first edition of The Backpacker by John Harris was printed in 2001,
but this has now been re-released under the Summerdale label (ISBN
978-1-84024-771-8). There is the evocative photo of the long tailed boat
(rua lek) on the beach of Koh Phangan on the front cover, associating the
book with Thailand, though much of it is also in other locations, including
Singapore, Indonesia, Australia and Hong Kong. The promise on the front
cover is that it is like “The Beach”, but this one is true.
Right from the beginning, in a chapter aptly named ‘The Beginning’, author
Harris shows his ability to see, record and write, describing the airport in
Goa as “a London Underground station in the rush hour meets Third World
The narrative begins as John and his fiancée experience the usual problems
of backpacking in a foreign country, where the privations soon show the
prospective cracks in the relationship. Theirs lasted around three days
before she took a plane back home to the UK.
John very shortly after begins to compare his 9-5 mundane existence in the
UK to the spontaneity that backpacking travellers can indulge themselves
within. Inexpensive, readily available marijuana also helps the delusional
state. Decision making becomes left to chance. In John’s case, the decision
not to return to England was a postcard showing Koh Phangan beach.
There John finds himself in the middle of drug-fuelled parties, and still
going with the flow, with no conscious decisions being taken. Immaturity and
LSD make for a powerless combination. A bout of dengue fever did not help
either. But being chased by the Thai mafia did galvanize John and his friend
Escaping to Malaysia, with just one passport between them, saw them arriving
in Kuala Lumpur, and more adventures, with many of them relating to their
youthful (read irresponsible) approach to life. That leads them to stealing
a boat in Singapore, with John saying to one of the other miscreants, “This
is the best day of my life!” Amazing how hedonism can outweigh all other
‘isms’ when you are young.
The chapter dealing with their predicament in the yacht when they find
themselves in rough weather and genuinely unskilled in the noble art of
seafaring races along much faster than the wind. One of their number is
swept away and eventually they are shipwrecked on Australian shores. An
almost unbelievable feat of lucky navigation.
Australia brought the young men fruit picking, a time honoured method of
survival for the world’s backpackers. But as John found out, it is hard work
that nobody else wants to do. He also found a way to get back at the owners
of the orchard, conscience not being an attribute that either young man
It is a very well written book, perhaps today’s answer to Robinson Crusoe,
but remains for a me, a reflection of the shallowness of youth.
At B. 450 on the Bookazine shelves it is a good adventure read, but it is
also a very good description of international travel at the lower end of the
market, and of the backpackers themselves.