Except for the most remote destinations, every country in the world has its tourist traps. By definition, a tourist trap is “a place that provides entertainment and exploits tourists.”
At Myths and Mountains, we know that many sights and events you’ll see in Asia and Southeast Asia fit the “entertainment” aspect of the definition. Some are even educational. However, we also know that many are inauthentic at best and exploitive at their worst.
To avoid falling into a tourist trap use your time well and take every opportunity to travel like a local. Here are a few do’s and don’ts in five of our favorite countries.
DO THIS: Visit a puppet maker and try making a colorful figure from a Vietnamese folk tale. For more than a thousand years, the lacquered, wooden puppets were used literally on the water in the ponds of Vietnam. The puppets are guided by an unseen pole-and-string contraption that makes them appear to dance on the water. Today many shows are performed at specially equipped theaters but most fun is going to a place with a private show where you can try being the puppeteer.
NOT THAT: There are theaters such as Thanglong in Hanoi that do follow bonafide water puppet traditions and do use live music with traditional instruments, but they are definitely for tourists. If you have no alternative, a place like Thanglong provides a very good show and is a worthwhile stop. But, for some, the performances may seem long and possibly boring to those who don’t know the Vietnam folktales depicted.
DO THIS: When in Hanoi, a visit to Hoa Lo Prison (also called the Hanoi Hilton) is a history lesson, shedding light on both the French occupation of Vietnam as well as the Vietnam War. Here you can discover how men and women prisoners were treated and the extremely harsh conditions under which they lived. Americans know Hoa Lo as the prison in which John McCain was held, but the Vietnamese see it as a place where many of their country people suffered during the French Occupation.
NOT THAT: Don’t waste your time standing in line to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. If you don’t get there extremely early, lines are long, there is no shade, you cannot take your camera and, after a long wait, you are hustled through.
DO THIS: Get out of your warm bed to visit a temple such as Swayambunath very early in the morning around sunrise. At that time, the temple belongs to the people. Men, women and children are praying, Newari social groups are chanting religious songs, people are doing their morning exercises, the devout are making offerings to the gods and receiving blessings from the priest and the place is alive and bustling with an incredible energy and spiritual force.
NOT THAT: Don’t trot out to visit the temple after about 9AM, when it belongs mostly to the tourists and their guides, as well as the hawkers and beggars on the steps. In a country like Nepal, religion and life are one, and the temple is less an architectural piece than a living, breathing place of local worship.
DO THIS: Take a walk down Asan, the market street that slants from Durbar Marg In Kathmandu past the bead district to Durbar Square. A monstrous supermarket in disguise, Asan is where locals go to buy material, pots and pans, religious ornaments, spices, vegetables – you name it you will find it. And, along the way you can pay your respects to Annapurna, the Goddess of the Grain, rub Ganesh’s nose and ask for good luck, or say prayers at the temple to Seto Machendranath.
NOT THAT: Avoid the traditional style supermarkets unless you really need something specific or very personal.
DO THIS: Get up at four in the morning to watch the monks wash the face and brush the teeth of Buddha in the Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay. Local people are thrilled to see you and do all they can to make you welcome, sharing food, offerings and even their precious space on the temple floor. The experience is definitely unique. Since 1988, a monk in formal monastic robes assisted by white-dressed helpers has performed the daily ritual washing of the 11-foot image of the Buddha while the devotees look on and worship. The gold and jeweled statue is said to be one of the few created during the Buddha’s lifetime and one of the most important for pilgrims.
NOT THAT: Go to the Mahamuni Temple or most others during the main part of the day. Although there may be pilgrims at these special places, their numbers are fewer and often you are simply staring at just one more pagoda along the way.
DO THIS: Take the circular train around Yangon, getting on and off to explore markets and buy snacks at the station markets. Best is to ride with the locals, but if you want the air-conditioned tourist car, that is also available. Watch life go by in different parts of town or chat with the riders. Plan your day so that when you get off, you can walk around an area and then get back on the train.
NOT THAT: Don’t take one of those large sightseeing tour busses, unless you are willing to sit in traffic for far too much time.
DO THIS: Visit at least one weaver, especially one that handles the entire textile-making process, from spinning to dying to the actual weaving process. Visit the Bhutan Textile Museum in Thimphu and learn more about the tradition and the country’s unique techniques and patterns.
NOT THAT: Buy the first silk kira (long wrap-around skirt) or a man’s gho (knee-length robe) you see in your enthusiasm to take home a traditional Bhutanese garment. There are shops where you can have kiras and ghos made overnight in your choice of fabrics and patterns and likely a better bargain.
DO THIS: Head to the village school for arts and crafts near Thimphu. Watch and laugh with the kids as they learn traditional Bhutanese skills such as thangka making, bronze casting or wood carving. Visit a real home in your travels, not just a government model for tourists of what a Bhutanese home looks like.
NOT THAT: Don’t just visit the government tourist models showing different crafts or a model of a home that is not lived in by real people. You are there to get to know the culture and the people. Ask your guide to help you do so.
DO THIS: India is a country with incredible craftspeople and a good guide can find them. Make a point of frequenting local crafts people who are often the country’s best artists. Watch them at work doing embroidery, weaving rugs, block printing, designing jewelry and other arts and learn about what’s involved in their creative process. A special souvenir bought from someone you have met has a lot of emotional value. Moreover, the money you spent goes directly to the artist him or herself.
NOT THAT: Shop consistently in the jewelry store, the pashmina shop, or one of the warehouse-like stores that seem to sell every handicraft made in India. Many tour guides will take you to these places because they get a commission on what you buy. Just say “No thank you,” and remember you are under no obligation.
DO THIS: Consider getting a bit off the main track and visiting states such as Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi, a state with incredible textiles, archeology, wildlife and even a Portuguese heritage. Take a summer vacation in Ladakh, the Indian side of Tibet, where the Buddhist heritage is intact, festivals abound and H.H. The Dalai Lama often comes for the summer.
NOT THAT: Everyone goes to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Yes, they are interesting, but these are cities and India is so much more.