Wherever you're travelling, it's the people you meet who make your holiday special, writes Ben Groundwater.
Forget the monuments. Forget the museums. Forget the galleries, the restaurants, the landscapes and the animals. None of those things provide the real highlight of the travel experience.
What's most important as you tour the globe is the people you meet along the way. Local people. They're everything. They're the reason we travel. They're all the history and the culture, the knowledge and the experience, the good and the bad of an entire nation. Local people can make or break your trip. They'll make you laugh, they'll make you curse, and they'll make you do almost everything in between. And if you go to the right places, you'll meet some of the most amazing people in the world.
Americans really are that friendly. Yes, they really are that impressed with your accent. And yes, they really do want you to have a great day.Ben Groundwater
"People can make any place come alive," says Greg Carter, director of travel companies Chimu Adventures and GetAbout Asia. "The way people interact with the world around them, they way they pass on their traditions, their culture, and their food, just through being themselves, makes travel special."
Where can you find the most interesting people? The friendliest people? For Dennis Bunnik managing director of Bunnik Tours, it's Cambodia. "I've been twice and each time have found it to be an incredibly touching and inspiring country," he says. "When you think of the horrors that the country has gone through, to see the enthusiasm and zest for life that everybody has there is amazing."
Carter, meanwhile, nominates Japan. "I will never forget trying to ask a local man for directions in Tokyo once, to have him call our hotel on his mobile phone, then walk with us two kilometres to the front door to make sure we got there."
That's what makes travel great. And you'll find similar highlights in these countries.
"Sorry pal," the text message said. "You've got the wrong number." I was hugely disappointed. I'd been trying to get in touch with a long-lost friend, a Scottish guy called Mike who I'd worked with in Edinburgh probably 12 years ago. Back in the city for a flying visit, I thought I'd succeeded in finding him after a mutual friend supplied me with a phone number. Clearly though, I'd got it wrong.
Hours passed. I wandered the city, breathing it in, getting to know it all over again. I had lunch in a pub. I wandered some more. Suddenly, my phone buzzed. "Joking Groundy! Meet you in an hour. You're staying at my house."
That, for me, sums up everything I know about Scottish people. Here was an old friend I hadn't seen in more than a decade, and he not only wanted to meet up with me, but he took me out on the town that night, and then he took me into his home and gave me a bed for as long as I wanted it. And yet he was also willing to let me wander around town for a few hours on my own just so he could amuse himself.
Scots are unfairly maligned as being dour, but the truth is that with only the tiniest bit of coercion, they're anything but. And once you've made friends with a Scot, you've made a friend for life. Even if they'll play tricks on you. See visitscotland.com.
See also: Scotland: A beginner's guide
The mother looked surprisingly calm. She'd obviously spent time in Fiji before. We were on a ferry heading to the Malolo Islands, and a Fijian had approached the woman almost immediately and begun pointing at her young child. A few words were said, and the mother passed the baby over to the smiling Fijian lady, who whisked it away and began passing it among all of the other locals on the boat. There was a lot of smiling and cooing as the child made its way to the back of the ferry and then forward again, passed between adoring hands. The mother didn't flinch.
That's because this is Fiji, where children are genuinely loved. And not just some children – everyone's children. That's why this is such a popular destination for families. You can always be sure your kids will be in safe, friendly hands in Fiji.
Older visitors receive a similar welcome, too – those huge smiles and cries of "bula" aren't just cliches for tourism campaigns, they really exist. Fijians are naturally kind, welcoming people who just want to have a good time, and want you to have a good time. And they'll never tire of playing with your kids. See fiji.travel.
See also: 20 reasons to visit Fiji
It was raining, of course, when I arrived in Dublin for the first time. The taxi driver didn't seem fazed. "Over here it only rains twice a week," he said, glancing in the rearview mirror. "Once for three days, and once for four." He then roared with laughter at his own joke, and we continued on our merry way. That was my introduction to Irish people, and it was a good one. The Irish, I would come to find, love a joke. They love to have fun. It's all about the "craic", whether that's a joke, or a song, or a pint at the pub.
Ireland is one of those rare places where you'll always make friends. You don't even have to try. On numerous occasions I've walked into a pub in Ireland by myself, and walked out with a group of people who've welcomed me into their circle. All you have to do, seemingly, is sit by yourself with a pint, and someone will talk to you. The jocularity of the Irish is infectious; their hospitality genuine. Visitors just have to try to keep up. See ireland.com.
See also: What to see on an Irish road trip
The greetings and the good wishes ring out solemnly and regularly, as reliable as a Texan's steed.
"What's up guys!"
"Hey, you have a great day!"Americans really are that friendly. Yes, they really are that impressed with your accent. And yes, they really do want you to have a great day.
"Have a blast guys!"
It's a little disarming at first. You figure they must be putting it on. No people could possibly be that jolly their entire lives. No one's that nice. But after a few days in the United States, you get to realise that yes, Americans really are that friendly. Yes, they really are that impressed with your accent. And yes, they really do want you to have a great day.
Americans, perhaps because of the behaviour of their foreign tourists, have been smeared as boorish and loud, but on home soil they're about the nicest, friendliest bunch you could hope to meet. Take New York, the big bad city, where everyone is supposed to push past you yelling, "I'm walking here!" The reality is not even close. Pull out a map in New York and stare at it for a few minutes and someone will offer to help. Look confused in the subway and a commuter will point you in the right direction. And after any exchange someone will inevitably tell you to have a great day. And they'll mean it. See discoveramerica.com.
It's not the fact that everyone is so genuinely friendly. It's not even the fact that during a standard day in Iran you'll be invited to share tea with strangers, invited to share dinner with families, and invited to sleep in new friends' homes. It's not even the fact that this will happen over, and over, and over again. No. The most amazing thing about Iran is that it's not supposed to be this way. This is the Axis of Evil, the great enemy of the West, and all anyone wants to do is drink a cup of tea with you and ask what you think about their world.
You haven't experienced hospitality, or generosity, until you've been to Iran. Until you've sat in a taxi and gritted your teeth while the driver stares at a phrasebook instead of the road just so he can turn around and say, "Welcome in Iran." Until you've had a group of children give you a tour of their mosque, or a random stranger take you out for dinner, or a kid almost plough his motorbike into a fruit stand as he yells greetings from the street. Iran is hopelessly misunderstood. The only way to change that is to go there. see tourismiran.ir/en.
See also: Why you should visit a Muslim country
"You can play badminton, right?"
"Sure," I replied, neglecting to add that while I know how to play badminton, I don't actually play badminton. But how hard can it be? It's like tennis, but easier.
I was in Luang Prabang, at the end of a tour through Laos, and my guide had invited me to spend a final evening with his friends doing what they like to do: play badminton. He could have just left me in a hotel; the tour was over. But instead he'd invited me into the normal life of a young guy in Luang Prabang.
The game was a disaster. It turns out that badminton is actually really hard to play, and I disgraced myself thoroughly in front of a whole lot of people who took the game very seriously. No one, however, seemed to mind. They invited me for a beer after the game. They laughed at my incompetence.
Laotians, you soon find, are incredibly friendly, positive people – something that's all the more amazing when you consider their country's tragic history. The Laos people have every reason to despise the West, and yet we're welcomed there like old friends, treated with kindness and generosity. And no one minds when you can't play badminton. See tourismlaos.org.
See also: The hidden tombs of Laos
"Ah you're over from the West Island, eh bro?" Sigh. Yes.
"You're from Aussie eh? Well, no one's perfect." Sigh.
"Did you guys bring your deodorant? We don't want any more dodgy underarms, eh?"
Sigh. The jokes are to be expected. There's a rivalry between Australia and New Zealand that's sometimes taken a little more seriously across the ditch than it is over here, so you can expect a few jibes – sometimes about rugby, or netball, or a cricketing incident from the distant past.
But that's all OK. Because every dig from a New Zealander is delivered with a smile. Every joke is meant as fun between friends. Kiwis, you see, are nice. They're extremely nice. They're so nice, in fact, that you find yourself wandering around the country thinking, "Why can't Australians be like this?" Everyone in New Zealand is genuine. Everyone is welcoming. They're completely lacking in cynicism. The travel experience will always a good one if it involves people from the land of the long white cloud.
And that's because, in short, Kiwis are very good people. Just don't tell them I said so. See newzealand.com.
There are countries you'll visit and struggle to meet any locals at all. And then there's India, where you meet a new person every minute, where everyone wants a piece of you, wants to get to know you, wants to welcome you. With more than a billion people there to share the Indian experience, it's no wonder those people provide the country's most memorable experiences. And those experiences will run the full gamut. Indians are warm, they're funny, they're pushy, they're exasperating, they're generous and they're sly. They're the family who insists on sharing their food with you on the train. They're the guys who try to swindle you into visiting their carpet emporium.
Despite the inevitable fraudsters, Indians are by and large an honest, welcoming, and curious people. Everyone wants to know you. They want to know where you're from, what you do, what your dad does, how much money you make, whether you're married, why you're not married, whether you'll marry one of their daughters, why you won't marry one of their daughters, and most importantly, what do you think about Ricky Ponting?
No one leaves India without a thousand stories of their interactions with Indian people. In a country of many highlights, those meetings are surely the best of them. See incredibleindia.org.
My friend Andrew was having an argument with the waitress. I could hear the two of them, voices raised in Thai, disputing something to do with our bill. Eventually a deal was struck and money changed hands, before Andrew came back to our table. "She was trying to undercharge me again," he laughed. "I've told her she can't do that. It's bad for business."
Andrew's an Australian who was living in the north-east of Thailand, near Ubon Ratchathani. He said his struggles to pay the full amount he owed at restaurants happened daily. Everyone was trying to be too nice.
Those cliches about Thailand being the "land of smiles" have a strong basis in truth. While there have been a few very troubling incidents in Bangkok recently, on the whole Thailand is a friendly, welcoming country, particularly once you get away from the tourist centres of Bangkok and Phuket (though they, too, are often just fine). Up in the north, there's an easy hospitality to the Thais that almost always comes with a smile. Even when you're arguing over your bill. See tourismthailand.org.
Warm. That's the best word to describe the people of Brazil, a nation where family and friendship comes above all else. You feel loved in Brazil, as new friends embrace you both emotionally and physically. If a Brazilian likes you, you'll never be in any doubt. They'll show it time and time again.
I spent the day in Sao Paulo once with a local guy called William, a friend of a friend who'd offered to show me around despite the fact I don't speak a word of Portuguese and he didn't speak a word of English. We met up at his apartment, where we sat across the table from each other and established that we couldn't understand a single thing the other person was saying. William tried acting a few things out. He failed. I tried speaking very slowly. I failed.
But William persisted, and eventually hit on a solution. Grinning in triumph, he pulled his phone out and typed something into it. Then he turned it around to show me. "What would you like for breakfast," it said. He'd typed it into Google Translate. The two of us spent an entire day together communicating by telephone.
Who would go to that trouble for a friend of a friend? A Brazilian. See visitbrasil.com.
How to make friends overseas
Five tips for meeting locals while you're travelling
Go it alone
If you want to meet people, you can't be afraid to hit the town by yourself. Go to a bar and take a book. Sit at a cafe and people-watch. Dine alone at a restaurant. There's every chance that someone will talk to you.
People tend to be at their most open when they're out of their daily routine. So when you're travelling, attend events – go to football matches, or concerts, or festivals. That's where you'll find locals who feel as open and friendly as you.
Break the language barrier
Want to make local friends? You have to be able to speak their language. Even if it's just a few words to signal the fact you're making an effort, being able to greet people in their local tongue is a huge ice-breaker.
Do a homestay
Rather than just hope to bump into people while you travel, it's far easier to stay at their house. Book a homestay through a website such as Airbnb, or sign up for couch-surfing, and you'll find yourself immediately surrounded by local friends.
Just do it
The real trick to meeting people when you travel is to be unafraid to approach strangers. Just go and say hello. You'll get an odd look here and there, but this is no time to be shy. You'll be surprised at how many people will be pleased to meet you.
The countries where you'll have to put some effort in to meet people
Russians can be tough nuts to crack. They're not immediately friendly towards strangers, and they're not exactly emotionally demonstrative. The best way to tackle this is with persistence. And, in times of desperation, vodka.
There's a natural wariness of foreigners in Mongolia; in more remote areas that can occasionally turn into aggression. Best policy is to take the lead and introduce yourself to people. Once the ice is broken, Mongolians are great.
Having been cut off from the West for so long, Cubans have a tendency to distance themselves from foreign tourists. So rather than stay in a state-run hotel, book accommodation in a "casa particular", the Cuban version of a B&B, and everything will change.
The hard thing about meeting North Koreans is that you're not supposed to meet North Koreans. The system is designed to keep the few tourists allowed into the country separated from the local populace. Your only hope is to make friends with your guide.
Swedes are wonderful people, kind and friendly – once you get to know them. The hard part is breaking that initial barrier, and for that there's no easy solution. You just have to be patient. The warmth will come with time.