If you’re landing in a new city and don’t know a soul who lives there, how can you find the memorable neighborhoods and locals’ restaurants or food stalls? In these cases one sure way to save some trial and error time is to book a tour with a local guide. If it’s the right kind of tour, you’ll discover places you probably wouldn’t have stumbled on by yourself and you’ll have more confidence about what to eat and where.
I’ve sought out these tours run by locals on a regular basis over the years, from Panama City to Budapest to Istanbul to Tirana (more on that one soon), usually through a company only operating in that one place. A few matchmaker organizations have popped up over the years though that enable you to contact and work out a tour with a local guide, basically providing the intro but cutting out the middleman. One example that looks especially promising is Withlocals. They bill themselves as a peer-to-peer marketplace “connecting travelers with locals through food and experiences.” They have tours in 49 cities in 22 countries and will keep expanding.
Food Through the Eyes of a Local
No matter how many street stalls we may visit in Bangkok or how far we get “off the beaten path,” it’s hard to understand all the different ingredients, different customs, and baffling produce of a foreign country without a little insight from someone who lives there. In the best Asian food cities, like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, the choices are so overwhelming that it feels like you need a whole class to just figure out what you’re looking at.
I’ve taken two Thai cooking classes in Bangkok and they were fantastic experiences. One was with my family, one on my own. Both times I learned an incredible amount I could apply to my eating exploits after. These are not hard to find in Bangkok, but through Withlocals you can avoid the well-oiled machine companies cranking out two classes a day and go a different route. They offer a one cooking class at The Courageous Kitchen, a place that teaches underprivileged kids how to cook so they have better job prospects as adults. (Part of what you spend goes to support the school.) There are also two other offerings of market visits then a private cooking class in the teacher’s home. Prices range from €28 to €45 per person.
Other tour options include a great night market and nightlife tour, a local’s private tour of Ayutthaya, a morning with Thai monks, and dining with a local family. See the Bangkok tours page for more details.
Many experienced travelers consider Kuala Lumpur the gastronomic highlight of Southeast Asia. That’s because you’ve got a convergence of traditional Malay, Indian, and Chinese food all done well in one city—sometimes on the same block. The €15 for a night market tour is money well spent to get guidance on what’s what and where to get the best dim sum, satay, and chicken curry puff. Or you can go all-out with the four-hour “KL Food Marathon” tour.
Find the Gems Most Tourists Don’t See
You know you’ve hooked up with a good local guide when you can’t understand one word of the conversations going on around you. I felt that recently when I went hiking near Sarajevo and didn’t see another non-Bosnian until I got back to my hotel at the end. In the Kuala Lumpur tours listings on Withlocals, there’s a hiking trip you can take with an experienced guide that will offer a similar experience. Or you could set up a photo walk in Chinatown and Little India to be sure to find the best photography spots over five hours, instead of just leaving it to chance. Just search Kuala Lumpur on the site to see all the options.
As someone who founded a company that runs tours in Guanajuato, Mexico, I know that some budget travelers struggle with the decision to spend money to hire a good guide. When your daily budget is 40 euros and a private tour is 50, it can seem like a lot. As I always say though, your long-term travel budget needs to have a slush fund for special experiences. If it helps, maybe call it your “Hell Yeah!” fund. There are always going to be things that bust your daily budget: a trip to Petra, getting to Machu Picchu, or taking an epic train ride across Europe or Japan. I remember on one of my trips around the world my wife and I debated for a whole day on whether to spend the $80 for an island-hopping tour from El Nido, Palawan. It ended up being the most memorable thing we did in five of the six weeks we were there and resulted in our best photos from any of the islands. Nearly two decades later, I still remember that day vividly.
Years from now you wont’ remember the money you spent; you’ll remember the experiences. When you get back to the working world you can make back what you spent with just a few hours of work. But from home you won’t be able to get that experience again with a local who really knew the area.
Don’t forget either that most of what you spend is going into the local economy of the place you’re visiting. If you want to really make a difference, giving €100 to a charity conglomerate is probably not going to accomplish much. Only a fraction of that will make it to the end point. Putting €100 into the hands of a local, however, will have a ripple effect that impacts multiple lives.
Where have you gotten tremendous insight through the eyes of a local guide?