Travel Like A Local
I know, sometimes it’s just easier to take that packaged tour and not have to worry about planning your trip. But if you want to truly experience a place, then you’ve got to travel like a local. I know, that’s a bit of an oxymoron, if you’re a local than you’re not really travelling are you? But you know what I mean, and you know that once you’ve experienced a culture like the locals do and seen how rewarding it can be, you’ll never want to take a group tour again.
If you want to learn how to travel like a local then you simply have to live how they live, eat what they eat, and act like they act. Sounds easy enough, right? Not really? Well, here are a few quick ways that you can easily travel like a local and experience true local culture instead of just being another flyby tourist.
1. Eat Local Street Food
I love Anthony Bourdain. He’s one of my idols and he knows that in order to experience a culture, you need to eat its food. And not just at the fancy, high end, touristic restaurants but the down and dirty street food that your mama told you never to eat. When I travel, I always remind myself, “If this is how the locals eat, then this is how I will eat.” If only you saw me trying to eat rice and curry dish with my hands in Colombo. No photo because I was alone and it looked like a curry bomb went off in my face but damn, it sure was fun!
2. Learn The Local Language
In Bali, many travellers know how to say, “Thank You,” in Bahasa Indonesia (it’s “tera makasi”, in case you didn’t know), but how many know it in the local Balinese language? Whenever I travel, I always try to learn a few common phrases of the local language or even dialect. You will be surprised at how much friendlier people will be if you make that tiny extra effort. Simply knowing the 7 key phrases, Hello, How are you?, I’m Fine, Thank You, You’re Welcome, Excuse Me, and Goodbye is enough to show you are at least trying.
3. Take Public Transportation
If you exclusively take private taxis and drivers, then you’re not going to experience how the locals get around. It’s cheaper, it’s more fun, and you’ll get to see more of the real neighbourhoods outside of just the touristy areas. Once you get to know a city’s metro system, that’s when you really start to feel like you know it and then you will actually travel like a local.
4. Observe Local Customs / Traditions
Don’t be that Gap Year college kid walking around in a Buddhist temple in their bikini or Full Moon Party tank top. In fact, you shouldn’t even wear that bikini on the beach in some of the more conservative countries! Be respectful, have some dignity, and try to follow along with local customs and not only will you be treated better by the locals, but you might learn something about their culture along the way.
5. Shop At The Local Markets
In many foreign countries, the local markets are usually the bustling cultural centres of the city. Some places have become a bit touristy, but if you dig a bit deeper into the markets, you’ll probably find some great local eats, local produce, or even some local handmade crafts that you can bring back as a souvenir. And if you’re in a country where it’s customary to bargain, make sure you don’t just pay the asking price!
6. Get To Know Your Tuktuk / Taxi Driver
Remember those 7 key phrases you should learn? Well, ask your driver how to say them and write them down in your smartphone (come on, I know you have one, everyone does). It’s a great icebreaker and shows them that you’re interested in their culture. After that, they may offer additional touring services, which are usually way cheaper, or if you’re lucky, they might even invite you to their home for a traditional meal. Surprisingly, I’ve been invited to homes, dinners, and even a traditional Cambodian wedding once (sadly, I couldn’t make it). While a certain degree of caution is in order, every time that I’ve went, it was an absolutely amazing cultural experience.
7. Take Tours With Locals Instead Of International Tour Operators
The problem with taking tours with big operators is that a very small portion of the profit goes to the local economy. However, if you don’t book ahead and just get the local taxi driver, guides, or even villagers, then you know for certain that 100% of your tourist dollars are going straight to the people who need it the most.
8. Research Your Destination
This is easy. Do a bit of research on your destination before you actually arrive just so that you know what to expect and what you might be interested in experiencing when you’re there. Otherwise, you might feel like being lazy and just follow the other travellers from your hostel because you’ve no idea where else to go.
9. Skip The Hostel, Use Couchsurfing Or Airbnb
Hostels are great, don’t get me wrong. You can meet a lot of amazing travellers and future friends there but they all usually have one thing in common. They’re all travellers too. Try switching it up and stay with a local via Couchsurfing or rent a private room on Airbnb. Both are great options and I’ve had great experiences hanging out with my hosts. Many of them have gone out of their way to show me an amazing time, tell me about their life and city, and introduce me to their culture.
10. Spend At Least 3 Days In The Same Place
Any less than 3 days and you’re just passing through, barely able to soak in the local culture. While this may be difficult to do if you have limited time and really want to see as many places as possible, but I highly recommend choosing at least one destination on your trip and set aside 3-5 days there so that you can truly appreciate everything it has to offer. This will give you time to sit back, relax, and take everything in, nice and slow.
11. Go Off The Beaten Path
In January of 2014, in Phnom Penh, I convinced my tuktuk driver to drive me to the garment factories where underpaid workers had been striking just a week prior. Some shootings had taken place and for some reason, I wanted to visit the area. When we got there, I asked my tuktuk driver to sneak me into the garment factory. Touring the factory grounds, seeing the conditions that the workers live, eat, and work in was truly enlightening and heartbreaking, and it changed how I fundamentally viewed EVERYTHING in this world. Now, I’m not suggesting that you do the same idiotic thing that I did as it was quite stupid and dangerous. In Cambodia, sneaking into a private facility and doing investigate journalism into it’s largest industry (over $1.5 billion exported) is kind of frowned upon. However, don’t be afraid to do something different if you feel it calling to you.
12. Don’t Be Afraid Of Being A Tourist
Avoiding going to a specific restaurant or famous landmark because it’s too “touristy” is the hipster equivalent in travelling, so don’t do it. There’s probably a very good reason that the restaurant is listed in all the guide books and busloads of tourists go there to eat. At one point in the past, it probably was just an amazing, local eatery that made awesome food and chances are, if the people are still coming, the food will still be awesome. So put away that attitude and get in line!
Ultimately, it’s your vacation and trip so you should travel however you feel will be the best for you. But if you’ve only gone on all inclusive vacations and guided tours, you should try to travel like a local at least once.
What are your best local travel stories? What’s your favourite destination or culture to get lost and travel like a local?