Hostel Life:
If the backpack is the raison d’être of the budget traveller, then the backpacker hostel is his/her lifeblood. It is both the glue the binds a sequence of travel experiences and the source of social interaction that can often help to define an entire trip. The hostel’s primary function, as indicated by its very name, is to provide a safe haven to recover from interminable bus journeys or day-long hikes, a welcoming oasis of warmth and comfort to be appreciated after the rigours of third world travel. Once this function has been fulfilled, however, it progresses to its secondary and more complex role: providing the opportunities for social stimulation.

Social Interaction:
Simply put, anything goes in the melting pot of international culture that is the modern-day backpacker hostel. Doors to myriad social adventures are opened at the drop of a simple “Hello…” and any sentiment of social inadequacy goes out of the window in this most unforgiving of environments. Introverts, extroverts, party animals, loners and sociopaths are thrown together to create a heady cocktail of contrasting personalities in the already intense context of shoestring travel. Connections are made and discarded in an instant, based on immediate like or dislike. Encounters are paradoxically superficial and profound, the brevity of any relationship being offset by its intensity. Just as I will probably never see Nick and Vivian again, neither will I ever forget the disarming candour with which we spoke of our life hopes and experiences on the rooftop of the Hilton in Windhoek – an evening that would categorically not have happened had we not exchanged the briefest of dormitory greetings.

Amenities & Facilities:
The three most important things to consider when rating a hostel are WiFi, WiFi and WiFi; closely followed by the quality of the free breakfast. The walls could be covered in bloodstains and the shower smell like an open sewer in Mumbai, but if a backpacker can stream Season 6 of Game of Thrones and make uninterrupted WhatsApp calls on reliable 4G bandwidth, and have three types of fruit jam, the hostel is a winner. Despite its traditional image as a low budget form of travelling for poor students and permahippies, backpacking is a big and profitable business: the more ways a hostel has to make a backpacker part with his/her cash, the more lucrative the stay. Bar, kitchen, tour desk, laundry, taxi service – these are all services a backpacker will use if available, particularly if the outside world is out of bounds after dark. My dormitory bed in Diani may have only been $12 a night, but my total bill for a recent three night stay came to $150 (Editor’s note: not all at the bar). Multiply that by eight beds and you have a highly profitable room.

Resident Hierarchy:
Social ranking in the backpacking world is based on occupancy duration, with stays of one or two nights rarely eliciting more than the customary politeness reserved for paying guests. For longer or more memorable stays, a hostel can start to acquire the lofty status of home away from home. Thus, at the Fat Cat in Kampala, I am bestowed senior status on day three and am always greeted by name by owner, receptionist and cleaner. On the morning I am due to leave after a five day residency, I am handsomely rewarded for the longevity of my service by being exempt the $0.50 towel charge and the allocation of an extra pancake at breakfast. This is the backpacker world equivalent of elevation to silver status on British Airways’ Executive Club.

Backpacker Nirvana:
Every so often, the right mixture of all of the above elements will combine to create a hostel experience that is so close to perfection that it is admitted to the pantheon of phenomenal travel memories. With its beautiful pool and siesta-inducing cabanas, vibrant bar and surprisingly good kitchen, and most importantly a perfect combination of fantastic staff and fellow travellers, South Coast Backpackers in Kenya has ensured that I will be the first person to visit Diani Beach for three days without actually ever seeing the beach. Esther, Ali and Paul’s supreme standards of hospitality coupled with the midnight psychoanalysis sessions of the newly formed Failed Romance Club and a fantastic night pool party mean that my only experience of Kenya on this occasion will not involve animals or national parks but the gated compound of the best backpacker hostel of the trip.

And the winner is… South Coast Backpackers – Diani Beach, Kenya

Its beautiful swimming pool…

Its cosy cabana nests…

Its deep and meaningful discussions…

Its not so deep and meaningful behaviour…

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