Sitting by the pool at the Trader’s Hotel, watching the city, I cannot help but reminisce the first time I was here in Kuala Lumpur. While I have been travelling ever since I was about a year old, Malaysia was the first holiday I planned and paid for, and went on sans my family.
Malaysia 1.0 was a fun, but an unbelievably foolish holiday. I was travelling with a friend(also a novice at backpacking) and we were unprepared, naïve and stupid. You live and learn, as have I, and based on the little wisdom and immense joy I have gained over the past 3 years, I have here, a list of do’s, don’ts and don’t care’s for backpackers.
It is essential that you read up or find your way of, “researching the hell out” of the place that caught your fancy. Independent travel blogs, posts on Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler, food and lifestyle blogs provide you with a rounded overview of the city. The research will keep you from having unrealistic expectations of an alien land. The research also helps you realise if you actually want to visit the place at all and keeps you from wanting to go trekking in Manhattan.
The food and lifestyle blogs tell you about the culture, the shopping districts and what you can expect gastronomically. This in turn, helps you pack and prepare for a comfortable holiday.
Research also helps you stay safe. Keeping yourself equipped to handle an untoward situation is a smart thing to do and just the knowledge that you can take care of yourself makes the vacation that much more liberating.
Do- Have a Plan:
It is okay to change it, nix parts of it or even abandon it completely, but you should know what the trade off is. It is important that you understand the geography of the place enough so you can plan your activities based on ease in access and general convenience.
Do- Be culturally sensitive:
Be aware of general cultural practices, dress appropriately, learn how to greet people and thank them in the local language. Be aware that there are gestures that might be normal in your culture but might be construed offensive by others.
Do – Try localized versions of foods from global franchises:
Franchises like Mc Donald’s, Burger King and KFC modify their menus to suit the local tastes; several items on these menus are available only in those countries. Try these out, observe the average young person and use these foods as an introduction to the local flavors if you are unsure.
Talk to everyone. Talk to the locals and to other travellers. If your accommodation of choice is a homestay, try to pick one where your hosts like interacting with you. This trip(Malaysia 2.0) introduced me to Jeremy( host at El Studio, Langkawi), who made my time memorable just by his warmth and vast knowledge and understanding of the country and the fantastic food. Similarly, the hosts at Revopackers in KL made a good day better over a shared meal and a conversation.
Sometimes, locals aren’t too aware of the available attractions and details, or are disinterested in them. Talking to other tourists yields better results in two ways – firstly, you get detailed information and secondly, their perspective might be more similar to yours than a locals’.
Do- Let go :
Use the plans and itineraries to your advantage, but don’t let them shackle you. Decide what you want on your holiday and do what makes you happy. It is for you to decide if you want to slum it and backpack and eat off the streets or five star resorts, shopping and Michelin starred restaurants. Like with most other decisions in life, do what is right for you and makes you happy, not what appeases the people around you.
Don’t- Worry about information taking away the charm:
The information does not change the way the place affects you, and surely doesn’t come in way of your discovering the place’s soul.
Don’t – Hesitate from being impulsive and forging friendships:
These friendships might last a day, the length of your vacation, a lifetime or something in between, but don’t let the impermanence stop you. On my first day in Malaysia(2.0), I explored KL with two strangers . Walking around Bukit Bintang, Chinatown and then up to the Twin Towers to see what they look like at night was the best thing I could have done that day. I wonder if this holiday would have been the same if I had held on to my reservations and simply stayed in.
Similarly, I made a wonderful friend in Hong Kong, one who introduced me to Sushi and Genmai Sencha(Rice Tea). Life certainly hasn’t been the same ever since!
Don’t care - about what the books and blogs say:
Use the books and blogs as information, not as commandments that must be followed.
Several travellers will extol the joys of doing all things local, only eating local food, only using public transport, frequenting all places the locals haunt, and then there is a large population that lives in luxury. You must decide what you want to do. Remember that it is okay to grab a slice of pizza and mocha now and then, for they are comfort food for a reason. Ditch the streets in favor of the mall if you feel like it.
Don’t care – about being judged:
It is an alien land; it is okay to be a little goofy. Break into a little jig if you want to, eat a Happy Meal, sing off-tune to an audience if you feel like it.
I think everything is okay as long as you stay smart, safe, sensitive and most importantly, happy.