I’m not usually a fan of organized tours. Traveling around in a tour group makes me impatient: I feel like I’m always waiting for everyone else to be done with something, or rushing to catch up when I want to linger over an interesting sight or stop for some tasty food. Also traditional tour guides have a script they follow with lots of information they want to convey. I do learn new and sometimes interesting things from tour guides, but I also lose interest when the lectures run long, again returning to impatience to get on to the next stop.
My solution: don’t take organized tours and instead wander about on my own. I like to walk, and meandering about without clear direction usually lands me at lots of interesting sights (and foods). And frequently I see things well off the standard tourist path. But I do need to do some research to make sure I get to see whatever is especially interesting or unique about each destination. This research can involve talking to other travelers: hostels are a great source of these tips. Often I skim through the destination highlights on Wikitravel or Trip Advisor. And I also use the Triposo app which includes background about the area and has a convenient sightseeing map that shows me where I am in relation to all the top sights in my town (when GPS is enabled on my phone). On this map I can click an icon when I’m standing in front of a building to find out what exactly I’m looking at.
It turns out there’s another great alternative for those of us who don’t enjoy the typical group tour: private peer to peer guides. I booked a tour of Penang, Malaysia with a local via the Withlocals website to try out this sort of experience. (I recently published an interview with Withlocals which can be found here.) It was billed as a full day tour of Penang, and I was a bit nervous that I’d be impatient and/or bored for an entire day. But in the name of Sharing Economy travel I had to give it a shot. I was very pleasantly surprised.
First, it’s hot in Malaysia. Very hot. And early on in my trip I’m still adjusting to the heat, so I was delighted to discover that we’d be traveling around between stops in my guide’s air-conditioned car. As an avid walker I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but it was a luxury that made a full day of sightseeing possible. Also this car was indispensable for part of the tour as Penang has some really interesting sights that are spread out too far for walking, and the public busses are confusing and unreliable.
Taking a private tour gives the option to customize. If I only want to spend 20 minutes in the museum, that’s all the time we spend there. If I want to stop to take a bunch of pictures at the Buddhist temple, we linger there. And if I want to try as many local foods as possible, we can stop for a treat every hour.
My tour guide, Deffrey, was friendly, knowledgable, and willing to answer all my questions about Malaysian culture, food and politics. Having lived all his life in Penang, Deffrey knows all the best place to have tasty Malaysian foods: Laksa, Char Kway Teow, Hokkien Mee, Chendul, and more. For each dish we sought out the special street stall or restaurant that makes the best version, and in none of these places did I see any other tourists. If anything there was too much food, something that I don’t think is really a problem. By the end of the tour we had this conversation more than once: Guide: “Ready for more food?” me: “No more food, I’m totally stuffed. … well, tell me what you had in mind.” Guide: “The best XYZ is nearby, it’s really nice, you should try it.” Me: “OK, but just a taste….”
Deffrey recently finished his pharmaceutical university studies and is awaiting a government placement for the two years required. In the mean time he’s earning some cash running tours through Withlocals. And tourists are benefiting from the government delay in sending him off to a job.
I’m still a fan of wandering about a new destination on foot and finding interesting things on my own, but with peer to peer tour guides private customized tours are far more affordable, often comparable to group tour prices. I think the element of informality and the fact that I’m being taken to places that really are frequented by locals will make me look at this option more seriously in the future.