What do you think achieves a more memorable experience? Standing in front of a hostel with 5 other backpackers at 6am to donate pre-packaged food to bored monks shuffling by? Or hiring a boat-for-rent that takes you to an island monastery whose sole resident monk doesn’t remember when he last met a tourist? What about your last museum visit abroad? Do you remember anything your guide told you? How about the heated negotiation with the Tuk Tuk driver on the way there?
Our brains create more memories when adrenaline is pumping through our veins. As long as we’re following a guide – whether it’s a human or a paper-bound one, you’re traveling along a well-prepared path with a ‘safety’ railing. Maybe a pleasant, probably a relaxing, and quite likely a safe way to travel, but not exactly a very memorable one.
If instead you stop clinging to the provided railing and take a few nnnguided steps on your own, you can end up in a lot of interesting places. A city-wide water fight being a great example. It doesn’t take a firetruck to make that encounter memorable. Having one though, helps:
These kinds of travel experiences are often waiting just a stone’s throw away from guided museum tours, recommended 3-day itineraries in the Lonely Planet and must-sees as overheard in a hostel’s common room. You’ll quickly notice your heart rate increasing to memorable levels once you step beyond the railing and outside other people’s (and maybe your own) comfort zone.
This is a guide that aims to give you a good idea of how to create those kinds of memorable experiences for yourself in a way that doesn’t necessarily get you killed. Hopefully it won’t get you killed unnecessarily either, but there’s always a risk and you should consider this as my I’m-not-liable-for-the-stupid-things-you-do disclaimer.
- 1 Where It’s Safe
- 2 How to Prepare
- 3 How to Experience an Adventure
- 4 How to Get a Great Deal
- 5 How to Deal With People
- 6 How to Handle Time Constraints
- 7 What to Do Next
- 8 Last but not Least
Where It’s Safe
Most people aren’t terribly great at evaluating the safety of potential destinations. That’s not really surprising, considering most people are casual travellers and not die-hard CIA analysts.
Crime and Terror
Here’s a quick rule of thumb if you’re on the brink of going to a place or not, especially after reading news reports on all the dangers you might encounter there: As long as criminals, terrorists and recurring (natural) catastrophes combined kill less people than a country’s drivers, consider it safe. If that’s still a bit too risky for your taste, make sure credit cards are widely accepted, English is spoken and hospitals are capable of treating what you’re bound to encounter there. That was the exact reasoning I relied on when I went to Israel in 2001 – 19 years old, alone, with a borrowed backpack and a newly bought camera (which I promptly lost – a recurring theme on my travels).
The Reputation of a Country
Israel? Isn’t that the place that makes a weekly appearance in the news, detailing the latest bomb or rocket attacks? Yep, except that your subconsciousness is playing some tricks on you. Lots of countries have a reputation that’s completely out of line with the actual dangers you might be facing. Do you know how many Israeli civilians were killed as part of the Israel-Palestine conflict in 2014? Five. Do you know how many intentional homicides took place in South Africa, everyone’s favourite African wine tour destination in the year 2012? 16,259.
This isn’t about not trusting the media. It’s about doing your own research. I bumped into a Thai girl on the back of a pick up truck a few years back. ‘Bumped’ is probably the right word as the pothole-plagued trip from the Laotian border wasn’t exactly smooth. The tomboy girlfriend sitting next to her wasn’t thrilled about the red-bearded attention her companion received. Before she tongue-yanked my conversation partner away by the uvula, I found out she’d been to Rwanda. Wait, what? Rwanda? Yep, good old genocide-Rwanda is nowadays one of the safest countries in the region, thanks to its ever present police state government who’s so law and order that plastic bags are outlawed (due to the pollution caused by them). They even search your luggage for them at the border!
Don’t be too quick to cross of a place due to its sinister sounding name. It might be a hidden gem that’s shunned by tourists and able to offer an authentic experience free of the downsides a ‘thriving’ tourism industry tends to bring with it.
Objective as they may sound, Travel Warnings can be quite deceiving. For those not in the know: Travel warnings are government officials’ way of protecting their own hides and thus tend to err on the far – the very far – side of caution. Take a look this travel warning issued by the U.S. government: “[the country’s] ability to track suspect individuals entering and exiting the country with anonymity [is limited]”. U.S. citizens are advised to “avoid areas around protests and demonstrations” and to “exercise caution when congregating in areas known as expatriate hangouts”. In addition travellers “have reported that they were assaulted […] because they appeared ‘foreign’.” What’s that dangerous place you might be wondering? It’s Germany.
Travel Intelligence Sources
If you feel that your risk tolerance extends a bit further, the Thorntree forums are a great alternative source for intelligence on current safety risks in a country. Since advice is often region-specific it offers a more granular picture compared to the broad brushes used in travel warnings. Twitter is another great way to get up to the minute information on anything from floods to demonstrations as long as the area has a reasonably tech-savy population. If you know you’re heading somewhere that’s not exactly stable, you can also do a quick check on Google News for the country’s name or specific regions to see if there’s any new developments you might have missed.
How to Prepare
It’s hard to really get the most possible out of your trip if all you know is where to find cheap hotels, conveniently located restaurants and museums that were somewhat inspired by past events. However, a bit of choice research beforehand can add a whole new layer to your travel experience:
What to Read and Watch
A contemporary novel or movie from your destination can tell you a lot more about its people than a tourism-friendly brochure about a Pyramid-shaped VIP graveyard. Especially if not aimed at an international audience, books and movies can offer insights between the lines that are otherwise hard to glimpse. ‘About Ellie‘ is an Iranian movie that not only gives you a realistic idea of the lives of young Iranians, but also about the tensions that arise among them by changing value systems, expectations that differ from other parts of society as well as from their attempts to bridge those gaps. ‘Tulpan‘ is a Kazakh comedy that some Kazakh politicians consider more insulting than foreign-produced Borat. Obscure as its portrayal of the country’s rural inhabitants may be, it gives you a glimpse of a world and its humour that is home to the parents, cousins and uncles of your tour guides and taxi drivers in Almaty.
What kind of work are people usually involved in? How bad is their economic situation really? Are citizens used to justice or is the local police more perpetrator than prosecutor of crimes? The plural of anecdote isn’t data. While conversations with people can be fascinating, they often don’t draw a complete picture of the place you’re visiting. That’s the kind of information you get out of the often underestimated ‘travel website’ Wikipedia. No, not Wikitravel, but actual Wikipedia. Its pages on politics and the economy not only tell you quickly what matters for a country’s inhabitants, it also allows you to engage locals in conversations on topics they are passionate talking about.
Traveling to another country isn’t only about the buildings that have been rotting in it for the last 500 years. It’s much more about the story of the people that live there, how they’re different and, at the same time, similar to ourselves. A good starting point for those kind of insights is the advice businesspersons receive when traveling there (the ‘Culture Shock‘ series is pretty great for that) as well as the headlines that dominate reporting there right now (searching Google News for a country or even a particular region works really well).
What to Pack
Based on what I saw as a Couchsurfing host in Bangkok over the years, packing lists are probably better done by listing what you don’t need to bring along rather than what you need to have.
This said, pack an unlocked smart phone. You can get a local SIM card in most countries at international airports that come with up to 30 days of unlimited Internet for as little as 10 USD. Not only does this save you a fortune over roaming rates, it also allows to use Google Maps to navigate cities without having to deal with the low-quality free maps you find locally. In addition it gives you access to instant voice translation apps like Samsung’s S Translate or the more commonly used Google Translate. This way you can even communicate with locals who don’t speak a word of English.
If you prefer things a bit more low-tech, grab a phrasebook. It’ll come in really handy when stuck with no English speaker in sight. Learning the numbers (to negotiate) and some basic terms for unusual requests (e.g. ‘vegetarian’) tends to make a significant difference already.
What to Skip
Don’t look for editorial recommendations and professional travel guides. Travel writers have to not only look like they know something you don’t, they also have to pretend it matters. I can’t count how often I read a travel guide that praised ‘the best coffee in town’, only to find out that it’s no different from 20 other places with similar offerings. Don’t waste your time on arbitrary recommendations whose sole reason for existence is to make a writer appear more knowledgeable. An exception might be the reading and movie lists you’ll find in Lonely Planets: A collection of sometimes hard to find reads that are worthwhile checking out before you go. You don’t even have to buy an actual Lonely Planet for that – their reading recommendations can be viewed online for free.
How to Experience an Adventure
Adventures don’t always adhere to schedules and itineraries. In fact, they rarely do. This doesn’t mean you can’t tilt the odds in your favour if you are looking to experience something out of the ordinary. There are a number of ways you can actually bring about the situations that really take you on a journey.
Tourism corrupts and mass tourism corrupts massively. It makes people tell you sanitised stories, take you to staged encounters, show you lifeless sights. They sell you a euphemism for poo instead of quality products because they have no repeat business. They know they only have to speak English, be conveniently located and offer whatever looks good on first sight. Want to instead know what life is like for an unemployed teacher? What people truly belief? Which shops offer you deals you won’t find anywhere else?
You’ll have to immerse yourself. Whether you book a room on Airbnb (Jungle Villa in Vientiane with breakfast for two and Gin Tonics included for 50 USD a day? Sign me up!), go Couchsurfing (Journalists in Georgia have some serious Kafkaesque bachelor pads!) or seek out like-minded people on meetup.com (‘bulletproof’ coffee meetup with tech entrepreneurs? great, five of my favourite things in one place) … no tour program can match the experiences you gather that way.
Take your time
Whether it’s about meeting locals or just walking around town to see where your feet take you: It’s hard to give chance encounters time to unfold in the two hour time window between ‘lunch at that Lonely Planet recommended restaurant’ and the next ‘must-see water puppet show’. If my self-selected schedule didn’t leave me time for aimless walks through town, I would have missed out on the sight of locals demonstrating to each other how to aim a sniper rifle on a Monday morning in the mountainous republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. On a slightly related note – unless you’re getting paid to take pictures of people, you probably want to err on the side of caution in situations like these.
Go with the flow
Someone asks you to join them? Forget the ‘yes, but…’ and pick the ‘why not…’ option instead. Only if you wander away from a pre-set path can you really experience your own adventure. The best part? Even if what you experience isn’t out of this world unique, it’ll still feel like it. Finding an awesome antique shop or a hidden-away restaurant on your own makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than any group tour of the Pyramids ever will.
When a disabled, drunk veteran in the streets of Stepanakert invited me to his home, I didn’t have to think twice. Well, okay, I did think twice about it. Still, I said yes. Sitting in his squatted abode inside an under construction government building, we were drinking coffee that was cooked on a self-made stove: A plastic stool, some cement and a bit of wiring – a construction that would have made MacGyver proud. Our conversation took place with the help of an English-Russian voice translation software on my phone. It’s an awesome piece of technology, but unfortunately doesn’t work too well with drunkenly slurred Russian. However, between colloquial terms for genitalia, ‘war’ and ‘Azerbaijan’ I got the gist of it.
How to Get a Great Deal
Once you know how to prepare, how to stay safe and how to still experience an awesome adventure, you are pretty much set for a memorable vacation.
Here are a few additional tips though that can get you a pretty good deal in a lot of places:
Go to the business district and head to places that cater to office workers. Any place that can survive in a market where everything depends on making customers come back again and again, has it down when it comes to price and taste. Unlike tourist locations they need to make the customers of today happy if they still want to have any tomorrow.
With online bookings and ratings becoming prevalent, it’s hard to get an exceptional good deal. Well-rated stuff on TripAdvisor is either sold out or priced accordingly. One strategy is to look for places with a high occupancy rate (apartment buildings) instead of those that rely on making big bucks on peak traffic (hotels). Check online for apartments that offer monthly rentals and call or e-mail them directly if weekly or daily rates are available. Usually they don’t qualify for hotel booking sites, making it harder for them to be found by other people (and thus more likely to cut you a good deal).
Another option is to scout for places that recently opened. Recently opened means few reviews and thus low rankings on sites like Agoda, HostelWorld or TripAdvisor. Often new places attempt to remedy that by offering promotional fares for months after opening their doors. Walking through Bangkok I see brand new places pop up all the time, advertising rock bottom rates on their doors, never to be seen by travellers who don’t look beyond online review scores.
Guides, Drivers and Tours
Same principle as with apartments, really. A lot of tour companies and guides deal with peaks and lows, having to make enough money during the peaks to cover the lows. Avoid that and hire someone who has consistent work (e.g. taxi drivers, park rangers, other government employees). They’ll see you as an easy way to make an extra 20% on top of their usual daily earnings. That’s a much better deal than being a ‘peak’ customer who’ll have to pay enough on one day to cover the days they have to go without any customers at all.
How to Deal With People
As a traveller, a lot of people see you as an easy target: You don’t know the language, the prices or local customs. In addition, even providing you with good service has limited upside as most tourists don’t ever return. Too often you’ll find that all sales are final when it comes to dealing with individuals.
Approach People Yourself
If you need help or services, solicit someone on your own. People who volunteer their help might be a genuine in their offer, but it’s what I’d consider a risk group. The chance that a random person will scam you is less than 1%. On the other hand, someone approaching you on their own in a tourist area has a scam chance of something close to 80% in my experience. By approaching someone of your choice, you tilt the odds in your favour.
First Impressions Count
When trying to pick a guide or a driver, take a look at their ‘comparative’ wealth. Money has to come from somewhere. And by somewhere I mean ‘you’. Taxis with spoilers and custom rims basically advertise that they’re not only literally going to take you for a ride.
Pick Bad Salesmen
Choose people who seem bad at marketing themselves. Hustlers crowding you at airports and train stations are high pressure sales people. Something justifies their additional level of effort – and too often that’s inflated prices at best, and scams at worst. Ignore them, pick someone who hangs back at their own booth or car. These more ‘laid back’ sellers, drivers and guides are much more likely to offer a deal, happy having attracted a customer without sacrificing morals or dignity.
Roamers over Campers
Anyone waiting for hours – be it in front of a hotel, a bar or an event – is someone who is looking for a catch worth their effort. You don’t set up shop that long if you don’t expect above average returns. When given the choice, take a cabbie who just happens to drive by rather than one who’s been waiting for two hours and is now looking to get paid for those two hours.
How to Handle Time Constraints
When imagining adventurous trips, lots of people think of backpacking trips that go on for months. The reality though is that it’s more about attitude (what experiences you seek) and priorities (what you’re willing to skip) when it comes to determining the situations you will find yourself confronted with. Having more time helps and gives you a chance to cover a larger region, but it’s not a condition for an authentic, memorable journey. As long as you’re not dead-set on the must-sees, any time-frame can harbour extraordinary encounters.
What Two Weeks Can Look Like
A few years back I heard of a friend touring Northern Vietnam on a scooter. I opted to put a 10 day vacation to use and follow in his foot steps. A YouTube search (‘how to ride a motorcycle’), was followed by an Air Asia flight to Hanoi and a 8 USD/day rental contract for a Soviet-era motorcycle: The infamous Minsk. My excursion took me across the Ba Bể Lake in a wooden boat and to a hill tribe market so remote that some of its traders didn’t even speak Vietnamese.
Learning to ride a motorcycle – or at least a scooter – is something that significantly upgrades your ability to travel independently. Do yourself a favour though and take a proper class. Near-collusions with water buffaloes and having to tail trucks at night (I mistook my headlight for broken), made me reconsider the extent of my preparations.
Motorcycles aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and it took me several years before I summoned up the courage to give that a try. A good and maybe safer alternative is visiting remote national parks with publicly available transport.
Out of my own ‘remote public transport trips’, Kidepo Valley National Park in Uganda was probably my favourite. The two day overland journey took me through territory formerly controlled by Joseph Kony‘s Lord’s Resistance Army. The rural region’s landscape is dominated by straw-covered huts. Small trucks supply the villages with life’s essentials – Coca Cola included. Unfortunately, unlike the brown sugar water, public busses aren’t always available. This leaves you with hitching rides on the ‘Coca Cola trucks’ to cover the final stretch to the national park. Seven US Dollars buys you a seat next to the driver, which beats joining the other passengers, sitting on top of the cargo in the burning summer heat for several hours.
What a Weekend Can Hold
Even a single weekend can already hold more adventure than one might ask for. I particularly remember a weekend trip from Bangkok to the Laotian jungle that makes me shiver to this day. Maybe that isn’t entirely representative, given that this particular trip involved a van running into a ditch after failing to climb a steep slope. Things wouldn’t have been so bad if it were not for the hair-raising rescue attempts that followed – including ropes that snapped and people who crawled behind and under the firmly stuck Toyota Previa (curb weight: 3,775 lb) to get it dislodged. Finding yourself in a situation where the locals are competing for a Darwin award makes you want to hide behind a tree. I settled the conflict between my conscience and my sanity by leaving them enough cash to hire a tow truck before hitching a ride back to the city on some Vietnamese sleeper bus that came by. To this day I hope they called the truck.
You can find similar experiences in most corners of the world if you’re willing to look beyond the spotlight. While I recommend you take things slow, you don’t necessarily need a lot of time. It’s all about choosing the path less travelled.
What to Do Next
I hope this advice emboldens you a bit to venture out of your traditional comfort zone. It’s not rocket science and you can figure out a lot of this as you go. More importantly, now that you have an idea on how to go about creating some memorable travel experiences, you’ll need to take the next step. In fact, you should do so before you even close this website. Here’s what you can do:
- Looking for some inspiration? Check out Wandering Earl’s list of memorable life experiences for some amazing trip experiences.
- Pick an exotic-sounding country you hardly know a thing about. Look it up on Google’s Image Search. Like what you see? Go buy a Lonely Planet for it. Maybe you’ll go, maybe not. But what’s the damage in just looking into it a bit more? Budget: 30 USD.
- Want to do what I did? Love untouched nature, remote huts and hiking in the mountains? Go send a message to ‘Devi‘ on Facebook to get the ball rolling. She was my hiking guide and translator on my trip to the Chechen-populated Pankisi Valley in Georgia. Budget: 100 USD/day.
- Like the idea to go off the beaten track but still prefer someone else to hold the reins? Fire off an e-mail to Young Pioneer Tours to find out more about group tours to Chernobyl, Iraq and North Korea. Budget: 250 USD/day.
- None of the above? All a bit too much? How about this: Print out the Wikitravel page for a little-visited national park in a neighbouring country. This could be your next weekend trip. Budget (for now): 5 cents.
Try to take a step (or in this case, a few mouse clicks) out of your comfort zone right now. It might open up the path to a whole new adventure.
Last but not Least
Creating memories without breaking the bank or bones isn’t easy. It’s actually downright stressful. You might even want to call it work, so don’t hesitate to treat it as such. Be sure to take some time off – before, after or during your trip – to relax. Go to the beach and idle through the day in a hammock. Or head out to nature with some new friends, listen to the water of a nearby stream rush by and just let go of everything. In my experience, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is the perfect place for that: