“It’s coming up on the left,” my wife said. My navigator, an awesome woman and the love of my life stared at her iPhone, looking to ensure our blue dot turned onto the correct side road. She sat at the back of our rented scooter while I breathed a sigh of relief — getting a signal in some rural Thailand areas is not a guarantee. Losing your 3G connection means your network speed drops to EDGE — slower than a motorcycle rolling uphill.
We were quite literally in the middle of nowhere. And we were about to arrive.
I turned left into the temple, found a place to park, and for the next hour we enjoyed the bizarre ‘oyster shell’ temple almost entirely to ourselves. We gave the few devout Buddhists around a wide berth, opting to let them pray in peace rather than invade their quiet space. Instead, we took in the hundreds of thousands of oyster shells as the blue hour faded into darkness.
I have plenty of other stories along these lines — some of struggle, some of failure, some of epic success — and I’ll be sharing some of them in future posts. What most of them have in common is the destination: a weird, unusual, or bizarre place that typically gets classified as ‘offbeat.’ The label is often for good reason — the ‘oyster shell’ temple above, Wat Chedi Hoi, was about a 40km motorcycle journey from the nearest city of Ayutthaya. The Thai Cat Conservatory (which we managed to reach via public transportation) required a ferry, a songthaew (a large pickup truck with benches and a fixed cover), and a bit of luck.
Other weird places are better-known — the Swiss Sheep Farm in Phetchaburi, despite being relatively new at the time of our visit, had dozens of younger locals around. Korea’s most famous offbeat destination on the east coast, the Samcheok Penis Park, welcomes a mix of locals and tourists — proof, perhaps, that phallic symbols are humorous no matter who you are.
Back up — how do you define ‘offbeat’?
I don’t have a specific definition for ‘offbeat’ destinations. To paraphrase the famous Supreme Court decision that made the statement popular, I’ll know it when I see it or hear about it. In most cases, offbeat travel takes us to some weird, unusual, or simply bizarre destinations — but to be clear, we’ve also traveled to many places that are weird and well-known. More on that a little later.
Now, back to the beginning…
My traveling story starts in 2008, when I moved to Korea to teach English. During the weekends, I told myself, I would travel to a new destination, a festival, an event, or someplace new every single week. I would do a bit of research beforehand to ensure I could find the place, but would try to avoid reading too many opinions about a place to avoid being prejudiced by them.
After work on most Fridays, I would rush home, change clothes, and grab my backpack to make for the bus terminal or train station. I’d arrive, get a hotel, crash, then have Saturday and Sunday to see what was interesting around the area. Making the bus or train home became part of the routine — on the way I’d write out some notes or thoughts, look at the pictures I took, or simply take a nap. Over the course of two years, I wrote hundreds of blog posts related to destinations and life in Korea. While I’m a little embarrassed to look back at some of them, they’re all here on Worthy Go.
Around mid-2010, I began seeking out offbeat places because I felt I had seen most of the mainstream destinations around the country. Bear in mind I had been traveling around Korea virtually every weekend for those two years — usually a different city, sometimes a return visit for a place I heard about later on. I sought advice from the expats in those cities. Whether they were fellow travelers and simply barflies, we’d swap stories about places we had been to or heard about.
After meeting Laura, we traveled much the same way around Korea; that she understands Korea fluently opened up some doors as well. When we moved to Thailand, we continued traveling on the weekends and getting other stuff done during the week. That’s how we roll now — with few exceptions, leave on Friday afternoon, go to the bus terminal, arrive, find a hotel, get some drinks and snacks at a convenience store, and crash…
But what about the Buddhist hell garden…?
One aspect of getting offbeat that’s challenging, but fun — playing Sherlock Holmes. Case in point: a few years ago, a friend told me about a Buddhist hell garden in the back of a hot springs. He didn’t remember the name of the place, or even the city. A bit of prodding in a follow up e-mail got a little more information out of him — it was during his trip in South Gyeongsang Province, in southeast South Korea.
After a bit of internet sleuthing, I had enough information to conclude this hell garden was somewhere on the grounds of the Bugok Hawaii Hot Springs (NSFW). We arrived and began looking around; as expected, there was little in the way of signage. We took in the hot springs (we had to pay for admission, after all), then meandered outside to look more. An outdoor amusement park and greenhouse were almost completely empty, though we eventually came across a path leading up the hill. Laura confirmed the Korean-only sign referred to the hell garden, and up we went…
I guess that brings me back to the big reason: why do I travel off the beaten path? Simply put, I like seeing what few others have seen. I like doing what few others have done. Going to the same places, taking the same pictures, or learning the same things as others just feels… Well, boring is the first word that came to mind.
Does this focus make me a better traveler than someone else? Of course not — travelers and travel bloggers pick where they want to go for many different reasons. Gary Arndt’s interest in UNESCO listed sites is well-known on his blog. Plenty of travelers live to eat or undertake special efforts to reach spectacular restaurants. At least one guy I know is aiming to visit every country in the world without ever stepping foot on a plane.
To be clear, getting offbeat isn’t for everyone. Travelers have time and budget constraints to work with, and spending half a day to reach a place in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be worth it to most. If that’s you, splendid — rock on! If it’s not, no worries — enjoy the stories and live vicariously!
With that said, getting offbeat is amazingly — AMAZINGLY — easy in some cases. The best example I can think of is in Bangkok. Across the street from the extremely touristy Grand Palace is a wonderful Amulet Market. It takes up a block or so worth of sidewalk — again, just across the street from the Grand Palace — yet goes tragically undervisited by foreign tourists. That’s a real shame, since amulets go for 5–10 baht (15–30 US cents) and some awesome rings can be had for a couple of US dollars. It’s not just about the souvenirs, of course — it’s about seeing a slice of life away from the tourist track.
Getting offbeat — the benefits
The stories! Again, I’ll be getting around to more of them in future posts. To some extent, I still struggle with opening up on the blog — if we’ve met in person you know I’m an open book.
As mentioned before, it’s fun for us to go to weird places, and/or offbeat places where few others have been. We travel independently 99% of the time, and every so often we’ll come across a place that’s awesome — a place not in our plans.
Offbeat places tend to have far fewer scams and scammers. Bangkok is rife with scammers, and they’ve had decades of practice to adapt and get better. While it’s a little odd hearing kids scream ‘hello!’ from their third-story window (as happened recently!) or a passing vehicle, some of the kindest and friendliest folks we’ve met were at or on the way to some offbeat places.
The tough part of getting offbeat
Getting off the beaten path means having our share of strikeouts. Places that sounded interesting online (a chocolate museum in Bangkok comes to mind) are now closed. Places that had an intriguing story (the ‘floating nun’ temple or the Orchid Farm where the orchids ‘dance’, supposedly) end up being lame. Other places just don’t work out for any number for reasons (the turkey farm near Loei in northern Thailand was down a road overrun by a waterfall and behind a locked gate; there was nothing to see of the tobacco making village in Nong Khai). If we don’t get to the place, it’s a bit hard to write a post, which can often feel like time and money down the drain… We may start the weekend with 4–5 places to visit and only reach 2 or 3 of them.
There’s also tons of bad information to sort through, and no single source of information is 100% correct. Some travel websites don’t bother to give directions at all, while some directions are at best vague. When contacted, government-run tourism organizations end up running the same Google searches I already ran, or (worse) attempt to give information from an outdated or obsolete source. Addresses, at least for Thailand, are at best abstract approximations. Even when written in Thai and shown to a local, there’s only a small chance of being pointed in the right direction.
Although it’s quite useful, the locations in Google Maps are sometimes off by a block or three — enough to send us on a wild goose chase around town. If it’s well off-the-beaten-path, it may not be listed at all! In other cases, the local name for a place and the English name are in two different places — whether it’s the consequences of crowdsourced data or simply incorrect data input to the system, it often means taking a guess. In the end, we do what we can to get the GPS coordinates to a place, which makes it so much easier to get there.
Another aspect of offbeat travel is a lack of tourist infrastructure. By definition, getting offbeat means going where fewer tourists go, and that typically means fewer conveniences or Western-style places. The smaller towns in Thailand tend not to be teeming with four- and five-star hotels for good reason, and let’s just say there’s a good reason some hotels are called ‘love hotels’ in Korea. Some are awesome, some are seedy — and there’s not an easy way to tell which is which without looking inside for yourself.
Where’s there a will, there’s a way
I dare say most higher-end hotels — in towns where they exist — can arrange a car and driver to your selected destinations with some advance notice. Failing that, a front-desk person can radio someone to pull in a taxi or tuk-tuk for hire. Opting to travel comfortably is not a deal-breaker for going offbeat. It does mean you’ll need to be more aware of what can (and can’t) be provided, and to accept a bit of roughing it in exchange for a different sort of experience. Much like you wouldn’t expect a streetside noodle stand to cook you a filet mignon, you can’t fairly expect the offerings of a small rural town to match those of a more cosmopolitan area.
Should you get offbeat in your travels?
Jim at the Tripologist says it’s overrated. He’s got a few good points, and some places are lesser-traveled for a reason. Like he says, it’s very easy to get offbeat — “Take a left when the guidebook tells you to turn right. Walk the backroads around the large cities.”
I’d say go where you want, so long as it fits within your time, budget, and comfort level constraints. You don’t need to go to the middle of nowhere place just to see the ‘authentic’ side of the country, and you don’t need to stick to the beaten path simply because it’s the only one you know. Part of the reason I write about these offbeat places is to highlight them, and try to put some good information out there in the world.
Travel your way — be it offbeat or mainstream, Full Moon Party or five-star hotel, eat to live or live to eat, solo or group. Don’t let anyone put you down for your choice of travel. In the end, it’s all about the memories you make, the pictures you take, and the lives you shake.