Whenever I travel, I always hear the same lines trotted out about how “best” to travel. One in particular that grates with me is the one about ditching the Lonely Planet or Travel Fish guide and relying on fellow travellers and/or locals to provide advice on where to go and what to do. Now, I know there is this romantic notion that travel can only be authentic if you’re mixing it up in the squalor of the slums of Rio de Janeiro or the forbidden areas of Burma, but the reality is that unless you’re a masochist it’s awful. The food is awful, the hygiene is awful, the accommodation is awful and you may very well fear for your life. Now, some people do call that “living”, but I don’t.
So that’s the extreme version of ditching the guidebook and getting stuck into a destination in an *cringe* authentic way. What about if we keep the guidebook in our pocket and don’t venture beyond what it recommends? Surely that means we’re not *cringe* authentic? Well let’s run an itinerary in Cambodia and see if it works.
Fly into Siem Reap, catch a tuk-tuk to your guidebook-recommended guesthouse costing $10 per night. Accommodation is not too flash, but there are no cockroaches, bed bugs and an edible breakfast is included. You spend the next 3 days visiting the sites of Angkor by local tuk-tuk seeing lots of other tourists along the way, but also having many moments of complete isolation and silence (it’s that sort of place). The next day, you burn off to Phnom Penh by local bus and stay in another guesthouse for $20 per night. You hire a tuk-tuk for a couple of the days and visit many of the sites either memorialising or paying respect to the millions killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide. At night, you choose to eat at Romdeng (NGO-run, restaurant-quality cambodian restaurant) where you might snack on a fried tarantula. Hang on, I’m hearing you… The fried tarantula cannot be authentic because it wasn’t cooked in a market or a roadside stall – it was cooked in a hygenic kitchen! Anyway, back to the itinerary… The rest of the South is pretty much the same… Take some local transport, stay in some cheap guesthouses, meet a bunch of tourists, some NGOs doing good stuff, a bunch of locals going about their daily business, eat some great food (both local and not!) and lounge around in hammocks.
So this is what the guidebooks generally advise us to do. They make the task of rolling into a town easier by having reviewed some accommodation, some eating options and the local attractions. Aside from that, what else are you going to do when travelling around? Sure, you can venture to towns that are hardly touched by tourism and there is some merit in this. But the problem is that the facilities are of a local standard and are quite often austere, unhygienic, unpleasant and downright depressing. The interaction with locals you get in that town might counterbalance your depressing living arrangements, but for how long is this sustainable? Yes, this is where the sensible and happy medium comes into play.
Putting away the guidebook entirely is 1) Foolhardy and 2) likely to have you missing some of the best parts of a place. Never putting away the guidebook and refusing to interact with locals is going to 1) allow you to have a good experience and 2) miss a bunch of cool stuff that might just be beyond the boundaries of the guidebook. Somewhere in the middle, we can still meet some local people doing some pretty ordinary things like tilling the fields and feeding cattle, but also see all the best stuff the country has to offer as guided by our trusty Lonely Planets and Travel Fish(es).
At the end of the day, everyone has a different style of travelling and none is right or wrong. But this elitism that is growing in backpacker circles about what is authentic travel and what is not is frustrating. Just because you’re shitting in a pit in the ground and I’m shitting in a porcelain bowl, doesn’t mean that you’re more authentic. It just means you’re a stingy bastard.