I used to equate guides with lengthy recitations of historic information and a healthy dose of flag following. As a crowd averse person, quickly bored by facts and figures it never occurred to me that guided days could be fun and informal. In Southeast Asia, I soon learnt that a good guide answers incessant questions, translates jokes with locals and takes you to places you’d never find on TripAdvisor.
Sure, I’ve had enthusiastic tuk tuk drivers insist on impromptu sightseeing and helpful pointers from homestay owners, but I’ve also walked around foreign climes clutching a Lonely Planet like a sacred tome. I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong; while ‘friendly locals’ is an overused travel cliché, it was local guides in Southeast Asia that made the trip extra special. If like me, you’ve been known to make sweeping assumptions, this may well change your mind.
In a perfect world, you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City speaking Vietnamese. Failing that, a few phrases under your belt is respectful (and useful), but meaningful exchanges, particularly in rural areas, are unlikely. Smiling, waving and enthusiastic hand gestures are universal, but having an on-hand phrase book (complete with correct pronunciation) and a guide to regional etiquette helps gain trust and avoid uncomfortable confusion.
As a vegetarian, I also found joy in the rare certainty of a plant-based meal and used this new-found knowledge on the days I travelled solo.
2. Off the beaten track recommendations
I’m a big fan of print and love travel books and magazines. Honestly, I do (sign up for our travel magazine – it’s FREE!). However, I have found myself – on more than one occasion – in once charming cafés overrun with tourists after receiving lots of PR coverage. One recommended pit-stop in Cambodia had Cornish pasties on the menu. I love Cornwall (who doesn’t?), but it’s a long way to go for food I could get down the road at home.
Local guides are in the know – perhaps there’s a family-run bakery with a kindly owner you simply must meet; a shop in a warren of alleyways selling the best souvenirs in town; or shortcuts to escape crowds in a tourist hotspot.
As a caffeine fiend, I was after local coffee and a drip cup to bring home. Not only did my guide take me to the best place to find beans and a good quality filter, he negotiated my perfect brew (no mean feat) by acting as translator in the shop.
While I didn’t have any issues with safety in Southeast Asia, a guide is an extra pair of eyes and ears full of invaluable knowledge about districts and neighbourhoods you’ll enjoy. Particularly helpful for self-guided days.
Saying history isn’t really my bag is a bit of a sweeping and inflammatory statement. What I mean is, I get bored easily reading dry tales of times gone by and have a better chance of connecting with places when stories of old jump off the page. Having the rare opportunity to ask questions about changing culture, social situations and both difficult and prosperous periods was so much more engaging than swallowing a guide book.
This one is a little less cultural, but I sure will struggle to travel without a private driver and chilled water in Southeast Asia… Jokes aside, on a busy day of sightseeing, jumping into an air-conditioned car broke up the humidity and meant we could see more in a short amount of time. I could also refill my handy reusable water bottle (free from InsideAsia Tours, if you’re asking), with chilled water on tap.
6. Support local
Perhaps most importantly, your choice has a knock-on economic effect. With money channelled locally, you will be supporting sustainable tourism and development, thereby giving a little something back too.
A day or two with a local guide is now firmly on my holiday list, alongside flights and hotels. Curious? Discover the possibilities on our Insider Experiences in Southeast Asia page, or consider taking a small group tour.