Thoughts on being a tourist
And the tourist versus traveller debate rages on…
Of my favourite types of travellers to dislike (and there are many such) is the one who takes immense pride in being an untourist. Sure, I am all for spending enough time in every place I visit, taking in the experience and not ticking off boxes of must sees and dos. But some people taker it to the other extreme.
I came across this defence of the tourist trail on Lonely Planet recently; the writer says, “In a Cairo hostel, I met a girl who announced that she’d been in the city for three months and had yet to see the Pyramids. Her tone suggested she was waiting to be awarded a medal for most subversive traveller.” Definitely read this very insightful piece on how it is not wrong to do the things everyone does (and how going off the beaten path is in itself a myth).
There are many ways of being a better traveller than the average “if it is Tuesday, then it must be Paris” person. Here are some of my suggestions to make your travels more experiential:
See the sights
By all means, see the main sights – they are after all, what primarily define a place (think Taj Mahal). Can you really say you have seen Cambodia till you have spent time gazing at Angkor Wat and Bayon in awe? It is also a good way to gauge the mood of the country – in Sri Lanka a coupe of years ago, I found local tourists at every site I visited and that told me about the country’s slow limp towards peace more than any other visible sign.
Eat where the locals do
And try local food. Avoid the restaurants and cafes around the main attractions (especially those where waiters stand outside and recite the menu in English to lure you inside) and explore the lanes and residential areas of a city. Any place that is crowded with locals is the place to eat at.
The best thing would of course be to have a meal at a local’s house and while that may be possible in some parts of Asia, is not really an option in most countries. At the least, ask a local – your guide, your hotel manager or B & B host, a stranger at a pub – for suggestions. Little holes in the wall, family run trattorias, street dining options – go forth with an iron stomach and conquer.
Stay in an apartment
While hotels are usually the average traveller’s first choice, give B & B places a whirl. That way, you get to interact with a family from the town who can fill in a lot of knowledge gaps. Even better, try a short stay apartment – websites like VRBO and Airbnb are your best choices (but beware of the latter since it seems to get into some controversy or the other regularly – that said, I have used it and never had a bad experience so far). Get out of your comfort zone, say hello to other building residents in the lift, and cook occasional meals.
Visit a local market
Especially if you want to cook. Or even if you just want an authentic local experience. I don’t mean shopping for ridiculously priced souvenirs here. I mean a supermarket (I can spend hours checking out local brands) or a fresh food market where people living in the area go to regularly to stock up their refrigerators (or in some places like Provence and Tuscany, buy fresh every day). So if in Bangkok, do shop at the glittery malls and make a trip to the floating market, but also head to places where locals get their everyday bargains, if only for the experience.
Travel off peak season
Choose the shoulder months (since the really off season months can be a bummer sometimes if it rains or is just too hot to venture out) – for instance, April or October for Europe. The weather is usually just right, hotels and flights are usually cheaper, and there are infinitely less people around. It is an excellent way to take in a city at your own pace without being jostled around.
Use public transport
By all means, walk your shoes out and take cabs when you are just too tired to move. But get on to the metro (my husband and I make it a point in every place we visit where there is metro available – from Tokyo to Cairo), take a local bus or a short ride on a tram wherever possible. It’s great for people watching.
Hang out at a park or pub or cafe
I found the parks the most charming things about Paris, in Amsterdam I nursed a beer at five different places just to get a feel of the city and pretty much everywhere, I try to find a small cafe with wifi where I can kick back and relax for a while.
These are places where residents come and go, hang out, play chess or meet friends. And what better way is there to absorb the local vibe?
So my point really? By all means, be a traveller but please don’t be a travel snob – and don’t sneer at those who rush from one spot to another. Perhaps, their resources – time and money – are limited, or they just enjoy travelling that way. This tourist versus traveller distinction is all in the mind – yours.