Travel taboos: how not to be an obnoxious tourist – wherever you’re from

Just to make sure we all understand each other – this article is not about breaking with LOCAL taboos that deal with religion or culture or anything like that. Instead, I encourage everyone to travel differently and gain some valuable insights along the way in the article below:


1. Travel with at little as possible

Remember that stress you feel when traveling towards the airport, and you freak out at the thought of your charger still sticking in the socket instead of your backpack? Well there’s no need for that, and you certainly shouldn’t buy a new one at the airport either. Because airports are ridiculously expensive…

cultural taboos around the world

Ditch the suitcase, the camera, the shades and the Panama hat as well.

In fact, that charger you so desperately need is on sale in multiple shops wherever you are going. And if you are traveling to a developing country, chances are it will be much cheaper than in your home country. In fact, anything you are looking for on your travels will be on sale if you are traveling to a bigger city.

So get this: it is possible to fly anywhere with just a shoulder bag containing some bare necessities like a laptop or camera, along with your travel documents. Personally I make it a habit to travel extremely light when I go somewhere for a weekend, but the concept translates a lot better to round-the-world trips.

Think about it; you already saved a lot of money to go on this trip in the first place, so why not save a little more and buy everything you need at your first stop? All you really need is a backpack you feel comfortable with, and everything else like flipflops, sunscreen, sunglasses, singlets, boardshorts, and even underwear is for sale around here. With online shopping rolled out all over Asia, it is not even that uncommon to have things delivered to your hotel and it really makes for an entirely new experience.

Night view of Nanjing Road in Shanghai.

Whatever you need – China sells it and probably makes it locally too.

Plus, you are saving a lot of money. Apart from those ultra-luxury brands that apply a global branding strategy, things really do tend to be cheaper in developing countries. You are not getting excess luggage fees (well, for your departure anyway), you won’t be waiting your cargo at the airport, and neither will you be “schlepping” it through the tropical heat to your hotel or hostel.

In other words, it is a total win.



2. Rent a motorcycle when everyone tells you not to

As I lived on a tropical island in the Andaman sea, the amount of injured tourists I’ve seen was staggering. We even made it a habit to wager on when “that new employee” was going to have his first motorcycle crash. Motorcycles or mopeds are pretty much a given where I come from in Europe, and crashes are just as common over there as they are over here. But the difference is that people ride around Europe with clothes on, so sliding a few meters down the road is not going to have that much of an impact.

travel taboo game

Under no circumstances should you ever rent a big bike. Stick to 150cc and below and you should be fine.

In South-east Asia however, people ride around without helmets half-naked and flip flops on. As a result, the tiniest mistake, even at slow speeds will result in some over-the-top injuries like your entire leg all chafed up.

And yet, I really recommend renting a motorcycle where possible or alternatively, a car. I’ve been to islands out on West Africa where there was literally nothing to see or do outside the resort, and with absolutely zero public transportation there was very little to do besides surfing. A rental car changes all that, and instead of depending on cheesy guided tours, you get to choose your own destinations and discover new areas on your terms.

motor scooter on the street in Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv is best discovered from a scooter.

Traveling outside the tourist infrastructure also allows you to connect with locals who may not be as affected by the tourist industries as others. Without a doubt, your travel experience becomes more genuine the more you move away from possible tourists traps.

Now if you can just stay out of hospitals as well, you’ve got it made. A word on riding motorcycles abroad; whatever you are being told, you are most likely not insured. If you hardly ever ride a bicycle in your own country and never rode a motorcycle before, starting abroad is about the dumbest thing you can do. Either let someone else drive or maybe stick to a car instead.

Sure you will do remarkably well just outside the rental shop, when you “take that hog for a spin” on the parking lot. Things tend to go completely different in real-life traffic situations though. Chances are you’ll be zipping around town in no-time, and that one time your friend is driving in front of you, just a little too fast for your own comfort, you still try to keep up. And that’s usually where disaster strikes. A kid jumps from the space between two parked cars, or a green light turns red and you instinctively squeeze both brakes hard. Next thing you know, you are sliding straight into the hospital.

Literally every novice rider is going to go down sooner or later on a scooter, and when you do, it really is best to wear long pants and some kind of protection, like regular shoes and a helmet.

If you don’t crash, you’ll have a great time. And if you do, you’ll be so happy you wore a moderate amount of protection.



3. Go to North Korea or another place that your embassy doesn’t recommend

I don’t know what it is with Western Media, but things tend to get blown out of proportion on a daily basis, especially when there are reports on foreign countries. I am not talking about North Korea by the way, because I really do think things are messed up over there, but a lot of reporting is often done without context and exaggerated to the extreme. Naturally, several destinations will end up on a list that embassies do not encourage you to travel to.

North Korea Worker's Party Monument

C’mon. You know you want to…

But what if you did? Let’s say for instance you travel somewhere shortly after a natural disaster like a hurricane or a earthquake. No doubt your money spent there will be put to good use, but you will actually get to make a real impact, especially if you are into volunteering.

The reason why I bring up North Korea is because propaganda on both sides is completely over the top, and sometimes it really is best to make up your mind by yourself. Of course, when you travel there you will have a handler and expect to be watched at all times. But as long as you don’t steal anything or offend the powers that be, you can have a very interesting experience in one of the most talked-about geopolitical hotbeds of our time.

One of the travel advisors I worked with went there repeatedly and recommended the experience to anyone who asked. The pictures he made throughout his travels certainly looked interesting, and I wouldn’t mind spending some days in Pyongyang myself if I was in the area.

Neon bar signs line Bourbon Street

New Orleans has recovered well from Katrina.

Granted it doesn’t have to be North Korea, but you will find that once you end up somewhere that’s off the beaten path, your experience will be that much better. I’ve spoken to people who went to Kabul or other former conflict zones and they encountered people who were happy to see foreigners in their country once more. You can be that foreigner too.



4. Travel somewhere with zero preparation

A few years ago I was dating a girl who’s sister absolutely hated my guts. Let’s not get into whether it was deserved or not, because the situation is universal I think – the in-laws are not optional and it doesn’t always work out. But I will never forget the day this girl proved to me (and the world) she was an idiot when she booked a trip to Australia with a travel agent in some dusty walk-in shop inside a mall.

travel agent delivering the flight ticket

Why pay this woman’s salary if you can book tickets online?

You see, back in the eighties, this was a normal procedure as the internet wasn’t the information highway we know today and we all needed middle-aged ladies to tell us where to travel and what to do there. When I asked my sister in-law, who was on a tight budget, why should she should pay a middle man for something she could easily book herself online, I incurred the wrath of the banshees of course, but my point was made.

Why plan everything in advance, and pay through the nose, when you can just fly somewhere, and set up your entire trip the minute you find a Wi-Fi hotspot? I challenge you to go to any hostel in the world, and you will see all the guests in the morning, brooding over their phones to find their next stop/activity/destination. With all this information at your fingertips and having the option of asking any local for additional recommendations, you are certainly better prepared than that lady behind her computer on the other side of the world.

wifi sign on sand beach

Wi-Fi is literally everywhere these days, and you can buy internet packages too for your mobile.

You will have an unprecedented flexibility during your travels, and with countless comparison sites at your disposal you can quickly add, adjust or shuffle around in your itinerary as you see fit. It will be the complete opposite of those “Europe-in-10-days” tours we get to see around Paris and London, and the only worry you will ever have is to motivate yourself enough to make the most out of your holiday. I know it wouldn’t be my first time I spent several days in a hotel room because the place was so damn comfortable…



5. Do something for a total stranger

Having worked in the travel industry for some time, I never really touched on the luxury segment of the sector. As a result, I have extensive experience with travellers on a budget, and more often than not these are groups comprised of two or three girls on their gap year.

travellers on a budget

Especially young American women don’t respond well to unsolicited advice.

While some of them are very open to suggestion, most of these young travellers have a deer-like nervousness about them and paranoia kicks in whenever you try to suggest something like a restaurant or local attraction they should check out. They really do prefer to do things “their way” and stick to the volunteering projects in the area or other destinations that were full of more foreigners. But when you travel that way, you tend to miss out on a lot of things the local area has to offer.

It is in stark contrast with a documentary I once saw about a handyman from the Netherlands, who travelled to South Africa twice a year by himself. On every trip, he would bring in two suitcases of second hand tools, and simply applied himself wherever he went.

The camera team followed him around as he connected with locals and created opportunities and little projects all around Cape Town and Johannesburg. He explained that instead of sending money to NGO’s he preferred doing things by himself, as he felt the work was more rewarding and that he also suspected a lot of donations in the west end up in marketing eventually.

travel taboos

There are plenty of opportunities to help on a local level.

By teaching total strangers how to acquire customers and manage their projects a little, you could see that he was forging life-long friendships. What’s more, all the people involved welcomed him into their homes, whether they were customers, people he was teaching or government employees who recognised the contribution this guy was making. It was a very inspirational thing to see, and I just don’t have that much altruism inside me, I do try to help out people whenever I can when I’m abroad. This type of behaviour goes a long way, whether it’s a smile, a free coffee or a great tip that these people will give in return.

So next time you are abroad and there is a situation where you can help – strike up a conversation, test the waters and if people are receptive, offer your help. You will be amazed at what is going to happen.


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Author's profile picture

Alexander Grootmeester is an copywriter/online media expert living in South-east Asia for the better part of a decade. Asked what he likes best about living there, he usually answers that it’s “the tightly organized anarchy”.

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