Travel like a Local in Southeast Asia: an Insider Guide

Authentic travel experiences made easier by WithLocals' Madalina Buzdugan

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••• Backpackers eating street food in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Andrew Watson/Getty Images.

It's easy to travel through Southeast Asia these days... perhaps a little too easy.

Package tours are everywhere in the region, particularly in well-traveled areas like Siem Reap, Cambodia's Angkor temples and Bali in Indonesia. While tour agencies are great at facilitating travel through these areas, they're not that great at immersing their guests in the local grassroots culture.

"[Unfortunately] a lot of destinations in Southeast Asia have become more commercial," explains Madalina Buzdugan, Content Manager at WithLocals.com, a peer-to-peer marketplace that works on a sharing economy model to connect travelers and individual tour providers. "It’s becoming harder to interact with the real locals, to understand their culture and stories from a non-sales oriented point of view."

Local providers, too, are often prevented by travel agencies from claiming their rightful share of tourism revenues. "Travelers reach out to travel agencies to book their all-inclusive packages," explains Madalina. "The percentage the local hosts get for the experiences they’re offering is very low - the profit goes to the travel agency and other middle men."

Fortunately, the Internet has done a great deal to even the playing field. In the following dialogue, Madalina explains what travelers are doing to secure more authentic "local" experiences, and how you can do the same.

Mike Aquino: What's your definition of a "local" experience?

Madalina Buzdugan: A local experience has to be offered by a real local, an individual, not a business. A host of a local experience has the right motivation to share it with future travelers: we’re talking about being proud of your country’s values and wanting to be an ambassador for all their guests.

The essence of the entire host-traveler connection comes from sharing stories, offering travel tips, bonding through food and experiences. [For example], it’s stepping into a local’s home, having a dinner together and enjoying it as member of the family while appreciating the atmosphere, the delicious local traditional food and the real-life stories; [this] is the kind of experience impossible to replicate in a restaurant.

Same goes for tours that are the off-the-beaten because they take you to local hidden gems or activities where you'll learn a new skill from talented locals.

MA: Is "authenticity" a rare commodity in Southeast Asia travel, in your opinion?

MB: It’s a challenge to find the real, authentic experiences with a standard travel agency. Our vision is that consumer holiday booking behavior will shift from a “destination first-choice” to an “experience first-choice” in the next 5-10 years.

In the past, you would start looking for a holiday by searching on a specific location. In the future, it’s going to be all about the experience. The key driver for this change is the youth of today – the internet connected traveler that goes for the local experience and doesn’t care about which airline takes him where and what hotel chain is or isn’t at the location.

MA: How can I get out of my comfort zone and into a more authentic local travel experience on my next trip?

MB: Getting out of the comfort zone means starting from the booking process. This doesn't mean taking out the comfort or the luxury, it just means that travelers should take a personal interest in picking out and planning their holidays. 

It includes taking some time and looking around online for those experiences that promise you direct interaction with the locals. Look for the small companies that offer experiences like home dinners, activities, and tours. Even for travelers that got their all-inclusive packages already, there's plenty of room to spice up their holiday plans by including a different experience in it.

  • Street smarts: Read about top Southeast Asia street food masters.

MA: From a developer's point of view - what can relevant travel apps do to help both travelers and local tour providers?

MB: We offer a real unique feature in the Withlocals app: travelers get in touch with local hosts who can recommend authentic things to do, eat and see in their home city. This kind of connection enables travelers to connect with locals both before and during their trip for a true local experience. 

We help the local economy by making sure the hosts get exactly the amount of money they asked for - no hidden fees, no registration fees, everything staying in their country and in their families. So travelers can help support the local people and the local economy during their holiday booking process.

By supporting our hosts and their local economy, we open a new horizon for travelers as well: we enable travelers to access truly local authentic experiences in comparison with the options from the travel agencies.