I‘m writing this post in Northern Thailand, the city of Pai to be exact. I find myself quite inspired by this trip I’m taking along with resident guest poster Shane Brown. See we showed up to Thailand with only one thing planned, to rent motorbikes and ride through the northern mountains from Chiang Mai to Pai, along the Mae Hong Son loop. Other than that, we didn’t care much about what we did, where we stayed, what we ate, or how we would manage any of it.
I’m a self-professed guidebook addict. I proudly display my used and retired guidebooks on a bookshelf in my home and carry at least one with me every time I travel. It does seem like a bit of overkill as I tend to take things as they are and do what I want when I travel, but I still like the comfort of having a backpacker bible readily available should I need some information.
That said, over the past few days we have covered a considerable distance using a means of transportation that neither of us have ever done before. And neither one of us have opened our Lonely Planet once nor have we missed relying on it.
Here’s a few tips on how to do it successfully and probably enjoy your trip more than you would should you be following the backpacker’s bible.
Talk to people
You should always be willing to chat with people and get their opinions and advice on things. You never know when somebody will refer you to a great guesthouse or hostel, restaurant, or a secret road that leads to natural hot springs (thanks Thai coffee shop guy!)
We went ahead and booked our initial guesthouse in Chiang Mai online so we didn’t have to deal with finding one with our packs on our back in 30+ degree heat. It was a fine place, but while walking around and exploring the city we found plenty of comparable places for about half the price. Of course these places aren’t online so they don’t get the constant business and price increases that the digitally-inclined places do.
This definitely goes for restaurants as well. While in many places I have found myself relying on my Lonely Planet to provide me with tasty and safe places to eat, I find that I end up arriving only to overpay for basic food that’s often less than impressive. All of the best meals I’ve had have come from randomly stumbling upon a place on the street and most are actually just from street vendors or food stalls in markets. You won’t find anything written about these places in your book.
Be open to ideas
It’s nice not to have a strict agenda and be willing to take things as they come. On our motorbike journey we went seeking out some hot springs off the main road that a coffee shop owner told us about. 10 minutes down a dusty road through the hills we came across several elephants being walked by some Thai guys in camouflage. We’re still not sure what they were doing, but it was a startling and awesome sight.
Have a basic understanding of the area
It truly helps to at least glance at a map before arriving or having an idea of what parts of town are where. You should definitely be aware of any areas that may be unsafe before arriving dead smack in the middle of gang warfare (ask Shane about Casco Viejo in Panama City).
Many places are very simple to get around by foot but of course many can also be riddled with confusing streets and neighborhoods so a map might not be a bad idea.
Often though, you can have an idea and just stroll up and go shopping for rooms. Currently we are in Pai, Thailand and knew we wanted to stay somewhere near the river. So we headed that direction and 15 minutes later we had some great little bungalows on the river for about the cost of a fast food meal back home.
I won’t tell people that they shouldn’t have a guidebook. They can come in handy and for years I’ve carried one with me everywhere I go. I probably won’t stop any time soon, but the point is that it’s nice to not have to rely on it and doing so can really open doors to a lot of things you might miss should you be following your guidebook to the letter.
What about you? Do you often travel with a guidebook or without one? What do you like about whichever method you’re used to?