Recently, I came across the term, ‘Banana Pancake Trail’, while browsing what Southeast Asian destinations to travel to next.
The Banana Pancake Trail (let’s call it the BPT for short) first came about shortly after the Lonely Planet guidebook ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Budget’ became the backpacker’s bible. I was debating investing in this thick paperback myself, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve found a copy of one in almost each and every hostel I’ve been to so far.
Because there are so many travelers who study these books and plan their adventures based on its recommendations, many of the destinations listed have gained in popularity over time. Much like the supposedly calm and tranquil Ubud, other ‘must-see’ destinations in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have turned into similar backpacking hotspots.
And where you find a congregation of backpackers, chances are you’ll also find free banana pancakes for breakfast. It’s my ultimate comfort food. You can have them drizzled with chocolate syrup, but personally, I prefer to eat them with a sprinkle of sugar.
My original plan when setting off to Southeast Asia, although I didn’t know it at the time, was to complete the BPT. Most travelers are unaware that they are even on it. They follow the recommendations of fellow backpackers in hostels who tell them, “Oh, I loved Chiang Mai. And Ubud. Who doesn’t like Ubud? Like, really, who? You just have to go there”.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t go to any of these places. Chances are, you’ll absolutely love them and have a much less stressful time than if you were to head to a small village where there is ‘nothing’ to do and no one speaks a word of English.
Enter the dilemma. The main reason we set off in the first place is to get away and experience something new, but then the first thing we do when arriving in town is order a pizza instead of that strange looking local dish and hang out with our fellow European and American friends. It’s just so much easier. Just like it’s easier for those Germans to speak German right next to that English girl that doesn’t understand a word they’re saying.
But just how easy do you want your backpacking experience to be?
1. Easiest – Never straying from the BPT and enjoying all it has to offer.
We can choose to stick to the BPT. It’s not a bad decision at all. It’s full of convenience and familiarity. Fun people and crazy parties. Beautiful beaches and interesting locals. It offers us the comforts of home and allows us to meet people who think similar and look similar to what we are used to from back home. We can converse to the locals using solely English and hope that they understand and speak our language. We can avoid local dishes that we can’t pronounce, choosing instead juicy hamburgers and fries to fill our bellies. We’re not here to impress anyone.
2. Easier – Wandering away from the BPT, but never far from the trail
It’s also possible to wander off, then back onto the BPT. Never straying far from its comforts and convenience but allowing ourselves a glimpse, a taste of the local life, where tourists are far and few between. Living with a local family. Staying in a place longer than a few weeks. Learning to speak a few phrases in the local dialect.
3. Not that easy – Staying as far away from the BPT as possible
Let’s avoid the BPT completely. We can take the bus to Bangladesh, a country where only about 10 tourists a day enter its borders! How about we get into crazy situations where we are completely dependent on the kindness of strangers. We can break down in tears because it’s dark, we’re alone and scared, and we have no idea how to find our hostel. And wouldn’t it be amazing to have an intelligent conversation in the local dialect? We can make long lasting friendships with locals, by coming to understand their customs and traditions. We can gain new perspective and a deeper understanding of why people think differently, do differently, act differently, from what we are used to.
In the end, it’s up to you.
This famous line from a Robert Frost poem sums it up quite nicely.
Whether you think it’s a cliché line you’ve heard too many times or not, it sends a powerful message. No matter where we are in the world, the decisions we make and the paths we choose determine our future selves.
How do you travel? Do you prefer convenience or do you enjoy being completely outside of your comfort zone? Or a bit of both?
You might also be interested in: My Love and Hate Relationship with Bali