You must stop by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, by all means, if that really is your thing. Sure, they look like giant phallic symbols and stand testament to the fact that oil companies can ruin the environment all year round, but will always be forgiven if they create tall structures to serve as backdrops for Instagram-obsessed tourists. Stop by the towers, if you must. Do everything the guidebooks ask you to do, and tick those things off quickly as you check in and out of places on Facebook in the unrelenting need to make your friends envious.
Do what every tourist does, if you like, because that’s what we have all been trained to do. Don’t leave without eating at a restaurant listed in the Zagat survey, or the Michelin guide, even if it means pawning a parent’s wedding ring. What I also urge you to do, however, is step off the beaten path every once in a while, and try doing what isn’t listed. There’s almost nothing that isn’t discussed to death on the Internet, of course, but what I mean is try and do things that don’t always make it to the guidebooks, or find themselves on listicles with headlines like ‘8 Things That Will Change The Way You Look At (Insert City Name) Forever.’
I have often found that places and experiences off the world’s many tourist paths often stay with one a lot longer. It’s those unusual things I tend to remember, years after they happened, more than the stuff I was told I couldn’t miss. As Exhibit A, I present Taman Negara in Malaysia, only because I started this rant with a reference to Kuala Lumpur. Supposedly the world’s oldest deciduous rainforest, at over 130 million years old, it lies just 6 hours from the country’s capital. This sounds like a great distance, but isn’t when you consider that a large number of people drive for 12 hours to get from crowded Bombay to crowded Goa in order to do nothing but sit at a rundown shack on the beach and drink beer.
It’s not a tiresome 6 hours either, because the bus from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Tembeling Jetty takes approximately three hours, after which one has to step onto a long, motor-powered canoe and ride upstream for 3 hours to the designated national park which, if you’re wondering, is what the name ‘Taman Negara’ means. That 3-hour boat ride will make you feel like a character from Tarzan of the Apes, especially when the river levels drop and your boatmen jump out and push the craft through to deeper water. The jungle rises up on either side, replacing the sights and sounds of civilisation with weird and sometimes frightening screeches. Home to over 3,000 species of plants and 150 species of mammals like the Malayan Sun Bear, Flat-headed Cat and Smoky Flying Squirrel, there really isn’t any place like it on Earth. Once you arrive at the park, you can choose to swim at the crystal clear cascading rapids of Lata Berkoh, climb up Bukit Teresek hill or cross one of the longest suspension bridges in Asia, 40 metres above the jungle floor. When you’re done, and back in the city, an afternoon of shopping at the Bukit Bintang mall will seem tame and utterly pointless by comparison.
The simplest things often affect one more profoundly than the more documented sights and sounds. As further proof, I must mention Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, whose natural beauty didn’t impress me as much as a trip to a local spa did. It was called Arasan, and was a massive building because the locals take their saunas very seriously. I decided to go because a friend said it seemed like a good idea, so nothing prepared me for the shock of being surrounded by nude men of all ages the minute I stepped inside its cavernous marble interiors. There was a separate section for women, where I assumed the space was divided similarly, with Turkish, Finnish, Moroccan and Russian steam rooms, each offering variations of what hot water could do to the human body. Naked men beat themselves with birch leaves in one room, or were beaten by other men elsewhere for a fee. At the massage table, a large Russian man splashed warm water over me and pounded every inch of my body. I was surprised to find myself liking it. I stepped out feeling like a new person, and armed with proof that, despite those long-standing rumours swirling around the Internet, Asian men do not have the smallest penises.
I loved Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but found myself moved a lot more when I stepped inside Tuol Sleng, the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, which I reached after a boat ride from the World Heritage Site via the spectacular Tonlé Sap lake. Once a school, Tuol Sleng had been turned into a horrifying place called Security Prison 21 by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, and was one of the concentration camps where 20,000 of their prisoners were executed. Still standing outside the museum was a board, on which was printed a rough translation of the prison rules. ‘While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all,’ read Rule Number 6. There was also this: ‘If you don’t follow all the above rules, you shall get many lashes of electric wire.’ Inside, some rooms housed rusting bed frames, on which prisoners were chained and burned alive hours before the Khmer Rouge were driven out. It was a sobering reminder of how some of the world’s most beautiful places hide bloody histories.
Going where the locals go is another great idea, which is how I once found myself in Schöneberg, also known as Berlin’s gay district. I wasn’t there because of my sexual preferences, which are personal, but because I agreed to go pub-hopping with gay and lesbian friends from the city. I would never, in a million years, have found the place we ended up at, a little bar surrounded by strip clubs and burlesque theatres, into which I plonked myself at a table with no expectations whatsoever. The alcohol was served in tubs filled to the brim with ice, with full bottles, glasses and mixers stuck in. While men and women made out casually in dark corners, strangers and I sang awful karaoke until 4 am, after which I took a cab and staggered into my hotel room with a large smile plastered to my face. I still think of it as one of the most fun nights of my life.
I suppose the point of this entire narrative is this: The next time you find yourself in Malaysia or Mauritius, Paris or New York, go ahead and do the touristy stuff. Click selfies, boast about how the Eiffel really takes your breath away even if it doesn’t, and pretend to have fun eating sachertorte. Take a day off though. Put aside the smart phone and tuck the guidebook under your pillow. Remember that not knowing what you might find is why human beings put aside their hunks of raw meat, eons ago, and began travelling in the first place.
— A version of this was first published in Mint Lounge, India, October 2017