Traveling abroad by guide book alone

My wife and I just came back from Thailand about a week ago.  I am so blog-oriented now that I kept thinking of topics the whole time.  This is the first thing that really struck me – going to a foreign country, without someone with local knowledge (and preferably language skills) to help you out, can be really tough.  One ends up relying a lot on guidebooks.  In our case, we had Frommers, which was newer than Lonely Planet (which everyone else seemed to have), and Eyewitness, which we like because it helps us walk through major locations with a detailed illustration.

Anyway, I think one goes through phases when traveling by guidebook, especially to developing countries, it’s easy to get a bit paranoid. It takes about 10 readings to get below the surface, aided by the realities of actually being in the hotels, walking the streets, etc.

Phase 1 is all about paranoia.  Don’t let the tap water touch any orifice, much less consume even a drop while showering.  Buy more bottled water than is humanly possible to carry.  Don’t trust anyone that tries to sell you stuff on the street.  In fact, only buy water from 7-Eleven (which is remarkably everywhere in Thailand, everywhere we went), and actually run away from street vendors.  Oh, and eating from any street markets will cause your stomach to explode and you will never recover.

Then you read a bit more, and even at the warnings right there in the hotels, and realize that one should not drink the tap water.  There is a big difference between getting some in your mouth and drinking it.  Sure, still brush your teeth bottled water, but that’s probably about it.  Washing your hands and touching your eyes won’t make you lose your sight.  And drinking the water they serve at most restaurants is probably okay, too.  

Not every taxi or tuk-tuk driver is going to force you to go through 10 stores to force you to shop before going to your hotel.  Yes, if you go with the wrong people (taxi ride solicitors at the airport, rather than going to the public taxi line) or don’t insist on simple things (that taxis use meters, or that you want “no stops” or “no shopping” on rides, especially leaving a place like the main train station) you’ll be fine.  If someone takes advantage of you, you get out and refuse to pay.  No big deal.  

And for street markets?  The guides actually tell you that you should use common sense and stick with fried foods (which have to be cooked on the spot).  Are you taking a bit of a risk?  Sure.  But the paranoia can take a break after the first day or so.  But you have to read those guidebooks a few times to get that through your head, I think.

Comments (2)

  1. Debbie

    DH is going to South Africa and Kenya for 6 weeks this summer with Teachers Without Borders Canada. I’m excited for him, jealous, and only worried when I think about it too much! For whatever reason, I’m not really worired about South Africa. But everything we read about where he’ll be in Kenya describes the area as “as far as you can get from civilization and still be on the planet earth!” And this happening to a guy who doesn’t like camping. T’will be interesting!

  2. kaiyen (Post author)

    I have been wanting to go to South Africa for a safari for a while (possibly our next trip). I am not too worried about that, in terms of language, especially. But Kenya might be interesting, indeed.

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