Several years ago, while traveling solo through Thailand, I found myself on a motor boat headed west toward the postcard perfect island of Ko Phi Phi. You’ve all seen that postcard. The one with the long, desolate white sand beach, tall palm trees swaying in the slight breeze, the ocean 100 different shades of blue. That was my image of Ko Phi Phi because that’s what the brochures and pictures sold.
Silly me. When we rounded the corner into the horseshoe bay, the long white beach (yes, it was there) was smothered with long-tail boats packed together like sardines and hoards of sun-burned tourists. Dirty pollution from the boat motors made the air almost unbreathable and I could see bits of trash strewn along where the vegetarian met the golden sand. It was not the postcard perfect image I had implanted in my mind to say the least. I had been duped and I knew it. Later I found out that this was the island where The Beach had been filmed. Thanks Leo….
I’ve heard and experienced similar stories of travels to places like Machu Picchu, the Pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon, the Blue Lagoon… In all these places the beauty and splendor is there, sure, but you have to squeeze your way through the throngs of people fighting to take the perfect selfie and ignorantly cast your eyes away from what you know is exploitation and misuse of people and the environment. Is this really the kind of travel that makes you feel fulfilled? Maybe it is and you can stop reading right now, but if you’re anything like me this kind of scene leaves you feeling disappointed, cheated, and perhaps a little bit sick. When I travel, I want to experience the authenticity of a place even if that means giving up a few simple comforts or stepping outside my comfort zone. It’s worth it, because when you leave the resorts and tour busses (or boats) behind, you can forge your own path and create your own memories. Not the memories tour guides or tour books want to create for you. This is what travel is all about. Exploration, not exploitation. Get off the beaten path and have some real adventures! They may not be anything incredibly exciting, but as long as you make an effort to explore and discover a place for yourself, you will feel like you’ve actually travelled.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. If the crowd goes one way, you go the other
You are not a sheep, so don’t act like one. Go find your own adventures. I promise, you’ll be a whole lot happier with what you find there than if you followed that tour group into every damn stone church in the city. Or maybe you won’t, I don’t know, but at least you won’t be a sheep. One exception to this rule is if you see the locals get all excited and pumped up about something. Then go follow them and be the black sheep in the crowd.
2. Use the guide book as a guide, not as a bible
I do believe it’s a good idea to travel with a guide book, but many travelers make the mistake of only traveling by the guide book. Don’t! There are so many other wonderful restaurants, places to stay, and things to do and see than what are within the pages of your Lonely Planet. Use it as a guide, but also follow your curiosity and adventurous spirit. Who knows, maybe you’ll stumble across something life-changing
3. Don’t book tours (unless you can control what you see and do)
Tours are safe, tours are fabricated, and tours are often bone-dry boring. So unless you know with 100% certainty that the tour you book will not be a cookie-cutter experience, skip the tour office and head out on your own. If you don’t have a way to get to where you want to go consider hiring a guide or taxi cab to show you around. There are some tours where you can control what you want to see and do. This is a good option if you have limited time in a place and don’t want to spend unnecessary hours trying to figure out logistics.
4. Have a conversation with the locals
Who better to ask about the best places to eat or which hike has the most stunning views than someone who actually lives in the area you’re visiting? This is why I love traveling through Airbnb. You stay in the homes of local people and they are often more than happy to share their insider tips with you. So strike up a conversation and start exploring!
5. Get a paper map and put your phone away
For the longest time, I didn’t travel with a phone. I’m not quite sure how I managed (I can’t imagine traveling without my iPhone now…), but I did and it was wonderful. I saw more, I discovered more, I spent less time trying to figure out where I was and more time just enjoying where I was. I’m not saying you should leave your phone at home for your next trip, but I am saying that you should not rely on it to give you directions. Pick up a few maps at the bookstore or tourist office, study them to figure out your route, and set out with your phone buried deep in your backpack until (or if) it is absolutely needed
6. Be ok with being uncomfortable
Seriously. Good travel often means that there will be times you are cold, hungry, wet, tired, or experiencing any other feeling that we often associate negative thoughts with. Embrace it, because most of the time this means you’re pushing your boundaries and being open to adventure. Don’t talk yourself out of something just because it may involve some unpleasant experiences. It’s often these experience that we cherish the most.
7. Take risks (within reason)
I’m not suggesting that you follow in Chris McCandless’s footsteps or pick up bull-fighting on your trip to Spain, but taking risks is something that will set you apart from other travelers. It will allow you to see and do things that you will remember for a lifetime. When you feel that little twinge in your stomach after hearing, seeing, or thinking about an adventure, follow through! The best way to really travel is to get out of your comfort zone
8. Be prepared for anything
I was never a Boy Scout (obviously. Or not so obviously!), but I have learned that it is important to be well-prepared for anything even if the circumstances don’t seem to require it. Bring a water bottle, put on sunscreen, wear sneakers instead of sandals, don’t forget a snack, write down the address to your hotel. Because if you really make an effort to get off that beaten path and go find your own adventures, who knows what you’ll find. And if you’re not prepared to follow that lead, whatever it is, you will potentially miss out on the greatest adventure of your life.