South by Southeast: Avoiding the hordes

I had high hopes for my arrival in Hoi An. This historic city, set along Vietnam’s Central Coast, has all the ingredients to be the perfect destination: a charming downtown lined with ancient Chinese buildings, a picturesque waterfront setting and a unique culinary history. So it was a shock when I stepped off my bus to find the city the epitome of a tourist trap, stuffed to the gills with tour groups, souvenir hawkers and pushy tailor shops. Hoi An, in my eyes, sucked. What happens then when travelers come to Southeast Asia with visions of the exotic and come away with a bad taste in their mouth? And how can we manage our expectations to best experience this fascinating destination?

As it turns out, increasingly we have to share the deserted beaches and charming historic quarters of our dreams with other visitors – and there are a lot of us these days. According to Vietnam’s Tourist board, the country received 3.7 million foreign visitors in 2009. Thailand is even higher, welcoming almost 14 million tourists. These travelers have left an unmistakable footprint, altering the places we love, the food we eat and the way we’re seen by locals. This influx of visitors (and their resulting impact) will only increase in the years ahead.

Yet despite the rise in tourists, Southeast Asia can be and still is the exotic destination of our dreams. You just need to come armed with a few simple strategies to maximize your enjoyment. Keep reading below to see how.Leave your expectations at home
Our idea of places we’ve never visited rarely matches with what we find when we get there. For Southeast Asia in particular, a steady diet of movies, books and glossy travel magazines have conditioned us to hold unreasonably high expectations. We come in thinking we’ll walk out the airport doors in Bangkok and plant ourselves on the beach beside a row of postcard-worthy palm trees. Instead we find superhighways and rows of 7-11′s.

Remember that people live in our fantasy destinations and they have everyday lives just like you and me. Revise your idea of what is and is not worth seeing. Sometimes watching Thais hang out at the mall can be just as interesting as a Buddhist temple.

Reconsider the “must-sees”
Hoi An is truly one of Southeast Asia’s most unique, one-of-a-kind destinations. But with that “wow factor” comes huge crowds and overwhelming popularity. To beat the tour buses you need to be flexible. Can you schedule your trip during an off-peak time of the year? Maybe you could get up early in the morning before the tourist hordes have descended? You can even consider alternate destinations that provide a similar atmosphere but with less fuss. Don’t be the guy that’s “too cool” to see Angkor Wat, but a little creative planning will make your visit far more enjoyable.

Get out of your guidebook
Guidebooks rule. I love the background information, the helpful maps and the suggested sleeping, eating and activities sections. But when you follow Lonely Planet to the letter, you’re following a well worn trail. It’s not a bad trail, mind you, it’s simply a path followed by thousands of other travelers each year. The prices you pay will be higher, there will be more travelers around you, and merchants will often view you as just another backpack with a giant dollar sign on it.

Don’t be afraid to skip the guidebook suggestions and follow your own instincts. You’ll often find some of the best adventures (and lower prices) off on your own. Not to mention less tourists.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.