Dirt Road

Tourist Trail or the Road Less Travelled?

Cows On A Dirt Path

For most people, the first backpacking trip of their lifetime is one of new discoveries and finding out how well they can adapt to a vagrant lifestyle. Trains, buses and taxis from place to place, city to city, connecting the dots of an ever-deepening groove which forms the tourist trail picture. The overland route from Singapore to Bangkok via Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, or Melbourne to Cairns along Australia’s East coast – many sandle-wearing feet have trodden those paths, and for good reason.

Before tourism took off in any country, there were a certain number of outstanding natural beauties, interesting cities and intriguing geological features that were either unique or rare in the world. Naturally, when the borders open up to the tourist industry the unique sights become the focal points that stand most likely to beckon in the numbers, and along with it the spending and profits. The trails themselves from dot to dot become entrenched, allowing infrastructure to grow around them to accommodate the shifting of vast numbers of people. These people inevitably have a degree of expectation based on what they have read or heard from other people about the places they plan to visit.

But there’s something about expectation that numbs the senses somewhat. If someone tells you to go and see a movie at the cinema because it is ‘so funny, you’re gonna love it,’ often the experience is less stimulating than if you’d picked a screen at random and discovered by chance that this movie you’d never heard of turned out to be pretty fantastic. The same thing can be said of travel.

I continue to find that the most amazing things about travel are self-led discovery and the discovery of self. This is where travelling off the beaten track leads you, even if it’s just a small venture that gets you there.

A travel insight:

Waterfall Off The Tourist Path

We stopped abruptly in a cloud of dust at the side of the road. I hopped off the songthaew and heaved my backpack up onto my shoulder, thanking the driver in Lao for the lift as I looked around for my bearings. I had arrived in Vang Vieng – one of Laos’ most touristy towns, and yet there was a definite tropical flavour in the air and lushness in the landscape. I began walking in the general direction of the hostel I had circled in my copy of Lonely Planet’s South-East Asia on a Shoestring. After having walked for half an hour in searing heat, the hostel was thankfully quiet, serene and cheap. Vang Vieng seemed agreeable, if a little travel-worn.

It was upon renting a bicycle and riding to a nearby lagoon that I felt I made a discovery, and while I by no means trekked any uncharted territory, I did find something unexpected from this small diversion from Vang Vieng’s tourist-laden centre. About 6km into the 7km ride towards the glassy emerald lagoon, I came to an almost deserted bamboo shack casually advertising banana shakes. As I sat inside the rickety structure, the waitress approached and smiled the meekest of smiles and then sat opposite me without a word of English while I drank the distinctly average shake. The landscape surrounding the site was intensely green and wild, the limestone karsts rose up in the distant fields and the whole environment refreshed and invigorated. I breathed deeply and thanked nature for allowing me the pleasure of discovering an unexpected location.

It was a whole week before I left that place. But it was a week that felt like a peaceful month, living a simple life in Lao village style – eating local cuisine from a mud oven or open fire, being blessed in a heart-warming Baci ceremony, bathing in the lagoon at the end of a hot day. You see, this was Sae Lao, a local programme where international volunteers come to stay and help raise the literacy levels of the village children and to build mudbrick centres for communal gathering. It remains one of the most transcendental experiences of my life and it came about as the result of only a small diversion. I can only imagine how enriched life could become if an entire trip were based on a similar foundation of beautifully unstructured travel.

The best and most authentic experiences that stir the excitement of travel seem to be the ones that stem from the most personal endeavours. Often, this is dependent on the number of tourists present, so travelling in remote and unconventional directions will without doubt (with the right mindset) transcend the usual scenarios of backpacking and take you into another, deeper experience altogether.

Some of the benefits of straying off the beaten path are that you’ll receive less hassle from touts and beggars, less ‘tourist-adapted’ and therefore more authentic food and general experiences and a widening of your understanding of both culture and values. In some countries, the occurrences of guesthouses will be fewer on the less travelled roads. But in places like India, stop off at any town between two points and you’ll likely find a guesthouse or someone willing to put you up for a rupee or a smile, even if the town is not listed within the pages of your guidebook.

Remember this, a guidebook is just that – a guide. No publication could list every town or village that was worth visiting. And no publication is completely unbiased. So, go with good intentions and don’t be afraid to make it up as you go along.