• Annabel Emery

The Ugly Truth About Backpacking Beauty

We probably all follow a bunch of those insta-famous social media accounts right? You know the ones where tanned salty-sea-hair models are draping themselves eloquently across jagged rocks. Where crashing waves are photographed on the sun-setting horizon, a photogenic monkey is sat in the corner munching on a banana and perhaps a dolphin is springing out of the ocean beneath some peach coloured clouds, as if the Instagram gods sent it there to purposely perpetuate the moment as the most pinnacle level of perfection it could have been…

Yeahhhhh, you know what I’m talking about - and you’re no doubt one of the guilty scrollers who sit in their bed at night double tapping their screen until you have zero self esteem left and hate your life because you aren’t the model in the picture riding on the back of a sea turtle in Samoa.

It’s fine though, because I did that too. And I still do. But before I came travelling I seriously believed that that was the beautiful reality of influencers/bloggers who travel for a living taking stunning photographs and biographing their trips in exchange for dollar bills and free stays at swanky hotels.

NAH-AH honey, that’s not how this shit rolls. I can’t talk from a place of status because I don’t get paid to take pretty pictures of palm trees or pose with cocktails made out of coconut shells - I’m merely a backpacker who attempted to live a dream that was sprawled out in front of me over my social media platforms. But let me enlighten you to the ugly reality of travelling as an ‘appearance conscious’ female, because it really ain't that pretty.

You only see the photos where I’ve altered the lighting to make my sun burn appear less red, or my tan lines less dominant, where I’ve hidden my spots or whacked a filter on to make my eyes look less tired. So here it is; THE NOT SO GLAMOROUS TRUTH ABOUT BEAUTY WHILST BACKPACKING…


Before I left the UK I had a full head of blonde highlights and used my Fudge Silver Shampoo to keep it ashy looking (an absolute dream for keeping those brassy tones at bay ladies *winks and flicks hair*). However, when I was in SE Asia, the scorching sun and salty ocean were a tragic combination on my bleached hair and shortly after arriving in The Philippines, my goldilocks were greenilocks. Nor was I sporting that tousled wavy mermaid hair that Pinterest had convinced me I would have everyday in Bali. No no no, what I had was one big mer-dread. A birds nest that could have housed a pterodactyl. A bunch of knots so tightly formed at the back of my head that Voldemort’s face could have been protruding out underneath it like Professor Quirrell’s and nobody would have even noticed.

I broke so many brushes and survived only by tangle-teasing the front (basically, the hair that you could see in a mirror) and just pretending that the back didn’t exist. My hair had carried a funny tinge of ‘sea foam green’ for a couple of weeks now - until I reached the end of my SE Asia trip and decided that before I headed to Oz I should probably reinstate some health.

If you ever need a confidence boost girls, head on down to your local salon where they’ll greet you with gritted teeth whilst kneading your scalp to inspect your damaged goods. They’ll awkwardly pull their face and stress their distaste of your barnet by separating sections of your hair and holding it up in the mirror so that you can also join in the cohesive hatred for what your head has become.

Quite a remarkable experience actually, especially when they then vocalise (without any sensitivity) that your hair is in terrible condition and there’s very little they can do to return its natural vigour. Thank you Sharon, you’ve hit the nail on the head there. I had no idea it needed a good trim or the professional removal of the pterodactyl eggs. That’s not why I’m here at all, I just wanted a badly made cuppa tea and a chat about the latest X-Factor results.

Before and After my much needed haircut in Bali


Unavoidable unless you have the poise and grace of a Royal Ballet dancer. Which I don’t. I was the very uncool kid at school who managed to barge into every desk on my way up to the front of the class because I had zero spacial awareness - so bruises were and still are a regular occurrence of which I have accepted as a part of my being.

There’s a common saying among backpackers that if you don’t come back from Asia without a knee scar, did you even go to Asia? Because the majority of those that take to riding around on the questionable scooters and motorbikes there end up in some sort of collision, where their limbs endure fractures, breaks, gashes and wounds. My experience of the tranquil Balinese islands weren’t so tranquil, I too crashed my scooter (twice) and ended up with some horrific flesh wounds and lifetime scars that I guess will now only aid in my story-telling.


It’s a constant battle when you have skin issues, over what is the best way to protect it. I have combination skin, which means I have really dry patches in some places (cheeks and eyes) but I also have oily patches in my T zone (forehead, nose, chin). Lovely. To add to my not-so enviable genes, I also suffer from eczema, meaning that the skin on my body can experience extreme irritation in different weather conditions. Yay me.

Anyway, the confusion of wearing no make-up to help your skin breathe but then also realising that you have to clog your already clogged pores with sun cream is a bit of a nightmare for your poor skin. You don’t want to burn but then you don’t want acne. Swings and roundabouts. Obviously, the most important thing is to protect your skin - it is your biggest organ and too much exposure to the sun can cause so much damage to your body, so always opt for practicality over aesthetic.


I hate make-up. I hate buying it, I hate applying it, I hate wearing it, I hate taking it off. I try and wear as little as I can when I am leaving the house for social reasons and I never wear it on my days off or when I work out. HOWEVER, as a good citizen of the world I do wear it when I'm hitting the town so that you can all sleep soundly at night without terrifying images of the Annie-exorcist clouding your mind - you’re welcome.

But in hot countries like Indonesia, you will sweat off your foundation the second you apply it. I would leave the hostel looking like Britney 1999 and come back looking like Britney 2007 - so there’s really not much point in bothering. When I was in Asia I wore water-proof mascara, concealer for the Prada bags I get under my eyes and some clear mascara to keep the bush in my brows. They were my three mighty weapons of choice and probably all you'll need.

Minimal is best, and when I got to Australia I was able to apply a little more for my nights out. I doubled up a brown coloured eye shadow palette as a bronzer and a highlighter to save on weight and space (imperative when backpacking) and invested in a good powder when my tan started to fade and the weather got cooler.


I used to spend all my wages on fast fashion back home, and though I have now learnt to live more minimally, I still crave style. I did my best to work outfits that I could mix and match to be both practical and fashionable, but in Asia all you want to do is wear woven tops and baggy printed harem pants. It's amazing. But when I hit Oz I found my lifestyle cravings flooded back and I ended up having to ditch a lot of my Bali clothes for more weather and city appropriate garms when we got to Brisbane and Sydney. 

In Asia my Iron Maiden tee was worn to the beach that morning and then out to the bar crawl that evening - and nobody batted an eyelid. No one gives a shit, and it's so freeing. I forgot about my lust for fashion whilst I was living fast, but when we reached a more appearance conscious city, it felt appropriate to start dressing myself properly again.

I also made the mistake of getting a job in a super funky retail store called Attik when I reached Sydney, and barely saved a penny as all my pay went straight back in to the company after my many in-store sprees. But hey, I survived. Now that I live in the laid back destination of Queenstown, New Zealand, I find myself in either my work uniform or active wear anyway...(thank god New Zealand is rubbish for shopping).


The worst thing about warm countries besides the frizz and the skin grease are the tiny little microscopic satan’s that prey on your succulent flesh. Yeah I’m talking about the mozzys. Those damned blood sucking insects ruin your skin and leave you feeling sick after you’ve scratched your shins down to the bone. Mosquitos aren’t the only concern though. Bed bugs are a literal nightmare in foreign hostels and my friends often woke up with a trail of bed bug bites ascending their backs, bums and tums.

I lathered on bug repelling cream every night before leaving to go out (I found the cream to be just as effective and less harsh than the sprays) and once bitten by the pesky beggars I immediately applied Sudocrem to eradicate the itch. Sudocrem is my absolute swear-by beauty must have; it soothes, smoothed and gently heals anything from bites and infections to spots and scrapes.


Trying to maintain a glossy, brushed and sleek look on your hair is very difficult; it's too hot to wear your hair down so it's constant battles with your bobble, yet there's no better feeling than diving in to fresh water and feeling your hair defy gravity by expanding like a lions mane around your face. All this up then down then scraped back then drying in the sun and showering in cold salt water does a world of damage, so the last thing you'll be wanting to do is add extra heat via hair dryers and straighteners; time to embrace what ya mama gave ya girls.


I couldn't wait to wear all of my unusual, funky swimsuits that I had excitedly purchased and packed for some poolside glamour. Unfortunately, wearing a super high waist bikini on my first day of tanning left me with severe sun burn in all the wrong places for the rest of my trip - my stomach was half white/half red; it looked like a Drumstick Squashie. Now I was stuck wearing high waist swimwear for the whole time we were in Asia in order to hide it...


When you’re on the road you're constantly misplacing belongings, forgetting to clean items, trying to save money so are living with the bare necessities etc. it becomes a bit of a task to pluck your moustache hair, wax your lady garden and clip your funny shaped toe nails. I guess that’s what freedom really is though right? Not giving a shit, even for a little while, about how others perceive you and letting the dirty little hippie within roam free. Stay clean, stay healthy but don’t worry too much about the monobrow… there are editing apps for that.


Ugh the biggest issue I had with SE Asia, was that most of our showers were linked directly with the ocean - so you’d come out of the sea and head straight to the showers only to find yourself bathing in more SEA. It does wonders for the skin, but aids in the creation of the mer-dread we discussed before. It is also cold and doesn’t taste very nice if you accidentally lick your elbow.


I truly feel like my feet will never be clean again. I was doing my whole ‘living it up like a hippie’ thang on the island of Gili T; walking around barefoot and brave, when I stepped on a lit cigarette that burnt the sole of my foot. Burns, bites, cuts, bruises, swelling, smelling... I think it took a couple of months after I stopped travelling to actually rid them of the scent and sores of roaming.


A great way for locals to make money from tourists in Asia is by washing and drying your clothing for a fraction of the price that a launderette back home would charge. So it’s a win / win right? wrong. I originally left the UK with 14 pairs of knickers and left Asia with about 8. My socks typically became unmatched and untraceable, along with several other rather nice items of clothing that mysteriously disappeared after handing it to a local laundry service in Java.

The more often you wash your clothes, the more clothes that go missing. So I just had to wear my Iron Maiden t-shirt as much as I could before handing it over to the national laundry lucky dip. And to the family that stole my favourite lace Urban Outfitters bralet; I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills…


Don’t shudder and pretend like you’ve never had to wee in the wilderness before. If you’re hiking, camping or just generally drunk and can’t make it any further, then there’s no doubt you’ve had to floor your pants in public and feel that uncomfortable breeze on your ass cheeks whilst releasing in to the wild. If you believe you have class and haven’t had to embrace natures finest gift of ‘drip drying’ then prepare to tick it off your bucket list baby.

You become very accustomed to toilet talk when you’re backpacking, so you better get over your prudishness if you want to survive. In Asia you squat or you stand, you face the back splash and you wash yourself with a ‘bum gun’ - a fascinating and preferable invention actually. Carry hand sanitiser ALWAYS and take a packet of tissues with you everywhere - just in case.


The ultimate in toilet trauma; the ‘I can’t go’ and the ‘I can’t stop going’ dilemma. I remember finally getting to Australia after two months of being in Asia and having to sit on the toilet and hold my best pals hand (if we weren’t best friends before we bloody were after this) whilst the magic finally happened and she rejoiced at the fact I could now ‘go’. I did the same for her when she exclaimed she was over her constant need to leave for the bathroom and all was right in the world again. It was a spectacular shared moment but one I wish to never have to share again…

One backpacker we met told us the most horrific tale of how she had to… in fact, I’m not even going to go there, I don’t think she would ever forgive me. But the point is, shit happens, deal with it. Get over it. Get over yourself. It’s natural, it’s normal and it helps form lifelong friendships.

My Top 7 Travel Beauty Essentials:

  1. Tangle teaser - the only way to tackle the mer-dread of course

  2. Tweezers - brows, splinters, that unusual random black chin hair…

  3. Sudocrem - this god send is my favourite product ever. Put it on a spot, it’ll be gone in three days. Got a cut? use it as an antiseptic. Got a rash or a bite? Soothes it from itching. Life saver.

  4. Clear mascara - for pool days and keeping your eyebrows fluffy

  5. Hand sanitiser - because hot water and soap is a luxury my friends

  6. Sun Cream - essential for all locations

  7. Bug Spray - somethings got to keep those pesky critters at bay!

I would love to hear stories directly from you guys about the traumas and horrors of your globetrotting travels so PLEASE feel free to comment and submit them for my own reading entertainment!

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