When we are traveling, we like to take in as much as we can. On group tours, like the one we are on in Thailand, you may not know how much free time you will have, but there can be strong indicators. For example, when we took an outstanding 10-day trip to China, nearly every minute seemed accounted for by our tour company – with one exception, which we will mention later. Others, like our 13-day trip to Turkey with Gate 1, had a generous amount of free time for the group members.
When checking on how much free time will be available, checking the itineraries provided by your tour company can be very helpful. In the case of our Turkey trip, we were told we would have the day “at our leisure,” which allowed us to schedule tours. Other days look like they are packed – probably because they are. Tours can wear you out. However, do not let your weariness get in the way of getting the most out of an experience. And do not let your fear of the unknown stop you from exploring. Part of the purpose of travel is to get to know these strange and exotic places. Being in a large group of English speakers at a tourist trap is not the best way to do it.
When you have full days, booking tours may allow you to get the most out of an area in a short amount of time. Good tour guides will get you to the front of the line, explain the history and significance of places, and help you learn more and see more than you ever could have on your own. But there are also a great many small opportunities to get more out of your trip.
For example, on our China trip we had very little time to break away from our group at all. It was extremely well orchestrated and included all our meals, so from sunup to sundown we were hanging out. Then several days into the trip, we were taken to a neat little shopping area. However, after seeing what there was to see, we were told we had about 90 more minutes. While the group went back into the shopping area, we immediately saw our chance to explore and see what was nearby. It was like walking in a Hollywood back lot. We walked out of this high-end, international shopping area and into a somewhat typical Chinese street with all kind of vendors, businesses, families and everyday life. Walking these alleys and exploring the shops – in a futile search for a foot massage – was one of the more memorable experiences on a very memorable trip.
Other pleasures come by not taking the easy way out. At the end of a long day, it is tempting to have a nice comfortable dinner in the hotel and then go back to the room, however we try to avoid the hotel whenever we can. It can save a lot of money – meals in Thailand can cost as little as $1 from a restaurant on the street as opposed to a typical $10 and up for the hotel – but also allows us to explore the cities and meet the people. Besides, the food is almost always good. The $2 lunch consisting of a plate of Pad Thai and a plate of pork and rice in Thai red sauce while sitting across the street from 700-year-old temples is pretty tough to beat. We have found markets, wonderful shops, entertainment and interesting people by wandering the cities.
For this trip, meeting the friendly little girl with the adorable puppy will probably be one of the most memorable highlights. Not just because the dog was sweet, but because of the genuine openness for sharing that children in any culture possess. We were taking pictures at Wat Chaiwattharanaram, which is still not fully open due to the flooding, when we spotted a cute sleeping puppy. A young Thai girl smiled and we smiled back and she went over to pet the dog to show us it was hers and how proud she was. It was all very cute. We then went down to take a few photos from the other end of the temple grounds. About 15 minutes later we were about to walk past the area where we saw the girl and she saw us coming, her eyes lit up and she went running to grab her puppy and bring it over to us to pet. It was a wonderful moment in this place where people have been fighting to overcome so much, that this girl and her family were just sharing some fun and happiness with people who couldn’t carry on a conversation, but could share a wonderful moment together.
So when you get those 15 minute, 90 minute, half-day, or whatever breaks: do not dare sit around with the crowd. There is something just around the corner and chances are it’s pretty cool – if only because you got to find it when no one else seemed to care.
Finally, do keep safety in mind. We do try to stay safe and we realize we need to be watchful. However, with all the strange and obscure places we have been, all feel safer than many of places we have been in the United States. If you are not trying to do anything illegal – buy drugs, cater to prostitutes – and you are not getting intoxicated, you will avoid most problems.
Peace out, The Franci