A great tour is priceless; upon its completion, you appreciate how you get to learn and experience the “sights to see” in a way that is not possible from the comfort of an armchair. A good tour leaves you ready to share your newly acquired information to anyone that will listen. It leaves you excited. The basis for a great tour is a great tour guide. Unfortunately, while traveling in developing nations, such tour guides are hard to come by, so what can you do?
There is no good answer. The highest quality options are expensive international guides. A National Geographic or Abercrombie and Kent tour may provide college-level learning, but will cost as much as a college education. While there are more reasonably priced tours such as Intrepid, most sell multi-day experiences, not single sight tours for independent travelers. That leaves us with the option we have turned to over the past several months: self-guiding. While self-guiding is the most work, we find it to be the best solution for us.
To get the most of our short time in places, we self-guide using a pretty simple formula. We start by using guidebooks to choose the cities and sights. We augment our guidebook research by scouring postcard racks to see if there are any great sights we don’t know about. Then we utilize the powers of the internet, Google, Wikipedia and Wikitravel to learn the logistics and background of sights. Between the two of us we put together the history, significance, and how to get there. If a tour provides enough time at a sight and costs less than a motorcycle, we will take it, otherwise we rent our own transportation. After visiting the sight, quite possibly while writing a LivingIF article, we do further research. This formula works for us to get a good understanding of what we are seeing, but sadly leaves us still wanting. We don’t get a local’s perspective, we don’t get insights while visiting, we don’t get deep history unless we take the time to research it.
The worst part about both self-guiding and using international tour guides is that it effectively bypasses the locals. While money will still get to them, not as much as taking a tour from them. It robs them of opportunities to learn what tourists are seeking and improve their guiding skills. It takes away from the exchange of ideas of mixing two cultures. Sadly, I have no answer for this conundrum.
As a traveler, as much as I want to help the locals become better guides, I can’t address the root cause: education. Even if they had impeccable English, the depth of their knowledge is not safe for diving. For example, in Thailand the average adult has 6.6 years of education. In Vietnam it is 5.5 years, Laos 4.6 (source: UN HDI). Someone that has a primary or middle school education is not going to be able to explain the historical religious beliefs, plights that left landmarks abandoned, or geological events that created natural wonders. The locals are not going to have the capacity to be great guides without the society developing as a whole, leaving us travelers few quality local options.
While we have settled into being our own guides, we would love any recommendations for great tours that leave us more informed and excited about the sights we visit.