One of the things I get asked most by people before they set off on their travels is: how do you make friends whilst backpacking? It’s a fair question. When it takes time to build friendships at home, the nature of travelling – moving from place to place relatively quickly – it doesn’t sound like it lends itself to being the easiest environment in which to make friends. It can be quite nerve wracking, as that fear of loneliness and isolation can be a real source of anxiety before getting on that plane – especially if you are travelling solo.
The first thing to understand, which can be difficult to get your head around until you’re in it, is the difference in the intensities of friendships you make on the road versus those ‘in real life’. You know how in Love Island or Big Brother the contestants claim to be best mates and oh so close after a mere week in a house together? That’s what backpacking can be like. It’s totally genuine. When you spend 24/7 with a group of people, living together and travelling together, those friendships may be five days old on paper, but they feel like a hell of a lot longer. And if you meet people you end up travelling with for weeks on end, well, they’re like your family for that time. But how do you actually make those friends?
Staying in hostels is the first and obvious answer. If you’re sharing a dorm room with someone you’re probably going to get chatting pretty quickly. At first it can be a bit daunting – maybe it’s being British, but that innate ‘oh I mustn’t bother anyone’ that seems ingrained in your very being needs to be pushed down pretty quickly if you want to make friends on your trip. After the first few times it becomes the norm, and before long you know the drill – new dorm mate, same questions. Where have you come from? Where’s home? Where are you going, how long have you been on the road?
Even if you’re travelling in a couple, or with friends and are craving your own space away from people you don’t know, there are a fair few hostels that do private rooms now, so you can get the best of both worlds in getting some privacy but also having the common areas to get chatting to fellow travellers.
You will meet so many different people in a hostel, many of whom you wouldn’t cross paths with back home, but the one thing you all have in common at the moment is the fact you’re backpacking. It’s a pretty good starting point.
BOOK A TRIP
Whilst hostels are becoming far more widespread in Asia, guest houses are still very much a part of the nature of travelling around that part of the world, which can cause difficulty for travellers when it comes to meeting people. Booking onto a trip or trek can be a great way to meet new people if you’re in a bit of a funk. There are generally plenty of day trips to choose from on any given backpacking route, and in many places there are two or three day long treks you can take part in. Aside from these being great experiences and wonderful ways to get stuck into somewhere, you’ve got the bonus of meeting some cool new people. It’s luck of the draw if you’ll meet people you really click with, but either way you’ll have someone to talk to for a few days if you haven’t lucked out on meeting anyone lately.
CHOOSE THE ROAD MOST TRAVELLED
There’s no shame in travelling the usual, standard route, or in joining the masses on a Greyhound bus down the East Coast of Australia. You don’t have to get off the beaten track to have a great time, and if you’re travelling by yourself there is comfort in other backpackers being around, both from a safety perspective and the opportunity to make friends.
I’d have loved to have driven around New Zealand in a camper van (one day…!) but being a solo traveller that didn’t make much sense; it’s not as much fun being that isolated for a long stretch of time and would’ve been far more expensive since I would’ve had to shoulder the cost by myself. Instead I did the Kiwi Experience (aka ‘the Big Green Fuck Bus’ – no comment), and it was one of the best choices I made on my trip. I made some fantastic friends I’m still in touch with, laughed until I cried most days, and it was flexible enough that you could hop off the bus whenever suited you.
In some parts of Asia there tends to be a natural route backpackers take which means you’re likely to see some of the same faces along the road over the weeks. Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is a popular one (also in the opposite direction), so it lends itself well to a first time traveller. As a contrast, I backpacked around the Philippines for a month and only saw a repeat face once – there’s no standard route there and with the country being made up of thousands of islands you need to fly between, it can feel far more disjointed than somewhere you can easily overland. Worth bearing in mind.
DO A COURSE OR TAKE A CLASS
Although there are cooking courses, yoga classes and language lessons, the most obvious and popular course to get involved in whilst backpacking is to do your Open Water diving certification. Diving is one of the best ways to make friends whilst travelling – if you’re just starting out getting your Open Water you’ve got three days with the same people studying and getting to grips with all things scuba, plus your first time deep under water and the inevitable night out once you’ve passed your course.
If you fall in love with diving (and many people do because it is, quite frankly, the tits), it’s a brilliant way to meet people as you travel around. The diving community are amongst the most chilled and friendly bunch of people out there. Everyone’s up for a beer at the end of a day’s diving, exchanging stories of the best and hairiest dives and will probably end up trying to persuade you to stay and do you dive master course.
BACKPACKING IS A COMMUNITY
Backpacking is its own community, and in my experience everyone is very kind, open, and people look out for each other. People want to meet others from all over; they want to experience as much as they can and a big part of that is meeting new people as you navigate your way around new countries, cities and beachside towns. No one left their friends, family and home to spend the whole time by themselves. So be brave and strike up a conversation – I promise you, you will make friends. You may end up finding you don’t actually get any time by yourself at all and end up fibbing you don’t feel well for a quiet night in reading in your dorm bed.
You may find that the friendships you make whilst on the road stick around for much longer than you’d expected, extending across continents and time zones long after you parted ways. The beautiful wedding I just got back from celebrating in Goa? I met them at a yoga class in Ubud and we ended up travelling with each other for a fortnight. I met a guy who made me laugh raucously when doing my PADI dive certification over three days in Thailand nearly eight years ago and he’s still one of my best friends.
Sure, not all of the friendships you make whilst travelling will stand the test of time, distance and the reality of life back home, but not all the ones from childhood do either. But oh my, those that do? They are something very special. The chances of you being in the same place at the same time; catching the same bus, being allocated the same dorm room; choosing the same yoga class or ignoring the advice to not go in the ocean when you’ve just had a tattoo done and starting your dive course a day early (him, not me). Everything aligning and finding friendships that are still going strong the better part of a decade later? It’s worth getting over that fear of bothering someone for, every time.