Lonely Planet Writer

Backpackers fast becoming an endangered species on the famous hippy trail

The famous “hippy trail” through South East Asia is in danger of becoming a thing of the past, according to an academic study.

Hippy trail in danger of vanishing.
Hippy trail in danger of vanishing. Image by Garry Knight / CC BY 2.0

Low cost airlines, natural disasters, tightening visa rules and terrorism have all combined to change the face of backpacking around countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Dr Mark Hampton of the University of Kent has found that old-fashioned backpackers are increasingly becoming an endangered species and that people who once travelled without frills are becoming much more like conventional tourists.

In a paper on tourism in South East Asia, he argued that the old 1970s “hippy trail” had becoming increasingly commercialised and trips along it increasingly formulaic.

The idea of the old “exotic” northern route via Bangkok, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos (and more recently Myanmar) was often now being “manufactured” by travel firms and official tourism bodies.

On the southern trail through Thailand and on to Malaysia – upmarket “flashpacker” (a more upmarket backpacker) accommodation and tours were growing in popularity with organised activities like scuba diving or jungle and hill treks.

Some destinations on the “hippy trail”, once popular with people travelling independently, were being nearly forgotten about because so many of those travelling were on organised tours.

Low cost air travel and dedicated bus trips had also changed back-packing and the days of endless trips via local buses and trains were often being replaced by no-frills flights or direct road trips.

Along with that, specialist backpacker tour operators were putting together itineraries for trips rather than the more old-fashioned idea of an adventure that could end up anywhere and take as long as it took.

“Backpackers (like flashpackers) appear to have less time,” said Dr Hampton, “and shorter trips need more organisation … nevertheless, backpackers still do not want to travel like mainstream tourists.”

However, Dr Hampton argued that the options available to them were becoming more limited.

He said: “For the backpackers themselves, it appears that their journey choices, and the possibilities of true independent or even spontaneous travel, have been largely reduced.”