I have to admit, I don’t tend to do a lot of research before visiting a new country. I might look up the best things to do or which foods to try before I go, but much about travel for me is learning about a place from the very beginning of my time there. I like to find myself questioning stereotypes or finding out where they came from, and discovering a new form of art or religion that I didn’t know existed.
Maybe I should be doing a bit more reading beforehand, but the truth is that I still often learn a lot about where I am and my understanding of how things are the way they are. I also then tend to pick up a few books about where I am so I can gain a more objective view. We all learn in different ways, and that’s a good thing. What bothers me about many travelers that I’ve encountered is that none of this seems to be important to them. They are often all about their own personal experiences more than trying to understand a place.
I don’t know how many times I’ve traveled with someone only to hear complaints about a certain location and how the local culture is “doing it the wrong way.” Most of the time, these gripes are from United States travelers, which tends to get my goat more than any other (probably because I hate the attitudes we’re representing). Much of the time, these people want to have the experience of being in a certain spot without having to deal with the parts that they don’t like—they would prefer to be ignorant to some of the cultural and political nuances affecting a country and its people.
Thailand has really been eye-opening for me in that way. If you didn’t want to know some of the history of the country or how the Thai people feel about their current political culture, then you would never have to. It’s blasphemous to talk badly about the former king, and although very few like his successor, his son, no one would ever say it. It would be easy to believe that Thailand is all smiles and you’re living in a paradise, but there is much more to this reality than you might realize.
For me, this is what makes you a better traveler—and person. You have to use some sleuthing skills sometimes in order to find out what people truly believe and to break down that barrier of tourism and truth. Research is required to really understand your location. It’s when people don’t want to know, when they want to revel in their bliss and the tourist ideal that it makes me angry.
Every individual’s travel experience is different, and one is not inherently better than another. However, ignoring the bad and only focusing on the ideal or the best part of a place is not only not realistic, but it can be detrimental to the understanding we really need in order to make the world a better place.
I always try to ask what it is that I am getting out of my travels. If it’s just a vacation and a break from my own reality, then that is not enough for me. While I think the line between being a traveler and being a tourist is unnecessary, there is a line between exploiting privilege and refusing to acknowledge why it is that you have it and recognizing the hardships of others around the world.
What do you think? What have you been getting out of your travels? How much research do you do before you travel or while you’re in a place?