There’s something extremely enticing about dropping into a place without knowing anything about it. Everything is new, exciting. Every blink you make, every breathe you take, every move you make (wait isn’t this a song?) will immerse you in a new experience. Some people like the thrill of adapting, others are just sick of the mundane feeling of being stuck in a cycle. Whatever the source, more often than not going into a new culture or climate without any prior information will land you in trouble. Here are 8 reasons why you should research a place before you go:
1) You will look less like an idiot.
No one likes being that guy/gal.
I can’t remember the reason why, but I suddenly decided I wanted to scale a platform I’d spotted off to the side of the temple yard. It was the third temple my Thai university’s international office had arranged for us to see on the field trip. Maybe I was getting bored or perhaps I wanted to break free from the restraints of the tour. Either way I casually mounted the steps leading to the top of the gazebo-like structure. It looked like a viewing platform.
Maybe it will have a buddha image at the top?
My vision cleared the final level and my eyebrows arched in surprise. There was a clear absence of anything. My eyes danced around the space looking for ornaments of any kind. Nothing greeted my sight.
Scratching my head I was only two steps down the other side when I caught sight of one of the university staff frantically waving me over.
Oops I’ve been caught wandering, I mused to myself.
Forcing down an embarrassed grin I hopped down the remaining steps and jogged to her side. With a small smile she grabbed my arm (as Thai women do with other women). We began to walk toward the group.
“Um Allison,” she began.
“That… That place is not to be visited.”
“Oh sorry! I was curious and thought I could walk up it.”
“That was a burning platform.”
It hit home.
Shocked I looked back at the structure and met her eyes again to double-check she wasn’t joking. Her face and the oddness of the top level tied down the fact I’d casually shuffled around a space for cremating people.
Thankfully she was the only one who’d seen me. I hope.
2) You will discover local secrets, which will bring you far more fulfilment than the advertised attractions.
Local friends are a great source for this information!
I was visiting Thailand for the second time and wanted to experience Bangkok differently. So I added an art angle to my touring-ideas search and stumbled across a friend’s open Facebook invitation to a small play. Stick Figures by Josh Ginsburg was being featured in the Thong Lor Art Space, a small theatre tucked over an unassuming street of shops. You had to know what you were looking for to spot its entrance in the alley along its side.
There were maybe 20 people in attendance at this play and I LOVED it. The impressive adaption and evolution of the tiny stage, the fluidity of the scenes despite a largely static set, the interesting topic (grief and mourning) and the marvelous blend of humour and sadness put the event among my favourite memories of the trip.
3) You will avoid scams.
Scams can be as big as someone trying to lift all the money you have from you to something as small as a 20 per cent increase in prices past a gate.
It was the unholy hour of five in the morning and sleepiness was still draped over me like a comfy blanket. Yawning in an effort to stretch my face awake I followed the two guys I’d bumped into at the Thai-Cambodian border the late evening before. We’d decided to band together for cheaper transport.
We reached the street and raised our arms to attract a tuk-tuk. Today was the day we’d tackle the Angkor Wat sunrise photo, but first we needed a ride out to the site. Soon one skidded to a stop in the dull light of a street-light down the lane. We crowded closer and stated our intent.
“We’d like to go to Angkor Wat for the whole day. How much?”
The extravagant opening price was presented.
“30 dollars. Everyone.”
We three chuckled amongst ourselves like we were in on a joke. We’d read that people could generally get the price down to three or four dollars per person.
“12 dollars. Everyone. Whole day,” our designated negotiator returned.
“Pfft. 20 dollars,” the man snorted at us, putting on his best I’m-in-the-presence-of-sticklers look.
“15. Half day.”
“12. Whole day.”
Snorting, frowning, glaring and shaking his head the tuk-tuk driver turned away with a wave to the ground.
“Ok. We will try someone else then,” our negotiator shrugged. He walked ahead and began waving at a tuk-tuk buzzing in from the distance.
“OK! Ok! 15 dollars. Whole day!”
My quiet companion and I grinned and stepped up to hop in. Close enough in our books.
We stopped at the heels of our negotiating friend.
“12 dollars,” he challenged, still waving at the oncoming tuk-tuk.
Scowling the driver growled, “no!” but brought his tuk-tuk up alongside our group.
“No deal,” our friend calmly replied before calling to the nearing tuk-tuk.
“15!” the man shouted before raining a barrage of angry words on the oncoming driver. The driver slowed, then kept going—chased off by our disagreeing driver.
Now my quiet companion and I were getting anxious. Did we really HAVE to save a dollar each? Why was this driver staying if he didn’t like our terms?
Finally the dude gave up and took off in with a whiny buzz and puff of exhaust.
The next driver easily fell to 12 dollars and we all climbed in with a gasp of relief.
4) You will avoid being arrested.
I could bring forward moments in Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar where I was wondering if I’d get in big trouble for things we don’t generally consider a big deal in Canada or the UK.
For example, in Thailand there is a the Lese Majeste Law which dictates that it is a crime to “defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent”. This means something like stepping on a baht bill (which has the Thai King’s face on it) could get you sent to jail if you’re in front of the right kind of people.
5) You will get along much better with locals.
Unless you live in a tourist town you won’t know what it means to live and work among tourists. They can be funny at best and frustrating at worst.
My friend and I had just exited the firefly reserve at Kuantan Firefly Park in Malaysia. With our thoughts still sparkling from the tiny specks of light we’d witnessed in the weak moonlight, we came up to the highway into town.
“Wait, what is that?!” I asked my friend. I gasped, admiring the larger-than-life, movie-like building across the intersection. It glowed in the black of night.
“Wow I’ve never seen the inside of a Hindu temple before.”
“Want to go in?”
Still buzzing with the excitement of seeing fireflies for the first time we almost danced up the temple’s entrance.
And, as I wrote in my post about the experience:
A gruff man at a side table by the door looked at me from head to toe as we approached. He began to shake his head with evident exasperation. While we stepped up he yanked a hot-pink skirt from under the table, shook it at me and watched as I stepped into it. The fabric slipped over my three-quarter length jeans as I knotted it around my waist.
Giving the dress a good hip-shake to test it out, I struck a pose for the table-guard who waved us through with a cheeky head bobble (note: this could mean something culturally that I don’t know).
Catching our attention just before we were through he pointed at my camera. Picking up the hint, I dutifully twisted it behind me.
We took a walk around the temple and made our way to the entrance again where I returned the skirt.
Sliding up to the door on the passenger side of my friend’s car, I reached for the handle.
“That was fun,” I told my friend across the roof. His nod was interrupted as we whipped our sights to a group of older women in saris crowding up to my side of the car. They bundled around me.
Putting their hands out in greeting I presented my own hands as their smiles melted my initial tension.
“Thank you, thank you,” they cheerfully chattered as each enclosed my hands within their own. Baffled by the sudden attention I only nodded and smiled back. Pressing close, the women gave one final wave and turned around to walked back the way they’d come.
Looking across the car roof to my friend, who’d passed through the experience un-noticed, we blinked at each other.
“Well that was something,” I said as a smile began to form. I pulled the door open.
My best guess is that my respect for their temple and rules (putting on the skirt without protest, keeping it on despite it tripping me up a lot and keeping my camera off) was noted and appreciated.
6) You will feel safer.
You’ll hear a lot about destinations when you share your travel plans and often a big chunk of that information will be gossip or heresy. Go to the source. Find people talking about their home if possible.
I did a heck of a lot of research before going to Laos because I had heard I would be going into a heavily bombed country where un-triggered mines are still unearthed every day.
I wanted to visit the Plain of Jars, but its location was heavily bombed during the Second Indochina War which ended in 1975 (The Vietnam War according to Westerners and the American War according to the Vietnamese) and I was wondering whether I’d be safe.
That’s how I learned about Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and its work. The UK-based group is trying to rid the world of unexploded landmines and they’d already been working extensively in Laos, particularly the Plain of Jars region, to make it safe.
As I wrote in my post:
In 2004 to 2005 the UK-based Mines Advisor Group (MAG) worked to clear the three main jar sites of undetonated bombs or unexploded ordinances (UXOs). They continue to have a big hand in helping Laos begin cleaning up the more than 80 million undetonated cluster submunitions in the country.
I was still really nervous, but with this background knowledge I had the confidence to go to the Xieng Khouang province and explore this amazing, mysterious site. I also knew what the blocks in the ground meant (despite the entire area having evidently been scanned over)!
7) You will BE safer.
If you are smart and informed you can make better decisions.
Jae and I hiked up a mountain and stayed at a campsite near its top last time we visited Canada. We experienced a few surprises on the way up, but by and large the biggest surprise was waking up in the middle of the night to snow settling on the landscape and our tent! In late JUNE!
Thankfully my high-school survival knowledge and general snow experience helped us overcome our shock and tackle the issue of keeping warm. We had been expecting sunshine and warm weather so we weren’t packed right, however, throwing on a bunch of layers and choosing to keep the layer of snow built-up on our tent (snow has great insulating properties as long as you aren’t touching it) helped us harness what little heat we had. We didn’t panic and we didn’t get sick!
8) People around you will appreciate the information you can share. This is totes a great way to make friends fast.
A big part of backpacking culture is sharing knowledge.
When you settle in for the evening or are about to tuck into breakfast before heading out there is free time to chat and people want the low down!
Last Christmas I took the time to compare the Reichstag with the Berliner Dom as big tourist attractions. I dug up a ton of history and background information about the two historical sites and wow! Everything I learned really brightened my visit and a few of my friends were excited to learn what I had dug up! The biggest compliment though was my German uncle popping onto my blog and writing, “I work near the Dom every day, but didn’t all the details described above! Thank you very much + well written as always!”
When a local is complimenting your knowledge you can’t help but cheer inside!
You don’t have to map out every aspect of the place you are visiting—the mystery is part of the allure after all—but a general idea of the politics, social expectations, religious preferences and climate of your destination will go a long way to making sure you have the time of your life for all the right reasons!