What is time to a backpacker?

For most people freedom begins at 5pm on a Friday and ends roughly 9am Monday morning.

Backpackers are not most people.

Me on the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

What is time? It’s a pretty fluid concept at the best of times. At worst, it’s what governs your day, your week, your month, your year and your life.

Wikipedia defines it as “a dimension in which events can be ordered from the past through the present into the future and also the measure of durations of events and intervals between them”.

When I was backpacking through Southeast Asia, then, time was the measure between meals, beers, places and good times.

I didn’t even wear a watch. What use was time but for catching my next flight or sleeper bus?

Only on those days I would need to know the time – and even then it would be a pretty safe bet in places like Laos in particular that we would not be departing or arriving anywhere near on schedule.

Beautiful Langkawi beach in Malaysia

I wouldn’t even have known what day it was except for the fact that I was trying to regularly post new content on this here travel blog on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

On Twitter I’d see my mates over in London were excited about the weekend. But every day is a weekend when you’re a backpacker.

Even events in SE Asia weren’t so much governed by time as they were by our instincts and the instincts of others. Do you think Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand, started and finished on time? Not on your life.

Sure, time has a little bit more importance backpacking in other parts of the world. In Europe, for instance, buses and trains run to regular-enough schedules that would make transport operators in the likes of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand blush.

But even then backpackers are best left to their own schedules to make the most out of this form of travel.

My best travel advice would be to not book your travels too far in advance. Simply move on to the next destination when you feel like it.

Nicola relaxes on a hammock in Koh Samui

We’ve just had lunch, right? It must be time for a Chang, Bintang or Beerlao.

I could get away with that in Southeast Asia and Europe – but not so much as a regular civilian, running the rat race from 9-5 in pursuit of an honest living. Trust me, I’ve tried.

But time can also be a backpacker’s worst enemy. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be a full-time traveller, there may eventually come a time when you will have to return home.

Whether that time is dictated by budget or by design, when it comes it’s like an albatross around your neck.

Jet lag, too, is caused by the ravages of time – and it can do funny things to your ability to write a coherent blog post (see my attempt at Spanish travel acrostic poetry to see exactly what I mean).

Still, wouldn’t you happily trade a life dictated by your boss or job for one of occasional jet lag and the only deadlines being the ones you impose on yourself?

Even just for a few months at a time like I did in Europe in 2008 and South East Asia in 2012?

About Simon Petersen 296 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.

20 Comments

  1. Good stuff mate! Although I feel everything you mention is the same for travelers in general and not just backpackers per say. I usually feel the same way when I’m off on a week long vacation. Not keeping a track of time is such a luxury although it means I might miss out on something fun, during a cruise in the Caribbean it was just great, especially the sea days when you could just explore the ship and the numerous activities without thinking too much. Cheers!

    • To be fair, you’re right – it is generally the same for most travellers. I guess the only difference for a backpacker is it’s more like to be they lose track of time for months at a time. Either way, it’s a great feeling!

  2. I think there are many reasons why I have never been backpacking, and your point about backpackers following a loose schedule is one of them. 🙂 I’ve traveled a lot, and spent more than two years living in developing countries, but I still can’t get over my attachment to being on time and following a schedule. Maybe I SHOULD try backpacking, just to push myself to relax more. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • You should definitely give it a go! Although I must admit the hardest part for me – beside sleeping in decidedly dodgy hostels and trying not to be ripped-off by the locals – is not having much direction in my life. If it wasn’t for this blog I’d probably have started sleeping in until lunchtime every day!

    • It’s the best! I love getting lost in a new place; it’s one of the attractions of travel for me. It’s difficult to get lost where you live.

  3. True that! I hardly take a look at my watch anymore.. Basically I only wanna know when it’s about to get dark.. or, yes, when my flight is due.. but that’s it. Very luxurious 🙂

  4. I haven’t worn a watch since I travelled to SE Asia for the first time, 10 years ago. Time is a fluid concept, and will run your life if you let it. I say no to that! Ha!

  5. It is one of my favorite things about traveling is that you lose the concept of time. You sit back and enjoy every moment. Not like when you are at home working a 9 to 5 where you are rushing around like a chicken with it’s head cut off trying to get beat the grind.

    • It’s the best! I know it sounds lame but I’d never stopped to smell the proverbial roses until I started travelling.

  6. So true! Time takes on a different meaning when you’re on the road. There’s a documentary called “A Map For Saturday” – which is all about the backpacking life and how every day is “Saturday”!

    Here’s a post I wrote recently about how time slows down on the road:
    http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2012/07/time-slows-down-while-traveling/

    As the years roll by (assuming you stay on the road that long), time becomes even more warped for 2 reasons:
    1) If you’re chasing summer (as I have been for 6 years), you miss the changes of seasons, which can help you to feel the passage of time a little better.
    2) In a space of a few months we could visit many countries and have untold life-changing experiences. But back home, friends and family with routines and more sedentary lives seem to be living more slowly. That’s why when we return home we feel older and wiser and different, but nothing seems to have changed at home; people are talking about the same things and dealing with the same dramas.

    I think “time” is a subjective concept, and something that is considerably more flexible than we can imagine.

  7. For most people freedom begins at 5pm on a Friday and ends roughly 9am Monday morning. – I hear you buddy!

    Thanks for making Loas and Cambodia sound even more amazing, I’m on a 5 month countdown.

    • I bet those five months can’t come soon enough! I’m actually looking forward to your trip, too – to live vicariously through your blog!

  8. Ahhhhhhh how true is this! Right now, I am under that heavy thumb called time, from the moment I wake up and squeeze every last ounce, minute and second tucked up under the covers before I have to force myself to emerge because I’m dangerously late for class (not a good look when you’re the teacher..) to keeping lessons on track and on time, in line with lunch an playtime breaks, to deadlines looming for reports… Ahhhh. There’s also the countdown going on. The one that will free me from all of the above, not only known as summer holidays, but also the liberation of knowing that I won’t be returning to this rat race routine next year, and will be getting amongst the backpacker lifestyle! Embracing my internal clock and letting it guide me across Canada come May.

    Well done, Simon, you’ve captured the pros and cons in a nutshell.

    • You’re going to have such a brilliant time backpacking – I’m jealous! Good luck with the rest of the school year!

  9. Great advice. When I was in the outback the first thing I was told was to remove all watches and put them in a bag together.

    For the next 3 weeks we didn’t know the time. We ate when we were hungry, slept when we were tired and did what we wanted when we wanted! It was awesome although confusing to get rid of the concept of time

    • Wow, that sounds amazing! I’d live that was for the rest of my life if I could – but I’d imagine it would piss off a few people: “Bloody Simon is always late; he just turns up when he feels like it!”

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