Counterintuitive Travel Tip #2: Ugly Places

Continuing my series of cranky travel tips, many of which have to do with how to plan your itinerary. This one’s related to Tip #1, but in the bigger picture.

Go to the ugly places.

I’ve argued this before, specifically about Cancun. But it has a broader application.

Any indie traveler worth his backpack shuns the place with concrete hotels, nor do most people go where there are zero landmarks. But you can learn a lot about a local culture in some random “ugly” city, more than you can at some remote beach where there’s exactly one local, who’s selling you weed and cooking your fish dinner however you like it. Cancun is very, very Mexican if you know where to look—and how to look at it.

Perfectly authentic Mexican sweets in supposedly soulless Cancun.

Another example: Pattaya, in Thailand, universally reviled as ground zero for whoring. But to quote a guy I met in Bangkok: “It was great! There were Indian package tourists, and they were posing for photos with trannies on the beach!”

C’mon! How is that not heartwarming? I’m not saying you should go for a week, but one night can be fun. The nice thing about ugly, over-touristed places is that you can gawp all you want–at prostitutes, at sunburned Brits in gold chains, at whatever.

The same logic applies to under-touristed spots with no major attractions. This summer, Peter and I took an exceptionally great trip to Thrace, the eastern fringe of Greece. According to guidebooks, and even most Greeks, there’s “nothing there.” That means no ancient Greek ruins–but there are very interesting Greek-Turkish towns and more recent history. One town–New Orestiada–is definitely un-charming: it looks like a midsize Midwestern town, with uglier apartment blocks. It was built from scratch on a grid system, and the very reason it’s that way is what makes it interesting.

Greece like you've never seen it before: New Orestiada.

Even if you don’t buy my argument, you should thank me. Every time I get held up in some ugly place, gawking and eating and laughing, I’m not making it to that pristine, off-the-radar beach. I’m one less person ruining the fringes. And the world could use a little more of that.