People want a plan.
They’ve decided they’re going to an unknown foreign country and they want to maximize their time. They want to see all of the sights — go to all the museums, monuments, and any other historically significant spots. They wake up early at a planned time and each subsequent hour until they go back to the hotel and pass out from exhaustion. So they can remember what they were too tired to appreciate at the time they took a lot of pictures. They wake up the next day and do it all over again, doing what every tourist has done for decades.
People like having a plan.
This is no way to experience a country. Guidebooks and travel magazines offer suggestions, loose outlines of what you should do. They’re not supposed to provide you with a regimen of how to spend your time. Even Lonely Planet says their book is not meant as a be-all end-all authority on a place. A travel agent may not have even been to the place they’re planning for you. There’s a very real possibility they receive kickbacks from tourist traps for sending their clients to certain destinations.
For example, many of the guided tours here in Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone are inexplicably partnered with an amethyst mining operation and force tourists to stop at their purple stone jewelry shop before they bring you back. I only know this because the main way to see the DMZ as a plebian is to take a guided tour. We had to talk my mom out of buying a ring when my parents came to visit.
The hostel in Beijing that arranged our trip to the Great Wall forgot to tell us that they would drive us out into the Chinese countryside and make us eat at an overpriced village restaurant. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have guides and go on arranged tours, often as part of an itinerary.
The best plan is no plan. Do a lot of research before you leave. Learn the cultural customs. Learn as much of the basic language as you can. Get a sense of how the transportation works. Select a few key places you want to see, eat at, and get drunk in. Then just go.
Wing the rest of it. Talk to other travelers. Talk to locals. Rent bikes or motorbikes and allow yourself enough time to get lost. Go walking through common neighborhoods with a camera or a pen and a notebook. Sit down in the park. Lie in the grass. Let the monks in their bright orange robes come up to you at sunset in Laos and practice their English on you. Take it slow. Keep yourself open.
Only by allowing yourself to be open to the suggestions of others and to the environment will you have unexpected moments. This is how you end up in a midnight, Fast-and-the-Furious-style car race in a small city in Russia, or at a movie theater café with Jackie Chan in China. And you don’t have to do it alone. Travel with someone as open-minded as you and you’ll have experiences you could never predict or schedule.
In the film version of “The Sheltering Sky,” when they’re on the bus through the African desert and the flies are covering their faces, Port (John Malkovich) wakes up with his face almost black from the filthy insects. He starts laughing. “What are these flies!” That’s the attitude that carries a traveler to surprising, unforgettable moments.
Don’t be afraid to simply show up in a place and let the trip carry you away. No plan is the only plan.