The difference in experience between having a guide and not having a guide can be vast.
Which is better? Well, there is no hard and fast answer to this. It depends on you, your level of knowledge about a place, your level of comfort in interacting with people when you have only a few words of a common language, and what you want out of a particular experience.
For instance, when I visited the temples at Angkor, we decided not to use a guide. I’d been reading about Angkor for years, decades, in fact. When I first started reading about Angkor it wasn’t clear that it would be safe to visit Angkor in this lifetime. When Cambodia opened up, I was delighted and we planned our trip. Yes, we were able to find the relief of the “churning of the sea of milk” (something many people cite as what they wouldn’t have been able to do on their own), we were able to arrange for our driver to drop us off at one entrance and pick us up at another so we could see areas many people miss and so on.
Perhaps the most special part of not having a guide was having time alone at some of the temples, listening to the silence at a small temple, the giant stones tumbled around the walls, or doing a walking meditation at Angkor Wat just after sunrise, with the whole complex to ourselves and a few quiet monks,
When we visited Sri Lanka, there were many places we really appreciated having a guide. Polowarnua was a highlight for us. Our guide there made the ruins come alive. Showing us inscriptions and telling us the tales behind them, pointing out unique features, and helping us get an overview of the whole site made such a difference. This was an instance when very little is available about Sri Lankan history and archaeology in our country.
We needed the knowledge to appreciate the place. A friend of mine later visited Sri Lanka and their driver told them they didn’t need a guide at Polowarnua. Instead, accompanied them into the ruins, but the extent of the knowledge he transmitted was “that was a palace” or “that was a temple.”” For me, Polowarnua was a highlight of the trip, for my friend, the ruins were simply ruins.
We never use a guide in Bangkok, for instance, preferring to find our own way, interact with locals, and discover our own favorites. In part this is because we have been there many times, but we have also chosen no guide in cities when we visited the first time. Some people feel they get to know the people if they have a guide. But my experience is that people who chose to have a guide get to know the guide and the guide mediates all of their interactions with locals.
I’d much rather talk with locals myself, even if there are parts we can’t translate. I also enjoy using local public transport – I feel like it gives me more of a sense of the city and the people. Guides rarely take you on public transport (unless you’ve made a special request), so you move through a city in your hermetically sealed car, never touching the street until you arrive at a designated destination.
Some of my favorite travel stories are about communications with people when whom I shared only a few words of a common language… bargaining with a Touarg man in Adz in my schoolgirl French and his few phrases, talking with a Buddhist nun in Bangkok about voting in our presidential election, learning about jade carvings from an old man in Taipei. Those are experiences that would have been transformed (and not for the better) by a guide.
In Luang Prabang, we were shopping at the weavers coop and having a wonderful time. A man approached us and asked if we wanted his guide to translate for us. We agreed, and the guide translated a question we had and the response from the weaver. I felt sad after the interaction, as it felt like it broke the alliance we had with the weaver, the alliance to understand each other and deal fairly with each other in spite of having no common language. I felt more separate from her for the translation.
So when the question of hiring a guide comes up, think about what you need and want in a situation. Guides are often easy to hire on the spot. Unless there is some special reason to hire a guide in advance, I’d recommend you try to go it alone first or to hire a guide once you get to a place.