Beards Versus Snake Oil

It’s been a week since I arrived in Bangkok, and I’ve spent a good portion of my time here sweating out every ounce of water I ever drank in my entire life.

When I wasn’t doing that (or rather, in addition to doing that), I was walking. All over the city. I’ve been growing blisters on my feet and wearing the bottoms of my flip-flops down to nubbins.

I don’t know if you’ve tried this before, but I highly suggest that when you arrive in a new city. Take the time to blend in an become anonymous for a few days.

This is a good exercise for several reasons.

The first is that by not standing out so much, you’re able to observe a new place from a third-party perspective. Not quite participating or being acknowledged by those around you except for when you actively put yourself in their view and change their environment.

The second is that by not being too clean-cut, well-dressed, or sparkly, you avoid a whole lot of the hassle that comes with being a semi-wealthy tourist in a new place. In areas with a thriving tourism industry, this can be a huge relief. Even when I tone things down I’m constantly harassed by otherwise normal people asking me if I want to see a ‘ping pong show’ (if you don’t know what it is, I’m not going to be the one to explain it to you, sorry), and the one time I’ve gone out dressed up in Bangkok, I had taxis and tuk-tuks following me for miles, all trying to take me god-knows-where to spend the money that they assumed I had.

And that’s the thing: we dress up in order to make a good first impression, and usually that impression says ‘I’m young, healthy and have money.’ This is a biological predisposition as much as anything: showing off to potential mates, making our best properties the most obvious. But when it comes to having a good experience when traveling it may not be the best option. These same traits say to the bad people in society ‘I’m inexperienced, weak, and have enough money to be a worthwhile target.’

If you’re a bit ruffled, however, you’re much less likely to draw the wrong kind of attention. Hair a bit disheveled, maybe pulled back and practical, facial hair grown out a bit, t-shirt and jeans instead of a nice shirt or dress, little or no makeup; no need for fake warts or anything costumey (that would attract attention for a completely different reason), but subtle touches can make all the difference.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you stop showering for days, quit brushing your teeth, and generally become a disgusting person while traveling. Keep yourself in overall good shape and make sure that this period of hide-and-seek doesn’t follow you any further than you want it to.

The idea is to be able to turn it on and off with relative ease, so that if you wanted to attend a conference or go on a date you’d be ready to do so with little preparation. Think Superman and Clark Kent. It can be a simple change, but you’ll have to try a few different things to figure out what works for you.

If we call your normal look 10, maybe go disguised as 6 or 7 for the day. It’s great for your sense of self-worth (people will respond less to how you look and more to how you act) and the best way to explore a new city without being picked out of the crowd by every snake oil salesman and huckster within a ten mile radius.

Update: January 26, 2017

I still do this when moving to a new place. It’s a relief, especially after going on tour or being especially social in my previous location. Being able to focus more attention on things other than social niceties and manicuring is a stark contrast to how many of us prioritize much of the time.