Growing up and evolving as a backpacker

Audrey sleeping on the floor at Kuala Lumpur International Airport LCCT

Starting my indefinite backpacking adventure revisiting Malaysia seemed liked a flawless fit at the time. After spending the night sleeping at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend Audrey Bergner, was the first glimpse I had into reality that I am now backpacking as a thirty something and not a wide-eyed twenty year old.

The idea that we’d start off our trip pinching pennies by sleeping overnight at the airport – while catching the first bus to Malacca – seemed like an infallible plan straight out of my frugal backpacker playbook; however, as I laid down on the cold petrous marble floor, I couldn’t help but notice the aches penetrating throughout my back and the thoughts slowly creeping into my head: “What on earth are you doing sleeping on the floor.”

There was a time – not long ago – that I would have not had even a second thought about sleeping overnight at an airport that offered less than stellar reclining options.

Friendly cat at Sama Sama Guest House

The second realization that things were a little different this time around came when I checked into one of my favorite guest houses in all of SE Asia – Sama Sama located in the heart of Chinatown in downtown Malacca.

Mosquito net covering my bed at Sama Sama Guest House

This unique guest house is famed for its lush leafy plants, open air spaces, creaky staircases and crumbling colonial charms and quirks.

With docile cats that stretch themselves across the length of the floor, mosquito nets and fan only rooms this guest house oozes character in ways many other establishments could only dream of; however, as I laid down in bed with beads of sweet trickling down my forehead and my computer turned on without any wifi connection, I internally murmured: “How am I going to get any work done? Is it really ‘okay’ that I’m sweating profusely even though I’m not really moving.”

A guest house I once called home for nearly a fortnight was now a place that didn’t meet my current level of expectations.

As I checked out of my room the following morning, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness as I stepped over the ‘three legged cat’ that had been lying in the exact same spot back in 2008.

The realization that I’m getting older and require a different level of comfort now that I’m working as I travel (as opposed to just backpacking) really sunk in with clarity at that exact moment.

Walking through Chinatown in KL, Malaysia

To be perfectly honest, it’s sad when a place you once loved – even cherished – no longer fits the bill.

The reality is that when you travel, much like any other experience in your life, needs change as do people.

The days of being a carefree backpacker looking for ways to shave down my expenses at every corner and extend my journey as long as possible are an illusion that no longer corresponds with my lifestyle.

I have to admit that at times I want to roll back the clock and transform myself into the young backpacker that once absorbed every experience like a sponge; but that would simply be fighting reality.

In my experience when you do fight reality it brings upon great doses of anxiety and stress. Instead of lamenting over the fact Sama Sama Guest House is no longer the perfect fit, I’m instead going to look at it as a sort of graduation; moving from one point to another in the succession of events that is called my life.

I’ll always have fond memories of my time at Sama Sama as a young backpacker, but now it’s time for me to make new memories in new places as my journey continues.

It’s the same-same but different – and I’m okay with that :)


  • Carlo says:

    I hear ya Sam.

    I’m heading away in July as a 34 year old to Thailand, to finally give my location independence dream a proper bash. I know that my travel requirements will have changed even in the short 2 year absence since I was in S.E Asia. This saddens me as well.

    I also slept on the floor in the airport in KL back then and enjoyed the experience. But now, I don’t think I would.

    Change is good though. As long as we embrace it for what it is. :)

    • Samuel says:

      Thanks Carlo, best wishes embracing your new travel experience and as long as you’ve done it once (slept at KLIA) no need to do it again..haha

  • I think as we grow older, we prefer a more comfortable place rather than when we’re younger. At least you have some great memories there as a young backpacker 😀

  • It’ll be interesting to see how you’re writing changes to suit your evolving tastes. The Comedian Sinbad has a quote that to remain funny you need to “keep riding the bus”. Which is to say that as you rise in the ranks and get exposed to luxury the subjects you talk about might become more unrelatable and removed from the voice that got you noticed in the first place.
    I doubt that will happen with you, I’m sure you’ll remain as authentic a you’ve always been. Looking forward to reading the next chapters…

    • Samuel says:

      Thanks! I certainly hope I can relate to my readers as my preferences change. I don’t think I’m living in the lap of luxury by any stretch just yet – I just need something better than a cold marble floor at night…haha

  • OCDemon says:

    I felt exactly the same way when reminiscing about travel disasters and how the bad times make for better stories than the good times. Someone asked if anything had gone wrong on that trip, and I said no, with a nostalgic and wistful sigh. Then something went wrong the next day and I no longer missed it.

    There’s just something that changes as time goes on. I spent quite a few (semi-accidental) nights sleeping in Italian train stations in the middle of winter, but now I’d prefer…you know, a bed or something. But as much as I’d rather avoid that sort of predicament, it’s still way more fun to discuss the unmitigated disasters that more often occur as a younger 20 something. Sigh. Good times. Sort of.

    • Samuel says:

      Hahaha, this made me laugh. I do tend to agree with you though that some of my best travel stories came in my earlier backpacking days. It’s not as compelling to write about my frustrations with a weak wifi signal or ac that isn’t blowing cool enough air 😉

  • chris says:

    Great reflections on change and how to deal with the changing realities of travel. Enjoyed this.

  • Perfect example of ‘same same but different’ 😉

  • George says:

    Absolutely spot on. I think you need different things at different times in your life. Travelling now, with more money than I had back in 2010 I find myself relishing in experiences more, and trying not to miss out. I’m heading to Malaysia tomorrow, are you guys still hanging around?

  • Belle says:

    I found it quite ironic that when I received your post, I was just thinking and feeling the same way, I’m a 30 year old backpacker and have smashed out 14 countries in 6 months and was just starting to notice how exhausted I have become. When you are in your early 20’s you seem to have so much more energy when it comes to travel, however since hitting the big 3-0 I find i’ve found lugging the backpack around actually starts to hurt your back and unless you can use overnight transport where your actually lying flat, you end up with a crock neck and a sore back! It’s strange, you seem to have a different appreciation for travel when your older, but the hangovers last longer, the aches and pains more prominent and the stamina certainly isn’t what it was 10 years ago!!!

  • Dean says:

    That wifi connection is the one that gets me. I never used to care about it at all, but now I’m constantly on the lookout for one. That’s evolution I guess!

  • That’s exactly how I felt when I returned to SE Asia last year. I was no longer a young, single backpacker. I was travelling with a husband and a toddler this time around and places I’d previously loved just didn’t suit us. In a way, I had to take that trip to mourn my former life as a backpacker and understand that now was the time to move on. grow up a little and do things differently. My travel style has changed radically since becoming a wife/mother/30-year old.

  • Alyson says:

    I know how you feel. I’m 47. I can’t actually believe I’m 47, but I am. We’re onto the next phase, backpacking with kids, whole new ballgame, but still fun! I’m going to go find that 3 legged cat, the kids would love him, or her.

  • Tiffany says:

    What a relevant post and imagery about stepping on the three legged cat. As I just turned 30 yesterday, I find such a happy-sad mix between the new things I enjoy now and the things I know I used to love so much, but become morr and more part of my memory bank. But I am so thankful for every penny pinching expereinces my youngest years brought to me.

    • Tiffany,

      You bring up a great point. I really learned how to be frugal in my 20’s which is a lesson that has stuck with me as I’ve gotten older. When I do have money to spend, I don’t look to blow it on things; instead, I consider the value of what an upgrade would mean versus choosing a cheaper option and base my decision on that.

  • Maria says:

    This could be a better niche for you. Lots to learn and share about the zone between backpack lifestyle and smartly frugal.

  • flip says:

    I hear you man! Sometimes my body is looking for some comfort which I don’t really care about much when I was younger. Aaaaah sucks to be old!!!

  • Stevie Dean says:

    I know exactly what your saying
    I spent 23 hours last year in KUL waiting for a connecting flight because I didn’t have the cash to even get the shuttle bus into town lol.
    I have settled in Seoul for a year off from backpacking hardcore and been enjoying short visa runs to nearby countries like japan and tiawan
    next month ill be 31 and I’m often thinking ill just get a one way ticket to another country and get back to cheap hostals and budget backpacking for which was my life style for a great 3 years.
    but I guess now thinking about it prehaps the expat lifestyle is just a next stage for me.

  • Mike says:

    This is such a great post. With me what was once very comfortable at times can be not so much anymore. Are we getting soft?

  • Thanks for the post Sam!

    I love the honest reflections of what it’s like travelling as a thirty-something rather than a twenty-something. For some reason, one’s needs seem to change around that age, and it’s ok!

    We too stayed at Sama Sama and loved it…when we were 24, I wonder what it would be like now for us? As we get ready to embark on another trip (and are dangerously close to 30!), it’ll be interesting to see what it’s like for us :)

    Cheers & safe travels to you guys.

    • Thanks cool you stayed there before!

      I absolutely loved it at the time. I was used to having rooms without AC and my body adjusted to the heat and humidity. It’ll be interesting to hear about your experiences going back.

  • Emma Spires says:

    I have read this post at a time in my life when I am arranging my next backpacking trip and am putting a lot of consideration into my destinations – I’m no longer into the party scene and young backpacking crowds that certain destinations draw. You are definitely right that as you get older your needs as a traveller change. Thanks, one again for an honest and inspiring post!

  • Frank says:

    As a 30-something who’s put a good amount of miles under my feet I can definitely relate. In my early 20’s it wasn’t unusual to think about sleeping on the floor of a train station or in a park to save a few bucks. I’m still okay with staying in a dorm but found that if possible I prefer to get a private room and even better if it comes ensuite!

    I think part of it has to do with the abuse your body can take as you age, however I feel it’s more that you tend to reach a certain level of comfort that you desire. Dorms are great but try explaining to a drunken 20 year old that it’s not cool to turn on the lights after you get back from the bar at 3 am. Or hoping people was their dishes right after they eat at the hostel kitchen.

    I hate the thought that I’d be turning into the cranky old dude given how rough I used to travel and how much I loved it. I still love travel, still love hostel atmospheres, meeting new people and trying new foods.

    I think these days I’d just like to do it after a good night’s sleep.

    • Hey Frank,

      I completely agree with you. I haven’t reached a point where I couldn’t stay in a hostel or rough it overnight on the floor; however, if (and when) possible it’s great not to have to do it now.

  • Ray @stingytraveller says:

    Great post. I’m sure it’s something many travellers will have to grapple with at some point or another.

  • Matt says:

    As someone who hasn’t even STARTED travelling until next month, I can tell you that my planning has defiantly changed from my 20’s to 30’s. I always had the dream and desire to travel but in my 20’s I was too scared and defiantly not mature enough in life to partake on such a grand adventure! Fast forward years later and at 32, I have 1 month left before my wife, myself and 2 of our best friends (also married) go on a 6+ tour around the world to explore off the beaten path. I’m not saying that 20’s is not mature enough to travel, I’m just saying that it took me getting married and realizing how stupid I was when I was younger to conclude that I was missing a huge part in my life. Thank you for keeping us all inspired, looking forward to reading more and hope to see ya out there!

    • Thanks Matt!

      It’s never too late. One of my Mom’s best friends didn’t start exploring the world until she was 30; however, she’s since been taking extended trips around the world now for decades. Best wishes with yours!

  • Amber says:

    Well, Sam, sounds like you have officially graduated to flashpacker – looking for a little comfort, willing to pay a few bucks more to have air con, or not have to sleep on an airport floor, and in need of wifi! Welcome to the club.

  • Amber says:

    And, one more thing, it is rough to go back to some place you love and feel differently. It is why I will never return to Venice – I went when I was young, had never traveled, and it was magical. Now, after seeing so much of Europe, I am sure I would hate the crowds and the touristy feel of the place. But, I am sure there were things about Malacca that you still enjoyed, like a favorite place to eat, or at least saying hello to the three legged cat!

  • Jacky says:

    I wished I could have met you guys or anyone else who’d visit KL, Malaysia in the near future!
    I’m indeed most glad to have stumbled upon this blog!
    It’s most lovely to see the country thru the eyes of passer-bys such as yourselves & I do wish I’d be able to extend some good ol’ local hospitality to a visiting & wandering soul whenever I can :)!
    Look me up should you need any pointers about KUL or SIN, those are my areas or expertises LOL!
    Happy visiting & Selamat Datang once more! Cheers!

  • Sam, is it just a matter of your age determining how you travel or the spirit of adventure in you. I always think that one can back pack even if he is 60 as long as there is the adrelin to push this to the limit. It helps keep you young. just my thoughts

    • That’s a very good point! Some of the most enthusiastic backpackers I’ve ever met were in their 70s. It’s a frame of mind more than anything. I’m just finding now that I’m working I need a bit more space and a few more creature comforts.

  • Linda says:

    But never forget that evolution is always an ongoing process, and sometimes goes full circle. I found that the need/desire for comfort has fallen off again with age. Slept in an airport time (intentionally, as opposed to delays forcing it) for the first time about four years ago. It was a floor less exotic but equally hard and barren (though happily clean) than yours – Dublin, Ireland – to find it didn’t bother me too much. Since I failed to prepare for retirement (I’m 66) it wasn’t the only and won’t be the last time either.

    Reference being disappointed in places when finding them changed. So long as you know it will have changed it isn’t so bad. Places evolve too (or even disappear sometimes) and you have to accept that. Travel teaches us to let go of our preconceptions, we also have to let go of the memories, or file them in a different part of our brain. The first time I went to Rome was in 1967 and also in low season. It was a movie come to life. I sat on the rim of the Trevi fountain for my photo with no-one else around; we explored the Colesium, wandering at will throughout; we had the Tivoli Gardens to ourselves. Returning 30 years later was a shock, but I told myself that all of these people have equally as much right as I to see these places. The third time I went back I was prepared and it didn’t faze me.

    • Hey Linda,

      It’s great to hear about your experiences. Coming back full circle sounds fascinating. I think if I could get away from my online commitments for a week (or two) I’d enjoy trying to backpack the way I did in my earlier travel years.

  • Travelogged says:

    I had this same experience at a little hotel in Paris. What seemed quaint and charming the first time seemed old and dilapidated the second time a few years later…

    • It’s kind of like coming back to a house or backyard you thought was huge as a child and then seeing it through the eyes of an adult – things certainly evolve and change as do people!

  • Jodie says:

    Very interesting to stumble upon – I’m 23, travelled some of SE Asia a couple of years back and going again in August with my boyfriend who is 30 but never backpacked for various reasons. I’m quite intrigued as to how it’s going to pan out because out of the two of us he’s more willing to rough it up a little (I’m not a princess, but as a 20 year old myself and my travel partner preferred AC and were willing to fork out for ‘not quite the cheapest’ room; I’m guessing three short years will not have changed my nod to flashpacker ways). Despite him being more than up for a lot of fun though, although not an option now, I think things like tubing may just make him feel a little too old. Excuse my irrelevant ramblings, great blog anyway.

    • Thanks Jodie,

      That makes a lot of sense! I’m now traveling with my girlfriend Audrey and it has changed things. No longer am I a solo backpacker making decisions based solely on my own preferences; decisions are now made with the two of us in mind. It’s been a big change but one I’m starting to embrace more and more.

  • What an interesting post! My wife and I have been married for just over two years and are currently teaching English in Taiwan. We will be leaving in August to begin a fully nomadic lifestyle. It will be interesting to see what we’ll enjoy and miss about being expats with an apartment as opposed to location-independant wanderers. Either way, we firmly believe it is the right move for us; even more so after reading your article. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    • Dan,

      I find at times craving a base; whereas, when I’ve been staying somewhere for a while, I tend to get itchy feet. I’m finding it best to yo-yo between the two stages these days.

  • darren says:

    cool! greeting from Malaysia!

  • Ria Dancel says:

    Hi! DO you think that married people with kids can also be up to a backpacking adventure? My husband and I are actually thinking of trying it once, but we have three children.

  • Dude, I totally feel your pain. And I never took the chance to backpack when I was younger… I made the big move overseas and just never left. Taipei, Taiwan is my port of call now, and I always thought that it would open up the rest of Asia for me. Maybe even do a little teaching in the rest of Asia. Well, finances and aging being what they are I never made it. I’ve bounced around a little, but now I’m in a committed relationship (with a DEFINITIVELY non-backpacker), and I have a dog at home that won’t fit in carry-on. Looks like my throwing cares to the wind are at an end.

    Of course, even when I did stay at a guest house in Kuala Lumpur, it bloody ruined my back and nearly ruined the trip (thank goodness for Malaysian friends with cars!). Aging doesn’t seem worth the wisdom sometimes… Thanks for putting the words and images to my travel frustrations!

  • We enjoy comfort too these days Samuel! Has to be a private double room, we can share toilets and showers as that doesn’t bother us. Other than that we are still pretty flexible!

  • Andrew says:

    Its called maturation Samuel. Being a cafe free backpacker with no responsibility is not a career. Once you get into your 30’s you need money to support yourself and who does not want to live and sleep in a comfortable accommodations. I think you are growing up which is good to see.

  • Ross says:

    That is so true. I have noticed now that I am working and have some money that although I am still up for the adventure I am willing to pay extra money for some easier comforts, maybe rent a car rather than busing, staying in hotels not hostels. So very different from when I was in my early twenties scounging around the world!

  • I slept once at Frankfurt Int’l and it was awful! Had nothing to sleep on except the benches. And they weren’t flat, but “wavy” separate benches. I struggled just to keep myself on them. The noise was bothering, especially in the early hours (I approximate around 5 AM they already started the noise): cleaning, talking, people passing buy, loudspeakers etc. etc.

  • Andy says:

    Haha, sounds like you are coming over to the right side of the tracks at last Samuel :-) We look forward to your joining the ranks of the Grown-up Travellers in the future…keep those great memories and you’ll enjoy the comfort even more. It would be no fun to sleep in a great hotel if all you had ever done was sleep in 5-star places. My uber-budget travels in Africa in my early twenties mean that I appreciate every soft pillow and comfy mattress more than I ever could have done if I’d never been a backpacker…

    • Thanks Andy! Hahaha…sounds like just the club I’d love to join someday: “Grown Up Travellers.”

      I totally agree with you. Had I not experienced filthy bathrooms and bedbugs galore, I certainly wouldn’t appreciate a quality room today. I remember I used to be willing to do just about anything to shave a dollar off of my daily travel budget whereas now I don’t mind spending that extra dollar :)

  • todd says:

    When I was younger, I would find crazy places to sleep. I used to go to conventions and would share a room with 8 other people, sleeping on the floor or in a chair. While travelling I have slept in hostels and shared a room with up to 20 other people, each with their own bunk. But now that I am in my late 40s, it seems I like a nice comfortable hotel room now. But I remember those times.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *