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.

South by Southeast: New directions in Southeast Asia

What is it about Southeast Asia that so captivates our attention? For many Westerners, Southeast Asia has attained an identity of exoticism and escape, enchanting travelers as a destination “off the map” of global tourism. It’s a myth readily fed by popular culture. From Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to Alex Garland’s The Beach we’re painted a picture of a magical world, unsullied by the realities of real life – and we’ve taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Southeast Asia, we’re told, is where we’ll go to forge new identities. We’ll quit our jobs back home, find a bungalow on the beach in Thailand, and live out our days drinking 25-cent beers, sunning ourselves under a palm tree. Our problems back home? Distant memory. For anyone struggling with the vagaries of career and post-collegiate life, it’s a powerful fantasy, bandied about during late-night drinking sessions or anytime life becomes “too much of a drag.”

But what’s it really like to travel through Southeast Asia, circa 2009? Does our fantasy match the reality? Though plenty is left to explore, the romanticized destination of deserted beaches and bumpy bus rides is experiencing a dramatic shift, further connecting itself to global tourism and the world economy. Luxury boutiques dot the streets of “communist” Vietnam. Thousands of travelers show up for Full Moon Parties on the beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. Even Lonely Planet’s hugely popular Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the defacto “bible” for independent travelers, is nearly 25 years old and 14 Editions in print. How does the region today look after this huge influx of new money and visitors?

It was these very questions that had me thinking. Was there still adventure to be found in Southeast Asia? And how did it match with the visions of escape and personal reinvention I had in my mind? Encouraged by books like Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding, I left behind my full-time job in New York and created a plan. I would spend the next few months traveling through the region. After a stopover in Seoul, I head to Bangkok and then on to wherever luck will have me. Not only is it a chance to reinvent the direction of my own life, it’s also an opportunity to observe the rapidly changing direction of this fascinating destination.

Over the next few months, I encourage you to join me as I investigate Southeast Asia with a fresh eye. We’ll return to familiar stops on the “Southeast Asia tourist trail” to survey the terrain, and introduce you to places you never knew existed. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the art of long term travel, and some of the rewards and challenges encountered along the way. We hope through our mistakes and successes you’ll have a chance to truly understand what traveling through Southeast Asia is all about. Ready to go? Let’s chart a course, South by Southeast…

You can read future posts from Gadling’s travels “South by Southeast” through Asia: HERE.