There’s always the question of taking ‘the path not well trodden’ when we travel. This imagined place is somewhere revelatory, with unbound beauty and teeming with insight into culture and life. We imagine that this secret place will bring us feelings of freedom and allow us to shed the stress we’re traveling to shed.
On holidays, we have a week, maybe two weeks, four if we’re lucky. How do we design travel so we can experience a place and maximize our feelings of freedom while we travel?
The secret is in the sauce: the structure that you create for the days you are traveling.
Structure is often interpreted as an itinerary, an arrangement of places to see and things to do against time. We like structure when it can balance out with some personal freedom.
Itineraries are convenient and easy because often these itineraries of what to do and what to see are arranged for us by a travel agency or a guide, and the itinerary removes the worry of having to decide where to go and what to see and do. There are some countries, like Bhutan or Myanmar, which make having a tour guide a part of the travel requirements within the country.
But itineraries can be limiting, also, in the sense that they might be too structured and makes you feel like herded cattle. Strict itineraries do not allow for too many opportunities to break free on your own.
There are some secrets to finding more freedom to explore what local life is like, when you travel and dive into the rhythm, flavor and pleasure of living in the locale you visit. Designing these ways into your own structure can help free up some of your travel time for personal exploration unencumbered by a strict schedule.
The best way for a light chaser to see a city is not from a tour bus that limits time and opportunity to see a wider scope of the city. Tour bus itineraries make people feel safe and stress-free because all the tour bus traveler has to do is make it to the bus on time, literally as the tour starts, stops at scheduled places, and leave each stop at designated times.
One tour guide once joked, “The bus stops long enough for a short walk and a selfie beside the sign to prove you’ve been there.”
If this is what the traveler seeks, then the tour bus is all she needs.
But seeking that special insight, surprising beauty and local flavor, the traveler might also be seeking more freedom from a holiday.
Walk a new neighborhood or two for a day
To slow down the pace and get to know the place, how about walking a different neighborhood every day.
When I took friends to Singapore for their first time, I got to experience one of my favorite cities with a fresh set of eyes by spending a few days out of our holiday together walking a different neighborhood each time. One of our walking days started in Tiong Bahru at the Paris Bakery, where we enjoyed huge cappuccinos and flaky croissants with almonds. From the café, we walked around Tiong Bahru Market, one of the oldest neighborhood markets.
The walk that day took us across the River Valley where the pre-war shophouses with their colorful combination of walls and windows were a photogenic attraction. We continued up to Bukit Timah where we spent the afternoon at the Botanical Gardens.
Another neighborhood walk was from our apartment on Kim Seng street to Arab Street. This walk was the longest we did, and helped us get to know the diversity in Singapore. From Kim Seng street, we passed through the Clarke Quay area and crossed the river, and stopped to enjoy the park-like atmosphere near the CBD.
We meandered toward Fort Canning Park and followed its perimeter toward Hill Street and then followed Hill Street all the way up through Bugis Junction before turning right into Orphir Road. From Orphir Road, we turned left onto Beach Road for a couple of blocks before arriving at the area around Arab Street.
The advantage of neighborhood walks is that you’re in control of when you start out. That means if you are jetlagged like we were when we holidayed in Singapore from our base in Europe, we could start out after you wake up naturally.
We still had plenty of time to enjoy the neighborhoods, stopping whenever we wanted to do whatever feels good at any given time during the walk. In Singapore, inserting neighborhood walks into our travel schedule meant we got to see a lot of bistros and tiny cafés, where we could hang out for a while to have a refresher drink, snack or a cup of coffee.
Try a new way to play
In Phuket, a friend tried learning how to surf at the Phuket Surfing School.
Antun and Gabi spent a half day in Bali learning how to paint a batik.
Finding a new way to engage in a play-like, creative activity can be both fun and relaxing.
And because the instructor would most likely be a local resident, the traveler seeking a new way to play would learn more than just the steps to follow in that new, potential hobby.
Attend a festival
In Iloilo, I was in the city when Dinagyang Festival was in full swing. It was a fun two days of street dancing and far from just a spectator event. I met local revelers who invited me to their evenings out, increasing the fun factor of that city.
In Bali, I got to know about a festival through a waitress at my guesthouse. I joined a village that was having a festival, which involved dancing through the streets for a few kilometers from one temple to another, hundreds of villagers from the two neighborhoods participating in the festivities and ceremonies.
In Guimaras, locals had a town-foundation celebration called Sadsaran while I was there, and one of the evenings featured a folk dance competition among the local elementary schools.
You can of course, time your holiday during big festivals like Dinagyang in the Philippines (end of January) or Galungan in Bali (December 26, 27, 28), but many local areas or towns have their own celebrations that you might be able to attend. Asking at local restaurants, or at your hotel might give you some information on some of the events that locals enjoy attending and you might, too.
Hang out with the locals
Sometimes the best travel tips you can use come from the local people you meet, who are not your hired guide or travel agent. Locals tell you places you might visit that they know are cool or beautiful, where to eat, and what is worth going to see. In Guimaras, I met an entrepreneur who made and sold mixed-media jewelry all over the Philippines. He advised me hire a motorbike and ask a local who was not a tour guide to be my guide around the island. I got to see a few beaches that had no tourists on them for miles on a motorbike jaunt around the island.
Other than giving you valuable information for places to visit and other advice, hanging out with locals is a lot of fun, and you can learn some inside information on what’s going on.
Stretch an existing skill or hobby
If you like to create photos during your travel, learning a new skill like panning or capturing motion might be fun.
In Vietnam for a week, the days and nights in Hoi An, Na Trang and Danang added fun when I experimented with slow shutter night photography.
Learn how to make your favorite food from that place
Spending a half day learning how to cook your favorite dishes from local cuisine is a great way to learn about the culture and bring back knowledge you’ll enjoy for a long, long time. In Bali, a cooking class at the Laka Leke restaurant taught Antun and his wife how to make the sambal matah, their favorite part of the Balinese dishes they had been eating on their trip.
In Thailand, I learned how to make five of my favorite dishes at the Phuket Cooking Academy. The tutorial involved shopping for ingredients at a local market, mise-en-place at the Academy, and the timings of cooking each dish.
I did the same thing in Laos when I was there a few years ago. My friends really like that larb salad – it’s my go-to dish for potluck dinners.
The cooking experience is not only lots of fun, you might also meet other travelers in the same class with you, striking friendships with other travelers who seek the same types of experiences that you do.
Go on a mini-quest
Antun went on a mini-quest to find the best duck in Bali. His mini-quest involved the type of travel he loves, which is high on sensory experiences. The mini-quest took him to a variety of restaurants eating his way through Bali. A mini-quest not only raises the fun factor of a trip, it also gives you those great memories that comes from paying attention to what you experience.
Even on short holidays, travelers can experience the freedom of slower travel by designing ways to tap into social events locals enjoy, sensory experiences, and creative pursuits.
Often, the joy of travel is not just a geographical location, an imaginary ‘path not trodden’ that is expected to create the magic for a trip. Sometimes, the magic is in how we design days when we can maximize the feeling of freedom.