Most travel advice you read is wrong
Okay, if I have one piece of advice for anybody on a long trip in a strange, faraway place, it’s this. Take with a pinch of salt (in fact take with the whole cellar of salt) anything you hear about the place from foreigners who have been there.
This is a position with consequences for the credibility of big websites such as TripAdvisor, Wikitravel, Agoda et al. And travel blogs too. Being this sceptical is a big commitment! But my experience makes me believe it’s right. I heard so many times during my trip in SE Asia information which turned out to be totally inaccurate. That I shouldn’t go Timor Leste (East Timor) because it’s an unstable basket case of a place with a violent rebel insurgency. That Manilla in the Philippines is a wild place where literally anything dodgy goes. That I should stay away from general election events in Myanmar for my own safety.
All this and more turned out to be very bad advice indeed and I enjoyed my time enormously in these places without once feeling like I was in danger. In East Timor a cop and his wife let me sleep for free at their house and I stayed up all night with him drinking palm whiskey under the stars. Wonderful hospitality it was; (I wonder, would I be so welcoming?) In Manilla I unwittingly booked in to a hostel located in a ‘lively’ district where bars carry signs telling you to hand in your guns at the counter. But I experienced only friendliness and openheartedness from the locals. In Myanmar, the dangerous general election events at night were nothing of the sort. It was one of the most thrilling things I did on my trip; putting me in touch with something vital in Burmese society that’s not in any guide book.
So, my advice is to not take advice. …Hang on, that doesn’t work. Okay, don’t take advice on faith, except for this bit of advice. We all love giving good advice while on the road, we like to feel we have rare insight and to show off a bit how well travelled we are (or is that just me). But ultimately, what we say about a place is influenced by what we feel about it and what we feel about it is shaped on a deep personal level, which means it’s entirely subjective and so probably of little use for anybody except ourselves.
Also, some advice us westerners in developing countries dish out to each other is pretty insulting to the locals, in my opinion. Take for example hostel / hotel review sites. How many times have I read a bad or snotty review of a place? I could not count. Some reviewers even publicly accused staff of theft, con-artistry and other smears. No doubt a few stories were true, but I have the strong impression most bad experiences are misunderstandings and nothing more. Other lousy reviews seem like simple cases of reviewers having distorted expectations of a place and failing to recognise it. I rarely found a bad review matched my own experience.
If I took the advice I was given about East Timor and Myanmar and Manilla, then I would not have had such rich experiences as I did in those places, which today are some of my fondest memories. Being on the road, you think you are free and independent, but really there are influences working upon you all the time, such as the chatter in hostels and on websites. My advice is to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out. I reckon the best advice of all is just to go.
The photo of the rocky road in this post, I took in Da Nang, Vietnam. I was motorbiking round the mountain which looks out on to the sparkling emerald waters of Da Nang Bay, in the background. Rubble from the mountain was scattered all along the track. In the end I turned back and went home: the passage became too steep and being crushed by a falling boulder is no way to go.