Sydney hostel more than budget accomodation: Wake Up! backpackers reviewed

While I don’t expect anyone to ooze sympathy for the plight of travel writers, the fact is, when we’re not getting hooked up at swanky hotels, we’re often left to sleep on airport floors and bus seats. I actually enjoy those experiences; it’s the eponymous “youth” hostel I’ve grown weary of. I should add that despite their name, hostels (also known as backpackers) aren’t only used by young’un’s. Plenty of middle-aged, and elderly, yet spry, travelers use hostels, because they’re inexpensive and convenient. That said, us oldies need to choose carefully, because many hostels do cater specifically to hard-core partiers.

Hosteling was a blast in my 20’s and 30’s. But sometime around, oh, last year, I hit a wall. As in, sharing a dorm room with a mob of drunk, loutish American frat boys, or squirrelly girls garbed in non-ironic ’80’s attire was not only not fun- it was a form of torture. Such was my recent experience at one Base Backpackers in Sydney. I arrived late at night, with food poisoning, after a long flight. I’d intentionally booked a bed for three nights in a four-person, all-female dorm, with the hope it would reduce my odds of hostel hell. I was wrong.

After paying for three night’s accommodation, I staggered up to the sixth floor, wanting only to crawl into bed. Upon entering my assigned room, I found a gaggle of Scandinavian girls pounding beers, blasting music, and readying for a big night out. One of them gestured toward a dirty, unmade bed (mine), noting only, “It has not been cleaned yet.”

Let’s just say that I was assigned another room. The next morning, I booked a bed for the remainder of my stay at the incredibly kick-ass Wake Up! backpackers mere blocks away.

Confession: I meant to stay there all along, after spotting it on my way to the airport on my last visit. I forgot to write down the name, and for some reason confused it with The Other Place when I looked online, and pre-booked.

Wake Up! is what all hostels should strive to be. It’s not that it offers services and amenities others don’t: it’s that it does a better job, in a better facility, in an atmosphere that isn’t Girls Gone Wild meets Theta Chi. It’s youthful, but the welcoming vibe extends to all ages. The family-owned and -run business opened its doors in 2002, and has consistently racked up accolades ever since.

Located in a historic, seven-story sandstone in the “backpackers ghetto,” Wake Up! sits on the border of Haymarket/Chinatown (inarguably some of the best- and cheapest- eating in Sydney). It’s across the street from the Central Railway Station, five minutes walk to the CBD, and ten minutes to Darling Harbour, and The Rocks/Circular Quay, where the Opera House and Harbour Bridge are located. The bus stop for the beaches is just down the street.

Wake Up’s! staff is friendly and competent, the facilities are clean and modern, and the property offers just about every service a traveler could possibly need: 24-hour web and wireless ($3.50 AUD/hour), travel services, guided city and beach walking tours, a cafe, kitchen, laundry, TV/DVD lounge, storage lockers, airport transfers ($14 AUD), 24-hour
check-in, help line, and security; card access to floors and rooms, job search assistance, and mobile phones and cards for sale. There are also scheduled events like bar hops, beach barbecues, and theme parties.

Rooms range from twins and doubles ($98 AUD/room; $17 for third person), and double en suites ($108/room; $17per extra person) to four, six, eight, and ten-person dorms (some mixed, some female-only) ranging from $38 to $30 per person. Sydney has become heinously expensive, and you’re not likely to find accommodations as nice, and as centrally located, for these prices- a nearby Travelodge is currently listed at $147 USD/night. Note that prices will vary according to season. There’s a 28-day maximum stay, which is convenient for students and job-seekers.

My four-person dorm sported one bunk with a double bed on the bottom (the swinger’s room?), as well as a standard bunk, and a wardrobe. All of the rooms offer great views of Sydney’s southern CBD. Yeah, the decor is a bit tacky- walls painted garish mustard, puce, rose, or swimming pool-blue; white metal bunks, utilitarian carpet, bed linens that look like knock-off Ken Done motifs, but who cares? No one stays in hostels for the interior design, and what’s more important is that this place is CLEAN. The spotless communal bathrooms are massive, well-lit, tiled spaces with functioning shower heads and good water pressure (a rarity in hostelandia).

Should you find yourself in Sydney with a bit of a cramp in your wallet, or if you just want to save your cash for the city’s many other delights, check out Wake Up!
Just be sure to write down the name, first.


Buy stamps – Souvenir tip

If you’re traveling abroad on a tight budget with absolutely no extra room in your suitcase for a souvenir, then buy a stamp. Even the lowest denomination stamp of any country is colorful, cheap, and easy to find.

When you get home, mount the stamp in the middle of a piece of poster board, write the details of your trip on the back of the poster board, and put in an inexpensive frame. You’ll have a decorator look on a backpacker’s budget.

British backpackers spreading sexually transmitted diseases

“No sex please, we’re British.”

That old joke has been proven wrong by a new medical study that found British backpackers in Australia are picking up more than just short-term partners; they’re picking up infections that they spread around Australia and back home.

A survey of 1,008 backpackers at youth hostels in Sydney and Cairns revealed that 24 percent of British backpackers had unprotected sex with multiple partners, meaning 24 percent of British backpackers are total idiots. About half of those interviewed reported inconsistent condom use. The report found that even those who arrived with a partner were getting in on the act, with almost 20 percent them hopping into bed with someone else.

Australia receives an influx of almost 700,000 Britons a year, many of them backpackers, and while the study did not specifically check for Sexually Transmitted Diseases (called Sexually Transmitted Infections by those randy Brits) it doesn’t take a medical expert to put two and two together. In fact, the UK government last year reported that chlamydia, genital herpes, and genital warts are at an all-time high, with the 16-24 age group being the most affected.

Please, guys, wrap your John Thomas. And ladies, make the guys wrap their John Thomas. If you’re British, why not use a Big Ben condom like the one shown here? It’s a great way to inject some of your national culture into the local population.

Dim Sum Dialogues in Thailand: Street music

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and most of the rowdy backpackers have deserted Bangkok’s Khao San Road. A large rat scurries down the gutter of the street, stopping only to inspect trash and empty plastic buckets that have been strewn about the pavement. A few dispersed food vendors finish packing their stalls for the day and roll them towards wherever home may be.

Compared to the energy of the road during the daytime, it feels eerily silent and motionless. I begin the walk toward my $8 USD-per-night hostel when the reverberation of a guitar slowly starts to fill the void of the early morning. The sound grows louder and I see a small crowd of maybe ten people sitting and standing around a guitarist on the sidewalk.
The guitarist is outfitted with the flare of a seventies rock star. Skinny bellbottom jeans, a pocketed shirt with shoulder straps, and American sneakers. He has long, bushy black hair that bobs at his shoulders as he strums an acoustic guitar. He’s playing the chorus of Yesterday by the Beatles, and the handful of young tourists are fervently singing along. When he finishes, a young girl with a British accent shouts out “Let’s hear some Dylan… I know you know Dylan!”

I sense a little of reluctance from the guitarist – “I don’t know all the words, but maybe you can help me”. He obliges and strums the opening chords. “How many roads must a man walk down, before they can call him a man…”

The British girl leans over to me and boastingly says, “See he knows it, he just needs a bit of prompting.”

I settle in to the small crowd and hang around for a couple more songs. Radiohead. Neil Young. Eagle Eye Cherry.

It’s my third night staying on the Khao San, and I’ve seen him out here both previous nights. Each time I passed him on the side of the road there was a group of travelers crowded around him, half listening, half engrossed in their own conversations with new acquaintances. I want to know why the guitarist is out here at this hour. For money? For fame? For friends?

As the crowd starts to break away and socialize amongst themselves I move closer and ask what his name is. In a thick Thai accent that was undetectable during the song, he gives a small smile and says “Diow. Did you like my songs?” I tell him that I did, and ask if he’s ever bothered by the few rambunctious stragglers that stagger up to him and try to compete for attention. He softly replies in broken English, “Well if they come and respect me, I would appreciate it. But I play here, I’m not ask someone to come to listen or play, if you don’t like – you go, if you don’t like then stay and that makes me happy.”

I ask what makes him happiest – why does he come out? “When I play and then have alot of people listen and sing along, it’s what makes me happy. For money it’s not really important – but the feeling is much more important for me.”

My inquiries keep coming. What’s your biggest dream? He stops to consider it, repeating the question to himself. “To buy a Ricken-backer.” He laughs. “For now, I don’t really have a long goal, I just a short goal everyday I want to finish. For this goal today I make short goal first – I guess long goal is maybe to buy a house. Even maybe big goal is to grow the tree all over the world…” he trails off, looking down at his guitar, and starts to pluck at the strings.

He looks up, ready to change the subject. “Do you want to hear my song?” he says. I feel honored that he’d share an original with me and I tell him that I’d love to hear it.

The strumming is edgy with a distinct, steady rock beat. I can tell that he’s far more into this tune than the previous covers he’s been playing all night. He closes his eyes, letting his voice break into high notes that are remnant of his influences from British rock. The lyrics are extremely simple, but it’s my favorite song of the evening.

He looks up for approval at the end of it and I tell him how much I enjoyed it. I mean it. I ask why he doesn’t play original songs more often. “Most people, they want to hear things they know. Things they can sing with too. Sometimes I play my songs, but most of the time they like things they know.”

How ironic. Wandering souls coming from across the world to have a solo performance from a talented local musician, and we’d rather hear something familiar, something from our side of the world that we can spout off to as well.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing – he’s intentionally crafted his image and style from the legends of the West…and it draws people in. It gives him the small crowds that he enjoys.

I’m struck by how soft-spoken and genuine he is. No real big goal. Just short goal. Maybe buy a house. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but it’s way past my bedtime, so I thank him and say goodnight.

A pair of lively Italian twins from Naples come up to take pictures with him. The crowd is smaller now but has reformulated around Diow. They call out a few more requests, and he accommodates them, starting up on a well-known Doors song in a crisp western accent. I hear the opening lines as I walk down the deserted Khao San…

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted, streets are uneven when you’re down…”

Diow can be found playing on the sidewalks of Khao San Road most evenings during the week & weekend. You can check out a recording (audio only) from the performance below:


Fake Canadians go home

I’m as mad as a polar bear reading about global warming. Everywhere I look I see Canadian flags on backpacks. A maple leaf seems to be as important an item of budget travel gear as daddy’s credit card, but there’s one problem–many of the people flashing the good old red, white, and red aren’t Canadian.

I am.

I’ve taken to asking people their nationality when I see them sporting a Canadian flag and only about half turn out to be Canadian. The other half are American. No Brits, no Aussies, no Latvians. It seems the fake Canadians all come from south of the border.

Are they illegal immigrants coming to steal our heath care and eat all our maple syrup? No, they’re pretending to be Canadians because their guidebooks have told them they’ll be safer in all those scary foreign countries. Americans are targets, the guidebooks warn, so it’s best to lay low. Lonely Planet started this ridiculous trend, but I’ve spotted the advice in other guidebooks too. It’s stupid, and here’s why.

First off, it’s hypocritical. I’ve seen these sunshine patriots screech with rage when anyone says anything the least bit negative about the U.S., but they’ll gladly give up their identity on the advice of some random guidebook writer. If you’re proud to be American, that’s great, the U.S. has a lot going for it, but then show you’re proud by wearing an AMERICAN flag.
Secondly, the idea that a Canadian flag will protect you overseas is simply untrue. Thieves see you as a rich Westerner, and don’t care whether you come from Manitoba or Montana. Terrorists see you as an evil Westerner, and don’t care either. Some of the biggest attacks against travelers have been against British and Germans, not Americans. Besides, while the Canadian flag is a glorious national emblem, sublime in its simplicity and beauty, it is not bomb proof. Suicide attacks don’t discriminate and usually take out more locals than foreigners.

Thirdly, Americans aren’t as hated as they think. Oh, there are the jokes about fat, ignorant Americans that unite the world from Egypt to Ecuador, but few people really mean Americans any harm. I know, because I am regularly mistaken for one. When I worked and traveled for a couple of years in the Middle East, nobody threatened me. I even witnessed the 14th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Isfahan, Iran, and didn’t have a problem. In fact, the entire month I was in Iran people constantly assumed I was American (or British, equally bad according to government propaganda) but I was never threatened. Instead I was treated to embarrassing levels of hospitality and the only danger was the very real possibility of being fed to death on massive dinners and cloyingly sweet desserts. The Iranians, it seems, can distinguish between people and governments. Oh, I occasionally had to endure odious lectures on the evils of Israel or how Zionists run Washington (snore) but I was never treated to even so much as a harsh word. It was the same in Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, and Turkey.

So Americans, please, show some love for your country and wear your own flag. The world doesn’t hate you as much as you think it does. But I wouldn’t suggest wearing a t-shirt saying “Employee of the U.S. Government”. That’s what most people are really ticked off about.

And if you are truly that embarrassed by your own country, I suggest one of two things–either stay home and work on fixing it, or move to Canada. We’re underpopulated, so there’s plenty of room.