Sometimes you’ve got to take yourself off the beaten track, even if it’s just an interlude to a bigger trip. After two nights of luxury at a villa in Phuket, I packed a small rucksack and took myself on a one-nighter to the island of Koh Yao Noi. I will always remember the tuk-tuk driver’s raised eyebrow when I asked him to take me to the long-boat dock. I rode in a rickety old boat, with caged hens and a goat, chatting to school-kids as it chugged across the picturesque sea. I stayed at the mayor’s rustic beach bungalow – this was a man who dressed in full military regalia by day as he administered his ward, but stooped over a barbeque in nothing but a sarong, cooking me a dinner of fresh fish at night. Then at 8pm sharp, the entire island loses power and we’re plunged into darkness, with nothing but sultry candlelight, a wind-up radio and one ultimate slow traveler for company. He was French – once a sous chef for a renowned Michelin starred restaurant who had set off on a slow-travel journey of a lifetime. What struck me most was how happy he was because he had truly disconnected from his life in Paris. So much so that he didn’t know that his countrymen had elected a new President. But the stories he told and things he had seen were spellbinding. A few years later, a five star resort opened in its place and that moment lost forever.
Meeting other travelers who have unplugged from the matrix has proven very enriching. But like my French chef, you have to create opportunities to meet them. I will never forget climbing to the top of Angkor Wat in darkness at 3am, determined to be the first person up there for sunrise. Arriving at the summit gave me a real sense of achievement, but that was soon quashed when I found that I wasn’t the first there – had been beaten by an elderly Canadian lady, with a prosthetic leg. As we sat together, waiting for the sun to rise, I learnt she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and this was to be her last adventure before she journeyed to the next world. Her biggest regret was not having enough time to see more of it. My eyes welled up as a Buddhist monk appeared and we prayed together as the sun slowly rose above the spiritual ancient city. I have never told anyone this story. But that chance meeting put things into perspective for me and solidly reinforced my passion for travel. There’s so much out there to experience, I’m not going to leave it til its too late.
La vida local
When I travel, I gravitate to where the locals hang-out.
I pretend that I’m living in the city that I’m in, as this change in mindset helps me access the detail in the experience. Plus, I love to people watch. There’s nothing quite like observing people go by their daily business.
Meeting locals is also crucial. Getting to know an insider is invaluable. Technology has made it easy – there are apps now to help you locate the nearest person of common interest (you know which I mean). But perhaps you’re into guitar music or black and white photography or something entirely niche; if so, look up a local enthusiasts’ group. Plus there’s a whole industry of personalized, local interest tours out there – olive oil tasting weekends in Greece, photography walks of the art-deco lover’s Paris, – you name it, it probably exists. I guarantee you’ll revel in how others view a mutual interest from a different perspective.
Picking the right place to stay is also key. I always try to choose somewhere within easy reach of a local neighborhood. Yes, being marooned on an all-inclusive luxury resort is hardly hellish, but it doesn’t beat being able to wander into a working village or town. I also tend to choose hotels with a real sense of place. So many contemporary hotels are not sympathetic to their location. And as great as a concierge is, they don’t always know best and in some cases are motivated by commission. Be clear, tell them exactly what you want.
Another way to go out of your comfort zone is to groom local. Odd you may think, but I swear by this tip.
There’s nothing like immersing yourself into something that is so ‘everyday’, yet having to do it in a different language or setting to make you feel native. Whether it’s a barber at a train station in Bangkok, where your hundred baht bill goes into a machine in exchange for a ticket for your haircut and the clippers are attached to a vacuum cleaner to clean as you preen; or getting a Mani-Pedi by the “solo hablo Espanol” Chinese lady in Buenos Aires – the experience of interacting with locals, as comical as it may seem for both parties, will make you feel alive. Alternatively, running an errand can have the same effect. Getting the Filipino tailor in Kota Kinabalu to take up your new jeans or trying to buy a handful of almonds rather than a kilogram from a market vendor in Turin will give you the same buzz.
My point is, however long you have, wherever you may be, slow down to really absorb what is happening around you. This way, your curiosity develops and you’ll find yourself in memorable situations. And because your brain is switched on, you’ll make conscious choices to treat those situations in ways that aren’t a reflex. Suddenly, the world will start to unlock around you. And when this happens, you’ll surprise and inspire yourself.