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 putting 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 a part of your time there 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 view; 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 industry, especially, 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 I implicitly 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 enough money to be awesome.’ 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 your normal look is a 10, maybe go disguised as a 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.

28 comments

  1. I’m a t-shirt and jeans kind of guy, so I think that I do this anyway. Shaving daily is a hassle that I just normally don’t take part in, so I might not have the beard that you’ve developed, but I don’t care much for keeping up the clean-cut look.

    Love the advice, it’s great to explore a place to see what it’s really like, instead of being sold to all the time.

    • Amen. I’ve become more of a t-shirt and jeans guy since I started traveling, though I still crave a good occasion to get dressed up for. All the same, it IS a lot easier just to hippy it up from time to time.

  2. Awesome, a legitimate excuse not to shave. The ping pong show is not as interesting as it sounds… so I’ve heard.

  3. When Dan and I traveled through India, other travelers were surprised we had been on the road for 18 months already since we looked “so clean.” This always cracked us up since it really doesn’t take much to “look clean” – a shower, shave and perhaps brushing your hair. Our clothes were just as threadbare as everyone else.

    I do really appreciate blending in and not standing out as much – it allows for some awesome observation and stories.

    • I imagine it’s similar to here, where it probably doesn’t matter what I do to myself since I’m Caucasian and therefore an odd bird anyway. In style – clothing, hair, grooming, etc – the difference between what I prefer and what the locals prefer is so drastic that I could probably put a shoe on my head and they’d just murmur to each other about how crazy the farangs (Westerners) are.

  4. That notion of dressing down to blend in you speak of also factors into daily life wherever you are. When not travelling it’s entirely expressive of one’s personality. I find myself dressing to blend in with others and basically hide among the crowd most days. Perhaps it’s just the introvert in me trying not to draw unnecessary attention.

    • I’m all about standing out when I need to, but for sure when I’m trying to humbly learn a new area, culture, language, etc, I try to tone it down a bit and it really seems to help. Being too ostentatious can send the wrong signals, and make any little mistake come across as an insult.

  5. Super, thanks for the tips Colin! As I’ll be traveling to Costa Rica for Ash’s Liberation Seven retreat in Dec., possibly a Berlin/Amsterdam trip end of year/beginning of new year, and … are you ready for it … relocating to Taiwan next spring, such insight from a more seasoned traveler as yourself is much needed.

    Or I could totally stand out by doing flying ninja kicks each time I get off the plane. What an arrival!

  6. Would never need to worry about looking a 10, myself. I guess that’s more for attractive guys like you who can decorate their websites entirely with pictures of themselves ;)

    • You’re too kind :)

      The best part of having a website, though, is that you don’t have to put up a bunch of photos of attractive people, which would allow for comparisons to be made!

  7. Hey Colin, I thinknit’s always a good idea to blend in to the crowd, particularly when you’re on a new city. It might also help you experience the real cit life as well if you’re not being singled out as a foreign tourist. I’ve loved blending in to foreign cities and trying to pass myself off as a local (or at lest a seasoned raveller if physical appearances would aid in my identification as a foreigner). I guess it’s safer to not be too blinged up as well. Enjoy the rest of your trip man

  8. Do you think this is why Robert Pattinson looks like he never takes a shower or shaves? He’s trying to blend in and not get robbed? Except for now everybody knows it’s him.

  9. being a cameleon in a new environment, very clever. i live in nyc but hail from minnesota and there are so many things that distinguish the outsider here. looking like you expect to be looked at is a big one.

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