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What’s with men and asking for directions? How many times has this question been raised by friends traveling with me, I lost count. I can’t speak for all mankind but, in my case, just utter bashfulness and a dash of ego.

I used to think that I was just not wired to ask for directions. When I was starting to go places years ago, I was too shy to approach strangers for anything and relied only on myself to find my way around towns and cities — even if that meant wandering around unfamiliar blocks and dodgy alleys for hours. I thought I was always prepared anyway. But that’s the thing about traveling, you can never be prepared enough.

And that can’t be any truer in lands ruled by a different language.

Where to go, where to go? Maybe Buddha has the answer.
Where to go, where to go? Maybe Buddha has the answer.

I remember how I spent my first few hours in Bangkok — getting lost. Knowing that my hostel was just a few blocks from the train station, I traveled on foot, confident that I would find it easily. I had been to other foreign cities before so I did not anticipate any problem. But there was one tiny hiccup, English isn’t that big in the streets of Bangkok. No one could help me find my hotel because, aside from the hotel being not well-known, we just could not understand one another.

Getting lost in translation is real. There’s fun and enlightenment in it, trust me. But if you have no time for unplanned veers and “unnecessary” lostness, then here are practical tips on getting from point A to B efficiently.

1. Grab a multi-language map.

Let’s start with the obvious, the ever reliable map. (Cue: Dora the Explorer – I’m the map, I’m the map…) If the country you’re visiting has its own alphabet, better get a map that labels places in both letters. This way, if the local you’re gonna ask (say a cabbie or a local you’re asking for directions), they could easily figure out where you intend to go.

Excuse me, sir, does this map have a Valyrian version?
Excuse me, sir, does this map have a Valyrian version? (Courtesy of

2. Ask a local to write it down for you.

Such is the wonder of the humble pen. If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel, ask the receptionist to write down the name of the place you want to visit in the local characters. No need to play charades with the taxi driver if they’re written in letters that they understand.

3. Download photos of places you want to visit.

You can print them out or save on your phone. When I was In Taipei, everyone we asked could not point us to Chiang Kai-shek Memorial perhaps because we were saying it wrong. We wrote down the name to no effect. Spellings and pronunciations vary and they might be called differently in the vernacular. But a sure way to show your destination is to whip out a photo of it. If it’s a major landmark, there’s a big chance locals will recognize it and point you to the right direction.

Hey cabbie, we'd like to go here. Winterfell. Here. You know?
Hey cabbie, we’d like to go here. Winterfell. Here. You know?

4. Take photos of everything important.

This way, I also have an extra copy of the information I want to keep. I usually enlist the help of my DSLR or my Globe iPhone5 for this. For example, the schedules of boats and the price lists of tours and anything else I might need. In case I lose the brochure, at least I have a soft copy in case I consider it again.

In my trip to Hualien, Taiwan, I made a sidetrip in Taipei. My flight was scheduled later that night so I didn’t book a hostel and opted with leaving my bags in a baggage locker at the train station. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of lockers scattered around the station and the best way to document and remember which area, which aisle, and which specific locker I chose was to take photos of the place and used them as my guide when I went back. Yes, I kept that receipt thingy with the locker number when I deposited my bags but I was afraid I would lose it while touring so I thought of taking a photo of it, too!

Taking a pic of my locker code coz I sometimes do stupid things like losing something as important as this.
Taking a pic of my locker code coz I sometimes do stupid things like losing something as important as this.
Lockers at Taipei train station
Lockers at Taipei train station

Have you ever dined at a restaurant in a foreign city and you wanted to try a dish you saw displayed outside but everything in the menu is written in another language? It always happens to me. But I have learned to take photos of the dish and then showing it to the waiter and we understand each other faultlessly.

I'd like to have this, please.
I’d like to have this, please.

5. Learn local greetings.

You might be asking, what does it have to do with navigating? Well, a lot, apparently. You see, locals make more effort to speak your language (and assist you) if they see that you do try to speak theirs. These little things are appreciated by locals that even when they don’t speak English, they tend to be more open to lend a helping hand. It shows good faith, humility, and openness. Don’t you feel more compelled to help foreigners who start the conversation with “Kumusta?” or “Magandang Araw” even if they’re not saying it right? It’s just too damn cute.

6. Just ask.

Just ask for the effing directions, man. Looking back, most of the time, l was lost not because of the language barrier per se but my stubbornness in refusing to ask strangers for directions. I realized, locals are more friendly and more welcoming than I give them credit for. More often than not, there is no reason to be scared or intimidated. They are willing to help but you need to ask for it first. You need to make the first move.

Maybe this guy knows where you're going? Ask away!
Maybe this guy knows where you’re going? Ask away!

Places, like people, are complicated and they tend to change constantly. Unless you stay long enough, you won’t get to know it as thoroughly and as deeply as the locals. And when you visit, places bombard you with surprises and unexpected experiences and before you know it, you’re lost in the middle of it all, no matter how ready you think you are. But, of course, it doesn’t mean you should come unprepared.

Posted: 2013 • 5 • 17

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Ian Martin

Great idea, photograph the locker location and receipt . Good tip , thanks

The Poor Traveler

No problem, Ian!


agree :)


Thank you for sharing these tips. keep it up. :)

Cristeta Escober Mesias

I am not shy about asking for directions. But in Hongkong, most people are just plain rude and unhelpful. They get annoyed easily when you ask them the second time coz you can’t simply understand their pronunciation.

Joseline Alosbaños

Same here not shy when asking for directions in Hong Kong; I just make sure that I am not turned down and always smile. Actually last time, it was a bit funny ’cause I was mistaken for Chinese (more than a dozen time) and once you speak in English, they would search for someone who can speak to me (turo-turuan na-hilarious).

Jomar Buhain

I rememeber our difficulty in finding the Buddah Park in Laos, we do charde but is not effective. Then we download the pic, then alas…….