The Stupid Myths We Believe as Western Travelers Time and Time Again

I’m narrowing in on accomplishing a major life goal on my bucket list. Before I turn 31 my aim is to have visited 50 countries…and yet, fresh back from my 45th, 46th, and 47th, I’ve just had a profoundly eye-opening and humbling experience. I had, once again, ignored the lesson I’ve learned time and time again, and bought into/believed the enormous pile of bullshit I’ve been fed by the western travel narrative about non-western destinations.

Worse than that, I realized quite vividly that I’d been gobbling down, consuming, and allowing myself to be poisoned by said bullshit for years. I always get annoyed when people tell me they can’t travel because it’s unsafe (my chances of getting robbed, stabbed, shot, or killed are far worse in Arizona than when wandering Europe) or when I read announcements like the US’s recent worldwide terror alert which only served to scare people while delivering virtually none of the context needed or adding any real value. But, the real truth highlighted for me time and time again is that I buy into my own version of this nonsense. The part that really pisses me off about the whole thing is that it keeps me from embracing amazing experiences, makes me stand-offish, much more conservative in my approach when I start, and adds bucket-loads of anxiety.

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I’ve talked about misconceptions a few times in the past, such as how wrong my preconceptions about Turkey were, or my African travel fears series looking at how Africa wasn’t nearly the life-threatening-bodily traumatizing disaster adventure I had anticipated. But unfortunately, I still hadn’t learned my lesson.  I’m going to do my best after my latest trip to really finally internalize this lesson and hope you’ll all join me in identifying, acknowledging, and then utterly dismissing the stories and nonsense that we’re spoon fed. It’s also worth noting that I think travel bloggers, myself included, bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating these myths.

As some long-term readers will know, up until two weeks ago, I had never been to Eastern Asia. While this is a very common and popular region for many travelers, especially budget travelers, it has for a long time been my “dark region” in that I had never been. Why? There are a number of factors which range from simple fear, lack of interest, cost, and then desire to protect and cherish the novelty. What do I mean?

  • Fear: Simply put, the Asia I had built in my mind was a very alien place where getting around using English would be difficult, where everything would be deeply exotic, and where even the most basic of daily activities would be challenging. Add to that a fear of a large amount of human and animal suffering. It was a part of the world I always had very mixed feelings about.
  • Lack of Interest: When I was younger I had a very strong interest in Greco-Roman and Medieval history. I find for many young people, tend to be drawn in strongly by Asia or Europe, while others sort out to Latin America, or Africa to a lesser extent. There were elements of ancient history in these other regions that offered passing interest, but beyond that I felt minimal draw. I felt their history was somewhat uninteresting, was not enamored from a cultural dating perspective, and had only minimal interest in cultural creations like anime and food.  As I’ve traveled more, learned more history, been exposed to more culture, and pivoted more to an interest in food, much of this has changed and Asia has increasingly grown in appeal and draw.
  • Cost: This is an odd one, as SEA (Southeast Asia) has always been extremely popular because of its relatively low cost areas. It’s why regions such as Vietnam and Thailand are thick with travel bloggers and has been a major tourist draw for decades. But, the flights from the US were usually fairly significant and even once I got to Denmark, prices and availability when I looked at SEA as a destination never seemed to work out. In 2010 I almost booked a trip to Thailand but, at the last minute, opted for South America (Argentina) instead based on pricing. Had the other factors mentioned in this section not also been weighing on me, perhaps I would have prioritized it.  Never the less I didn’t and the rest is history.
  • Novelty: This is a tricky one to convey. I’ve written in the past about how important it is to travel and experience things NOW in THIS MOMENT because the destination will change and evolve just as you do. You will never see or experience a place the same way as you would have if you went now and the more we travel and are exposed to, the more our relationship with novelty and novel cultures evolves. Globally, if we stereotype regional cultures down to geo-cultural macro-groups there are regions that share some (albeit very limited) cultural characteristics. As my travels took me to different continents and exposed me to different cultures, I felt a shred of sadness as the fear, novelty, excitement and sense of pure discovery that came from exploring an entirely new culture faded away. As I got a taste of Europe, Central America, South America, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt as though the last great region to explore and discover became Asia and perhaps as a separate entity Eastern Eurasia and India. While I still have an enormous amount of exploration, discovery and novel cultural exploration to do in all of these areas, I found myself keeping Asia to the side as one of my quasi-last opportunities for that utter sense of the unknown.

But, this winter I decided it was time to explore. I opted for a teaser trip to SEA which started purely by coincidence in Ho Chi Mihn Vietnam. Somehow I would then touch base in Cambodia’s Siem Reap region to see Angkor Wat, and then terminate from Bangkok with a few days in either the north or south to explore. This was far too much ground to cover properly in 19 days, but the goal was to test the waters, explore a bit, see how I coped, and if I liked it/where I wanted to go back.

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The Myths

I mentioned that for years I’d been very resistant to a visit to SEA because of different fear-based factors. Eventhough I ultimately found these to be greatly exaggerated, that is not to say that if you go into rural areas, have bad luck, or are in the heart of a heavy tourist area some of these won’t hold some truth, but they are far from the prevalent, unavoidable, and highly experientially potent experiences we’ve been led to believe.

Destinations For First Timers – Ask Alex – Travel Question Wednesdays

Ask Alex - Travel Question Q and A every Wednesday

This post is part of the Ask Alex, Travel Question Wednesdays weekly series. To see previous questions click here. To submit your own; tweet it to @AlexBerger, ask it in a comment on this post or send it in by e-mail.

This week’s travel question is from Andy M. he asks,

Q. “What are good destinations for first timers?

A. – I’ll answer this question from a North American perspective. However, given the international nature of my readership – please custom tailor this advice to your own native language, and cities/countries that may be a good fit for you personally.

When taking your first international trip there are a few key factors to keep in mind that will take what can be a relatively terrifying experience, and make it more manageable.

1. Language Barrier – If you are an American going abroad for the first time, consider countries that are native English speakers as launching points for your trip.  Even if you are semi-fluent in French or Spanish, cities like Madrid may not be ideal for your first time out of the country.  Instead, I suggest countries like England and Ireland which will be exotic, different, but also far easier to navigate.  While the language barrier really isn’t something to worry about, your first major trip can be stressful and most of your experiences will be new and novel. This includes everything from ordering a sandwich to navigating the metro and asking for directions when you get lost.

2. Public Transportation – A great first time city is a city with fantastic public transportation. If you can avoid it, don’t plan on renting a car right away.  Focus instead on countries and cities that have well established public transportation systems that are reliable, easy to navigate, and which are simple to figure out and use.  London is a prime example of a city that has an extensive public transportation system that is ideal for most first-time travelers.

3. Passion – Ask yourself what history and culture is most interesting to you.  Most people have a certain period of history, or cultural region they are more interested in than others.  While there can be a lot of pressure to visit certain places right off the bat, I always suggest launching your travel career in the region or area you are most curious and passionate about.  While this may conflict with tip #1, it is important to go where you want even if that means an American might take their first trip to somewhere like Tokyo, where you’ll find English to be fairly common but not spoken as the native language.

4. Use a Program – If you are looking at your first trip abroad and uncomfortable doing it yourself, consider using existing tour programs. For younger people there are a wealth of fantastic options which range from semester, or summer abroad programs to Contiki, Intrepid and GAdventures style organized trips. While these are not destinations per-say, they are beneficial tools for exploring areas fresh out the door which might otherwise be too intimidating or challenging to tackle on your own.

5. Security – I suggest starting in a safe city.  While your safety and general experience will vary largely based on your own behavior in a given city, it’s usually advisable for first time travelers to avoid cities that have extremely high mugging, kidnapping or violent crime rates. This is another reason I tend to suggest cities like Dublin, Edinburgh and London for first time travelers.  While they have their issues, and dodgy areas all three tend to be relatively safe and well policed. Bribery also tends not to be a major issue, which helps first time travelers avoid uncomfortable situations.

So, what specific cities would I suggest? For an English Speaker from the US or Canada I would suggest launching your travel career in the British Isles.  While London and Dublin are far from my favorite cities, they will offer you a wonderful starting point for your trip. They are easy to reach, and have fantastic rail and bus systems (metro as well in London).   Trips out into the surrounding country side are easy, and for those eager to also explore places like Paris and Rome – trips as part of the second leg of your visit are easy.  Other cities in Europe that are extremely visitor friendly are Amsterdam where the language barrier will be nearly non-existent, Paris, Rome (I would avoid Naples initially) and Madrid which regularly handle massive numbers of foreign tourists, many of whom are novice travelers.  Other prime candidates include Sydney and Auckland in the Oceania region.  If looking for countries in Asia consider Seoul in South Korea and Tokyo in Japan.

Ultimately, where you start is up to you and your sense of adventure.  Remember that your personal mentality and approach to the experience will be what defines and shapes if it is positive, negative, or just a neutral experience.  Chose to chase your passion and pick your initial destination based on what your comfort level is. You know yourself better than anyone, though hopefully your first trip abroad will help you learn about and strengthen parts of who you are.

Would you like me to elaborate on an aspect of this response?  Let me know!

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