Sunday, April 21

Off the beaten track


BACKPACKERS are a different breed of tourists compared to the usual tourists who stay in more luxurious hotels.

MEMORABLE TRIP: Monica and Justin visited the Mulu National Park and other places of interest in Miri.

MEMORABLE TRIP: Monica and Justin visited the Mulu National Park and other places of interest in Miri.

The image of a backpacker is one of a budget traveller carrying a bulky backpack strapped to the back and ready to rough it out on the streets or in the jungles.

There may also be a misconception that backpackers represent a western or even an alien culture frowned upon by some Asians.

To get a better idea of backpackers and their role in the tourism industry, thesundaypost interviewed a few of them in Miri.

The best places to meet up with backpackers are budget hotels, lodges and homestays that offer basic but comfortable accommodation at a very reasonable rate.

A good place to say hello to backpackers is The Highlands backpackers’ lodge at the Miri Water Front Commercial Centre run by a Kelabit lady with the help of her New Zealand husband David Bennet.

Twenty-seven-year-old Monica Vidal from Mexico had complained to thesundaypost she was denied entry into Brunei Darulsalam on Oct 14.

“After the customs officers saw my Mexican passport and US greencard, they told me I could not enter the country. They didn’t give any reason,” she said.

Mexico was the epicentre of an outbreak of Influenza A (H1N1) that led to a pandemic around the world, and it does not take much to guess why Monica was denied an entry visa.

Together with her boyfriend Justin Hubbell, 28, from California, she had flown into Miri from Kuching three days back, and had visited the Mulu National Park.

They worked together in the same restaurant in California, and were taking a four-month vacation. The friendly duo mentioned India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore among the countries they had visited.

“We read about Miri from the book ‘Borneo’ by lonely planet, and planned to stay for five days,” Monica said.

Among the places they visited in Miri were the Lambir and Niah National Parks and the Bintang Megamall in town.

“We came here for Mulu, but I thought that Niah is better,” said Justin who also enjoys practising martial arts, including Thai kickboxing.

Monica agreed: “Niah caves are beautiful.”

Justin likes durians while Monica prefers rambutans.

“We had wanted to try sago worms in Kuching but couldn’t find any — maybe we can look for it here,” Justin said.

They felt Miri had almost everything they needed except (maybe) Mexican food and they estimated their daily budget to range from US$40 to US$50.

Their next itinerary is Kota Kinabalu, followed by the Philippines.

Backpacking alone

Rolf Rath, 28, is an economist from Zurich, Switzerland, who took a five-month break from work to visit Africa where he spent about two and a half months in countries like Mozambique, Tanzania and Malawi.

“I travel alone, and was a bit scared at first when I landed in a foreign country with unfamiliar faces and cultures but now I’m okay after seeing how friendly people were when they saw me,” said Rolf who travelled the world in search of adventure on his own.

Just what made him travel to distant countries where the people and cultures are completely different?

“Yes, it can be scary out there alone but there is an advantage in travelling alone too — people find it easier to approach and talk to me, compared to say a group or couple,” he said.

Some people find it awkward to interrupt a conversation, or befriend a person who already has a companion.

“I get to know more people and make more friends when travelling alone than if I were to travel with a partner all the time,” he added.

On the flipside, it can be scary there out alone in a strange place thousands of miles from home; if trouble or emergencies crop up, who are you going to call or turn to?

“Everywhere I go, I find people very friendly and helpful, so I don’t find it a big problem travelling alone,” Rolf said.

He spent about nine weeks in Southeast Asia where he enjoyed diving in Perhentian Island, jungle trekking in Taman Negara, Pahang, sightseeing in the cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore before taking a flight to Miri from Johor Bahru’s Senai airport.

On local food, he said: “I love roti canai very much but I have not heard of durian before — I would like to try it if there is a chance.”

He also had to budget his transportation and accommodation over five months, estimating it should average no more than US$50 per day.

“I don’t like to go to places too touristy — crowded with too many tourists,” he said.

He came to Miri for one reason — the Mulu National Park he had read so much about in brochures.

In the city for two days, he visited nearby places like the Miri City Fan, the Tua Pek Kong Temple, and the Bintang Megamall.

“I would like to go to the beaches but they are too far on foot, and perhaps Niah, but I didn’t have much time left.”

After a three-day stay in Mulu, he said he planned to visit Brunei for a few days before proceeding to Kota Kinabalu, and then back to Bangkok for his flight home.

Rolf is a regular user of Facebook, and welcomed well-wishers to contact him at [email protected]

Most backpackers have a story to tell, and they may do just that in their blogs or online social networking websites like Facebook or Myspace.

These new media are broadcast around the world free and instantly, and can be more powerful and effective global marketing media than traditional media.

By talking to backpackers, one can understand their likes and dislikes, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the places they visit.

They are in the state to enjoy their stay, and not simply to blow their budget away. If backpackers can have a memorable experience here, it is not inconceivable that their testimonies and interesting stories will attract the attention of other tourists, who will then make Sarawak one of their destinations.