What kind of traveller are you?

famous old post office saigon ho chi minh

Saigon’s stunning old post office

Traveller vs tourist. It’s an age-old debate.

Tourists, obviously, are the ones who cling stubbornly to the beaten path, wear knee high socks (apparently) and walk around with their noses in guidebooks. Travellers are the ones with dreads, who’ll sleep anywhere, who eat strange foods and learn local phrases.

So the stereotypes go, and so the battle lines are drawn.

It’s difficult to write about this without seeming to come down on one side or the other. But I’m going to try to dive in, objectively.

See, I’ve been pondering the differences between a holiday (or vacation) and travel. Cambodia deeply affected me, and some of the comments on my post indicate that my reflections were somewhat off-putting from the other side.

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The way they were phrased got me thinking. No, I wouldn’t say Cambodia is top of mind for most people when they think “holiday destinations”. But what constitutes a holiday?

To me, a holiday is all about hedonism. Sunbathing. Swimming. Eating. Sightseeing. Maybe a spot of shopping.

Cambodia is hot (though I wouldn’t sunbathe there). There’s swimming to be done, though not in the main cities. Eating, certainly, and sightseeing. But Cambodia, for me, was not about holidaying, but experiencing. Taking a step back in time at Angkor Wat. Sampling the local food, which is simple by necessity, but none the less delightful for it. And yes, that includes seeing what life on the ground is like, if only in tiny glimpses.

I knew that I would witness hardship and poverty in Asia. Life is not always polished to a brilliant shine. I can understand why people might not want to see that side of it, though. My mother only likes happy movies; on the other hand, while I find it difficult to watch films about (or that include) terrible things – war, genocide, rape, terminal illness – I also find them to be the most rewarding, when done well. Think The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Reader, Boys Don’t Cry.

Yet we all have to draw the line somewhere. For me, it was the Killing Fields. I couldn’t stomach the thought of laying eyes on human skulls. For T, it was the Cu Chi tunnels, with their decades of bad juju (and I must admit, I have my own deep issues with small spaces). These are must-see tourist sights for most, but as it turned out, not for us.

Getting off the beaten track is something most of us at least pay lip service to. For a moment, I gave serious thought to booking ourselves a river tour, culminating in an overnight stay with a “sweet Vietnamese family”, according to the booklet. Something about the idea felt a bit off, though. As appealing as a local homestay might sound, the forced authenticity made me uncomfortable. (Meeting up with local Couchsurfers proved a better way to connect.) And while it didn’t end up working out, we almost signed on for a three-day motorbike tour that promised sightings not just of the stunning Danang coast from the mountains, but swimming in waterfalls and sightings of local villagers going about their daily lives (hamstrung, sadly, by T coming down with his first serious stomach woes). We missed out on that, but in hooning around Hue and surrounds on a motorbike, we at least managed to see plenty of real houses and real families in passing.

Tourist or traveller? In trying to draw the lines for myself, I came across this gem of an idea from Jetlag Manifesto – that tourists travel to escape the world, while travellers travel to experience the world.

Maybe at its simplest, holidaying is easy, while travel is challenging.

Does that sound condescending? I hope not. I LOVE holidaying. Most of my trips to date have been pure, unadulterated holidays; sunning and funning rate very highly in my books. I genuinely do not see travellers as being inherently superior to tourists. Some prefer the structure and safety of guided tours. Some prefer to brave the local public transport. It’s all about different styles.

For what it’s worth, I think we straddle the line, but probably still come down more heavily on the tourist side. Let me give you an example – right now, we’re in southeast Asia. I’m happy to brave local buses for getting around a city but I’m going to opt for a taxi over lugging our packs for any real distance and more comfortable transport for long journeys, and I’d pay for a bed any day over camping outdoors.

Do travellers have a monopoly on fun? Maybe tourists will never have an ‘authentic’ experience, but does it matter if that’s not really what they desire? After all, in the words of Anthony Peregrine: “There’s no moral or qualitative hierarchy of holiday pleasures”. What matters, as Joel Runyon points out, is that you make your trip memorable. (Amen.)

Only you can decide how to best achieve that.


21 thoughts on “What kind of traveller are you?

  • Reply krantcents June 13, 2013 at 09:05

    The best part of traveling abroad or even domestically is you can find different things to enjoy. I love seeing new things or interacting with people and enjoying the different food.

  • Reply oilandgarlic June 13, 2013 at 09:39

    I enjoy both, but my issue with simply Holidaying is that it seems inauthentic. I know many people who went to a resort in Mexico but that resort experience could have been in Hawaii, Florida, Thailand, etc.. I enjoy meeting people from other countries with other life experiences and points of view. I think there’s room for both kinds of traveling.

  • Reply Mrs. Pop @ Planting Our Pennies June 13, 2013 at 10:35

    Our ideal travel mode is to go to a place for a period of months and really get to know it, but for now that’s not really something we can do with our current jobs. In fact, that kind of travel is one of the reasons we’re trying to hit FI when we’re young.
    But, we still end up being tourists every once in a while, most often when it’s tacked on to some kind of work trip and we can do it pretty cheaply or when we’re visiting friends in far-off lands. All in all though, we’re not big on tourist traps or sit on the beach vacations (we can do that walking from home!).

  • Reply Vanessa June 13, 2013 at 10:42

    I LOVE this post! I think that I’m a bit of both — I expect some level of comfort (I won’t sleep anywhere, eat anything) but I am open to trying new things and definitely get off the beaten path when I travel. Shuffling from attraction to attraction is not my idea of a good time — I need to sit and reflect and think “Wow! I’m in XYZ!”

  • Reply Pauline June 13, 2013 at 11:12

    I have been traveling for months or even a year at a time and consider that I fall in the traveler category. I don’t really like tourism because there are beautiful beaches nearby if you just want to soak up some sun and drink cocktails, why go half way around the globe? That said after traveling for months, a 2-3 days break on the beach is welcome. Now that I live on one I can’t imagine traveling to go to another beach and do nothing. Better explore, learn, share, eat, see stuff that isn’t there back home.

  • Reply Ola June 13, 2013 at 11:34

    Thanks so much for the mention! This is an amazing post…absolutely love it! And however you look at it, Like I’ve said before… Just go somewhere, anywhere, doesn’t matter how you travel- just go!!!!
    Thanks again- wonderful Blog!

    – Safe Travels, Ola

  • Reply KK @ Student Debt Survivor June 13, 2013 at 13:07

    I’m probably a combo of both. I don’t want to stay at the holiday inn Thailand (if such thing exists), but I do want some level of comfort. I want to meet the locals and travel the back alleys, but I’m not as adventurous with my food because I don’t eat most meats.

  • Reply Michael @ The Student Loan Sherpa June 13, 2013 at 13:10

    I don’t find travel necessary to “get away” A couple days off and unplugging myself from the world and I am there. I definitely see travel as a means to experience the world.

  • Reply Michelle June 13, 2013 at 14:54

    This is an amazing post! I think that whither or not I am a traveler or a tourist really depends on the trip that I’m taking. Cambodia for me would be travel. Miami would be tourism-LOL. But, both ways of enjoying the world are just as valuable as the other.

  • Reply Sense June 13, 2013 at 20:42

    I like this post a lot!

    I think I fall more in the traveller category. When my two best friends and I went to Thailand 10 years ago (my first time out of the country), they were content to sit on the beach all day and drink, while I could only stand that for one day. A whole new country, and I was going to sit my butt in one spot the whole time? NO WAY! I took all these tuk tuk tours, rode an elephant, and visited local attractions and snorkeled while they lazed. I got teased about it, but it really taught me what I look for in a vacation/travel. Of course, there are exceptions: when I go anywhere with my family, my focus is on spending time with them, not getting the most out of the area.

    I have a huge problem with visiting cultural attractions oriented to showing ‘authentic village life.’ They are the worst sort of awful for me. There are two options: a) they are totally put on for tourists, making them INauthentic and wasting my money, or b) they aren’t faking it and I am gawking at people like they are things put there for my amusement. It all just makes me uneasy.

    I think travelling is escapism for me, though, just as much as tourism is–I get to forget about my life, people, work, etc. back home and just focus on the current day and what is in front of me right THEN. In my normal life, I’m constantly referring to my 5- and 10- and life-time plans. On vacation/while travelling, I get to forget about all that and just ENJOY MYSELF. 🙂

  • Reply cantaloupe June 13, 2013 at 22:42

    I think everyone’s a mix of both if they travel. It’s impossible to go to India and not get the local food poisoning and deal with the headache of transportation, so you’re forced to “experience” India. Even though I really, really just wanted a cheap vacation to see a tourist attraction. It’s all relative of course, but I don’t think it’s possible to travel and completely avoid some element of authentic experience, even if it’s just talking to your local tour guide. In Thailand, we did all the touristy stuff, mostly because there is so much that’s not “authentic” in that land of tours. But where in America could I ride an elephant that is clearly treated poorly? Where in America could I see a girl pull needles out of her vagina? Where in America could I listen to countless transexuals openly petition my boyfriend for sex? Sure it’s touristy and it’s not how the average Thai person lives, but it’s still awesome. Even when I stayed in a resort in Dominican Republic, I flirted with my Dominican staff and the trees were different and the experience couldn’t have happened in my hometown, so why isn’t that authentic?

    It makes me sad that many people who call themselves travelers have this stick up their bottoms that what they’re doing is more “authentic” than the touristy things. But that’s bullocks. When I go the Burj Khalifa, it is just as authentic as when I go tutor for a local family. Seriously. Because when I talk to the boy’s father, all he wants to talk about is how the city is changing. And what’s a better symbol of that than Burj Khalifa? Burj Khalifa a different way of accessing that information, but it’s just as valid and authentic if you’re looking at it with the mindset of what it means for/to the people.

  • Reply Budget & the Beach June 14, 2013 at 01:41

    I think I’d like to do a mix..but because I hardly ever can afford to get away, I guess I’ve been leaning on the side of vacationing rather than experiencing too much. If I can do al little bit of both, like when I go to Europe, I enjoy it.

  • Reply Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce June 14, 2013 at 01:55

    I’ve enjoyed living in foreign places for several months at a time much more than a week or two of travel. The relationships you build during that time augment the location in special ways.

  • Reply Hayley June 14, 2013 at 06:09

    I think it’s a frame of mind…and I think there’s a certain amount of snobbishness on both sides. I am big on exploring, but I also live a fairly fast-paced life and jump at the chance to relax when I can. Sometimes I can mentally handle difficult things; sometimes I can’t (this goes for travelling and just life, really. I’ve been noticing a lot of terrible, terrible things in NYC recently and sure, right now I’m finding that tough).

    I think anything that broadens the mind can only ever be a good thing, even if it doesn’t seem so at the time. That said, I think there are also huge issues around disaster tourism and trying to explain the world through a European POV.

    In short: everyone travels differently, probably best that we aim to not judge others, and Boys Don’t Cry is an outstanding movie.

  • Reply Lindsey @ Cents & Sensibility June 14, 2013 at 07:47

    I’ve never thought about it before – but I can see what you mean about those differences in experiencing a different country. I think it would depend on why I was going on the vacation/holiday in the first place.

    If I needed to get away for a bit and wanted to relax, Cambodia is not going to be my first pick. But I can also see myself wanting to go travelling and volunteer to help out in a different country as well.

    I think you connect with the experiences in very different ways but they both would have their benefits.

  • Reply Stephany June 15, 2013 at 05:17

    I really love this post! I am most definitely a tourist when I travel and I am perfectly fine with that role. I tend to take vacations that will take me away from reality – give me sun, beaches, and time to rest! Traveling is just SO expensive and I can’t do it often (1-2 times a year, if I’m lucky) that I want to get the most bang for my buck and just relax from the daily grind.

  • Reply Michelle's Finance Journal June 15, 2013 at 05:43

    I love travel-touring. But one thing that scares me when going over seas is bathrooms. So I can’t be a hard core traveler who goes off to small villages in rural areas or even in cities with scary sanitation systems. I need to be in places that have relatively clean bathrooms. I like little bit of both(travel and tour), but not too much of anything. Does that make sense?

  • Reply femmefrugality June 15, 2013 at 17:05

    I love this. I think I’ve done it on both sides of the aisle before. And thoroughly enjoyed both. It just depends on what my purpose in going to an area is. If I’m going somewhere with a beach, for example, odds are I’m an all-out tourist. If I go somewhere where I have friends or am on my way to go see friends, I tend to soak in the culture a lot more. But that’s just me. I’ve moved a lot and know people in a lot of different areas of the world, so if I’m travelling it’s likely I’m going to see someone I know at some point. At least with the places I’ve chosen to go thus far.

  • Reply Jennifer June 16, 2013 at 19:55

    I’m sometimes a ‘traveller’, and I sometimes just a ‘holiday maker’, but I do adore ‘travelling’ as I love to experience different cultures and travel to places not many people have before.

  • Reply Amanda June 19, 2013 at 15:12

    I guess I’ve never visited anywhere “difficult” yet, in order to have to think about this. But I think some people are too quick to judge and I don’t feel like it has to be so polarising. The boy had spent two months in Costa Rica when he was 18, volunteering in the slums and doing, seeing, experiencing really “hard” stuff. But he also had a lot of fun and experienced life-changing things that I could only imagine. I think some people are too anchored in their “holidaying” ideals to explore the possibility of both. Meanwhile, I’ve never been on one of those lounge-on-the-beach-stay-at-a-resort type of holiday. The sort that equates to probably visiting the Gold Coast or Fiji or Rarotonga, for NZers.

  • Reply Interview with Travel Blogger Esther of NZ Muse March 12, 2014 at 03:30

    […] don’t really like to get into the ‘traveller vs tourist’ debate. For me, I guess a traveller is someone with an interest in the world around them, beyond going on […]

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