A slowly loading photo on my aging Internet Explorer browser was all that was needed. As the image unfurled, the Paro Taktsang monastery’s glory came into full view. Affectionately known as Tiger’s Nest, the sacred structure defies gravity and clings to the jagged cliff-sides of Bhutan’s Paro Valley. An immaculately white structure adorned with golden domes, prayer flags and countless steps along the side of the cliff, a pixelated photo of this venerable sight was the only impetus needed to fan the flames of desire for a trip to the Himalayan kingdom.
After having actually visited Bhutan and taken the trek up to Tiger’s Nest, the same photo now evokes a completely different sense. The wonderment of what it must be like to witness this remarkable landmark is gone. In its place, a visceral response surfaces. The endless cliff-side steps vividly elicit the exhaustion of the long climb and the restorative deep breaths of the pristine mountain air once at the top. A spiciness lingers in my mouth from ema datse, a popular Bhutanese dish made from chili peppers and cheese, that was enjoyed just prior to the trek. The sweet scent of incense wafts through the air as the om mani padme hum mantra melodically flows from chanting monks. Outside the monastery, a peaceful whoosh greets me as prayer flags flap synchronously in the wind.
Five years after this experience, I can’t look at a photo of Tiger’s Nest without this flood of tactile sensation returning – and therein lies the beauty of travel and its ability to truly put the “meat” on the “bones” of a moment in time. Travel is so much more than mere visuals. It’s the collective sounds, smells, textures, tastes and understanding that shape your experiences. Ultimately, it’s about immersion in the very characteristics that contribute to the personality of the destination.
To fully embrace this immersive approach to travel, I’ve learned to do the following:
Consider spending more time at fewer places. We sometimes rush to see as much as we can see during a trip and I’m certainly guilty of this as well! But, wonderful things begin to happen once we start to slow down and realign ourselves with the pace of local life at our destinations.
While landmarks and notable attractions are certainly a big part of any trip, the magic of any location can be found among the people and the daily interactions that take place in that locale. Take the time to enjoy markets frequented by locals. Visit restaurants that are off the beaten-tourist-path. Before you know it, the delicate nuances of that culture will come to life.
It also helps to integrate unplanned time into your schedule. Some of the best cultural interactions and discoveries come when you’re exploring without the burden of needing to be at a specific place at a pre-defined time.
Research Your Destination Before Your Trip
I can’t stress how much this adds to any travel adventure. Reading up, even a little, about your destination brings knowledge – and that knowledge brings understanding of what’s happening around you. Guide books, Internet searches, and personal memoirs offer nuggets of knowledge that will grace your travel experiences with more meaning. You may know a little more about the importance of a specific monk chant you hear or how a unique flavor defines a culture’s cuisine. You’ll understand how a landmark relates to the history of a nation or how a monument pays homage to the sacrifice of respected leader.
A little pre-trip research would also enable you to speak more knowledgeably with locals while also having a broader understanding of cultural dos-and-don’ts at your destination.
Get Out On Foot
Tours by bus or by car are an integral part of optimizing exploration of a new locale. While this is may be an ideal or inevitable way to see a new destination, it also shelters you from the more tactile aspects of the destination. Build opportunities into your trip to get out for some exploration by foot.
Taking a leisurely stroll through a park or local market, or a hike through the wilderness offers avenues for personally experiencing sights, sounds and smells that are impossible to enjoy from the isolation of a moving vehicle.
Chances are, the cuisine at your destination will be different than what you’re accustomed to eating back at home. Embrace food exploration with the same tenacity and curiosity that you embrace travel. If anything, food is a huge aspect of any culture.
Sure, some foods like balut (a boiled egg with a partially developed duck embryo inside, a popular Filipino treat) or stir-fried grasshoppers in Vietnam may test your food boundaries, but you don’t need to dive off the culinary deep-end to get a true sense of food culture.
Ask locals about their favorite foods and restaurants. Research the culinary characteristics of the destination before you visit. Armed with these steps and an openness for exploration, you’ll be equipped to enjoy a true sense of the local culinary landscape.
The sense of touch is often overlooked, but texture has such a profound impact on our travel. The gritty sensation of sand between our toes in Koh Samui, Thailand, the jagged roughness of hand-carved prayer wheels on our hands in Thimphu, Bhutan, the irregular patterns imprinted by a straw mat on our knees in a Burmese monastery, or the chill of water on your skin from a purification fountain at a Japanese Shinto temple, each of these evocative senses contributes not only to the experience at hand, but how we remember those experiences.
There is no greater conduit to full immersion than traveling alone. Solo travel, as covered in our post – An Adventure for One – Hitting the Road as a Solo Female Traveler – has the ability to ignite all of our senses. We become hyper-attentive to what’s around us and more outwardly aware. While travel with friends and family encourages interaction with your group, traveling alone also has the tendency increase opportunities for interaction and conversations with locals.
Traveling solo may not be for everyone, but for many – it’s a fulfilling and satisfying way to hit the road that heightens all of the senses.
ATJ understands the importance of deeper travel experiences that tantalize not only sight, but all of your senses. ATJ specializes in unique and authentic cultural experiences that encourage immersion. Start planning today with ATJ to learn why we provide a Journey Beyond the Ordinary™.