A long trip to South East Asia is often one of the most impactful and eye opening travel experiences one can embark on. Seems like one hell of a statement, but ask anyone that has traveled through South East Asia and they will probably agree. I’m not sure if it’s the people you meet along the way, the beauty of the countries you visit, the once-in-a-lifetime experiences you embark on, or a combination of all of the above that really makes a trip to South East Asia all that more special. But for one reason or another, many that travel to South East Asia come back with a long list of lessons learned and a collection of stories and memories from the road.
And I wasn’t an exception. My 6 week adventure in S.E.A. back in 2012 taught me a lot about the person I was and the person I wanted to be. It changed me in more ways than one. But some of the most important lessons I learned on my trip were the ones about travel itself.
1. Travel is Better Without a Plan
I used to be the girl that spent hours upon hours researching every single trip, building spreadsheets covering everything from sights, attractions, hotels, transportation options, to budgets and insurance details. I used to have everything pre-booked, organized, and planned out, leaving no room for surprises or errors along the way. And my SEA trip was no exception. I had a day by day itinerary that would take me across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in a span of 6 weeks. It was a perfect plan…
Until Day 5 of my 6 week S.E.A. adventure, when I realized that I just didn’t give myself enough time in Koh Tao and that I really really really wanted to stay longer and finish my Advanced Diving Certification. So I did. And then on Day 14, when I discovered the magical place called Pai, and decided to stay there for almost a week, giving up my plans to travel to Vietnam. And then again on Day 20-something, when I decided that I now wanted to skip Laos and spend more time in Cambodia. Somewhere along the way, between having the time of my life in Pai and being mesmerized by the incredible Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I discovered the happiness of traveling without an itinerary. Days were filled with surprises, and the journey was one big unexpected adventure. It was amazing!
I let go of my obsessive-compulsive planning once and for all and have been traveling without a set plan ever since.
2. Going Off the Beaten Path is Worth It
This phrase is so often used among travellers that it’s almost become overused. Yet, I didn’t understand the concept of getting off the beaten path before S.E.A. Why would you want to skip seeing the best sights and attractions and instead go somewhere where no one else goes? Clearly the reason why no one goes there must be because there is nothing to see? But that’s far from the truth. I finally figured it out when I decided to spend a week in a tiny town of Pai in Northern Thailand, instead of going to explore the famous Ho Chi Min city in Vietnam. There was nothing to do in Pai. No major sights or attractions, but the atmosphere in the town was incredible and the people I met there were even better.
I realized that traveling beyond the major sights is less about what you see in guide books and more about what you find for yourself. These travel experiences are more authentic, more culture immersing, and often way more memorable. They give you the time and space needed to reflect on your experiences and take in everything around you. And to me, they are definitely worth it!
These days, on every single one of my trips, I try to push myself to discover each city and country beyond the main sights and tourist attractions. Be it, by going off and spending a night in the favela in Rio De Janeiro, opting to spend a week volunteering in a tiny village outside of Cebu in Philippines, or choosing to travel to a lesser known destination, like Sri Lanka.
3. Solo Travel is Not Lonely
I have to admit, embarking on a 6 week solo trip through SEA was scary. Not because I was worried about my safety or ability to get around, but because I was really worried about being lonely. Would I meet any friends on my trip? Would I have someone to share my experiences with? Or would I end up roaming around cities on my own? A part of me really wanted to play it safe, so I looked into a number of tours that operated in the area. But in the end, I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone and decided to travel solo.
And boy, was I glad that I did! I met more people over the course of my trip than I ever expected and formed some incredible friendships along the way. New friends were everywhere: hostels, activities, all looking to meet others, just like I was. I spent a total of 1 out of 40-something days alone. And it wasn’t because I didn’t have anyone to hang out with, but, rather, because I wanted a day to myself, a day to roam around the streets of Chiang Mai with my camera in hand, discovering the lesser known parts of the city. Other times, when I wanted company, all it took was a chat with some fellow travelers at breakfast.
I learned that the best part about solo travel is that you end up having the trip YOU wanted. If you want to spend a whole day reading a book on the beach, you can. If you want to take a cooking class, or spend the whole evening seeing every single temple in town, you can. No one is there to judge you, or nag you to do something different. And you’ll never be lonely, because no matter what you choose to do, there are always others that want to do the exact same thing. So you can do what you want and make friends at the same time.
4. Everything Happens for a Reason
I have always been a big believer of the idea that everything happens for a reason and my trip to S.E.A. solidified this belief. There were lots of times when things would “go wrong”. The hostel I wanted to stay in would be overbooked, or the restaurant I wanted to eat at would be closed, or the train that was meant to arrive at 6am, would arrive at 9am, causing me to miss my flight. In regular life, I would call these events inconveniences, unfortunate occurrences, or simply instances of bad luck. But on the road I learned that they were simply cases of serendipity. Because the time when my train got delayed by 3 hours and caused me to miss my flight, was when I met a fellow traveler with the same case of bad luck. Our bad luck, turned into a great story, and blossomed into a great friendship that lasted well beyond S.E.A.
After a few weeks on the road, I learned to not stress the small stuff, and even what seemed like the big stuff, because in the end it all works out for the best. And as they say, if it doesn’t work out, then it must not be the end, right?
5. Travel Can and Does Actually Change You
I have learned a lot over the last 3 years of living and traveling around the world, but S.E.A. will always be the place that changed me the most. It was here that I discovered my longing for adventure, my desire to give back, my interest in culture and history, my ability to go without hot showers, make up or fancy clothes, and here that I learned to appreciate the simple joys in life.
Travel can and does actually change you, but only if you let it. Travel forces you to go outside of your comfort zone, challenges you to try new things, take risks, redefine your values and beliefs, and to see the world from a very different perspective. Solo travel goes even further. Not only does it remove you from your everyday environment with its own social rules and behaviours, but it also removes you from your friends and family’s influences. It’s a perfect scenario to reflect, re-evaluate, and re-learn.
But it’s easy to come back from a trip and slide right back into your life, forgetting the things that moved you and made you think twice while you were away. So remember what you loved about yourself on the trip, what you learned on the trip, and don’t let go of the little (or big) things that have changed inside of you. And when they start to slip away, it’s your cue to get back on the road!