November 30, 2023

To Bunk or Not to Bunk: Dorm Life for the Budget Nomads

Despite sounding like a jungle, dorm rooms are great: It’s cheap, clean, and a good way to meet other travelers.

  • September 20, 2013
  • 6 min read
To Bunk or Not to Bunk: Dorm Life for the Budget Nomads

You’ve saved up for the trip of a lifetime, and unfortunately a big chunk of it you’ll spend on accommodation. If you’re lucky, a relative or friend with a spare bed will come to the rescue. In some destinations, people are quick to invite strangers to their homes.
Couchsurfing, which lets members choose from a network of available beds/couches from fellow members, also helps. But there are times when you feel tired of the formalities these arrangements require. After a 20-hour bus ride, you’re not in the mood for small talks and want your privacy. That’s when you check into…a dorm. With the weak rupiah, dormitories in hostels are the obvious choice of accommodation.
Most Indonesians start backpacking in their late 20s, an age when sleeping in a bunk bed is a distant memory from a distant past. Now imagine you have to relive that part of your childhood again. Only that’s the least of your worries. You’ll be sharing a room with seven complete strangers, mostly pimply university students on their gap year. You probably think, “That’s okay, I slept in a room with my brothers the first 10 years of my life.” But I bet your brother doesn’t walk around naked at 4 in the morning (more on this later).
There are two types of dorms: Mixed dorms and segregated dorms. The latter, segregated by gender, is less common. A lot of Indonesians are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing a room with people of the opposite sex, but when the cheapest room in the city center is 75 euro versus a 25 euro dorm room, it’s no contest, really.
So let’s talk about the nastiness of dorms first, shall we?

In principal, hostel owners are in it for the money, not for kicks and giggles. Obviously they’re not going to make a lot of profit from one bed, but a lot of beds do make quite a handsome earning. Hence their love of bunk beds (hey, two beds for the space of one!) And profit making is the other reason why hostel proprietors tend to cramp as much bunk beds as possible in the already tiny space. Four per room are common, but six or eight is not unheard of.

With more people, there’s a bigger chance of a sociopath or two sharing the room with you (yes, the story about the naked guy wandering about is coming up). There’s always that person who comes back in the middle of the night, clearly aware that everyone else is sleeping, yet too drunk or too apathetic to care. They would just throw the door open (sometimes after struggling with the lock for a considerable time), flick the light switch on, and have loud conversations with a fellow brat. Despite groans and shushing from the sleeping guests, this dorm buddy would continue to be obnoxious. He didn’t care the first time, why should he care now? Nothing you can do here except change to another dorm room the next day. There’s no guarantee you would be free of loud night owls, though.
Another obnoxious behavior is when a couple of dorm buddies hook up and are too cheap to pay for a private room, and so they decide to get to know each other in the biblical sense literally a dirty-sock’s throw away from your bed. This is trickier than the previous type. If you shush them, they’d think you’re watching them. If you don’t, they’d think you’re asleep … or you’re watching them. But unlike the previous case, where the perpetrator would more than likely repeat his behavior the next day, dorm couples don’t last. Last night was more than likely a farewell act to a departing half of the couple, so a repeat performance is not to be expected.

Perverts, however, exist although very rarely. Yes, the moment you’re waiting for: The naked wanderer. Yours truly had the wonderful experience of a dorm buddy who had the habit of roaming the room in his birthday suit every night after hitting the clubs. He didn’t do anything objectionable to his dorm buddies, so we pretty much left him alone with all his issues and gossip about him later at breakfast. Not so fortunate was the guy who was caught pleasuring himself while watching a female dorm buddy packing. He was promptly thrown out of the hostel.

With strangers sleeping close by, obviously you have to be on high alert regarding your valuables. This seems to be good logic, but there are backpackers who have a lot of faith in their fellow tourists and leave their things strewn about in the room. Mundane things get stolen (toilet paper, elastics), but the most common items to steal are money and music player. This is why every backpacker needs to bring his or her own padlock, and if there’s a locker provided, use it.

But the most common dorm room sins are unintentional. Like a dorm buddy who snores louder than a foghorn or the “active sleeper” who sleeps in the bunk bed above, rattling the whole bed every single time they move/kick/turn. Or the dorm buddy who needs to catch an early bus/flight and leaves the packing at the very last minute (i.e. 15 minutes after the taxi arrives to pick them up) so they start to frantically shove everything inside the backpack, including lots of things in plastic bags. The symphony of scrunched plastic bags and zippers opening/closing at dawn is a sound familiar to dorm veterans everywhere.

The same with the alarm clock that goes off in ungodly hours but the owner was too deep in sleep to even push the snooze button (leading to the frantic packing an hour later). Aside from the active sleeper, it’s best to bring earplugs when you sleep in dorms. Or cheap hostels in general, especially the ones that have a bar in vicinity or located in a party town.

But despite sounding like a jungle, dorm rooms are great. Yes, it’s cheap, and in most hostels they are cleaned every day (bed sheets are left alone, though). Extreme cases are rare, and it’s a good way to meet other travelers because in reality most people meet there instead of the hostel’s common room. When you get to room with normal, pleasant people, you look out for each other. And when you’re away from home, that’s a nice thing to have. For 25 euro or less.

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