International House of Mystery: Why You Need to Hostel in Asia

Travel is an expensive hobby. For anyone considering a long-term trek across Asia, hosteling is almost a financial necessity. But for those who are on shorter journeys or are hotel-inclined, it’s time that you considered the alternative. You’re missing out on a lot.

Pink Manila, Malate, Philippines.

Not all hostels are dingy holes in the wall.

I’ve been fortunate to get a lot of travelling done in my three years living in Asia. But travel costs money, and I’ve been financially inclined to stay in a lot of strange places. Capsule hotels, love motels, hostels, and dingy hotels have all been places I’ve laid down my head while poking around this part of the world. But hostels are my number one choice. Aside from being the cheapest option, they’re also the best.

There’s the long standing stereotype that hosteling is a form of accommodation for alcohol-fuelled gap year Europeans backpacking their way across southeast Asia. Teens and twenty-somethings who have shirked responsibilities for a hedonistic life of travel and debauchery in the most exotic locations imaginable. Admittedly, much of that stereotype does hold true. But it’s only a small part of the whole story.

Here’s the bottom line: hosteling is the most social form of travel accommodations. Although you can usually shell out a few more dollars for a private room, I’ve found it often unnecessary. On the whole, the vast majority of people I’ve shared rooms with have been polite, respectful, and downright interesting.

In my own experience, hosteling allows you to meet the greatest variety of people. You might expect a large number of deadlocked hipsters in sarongs, flip-flops, sporting dreadlocks, extensive tattoo collections and eclectic piercings. And you’d be right (they’ve got some stories to be told, and you’d be wise to inquire). You’ll also find families on extended vacations, teachers, writers, retirees, displaced expats, and an infinite litany of others.

In my last foray into Southeast Asia a few weeks ago, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur. I had the good fortune to meet a family from the Netherlands who had spent the past month in Malaysia. The father was quiet, intellectual, soft spoken, and readily willing to share his recently acquired knowledge of Malaysia with me. With him were his wife–kind, but quiet, and his two children, a boy of about 12 and a girl around 10. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of envy at the two, who at such a young age were afforded the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in a far-off part of the world. Although the boy only had basic English speaking skills, and the girl none at all, we nonetheless had a lot of fun trying to communicate with each other, playing charades and tapping ridiculous phrases into Google Translator on my iPad and laughing at our shared efforts to pronounce one another’s languages.

In the same hostel lounge I also met a remarkably brave traveler who, in his early fifties, decided to embark from the United States on an open-ended trek around the globe. What made him brave was the fact that he was entirely deaf. We communicated through writing on scrap paper and crude sign language (I know absolutely none, except for a single phrase not entirely family-appropriate). He told me of his travels; what he’d learned, who he’d met, the places he’d seen. More of the world than most, and all of it alone and in complete silence.

I also had the fortune of meeting a Chinese teacher who was working in Kuala Lumpur in an international school. She was kind enough to even pick me up the following day and take me on a tour of the city in her car. A total stranger. Though it defies common wisdom about trusting strangers (perhaps more on her part than mine), meeting someone who had an intimate knowledge of the city and the means to get around easily added a lot to my trip. You would expect to learn about Chinese culture from a trip to Malaysia, but you’d be surprised how much they’ve influenced the nation.

And there were more. In two short weeks and only two different hostels, I met a German programmer working remotely from Manila who decided that a hostel was a perfectly acceptable place to live for a year, a score of other English teachers from Korea escaping their day jobs for a few blissful weeks, a neuroscientist who was taking a break from the academic world (if lugging around textbooks could be considered taking a break) and who had an answer for literally every question thrown at him, Kenyan students who were having such a good time that one of them lost her voice entirely, a theater professor from California, a Chinese bartender from Shanghai who needed time away from what she described as a socially repressive culture, a New Zealander on a quest to find all things weird in Asia, a Russian girl who spoke English but preferred to remain mute and perpetually dancing whether there was music or not–and a host of others.

Truth be told, if I wrote about everyone I met from hosteling,  I’d never stop writing. Running the risk of sounding cliched, at its best, travel is about experiencing the world as it truly is. Hosteling gives you the chance to meet a far greater number of cultures and backgrounds than any hotel ever could. And very quickly you’ll find that with such a varied community of fellow travellers, you can not only visit a new country but absorb dozens of other perspectives while doing it. You’ll find people to drink with, eat with, explore with, laugh with, and make memories with. There’s an unspoken rule in the hosteling community: open yourself up to people who are different, drop your judgements and see what you learn. You’ll be surprised at what you find that can’t be captured in any travel guide.

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  1. […] in large part, to Air Asia’s unbeatable pricing, Kuala Lumpur has become a mecca for interesting people from around the world. Armed with giant backpacks, flip-flops, and an open mind, the city is crawling with inquisitive […]

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