When traveling, there is one question we love hearing above all others: “How did you find this place?” Whether we’ve just stepped into a new restaurant, a new temple or a new town, that line of inquiry makes us feel like we’ve been let in on a secret—like we’ve gone where not many like us have gone before. And going where not many like us have gone before is one of our favorite things to do.
This theory of travel is not without its critics. To many, the presence of multitudes of visitors in a place confirms that the place is worth visiting. This is, of course, true in many instances: Big-name destinations like the Taj Mahal, Versailles and Alhambra all come to mind. They’re worth the cattle-call feeling we sometimes get when shuffling with thousands of other out-of-towners along a well-worn path. But given a choice between a crowded wonder of the world and an out-of-the-way discovery, we prefer the latter.
This desire to go our own way compels us to travel independently, rather than as part of a tour. (The single exception to this will be our upcoming trip to Bhutan, where government regulations require foreign tourists to enter the country in coordination with a licensed tour operator.) Our desire to feel the thrill of discovery also means that we generally prefer travel in Southeast Asia, where the streets are alive with color and everything feels truly foreign, to time spent in Western Europe, which—to vastly and unfairly oversimplify—sometimes feels like home but with more castles, older churches and better cheese.
Admittedly, most of the cities we’ve visited so far on this trip get their fair share of western visitors. Our goal has been to find the places within those places that reward our research—or our lucky wandering—with an experience that feels special. From the hard-to-find French bakery open only on weekends in tiny Hida, Japan to a hilltop seafood restaurant in Spanish Basque country to, this afternoon, the Chiang Mai hole-in-the-wall whose dubious-looking kitchen turned out meals worthy of royalty, most of our discoveries so far on this trip have been of the culinary variety.
To find these places, we have to lose our dependence on most guidebooks, as their recommendations are by definition on the tourist track and sometimes feel like they’ve sacrificed authenticity in the name of popular appeal. Instead, we mostly rely on blogs written by chefs we admire, online travel forums like the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree and the best source of all: advice from other travelers.
With a bit more bravery (mostly on my part), there’s much more we could do to seek out authentic, off-the-beaten-path experiences, particularly when it comes to lodging. My Instagram feed is full of reports from other traveling families about the homestays they’re doing in disputed territory in Northern India and the Iranian huts where they’re spending the night. I guess it’s good to have something to dream about from the safety of my clean, comfortable bed here in Chiang Mai. After all, we need to save a few adventures for our next trip.