The cardinal rule of happy travel is to stay true to why you are on this trip and only go see what is important to you. Obvious, right? But there are a variety of fellow travelers, friends, family and guides that could unwittingly throw you off your desired path if you are not careful. It can be hard to sort out what to do when traveling to a new place and when confronted with lists of activities in guide books, on line resources and guides. These are the lessons that we have learned and are still trying to practice.
- Do the stuff you want to do. Don’t get me wrong, the people you talk with are all truly trying to help you make your trip better. I am certainly guilty of the same opinionated advice about what to do. From the moment we started planning our Big Trip people with whom we shared our draft itinerary would say some version of, “oh, you are not going to ______ (country, attraction, city, etc)?” or “you are going to be in ______ and you are not planning on doing ________? Really? (insert barely disguised eye roll)”
But ask yourself, “why are we here?” We have lots of examples of doing this, but just recently when in Siem Reap , Cambodia we faced this issue. Siem Reap is the home of the wonder of the world temples of Angkor Wat. There are dozens and dozens of these amazing temple ruins. The guide books write that maybe 3-4 days will cover them; They sell a 3 day pass for less than the cost of two individual one day passes. When we told our guide that we were only going to buy a one day pass he looked at us like we were crazy tourists who can’t do math. The tour suggestions at our hostel are for a “short circuit” of highlights and a highly encouraged “long circuit” version which is multiple days. In the face of uniform suggestions that you simply must see multiple days of these temples, it is only natural to wonder if doing anything else is missing out something wonderful. After all, you have come all this way to embrace seeing these temples and exploring this area.
But, we reflected on why we came here. We really wanted to see the highlights –Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. We wanted to have the kids understand the history of the temples. We also knew we wouldn’t be pushing the kids for getting at the temple before sunrise just to see the sun come up over the towers. Maybe another trip.
For us, one day was perfect. The history is good the first few times but after that we all started to get the idea of when they were built, why they were built and what the symbols all meant. We have gotten better at telling our guide when we do not need to see another temple or stop for another photo that, while amazing, looks like the first 40 pictures of us in front of amazing temple ruins. The exploring, the heat, the history of it all can really wear down a family. We talked about it after the last of the big three temples as we walked to the tuk-tuk and we all agreed that we had had our fill of the temples. We believe that pushing to see the rest of the temples, just because we are here, would diminish the experience as a whole.
Stay true to making the experience reflect what you want it to be.
2. Take advice with a grain of salt. When someone suggests a certain place or activity ask them what they liked about it. It values their input and also gives you a better idea of what they liked about it. So many people told us some version of, “you are spending a whole week in Bangkok and not going to Chain Mai, wow (insert subtle eye-roll).” But we quickly realized, with follow-up questions, that what people loved was either the temples or the villages. We have had our fill of temples and will be seeing tons more (see our next point) and coming off of India and Bhutan, we were full up of village visiting. While all of this input is good, understanding why people suggested we go there shed lights on whether it might be a good fit for us.
3. Every place has an aquarium, a zoo, a view point, a temple and a castle / palace. You will read about them in every guide book. We have discovered that no matter how amazing (or not) it is, these things will get listed as tourist attractions worthy of your time and money. On the Big Trip we have given ourselves permission to judge the local attraction against the best in the world (which we plan on seeing) or what we have at home (which we have seen and will again). We have gone to the Sydney zoo but passed on the Singapore zoo; we went to the top of the Sand’s Tower in Singapore for the view but have passed on those tourist traps just like Seattle’s Space Needle in Sydney, Aukland, and Bangkok. We are comfortable deciding on only hitting the best and most famous temples in Delhi India, Thimpu Bhutan, and Angkor Wat Cambodia. We travel to be amazed and to learn, not see every single temple in town. Give yourself permission to pick the best and not sweat the rest.
4. Connect with people and burst the tourist bubble, to the degree you are comfortable with it. We have loved finding opportunities to visit schools or stay with regular people. Even getting to know other travelers in youth hostels has been a great part of the adventure. It is the people we have remembered the clearest during the past three months of travel. Cooking classes involving going to a local market have been eye-opening times, spending time with our Air BnB hosts over coffee, or sharing an afternoon with travelers we have met along the way have all been spectacular. But remember Rule #1 of why you came – maybe visiting a school is not what this trip is about for you, in this time of your life. So if your trip is about beaches and large fruity drinks, that is cool too. Stay the course.
5. Hire a guide. Other than one time in India, we have loved having guides for sights (and finding tigers). We discovered this tip years ago going to the Forum in Rome. Having been several times before and having it just be stacks of old rocks, finally using a guide made it come alive. But, again remember Rule #1 and realize that good guides love to talk about their home turf and will be excited to show you temple number seven on the top list of temples. It is your tour so don’t feel bad to say when you have had enough and are ready to retreat to the hotel pool bar. Guides have:
- Helped us through security and ticket purchasing faster than other tourists,
- Gotten us where we need to go faster than we could have figured out ourselves – and when you travel time is money (you have paid a bunch of money to be here, in the time you have available),
- Taught us the history of the sight with more detail than we would get in a guide book, and
- Have shown us the hidden spots and best places for the most classic pictures (and you have someone you trust to hold your stuff and take pictures of your whole family).
I suppose this is more accurately Rule #1 and a bunch of sub-rules after that. Rule #1 applies to a weekend trip and to a year abroad going around the world. It will certainly make your trip better by encouraging you to talk about what you want out of a trip and it is better to figure out a head of time if someone in your group wants to go to the seventh temple on the list – we just got lucky that after three temples in Angkor Wat, we all could agree on the fly we were done. But we will try to get better as we go.