“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” – Helen Keller
If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you know that I recently spent five weeks traveling in Southeast Asia followed by a week in northern Scotland. During that time, I did a few things right and made plenty of mistakes so I’m passing on my lessons learned so that you might be a savvier traveler than I:
- Slow down. Don’t expect a lot of sympathy for this, but travel can be stressful. On my group tour through Indochina we moved to a new location every other day, which can get tiring after 30 days. Consider building some idle time into your schedule: yoga on the beach, cards on a slow boat down the river, journaling on the overnight train. This also applies to how you go through the day. See all the requisite sights, but keep your eyes peeled for the unexpected. The people and things around the attractions can be much more memorable than the attractions themselves. Oh, and just take that extra second to make sure you have your card as you walk away from the ATM. Trust me, that will save you a lot of time and headache.
- Take a tour. Opinions are definitely split on this, but as a solo traveler I really appreciated someone else being focused on the logistics. It helped me slow down a bit and enjoy, not to mention share my experience with others. Your tour guide probably knows more about the destination than you do, so use their experience to guide you through your own decision-making. However, it can be difficult navigating the different expectations, preferences, and temperaments of the various people in your group. Be the kind of person you’d want to travel with.
- Set off on your own. It’s easy for groupthink to set in during a multi-day tour so don’t be afraid to break off to do something by yourself. I must say I ate a few more meals at “safe” tourist restaurants with western food options than I really wanted to. If you are the only one who wants to get up at 5:30am to give alms to the local monks, do it anyway. I had a week in the Thai islands after my tour ended, which was the perfect way to wind down from the frenetic pace of the tour. It’s a great feeling too to navigate a foreign place on your own and simply go at your own speed for a little while.]
- Trust peer reviews and be skeptical of travel agents. It’s a wonder to me that travel agents are still in business with so much travel information available at our fingertips. I’ve always been a slave to TripAdvisor and other traveler review sites, and they’ve never steered me wrong. I got a little lazy on this trip though and decided to book my transfers and lodging in the Thai islands through a Bangkok travel agent. I should have been suspicious when I was given only one option of hotel on Koh Phi Phi Don. I knew I was overpaying a bit for the convenience but surely they wouldn’t recommend a shithole, I thought. Boy was I wrong. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice the bed bugs until the middle of the night when there was nowhere else to go. As I slept in a ball on the floor of my extremely basic room, I resolved to change hotels in the morning and push for a full refund of the four nights I’d prepaid for the bug infested hotel. In the morning, I switched to a nearby hotel offering a comfortable room, free breakfast, and infinity pool for the price I was paying at the other place. Over the next few days, I engaged in an exhausting back and forth between the Bangkok travel agent and the hotel manager, both saying the room was non-refundable and that it was the other’s problem to solve. In the end, I got 25% of the money back but I got to keep the itchy skin for free. Never again, travel agents, never again. I’m going to make the mistakes on my own next time and save the money on your commission.
- Jet lag, schmet lag. I’ll admit that I’m very lucky in being able to sleep pretty much anywhere at any time… but even if you have trouble sleeping on planes, this is good advice. Get your body on the new time zone immediately. When you arrive in a new place, you don’t want to waste daylight sleeping, so don’t. Have a coffee and push yourself until 9 or 10 that first day. Trust me, the jet lag won’t linger nearly as long as if you are napping in the middle of the day. I took me 43 hours and six time zones to get from southern Thailand to northern Scotland. By sleeping for just six hours during my overnight flight, I was able to get myself on Scottish time right away and straight to the pub for a pint and some haggis.
- Just say yes. As a tourist, you are inundated with offers to sell you anything and everything… from food to crafts to tours. Don’t just say no to avoid the hassle of it. If you are interested in something, jump on it. You may not be past that stall again and you almost certainly won’t be back in this destination… so go for the elephant trek even if it is just a little out of your price range. You will regret saying yes far less than you regret saying no. I picked up this advice from a fellow traveler and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Of course I’m not saying to agree to doing anything you don’t want to do, but you knew that didn’t you?
- Strike a hard bargain. Tourism is big business in Southeast Asia and many other places I’ve been. The locals will employ any number of tactics from hostility to guilt in order to get you to purchase their good or tour. Once you’ve decided you want something, don’t make the rookie mistake of letting it show. The right bartering price for something is the amount that you want to pay for it – no more, no less. Start your offer below that price and be willing to walk away if they don’t come down far enough. They might shame you for a perceived lowball offer, but just remember that your price is your price. They don’t have to accept it and you don’t have to overpay because you’re a tourist.
- Eat and drink with the locals. And do it as the locals do. If you are so fortunate as to secure an invite to dine at a local’s home (safety factors considered of course), say yes. Without question, the best food I had on this trip was cooked by someone who is used to making those dishes for their family. It’s easy to get jaded as a tourist, especially if you’ve been ripped off a few times, but this is the best way to actually get to experience what life is like in the country you are visiting. If you don’t get such an invitation, just venture off the beaten tourist path and go into the most crowded local establishment you can find (or street stall). The food is going to be piping hot due to the heavy turnover, so that bodes well for the health of your stomach. Similarly, consider your environment when you order to avoid getting sick. Don’t order seafood when you are miles from the sea or dairy products in a place that seems unlikely to have a refrigerator nearby. If the people around you are all eating spicy noodles with chicken, that seems like recommendation enough to me!
- Push yourself. If you follow the advice about local dining, you just might find yourself ordering from a menu you can’t read or being offered no menu at all. Assuming you don’t have any non-negotiable dietary restrictions, just go for it. Try a fried cricket or the spring roll with mystery meat. Check it off the list. You might be surprised by the things you enjoy. That goes for experiences too. You might be afraid of heights, but you are going to miss the absolute best view of the sun setting over the city if you don’t just take a gulp and climb up there. Get motion sickness? Load up on dramamine and hop in that boat… there is a cave that’s only accessible by water and you really shouldn’t miss it.
- Take lots of pictures! That’s it. Just do it. You’ll thank yourself in years to come. (And don’t be intimidated by others’ fancy cameras. You can get some great pictures on the most basic cameras if you use a little imagination and experiment with the settings.)