Be a Traveler, not a Tourist

What do you picture in your mind when I say the word: Vacation?

Well, let me take a guess.

Oftentimes, due to our busy work schedules, we find it hard to take many days of leave. We are indispensable, you see – the company we work for would simply crumble to dust without us. So we take careful note of public holidays which make for long weekends, beg for a few days of leave from the boss, and off we go.

Go where? Well, go on a jam-packed itinerary where you take an overnight flight which lands you at your destination in the wee hours of the morning. Then you are bundled into a tour bus replete with a tour guide armed with a microphone, and sped all over the country. You will dash from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, buying fridge magnet souvenirs along the way and snapping photos of everything you see, and at long last collapse into your hotel bed, whereupon you will be awakened at the crack of dawn the next morning with a morning call instructing you to wolf down your breakfast and check out by 7am so you’ll be on schedule to see the 36,457 attractions you’re supposed to see that day. (whew, that was quite a mouthful, eh?) And when you finally get back to work and your colleagues ask if you had a good break, all you can do is reply, “Yeah, it was a blast!”

Was my guess close to the mark?

For most people operating on a budget of limited cash and even more limited days of leave, the above scenario I’ve painted is the natural outcome. We will definitely want maximum bang for our buck, and in the case of vacations, that means seeing as much as possible on as little as possible. If we budget our money and days of leave this way, we rationalize, we can go on more vacations to more places. More, more, more.

But is it really more? You may have snapped a photo of the Taj Mahal in India and ogled the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. But other than some nice wallpapers for your desktop and a chance to brag and bray to the social media world, what else have you gained exactly?

Nothing. You know nothing about how the caste system in India is still fracturing the country politically and socially even though you’ve been to India. And you would know nothing about how contemporary French art embraced anti-commercialism in a push back against the increasingly market-driven art world, even though you’ve been to Paris, the very home of culture.

Perhaps, we thought that we should be applying the usual principles of efficiency and effectiveness, values which are paramount in our workplace, to the way we take vacations too. But in the process, we may be losing out on one of the most important things we can gain from traveling overseas: Understanding other walks of life. And that is why my message to you today is this: Don’t be a tourist. Be a traveler.

A person who is a tourist experiences everything only on the surface. He eats only at restaurants catering to tourists, he sees only things tourists are meant to see, and he only interacts with people in the tourism industry – namely the tour guide, the tourist attraction staff, the tour bus driver and of course, the immigration dudes who stamp your passport when you enter and exit the country.

This is a colossal waste, for such superficial experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. However, it’s hard to access what’s underneath the surface if where you go, what you do and for how long is all predetermined by a tour agency. There’s simply no time to spare to really get to understand the people who live there and their way of life.

Of course, it must be mentioned here that for some people, surface experiences are all they want. They just want to eat exotic food, see the must-see sights and shop at the factory outlets and souvenir shops. After that, they’re perfectly happy to return to their lives and continue living them in exactly the same way as before. No insights. No change. As long as that’s all you’re after, that’s fine. You can stop reading now (though I suspect if you’re of such a mind you wouldn’t have even bothered to click on this article!).

Still with me? Want to learn how to be a true traveler? Well then, let’s get started.

First, don’t go on guided tours. As I said before, letting someone else determine what you do on your vacations is a mistake. Plan out your own itinerary, deciding where to go and where to stay after doing enough research.

Second, don’t overplan your itinerary. If your days are filled to the brim with things to do and see, you’ll only burn yourself out trying to complete it all and you won’t have any time to reflect and observe.

Reflect? Observe? Whatever the heck am I talking about? That brings me to my third point: Take your time. Spend three days in one place instead of two. Instead of hitting museums A, B and C, take a long stroll around the town after hitting museum A. If you’re doing it right, you shouldn’t need to be anywhere in a hurry. Make an effort to walk out of the touristy zones such as the shopping districts. Have a peek in the local supermarkets and see what the locals are buying. Buy the local newspaper (assuming there’s a version in a language you can comprehend). Visit the suburbs and residential areas and see what kind of housing the locals live in.

That leads to my fourth point, and one I personally find difficult being the super introvert that I am, but very rewarding when done: Talk to the locals. Say hi to the children playing in the school playgrounds. Strike up a conversation with someone who’s walking his dog at the park. You never know, you might get some rare insights into their lives, and when you have time to pause and reflect, you’ll be able to appreciate just how different their lives are from our own.

Let me share some examples of things I gleaned from my own trips.

  1. I was sitting in a park when a group of teenagers dressed in casual clothing asked if they could interview me for their school project. They videoed the interview with their smartphones and asked questions about my opinions on the local district. It was noon on a weekday, so I deduced the following:
    • Assuming it was during school hours, it seems schoolkids are allowed to leave school on their own to pursue school projects. Also they’re allowed to wear their own clothes, and they are all tech-savvy and affluent since they had their own smartphones and I reasoned they would be using video editing software to process the interview video file.
  2. A local told me about rental city bikes and that they are free if you manage to complete your journey within half an hour. With his help, I managed to get all over the city for free, and it was a thrilling experience zooming around the city a la Amazing Race and trying to beat the clock (I’m notoriously frugal).
  3. On a self-drive trip, I made a detour when I saw a sign indicating something potentially interesting but in a foreign language. Upon taking the detour, I was rewarded with a stunning view of a huge glacier, hidden from the main road by a small clump of hills. I would never have known about this place if I’d been chauffeured everywhere in a tour bus and the tour guide didn’t think it significant enough to visit.
  4. Staying at an inn, I had dinner with some locals and we got to talking about life in his country. Turns out one of them was a photographer, and aside from getting to see absurdly beautiful photos of his hometown, I also learnt of a little known statue in the next town that was erected not in honor of a hero but of a legendary thief. I also learnt that a kind of cheese the locals loved to eat wasn’t really cheese, but rather a special form of caramel that still went very well when spread on bread.
  5. On the same self-drive trip mentioned in No. 3, I got stopped by a highway warden who had temporarily closed the mountain tunnel up ahead due to maintenance works. As we got to talking, he noted that the tunnel would open up in fifteen minutes, but suggested I take a longer detour through some of the older roads, which had magnificent views of the surrounding landscape. If not for him, I would have missed out on a local specialty, zooming through the tunnel blindly and not seeing a thing. Sort of like when you’re on a tour bus, right?
  6. At the same dinner mentioned in No. 4, we got to talking about education and class differences. Unlike where I come from, the difference in salary between a tradesman and a university degree holder isn’t all that much. Regardless, education is free up to the university level. So is the healthcare, without the need for any insurance. So growing up in such an environment makes people more free to pursue their real interests and make them livelihoods without so much regard of whether they would earn as much as their peers.

Some of these things may seem pretty “meh” to you. They aren’t as awe-inspiring as the touristy attractions, but these unique insights into things only the locals knew about – things that showed how they live their lives, what they do for fun, how they grow up, the things they consider when making their life choices on whether to marry and what job to take – they are more precious and valuable to me than any postcard photo or keychain souvenir.

So if you kinda get what I’m trying to say, the next time you plan to go overseas, take more days of leave to see fewer places. Take the time to really get to know it, to understand its inhabitants and their way of life, and you will come home with a vastly broadened perspective. And if this newly enlarged perspective makes you wonder why you valued the things you used to value, or pursue the things you thought you should be pursuing – if this improved mindset makes you question all the conventional and traditional beliefs you held about your life – well then, you can finally consider yourself no longer a tourist, but a true bona fide traveler. Welcome to the club.

We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us

– Anonymous

Thank you for reading this article! I hope you liked it. If you did, please leave a comment or share it with a friend!


4 thoughts on “Be a Traveler, not a Tourist

  1. Love your insight on traveling! Thank you!!

    I would like to share one of my traveling experiences two years ago: I was in Taiwan for 4-ish days to visit my colleagues; my goal was to chill and see what the locals do. (And yes, when traveling- Nothing like having the locals to take you to places and living in their homes.) On the 3rd day, I was in a public transport and somehow engaged in a conversation with a Japanese tourist. He showed ‘great surprise and disbelief’ that I had not visited and had no plans to visit Taipei 101. Well, due to his dramatic reaction, I succumbed and went to take a look at 101 briefly. Haha!

    On reflection, in my recent travels, my primary goal is to see how people live, interact, what they eat and so on. I will of course pick a couple of famous touristy sites to visit (worth the visit for their historical reasons and so on).

    As I reflect on my traveling experiences, I was indeed a tourist for the first many countries I visited. Over the years, I have become the traveler as you so well described in your article.


    1. Thank you very much for sharing your travel experiences and your transition from tourist to traveler! Very glad hat you enjoyed the article – please look forward to more in the future!


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