siem Reap, before heading out to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom tomorrow. I discover Cambodia has two temperatures - hot and steaming hot. Wander round the town, gaze wistfully at a luxury hotel, and try to convince myself that my guesthouse is more interesting.

Paul Vance is lecturer in tourism management, University of Hertfordshire.

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