Meeting locals – When I set out on my first trip to South East Asia, I knew that meeting locals was one aspect of my trip that was really important to me. While meeting fellow backpackers is special – some of them have become close, treasured friends – it’s not unlike spending time with your friends from home on holiday. I wanted to penetrate the surface of the countries I was visiting and the best way to do that is to slow down and speed time with the locals.
Not Exactly What Was Promised:
When we were in Chiang Mai we did a three-day trek through the gorgeous hills. On the second night we were staying in a “hill tribe” – the reality was that we were staying in tourist accommodation next to a hill tribe. Our tour guide didn’t take us to visit the locals and eventually curiosity got the better of us and we set off in a group of 10 or so people to explore. Walking up towards their houses, I noticed that there were a bunch of other tourists wandering around confused. This was not the hill tribe experience any of us had hoped for, but on reflection I’m not sure how it could have gone much better.
I felt like I was looking into a fish tank: another world that I couldn’t possibly fit inside. Being part of a large group of outsiders made me feel awkward, so I told my friends I’d wander around alone and see them later. Two children working caught my attention, so I slowly approached them with my ridiculously large camera in tow. I smiled – it was my version of holding a white peace flag. The girl kept panning the rice, oblivious to my presence, perhaps jaded by the hoards of tourists that stroll through her property daily. The little boy lapped up the attention and started doing peace poses – pausing his motion so I could take a good photo of him. I noticed my friends in the distance, clumped together, still firmly on the outside of this world. This is when I learnt my first and second lessons about meeting locals: be alone and smile.
An Experience I Would Have Paid For:
When I was in Ubud I was taking out a bit of time to recover. I had spent most of my time sitting in nice restaurants, dreaming up future travel plans and talking to hippies. It was time well spent, but not what I’d really envisioned from Ubud. I wanted to see the lush rice patties and longed to spend more time with the local people. My guesthouse didn’t have wifi, so I sat down the street out the back of a restaurant, blatantly stealing their Internet. Depending on the shift there were about 5-10 wait staff on at any one time and the restaurant was never that busy.
During the quieter periods, the staff would sit outside to pass the time. In between emails home, we’d talk about their hopes and dreams and I’d share mine, too. As I’d walk past they’d shout out “Hello Izy” and I’d stop to ask them how their day was going and whether they were busy today. After a few days of talking, I mentioned that I really wanted to explore the outskirts of Ubud, but was a bit cautious about hiring a scooter again. One of the restaurant staff offered to take me to see his family village, the following afternoon when he’d finished the early shift.
The next day at four pm, we met at the back of the restaurant and I jumped on his motorbike, pausing briefly to consider how sensible this decision was. As we darted between the other motorbikes, the tourist shops of Ubud trailed behind us. It wasn’t long before we were climbing a sweeping hill that was overwhelmingly beautiful. I held onto my new friend, tightly, as he told me stories of how long his family had lived here. The roads turned from sealed to dirt, and the local people started to give me double takes; I was somewhere that tourists were not normally invited. As we pulled up to his house, I lifted my helmet back to see his sister walking over, with two specially prepared drinks in her hand. We sat in the courtyard, over looking his uncle’s beautiful artworks in progress. His younger siblings and cousins surrounded us: their eyes curious and smiles wide.
After being formally introduced to the entire extended family, we decided to explore the area around his house. I was taken to their village’s private Buddhist temple, which was immaculately maintained. We sat together, perched on the top of hill watching the sunset sweep over the lush forest. We were cocooned in silence, not for lack of words, but because the moment itself was enough. On the way back to Ubud we stopped into his uncle’s gallery, where I was given a grand tour of all of his artwork, including photos of his exhibition in Singapore some ten years ago. To say I was welcomed warmly would be an understatement; I was constantly flattered, fussed over and given an open-ended invitation to stay on my next visit to Ubud.
The Keys To Opening The Other World:
It’s hard to pull apart the exact reasons as to why these opportunities presented themselves and in truth it’s unnecessary. However, my local experiences are not limited to these two, there have been numerous treasured moments with locals that I’d like to cover on this blog, over time. As I mentioned, I think being alone and friendly increases the chances tenfold. But there’s more to it than that, simply having the time to slow down and be open to these experiences is key. If I had a rigid schedule in Ubud I might not have been able to meet up the following day. If I’d been sitting inside the restaurant using the WIFI legitimately, I doubt this invitation would have evolved either. If you want to spend time with locals, go where they are.
I have literally hundreds of great memories of my travels throughout Asia, ranging kayaking at sunset through Ha Long bay, Vietnam, to buckets on the beach of Koh Phi Phi. The memories that sink to the deepest part of me are those where the veil of tourism has been brushed to the side and I’ve seen the people and their lives, truly. I hope that through sharing my memories you can see that is possible to have authentic experiences. I could have paid a considerable sum of money for a tour through a local village in Ubud, but I would have been there for the profit rather than for the genuine, honest and pure desire to share. Spend some time alone, smile, slow down and be where the people are and I’m sure you’ll find your own experiences that will stay with you forever.
If have any special stories of your own, please share them – I’d love to hear