Fellow Bristolian and lovely editor of Bristolian Backpacker, Mitchell Labiak, shares his love-hate relationship with hostels.
Hostels are the bread and butter of backpacking. Staying in a hostel as opposed to a hotel is the difference between telling people you are “going travelling” and telling people you are “going on holiday”. At the best of times, they are cheap, friendly, and helpful places where you can meet other travellers, feel somewhat at home, and save money on your trip.
And at the worst of times? To paraphrase Tolstoy, “All good hostels are alike; each shit hostel is shit in its own way.”
The Best Hostel I Ever Stayed In…
Siem Reap is a town absolutely filled with tourists. The main street is called “Pub Street”. That’s not a translation; it’s what the street is called and there’s a big neon sign with this name at the bottom of said street. I’ve been in cities with touristy areas before, where I questioned the impact that tourism was having on the area. However, I’ve never been to a city where the entire centre seemed dedicated to the tourist industry, where every aspect of the city seemed tailored for tourists, and where it was genuinely difficult to find anywhere in the city where locals were sat eating local food.
Of course, I was still desperate to visit Siem Reap because of the Angkor Wat Temples nearby. The complex is huge, it’s nearly a thousand years old, and it’s is one of the most well preserved and most impressive examples of an ancient city I’d ever heard about.
So I wanted a hostel that cares about its guests but also cares deeply about the local economy and the local community. As luck would have it, Siem Reap is home to just that. The straightforwardly-named Siem Reap Hostel is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in.
I was picked up from the airport for free and taken straight there. The beer was cold and very reasonably priced, the dorms were spacious and spotless, and the staff were informative and kind people. The hostel organised every possible tour or day trip you could want to take from Siem Reap at competitive prices.
Or rather, the hostel didn’t offer anything. Instead, they worked with a reliable cohort of local drivers who charged set rates for all of their work. The drivers took 100% of the earnings and they were extremely happy with the relationship.
What really made the place great, though, were the details.
The layout was just perfect. The bar was on the bottom floor and the dorms were above, so there was no fear of being kept awake by noise. The bar closed at a reasonable hour, but it was great fun, too.
The wifi was strong (with a different modem on each floor) which was important for me as I was working and travelling at the time.
Then, there were the little reminders. It might not seem like much, but having nicely laminated and typed up prompts reminding you not to flush the loo roll, asking you to turn the lights off when leaving the dorm room, and telling you the wifi password…
These small gestures add up to a larger feeling that the people at the hostel really cared about you. Or, maybe they just cared about the rating you gave them on Hostelworld. Either way, I felt looked after and I felt welcome.
Bristolian Backpacker, Helen, says the best hostel she ever stayed in was My Tra Homestay in Sapa. Small, friendly and homecooked dinner, what more could you want? High-speed wifi, comfy beds and stunning views across the region…yep. Those too!
…And The Worst Hostel I’ve Ever Stayed In?
Look, running a business is hard, so I’m not going to “name and shame” the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in. What I will say, however, is getting scabies from your bed is not a pleasant experience.
Nor is having to break into your own dorm by climbing through the window because your hostel inexplicably refused to give you a key. (There was one key and everyone staying in the dorm was expected to share it).
Nor is staying in a dorm no windows, 24 beds, and only one light. Nor is being ripped off by the shuttle bus service the hostel provided you. Nor is being told to neck your drink by an aggressive, naive 18-year-old staff member.
Nor is being pressured by the hostel to write a positive review about their place while you’re still staying there. Nor is having someone literally stand over your shoulder to watch you type as you write said review.
Nor is going to a hostel in a big city in the UK and (after asking where’s a good local place for breakfast) being told to just go to a Wetherspoons with all the enthusiasm of a wet fart. For the non-British readers out there, Wetherspoons is a pub chain famous for cheap drinks, microwaved food, and a veritable smörgåsbord of trippy carpet designs.
There hasn’t been one standout “worst ever” hostel experience for me. Bad hostel experiences don’t discriminate based on country or price bracket. Any hostel has the potential to be truly awful; all it takes is a little imagination.
Like I said, it’s the details. Helen and I once stayed in a double room in a hostel where the ensuite toilet didn’t have a wall separating it from the bedroom, just a glass window. We’ve been together for over three years, so it was just a matter of asking the other person to turn around while you do your thing. We’re not embarrassed.
Still, if a couple staying in that room had only been together a couple of months?
Hostels Are The Best (and the Worst) of Travelling
Hostels can do great things. They can provide locals with well-paid jobs, they can be an excellent springboard for people to learn about another country, and they make travel much more accessible.
Hostels can also do terrible things. The well-paid jobs run the risk of making the local economy too dependent on a certain kind of tourism. The springboard for people to learn about another culture can become nothing more than a place for tourists to get drunk and take drugs.
And the accessibility? The vast majority of travellers you meet while staying in hostels are from economically wealthy countries. It’s why I have so many Australian friends on Facebook despite never having been to Austalia.
There are those glorious exceptions, though. I once played ultimate frisbee with a professional Cameroonian footballer in Laos because of a hostel I stayed in. I once went to a Chinese ricefield with an Israeli photographer because of a hostel I stayed in. I once drove for seven hours with an Egyptian dude into the middle of the White Desert (where it was so quiet that you could hear your own saliva swimming in your mouth, your own clothes rustling against your skin, and your own heart beating to keep you alive) because of a hostel I stayed in.
The upsides and the downsides of hostels are the upsides and downsides of travelling itself. Cheap can mean exploitative, simple can mean uncomfortable, and friendly can mean drink and drugs friendly. Hostels are responsible for the backpacking experience as we know it. They are a mirror which shows backpackers the best and worst of what they are participating in.
My love-hate relationship with hostels is my love-hate relationship with the notion of backpacking itself. My hope is that, as more conscious travellers try to make backpacking more environmentally, culturally, and economically friendly, hostels will improve as well.