Travel Tips #2: How to Tourist Well (and Not Attract the Wrong Attention)

After a month of gruelling hours and hard work I am finally taking a holiday!! I’m really excited to do a bit of travelling again – even if it is only for a few days. As I pack I’m trying desperately to remember my scraps of French before I reach Lyon and Avignon, and it reminded me of this list I wrote up a little while ago of how to travel without becoming that typical stereotype of tourist, who although generally has the best intentions, often comes off as rude, ignorant, culturally insensitive, and obvious.

Being blonde, blue-eyed and as white as a sheet of paper, there will always be places where I stick out like a sore thumb. It is not always possible to completely blend into the crowd when you are travelling, however, there are still ways to not look completely like an ignorant tourist. Sure, I have had some great experiences from locals who have recognised me as a traveller and have offered me advice and knowledge of where to eat, what to see, local history, etc. and these experiences have been some of the highlights of my travels. However, looking like a tourist also has a downside: especially in busy, tourist-heavy places like Europe or the USA, it can make you a target for pickpockets, cons and scams. Mostly these are simply frustrating, though scams do exist which are meant to harm or exploit in the worst kinds of ways. With that in mind here is a few things I always try to do when I travel.

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  1. Hanging out in cities? Look the part.
    This sounds a bit like a no-brainer, but really, unless you are actually trekking in the wilderness, or going hiking up mountains, wearing hiking boots or heavy-duty-super-comfy-but-ugly shoes in a city screams ‘tourist’. Ditto clothes: souvenir t-shirts, cargo pants/shorts and outdoorsy clothing you get at camping stores are great if your travels take you outside the urban jungle, but inside it tells the world that you are obviously a traveller who is wearing ‘sensible’ traveller clothing. Don’t pander to the cliché! Wear what you would normally wear on a day out in your home town: comfortable flats or casual sneakers you’re happy to walk in for a day and normal clothes likes jeans, t-shirts, dresses, etc. You will be just as comfortable and less people will stare at you for looking like a twerp!

    Most importantly, wear clothing that is respectful to the culture you are visiting. Many Asian cultures, for example, are still very conservative in their dress and don’t like shoulders and chests uncovered. I’ve seen heaps of girls on their gap year who think it’s acceptable to wear tiny tiny denim shorts and bikinis under lace tops because of the heat, while remaining oblivious to how offensive that dress is to the locals. You stay just as cool in a light t-shirt with a long floaty skirt, or the cotton pyjama-style trousers you can buy in any high street in South east Asia. Look at what the locals wear and copy them – they know best how to stay warm and/or cool in their own climate.

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  1. Act like you know where you’re going
    A big unwieldy map and a look of confusion on your face as you try and work out where you are acts like a neon sign for con-artists and pickpockets alike. Taking a little time to plan your day’s adventure before you leave the hostel, or when you are taking a break in a café can save you from attracting unwanted attention on the street, and help you pack in as much sightseeing as possible into the precious time you have. I try to create itineraries based on nearby neighbourhoods and sights that are close to each other– planning also means you don’t have to do any extraneous traipsing around a strange city tiring yourself out trying to get from place to place. I also refold my map around the area you’ll be exploring before I head outside – tear off all the extraneous advertisements that border the edge of the tourist maps to make it more manageable.
  1. Make your daypack as small as possible
    Particularly in big touristy cities, backpacks are the easiest mark for pickpockets as they are easy to slice open without you realising – even if you have taken to carrying it on your front. I’ve never found that I actually need to carry a lot of stuff when I’m sightseeing, and all that you need to carry can often be found in tiny travel size containers – the biggest thing you should need to carry is your water bottle. I use a small shoulder bag that I can keep in front of me so that I can keep an eye on it, and rest a hand on if I’m feeling really paranoid. If you find you need to carry bulkier stuff, try a tote bag – they are universal enough in every city to keep you from feeling too conspicuous, and they fold down really small so you can store it in your little daypack when you don’t need it.

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  1. Put your camera away
    This one is a bit harder, because as a tourist it’s easy to want to take photos of everything all the time. Take all the pictures you want, but when you’re just taking in the atmosphere put the camera away. Or, if your phone camera is good, take a few pics on that to mix it up. I have plenty of photo albums from trips where the only camera I had was my iPhone – it’s never going to have as amazing quality as an expert DSLR but it is certainly less conspicuous. And unless you’re a professional going on a photo shoot, keep the tripod at home.

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  1. Learn a little language
    A MUST for any conscientious traveller, and a necessity I cannot stress enough. You cannot simply assume that everyone you meet is going to speak English, and in fact most locals in any country would find that assumption very rude. And fair enough, how would you feel if someone came up to you in your country and started speaking to you loudly and slowly in another language? I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who heard other tourists try to talk to locals directly in English and get brushed off as a result, where as simply asking someone if they speak English in their native language first gets a much more welcoming response. I always get terrible language guilt while travelling, I wish I was able to communicate more with the people I meet, but no matter how little time I have before I travel I always make the effort to learn a few basic phrases first (‘Hello’, ‘Please’, ‘Thank-you’, ‘How much?’, etc.) to get me by. It will not only make your life so much easier, but you will have a better experience with the people you meet.

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  1. Use your common sense.
    The best advice I could give any traveller going to a new place is trust your instincts. If it feels like someone’s taking advantage of you, they probably are. If something feels off or suspicious or simply too good to be true, it is – go with your gut and walk away from the situation. I’m not saying be completely paranoid about anyone who approaches you, just don’t be super trusting either. It also helps if you travel with someone – even just someone you met in the hostel the night before – as generally it’s the solo travellers who are picked on as easier targets.

    Some of the scams I’ve encountered have been simply for money. Gypsies in Paris were collecting money for ‘charities’ with false donation forms. In Europe and Asia hawkers will try and tie friendship bracelets on you and then make you pay for them. I’ve fallen prey to paying for a ‘special’ boat tour on my first day Bangkok for an extortionate price (in comparison to what you expect to pay in Thailand – it cost me about $20). The boat was nice, just took us on the canals for about two hours, so thankfully it wasn’t really anything sinister, but at the time I wish I’d just gone with my gut and refused to pay the fare with the group of equally confused tourists I met at the ticket desk who also felt like they were being fleeced.

    I was lucky it was only a few dollars that I was scammed for and it wasn’t anything worse, sadly there are people out there who take advantage of incautious tourists from lacing their drinks to physical and even sexual abuse. These occurrences are rare, but it does still happen, and while you shouldn’t spend your holidays in a state of fear that someone will take advantage of you, you also shouldn’t throw all caution to the wind just because you are on holiday.

The Locals Buffet

We were the first ones there. The staff were still shovelling hot coals into the tiny tabletop grills and staring at the strange group of foreigners that had somehow managed to find the giant Sukotha buffet hall hidden away from the main road behind huge apartment buildings.
Slowly the place filled with Thai locals and Chinese tourists, piling their plates high with raw meat and leafy greens to cook in the iron hotpots distributed on every table. Our students Boom, Toi and Nuna showed us how best to cook our thin slices of chicken and fish on the iron cone above the hotpot’s coals.
Suddenly Oy pushes pastel coloured baskets into our hands shouting ‘Hurry, hurry!’ Utterly bemused we hurried behind this tiny Thai lady to the gathering crowd in the centre of the hall, where we discover a man distributing handfuls of fresh king prawns from an esky. We ran back through the tables to the big BBQs out the back to cook them. A giant tray of cockles was also laid out for you to boil your own. Huge trays of roasted meat and glutinous mushroom soup was carried out of the kitchens and set next to desserts that were so perfectly shaped and coloured they looked as if they’d jumped straight out of a cartoon.
Then Nuna scared us all by telling us we had to pay 20B for every item we didn’t eat, 10B for sauces. Rachael laughed hysterically in shock and Sam stood horrified over the numerous bowls sauces she’d collected. Nuna greatly enjoyed our naïveté and made us believe for nearly an hour that the piles of prawns and broccoli we had leftover would cost us all the money in our wallets!
For all the warnings I get back at home telling me to stay away from street food and only eat in restaurants where other westerners are or you’ll die of salmonella is not only total bollocks, but very bad advice. The only time I’ve had food issues in Thailand is when I’ve eaten from restaurants with no locals, or from ice made from tap water. If you see a crowd of Thai people around a noodle cart in the street, odds are it’s going to be some of the best food you’ve ever tasted. My advice would be avoid ice if possible (usually if it has a hole in it it’s made from tap water anyway) and make sure whatever you’re eating is cooked fresh rather than sitting waiting to be dished out. Follow the locals – they know how to eat!!

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Chiang Dao

After the Indiana Jones style excitement of Chiang Rai we were well ready for a break. Somewhere completely peaceful and relaxing and preferably monkey-free. Chiang Dao completely fitted the bill. A tiny town nestled amongst dramatic, jungle covered mountains, this place has the added advantage of being still relatively hidden from the giant wave of tourists that hit Thailand at high season. In fact we hadn’t even heard of it ourselves until a few days before, until our farm stay fell through and the lovely owner recommended the Chiang Dao Nest as a brilliant alternative.
The fact that the Nest has had to extend to a second location down the road is testament to it’s very well deserved success. After a cramped bus journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai we were picked up by the driver and taken up into the hills. We stayed in beautiful cabins with looking up and huge towering green mountains, and spent pretty much all our time between the two restaurants (Western and Thai) eating the most fabulous gourmet food I’ve ever eaten for the price of a McDonalds meal. Seriously, Rachael and Naomi Skyped home and they were such a sublime state of food coma their parents thought they were high! This place is so ridiculously relaxing – the two main activities is eating and lying on daybeds or hammocks contemplating the beauty of your surroundings and what’s for dinner. Essentially, if Hobbiton was in Thailand, it would be Chiang Dao!
For a little bit of exertion we decided to cycle to the local hot springs, where we could soak away the burning pain in our very unfit legs for the low low price of 50 baht (about AU$2!) we also climbed the 500 or so stairs up to the mountainside temple, which was punctuated with numerous signs with words of wisdom to reflect on as you died from exhaustion.
Everyone was so so lovely to us – one lady have us a goodbye hug and invited us to come back and teach some of the staff English when we finished our course! This is seriously my new favourite place: delicious food, lovely people and great atmosphere.

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Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai was hilarious. Mainly because of language barriers, also because we constantly found ourselves in ridiculous situations. After a hilariously confusing check in the night before, we decided to ask the desk to book us a songthaew (basically a ute with benches in the back) to take us to the White Temple. We got a tuk tuk – a scooter with a back seat for two! We squeezed all four of us in somehow and off to the White Temple we went, with a few stops on the side of the highway for mechanical work which needless to is filled us with confidence! As did the butcher’s knife tucked on the dashboard and the stone penis key rings in the ignition! (ok, so the have ancient cultural significance, but still!)

The White temple kept with our theme of weird. It’s beautiful, undoubtedly, but just as it is adorned with traditional religious carvings it was also decorated with macabre pop culture references. And alien from Predator can be found coming out of the grass; Batman and Hellboy’s decapitated heads are hanging on a tree, and inside is a mural which features Transformers, Michael Jackson, Hello Kitty, Neo, September 11, Elvis and much much more. Weird.

The next day we hired a driver to take us through the countryside. First up was Mae Salong. This whole area is filled with minority groups who moved in various times due to turmoil surrounding countries – China during the revolution and Burma more recently. Now it is dedicated to tea production, and we sampled heaps of tea here before going on to a delicious mountainside lunch.

Then we were off to the Golden Triangle: the place where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, and historically the centre of the illegal opium trade in Southeast Asia. There isn’t heaps to see there really, just some stalls hawking the usual souvenirs and a boat trip that taken you to see all three countries from the river.

Around twilight we arrived at the Monkey Temple, where yes there were many monkeys. Many monkeys. We decided to climb the steep dragon stairs to the tiger cave (Will: Confucius say you must climb dragon stairs to tiger temple. Me: Confucius can go climb a tree!) The descent was more interesting however. We met some monkeys on the way. Nawww, cute monkeys, Rachael took some pictures. Then they started snarling at us. Suddenly they were not so cute, and the stairs were not so steep! One jumped at Rachael who skillfully sidestepped and ran down the stairs leaving Naomi, Will and I to avoid a few swipes and run up the stairs, pursued by angry monkeys. Basically I think we were in the way of their nest because once we got out of the way of the stairs they left us alone, but we couldn’t stop laughing for the rest of the drive home that we were attacked by monkeys! When we got down the stairs some locals who we’re closing up shop said, ‘You shouldn’t go up that way – dangerous – big monkeys!’ No kidding. Now we know why our driver didn’t want to leave the car!

Still, despite evil monkeys, the mountains were beautiful! So glad I got up that far!

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Krabi

Running a bit behind! Let me catch you up with Krabi.

I’ll admit when we first decided to go to Krabi I had no idea what was there or why we were going, but it turned out to be one of my favourite place in Thailand! It’s a really chilled out place which lives up to its motto of lively town, lovely people! Our first stop when we arrived was the local Night Market about a block from our hostel where we feasted on the most amazing local food! Steamed curried fish in banana leaves, grilled squid, tempura mussels and fresh coconut ice cream – we tried it all! Lots of cute handicrafts stalls as well, and batik painting for 20 baht!

The next day we did a boat tour of Four Islands off the coast of Krabi. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking: huge limestone rock formations surrounding impossibly white beaches laced with lush green jungle and aqua seas. Pretty much paradise guys. It was a scorching hot day, so we spent a lot of time swimming and snorkelling to stay cool and lying on the roof of the boat eating pineapple and watermelon. I really like doing day-trips like this – not only because they’re super cheap in Southeast Asia, but it’s a really good way to meet other travellers as well, which particularly of you’re travelling alone I find invaluable. It also means you can see places that’s really difficult to do on your own: transport-wise, etc.

That evening was back to the Night Market for more food, souvenir shopping and a fire show by some local daredevil. Next day it was off to the North – a totally different Thailand!

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Thai beaches – Maya Bay and Koh Phi Phi

‘You’re lucky you did it when you did,’ said Dre with a knowing smile. He’s the English manager of our guesthouse on Koh Phi Phi, one of many European ex-pats that seemed to have washed up on the islands of Thailand at some point and never found reason to leave. ‘The Maya Bay Sleepaboard’s days are numbered, not that they know that.’ Dre chuckled. And it’s true there’s something a bit funny about partying in a national park after all the other tourist boats have left for the night, but that’s also the beauty of it. Who doesn’t want their own private paradise?

We started off snorkelling off the coast of some tropical rock, chasing rainbow fish through the coral before heading into Maya bay for the night. We went for a swim while the tourist crowd was still around, which started dispersing around sunset. We watched the sky change colour from misty gold to pink to purple to a dark night sky, changing the colours of the towering rock faces that frame Maya Bay’s turquoise water and white sand. We ate BBQ chicken and were soon handed buckets of rum and coca-cola, with the assurance of there being plenty more to come. Most of the others were party animal types who hung around the fire playing drinking games and smoking ‘Uncle Bob cigarettes’, while we were happy to take our buckets to the beach and song jazz ballads loudly at the stars before piling into sleeping bags on the sand. We woke up absolutely covered in the stuff! Wind blew it all through our hair and into our ears, eyes, mouths, let’s just say we were covered! We got back on the boat just as the first long tails were starting to arrive and headed back to Koh Phi Phi.

I can see why the locals get tired of tourists on this island. They are completely outnumbered by tanned beach bums who wander round the town in bikinis or board shorts in search of alcohol and dodgy western food. We’ve been living off fruit shakes and Thai classics from street stalls, which are infinitely better than the slices of anaemic pizza which attracts most of the party crowd.

The island itself is beautiful though – countless tiny bays of flour-soft sand separating aqua water from lush green jungle. Today we kayaked around the bottom peninsula of the island to a beach up the top of the island – we didn’t even get halfway to the beach Dre suggested! Still it was nice to get away from the main strip. We didn’t get back until late in the day so now as I’m writing this I’m just chilling in the air conditioning, waiting for the sun to sink lower so we can have dinner with the sunset. It’s a tough life!

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