Traveling Without a Guidebook

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!)

Walk around

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?

12 Replies to “Traveling Without a Guidebook”

  1. Well it is a big toss-up.

    Arriving into a big city I find it a big frustration without a guide book, I am not the type to book ahead.

    Having your own transportation is easier to avoid the guidebook, but with bus travel and having to navigate I like having a guidebook just for the accommodation and map information.

  2. I am a big fan of traveling with a guide book – but like you said it’s better to take the local advice and figure it out on your own sometimes too. I like the security of having a guidebook with me just in case – plus the transportation and accomodation have literally been lifesavers for me at times! Like you said, probably not going to give it up yet, but I do like to find a local perspective on things! :-)

  3. Guidebooks are definitely useful, but I too like to forgo their use when I can. They are helpful in providing you with information about where you are about to be – I use them as a foundation for arriving somewhere and then branch out away from the guidebook.

    I like the idea of renting motorbikes, can you rent them in one city and return them in another? What was the basic cost for the rentals for what you guys are using them for? Sounds like fun, good post, I’d like my own bag of crickets too. (I’ll be in Thailand in May)

    1. Hi Collin,

      Thanks to the internet, I learned that AYA Service in Chiang Mai is (apparently) the only company that allows one-way rentals. They have a big office in Pai where they do most of their business and run shuttle service between the two cities every hour.

      The bikes were only 140 baht per day. They will deliver your luggage on one of their shuttles as well. The website claims it costs 500baht but when we asked they said it was free. Your mileage may vary! :)

  4. Great post Jeffery, as much as i enjoy the ease that a guidebook brings it’s always refreshing to break loose and just see where it takes you. That’s also when you often find the real gems that isn’t overrun by tourists. And the hotel/restaurant point is so true – as soon as a place is listed in one of the big guide books i think they rest on their laurels as they’ll always get people coming even if standards drop.

    Love the blog, i’ll be a regular visit from now on!

  5. I do not travel with any guidebooks, however I do plan an itinerary and try to research all the places that I’ll visit. I often ask the locals for direction and places where I can find cheap but delicious foods. So far the best dishes that I’ve ate are the ones available on the streets.

  6. maybe we are among a minority but we have been traveling in many countries without a travel guide or even any itinerary in mind. although sometimes having a guide might have avoid us some hassles or wasting some times, we found it very easy just go with the flow, following advices provided by the locals or fellow travelers and maybe from time to time stopping by a library or local tourist offices. the few guides we bought we also resold it after leaving a place but we met travelers that would send them home instead, which would cost them more than buying a new one but they would have all their notes and memories written down

  7. Are you guys still up near Pai? We had a fantastic recommendation from an old work colleague of my partner. Go to Cave Lodge near Sappong. It’s fantastic! The area around there is really interesting. I always find that you get some great recommendations from fellow travellers.

  8. i tried this too when i traveled to china, nepal and india and i really enjoyed it alot. having no travel guidebook enabled me to ask around more frequently and meet new people. :-)

  9. I used to use guide books, mostly from Lonely Planet, before my backpack trip. During the time, we did a lot of car trip and weight wasn’t a problem. Spain was my husband and I first backpacking destination, and we carried Spain Lonely Planet with us. It was heavy! When we left Spain, we left the book behind. Then until now, we never use guide book anymore.

    I usually browse in the internet to find out about the location we are in. Even Wikipedia and Wikitravel are great starts. Many travel blogs gave me great ideas. Not only the places, but the history and story behind it. Since I usually have an easy internet access, it’s really easy to say good bye to a guide book. We gather information from the internet, read brochures that available everywhere, ask local’s opinion, and wander ourselves too.

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