Thursday, October 20, 2016

Lessons Learned: Post-Travel Reflections

After spending 6 months in SE Asia, I learned a lot about myself as a traveler and as a person. Some things I anticipated, others were a surprise. I have a few regrets, but I don’t dwell on them. There are many things I would have done differently, but the only way I would have known to do them differently is to possess the information I have now. Overall, I did a lot of things right, and a few things wrong, but here is what I learned the way I travel.

I need to be in a city. And not just any city. The city must have these three elements:

1. Options
If a place is too small or limiting, I get nervous. In smaller towns in Vietnam, I could find no place to buy a latte – only Vietnamese coffee. That bothered me. There were many places in Myanmar where food options where limited to basically local cafes or expensive Western restaurants, and that bothered me.

2. A solid middle class
Any place with only extreme poverty and wealth is not a comfortable place for me to be. I grew up poor in America, but that doesn’t compare to the poverty in Asia. I am not able to live like a poor local  in Asia or even a thrifty backpacker.  At the same time, I am uncomfortable being served and catered to. I don’t want doors held open for me, I don’t want to be called ma’am, I don’t want to be treated as superior simply because I have money. In these societies, I occupy an ambiguous space being that I am neither poor like the local people, but not rich like the wealthy elite.

3. Jobs that don't revolve around the tourism industry
In Luang Prabang, I felt like just about every Lao person in that town was there to make money from me. Their livelihood depended upon me buying souvenirs from them, getting rides from them, paying them to see their temples and use their bathrooms. I hate feeling like a walking wallet. Contrast this to the capital of Vientiane, where a number of local people make their living from trade, banking, real estate, business ventures, etc. They don’t care how I chose to spend my money on a daily basis, and I like this. 

Overall, I don’t like tourist towns  such as Luang Prabang,  Laos; Hoi An, Vietnam; Ubud, Bali; Hua Hin, Thailand; and Bagan, Myanmar. These places feel like recreations of something that was once authentically beautiful, like the beauty of these places has been preserved in plastic and wrapped into  something pocketable. There is no authentic way to experience it, because the place itself is not authentic.

I am not staying in hotels anymore. Only apartments. If I am to stay anywhere longer than two nights, it’s worth it to find a good apartment. I need my own space. I need privacy. I dread the knock of the hotel maid in the morning, and having to leave my key at the reception desk. Having the hotel staff try to sell me day tours and ask where I'm going. No more!

I never want to hop from city to city again. I want to stay in one place for a least a few weeks before moving on. This makes shorts trips more difficult, but it’s worth it. I never get much from being in a place only a few days. 5-6 is my new minimum.

Regrets: What I would have done differently:

  • I would have stayed 6 days in Seim Reap and 3 in Phnom Penh (6 days in Phnom Penh was far too long and 3 days in Siem Reap was far too short). I will probably have to go back to Siem Reap one day. I loved Angkor Park so much and there was still a lot I didn’t get to explore. I want to go during the rainy season, when there are less tourists and everything is lush and green. I won’t mind the rain. I'm from Portland.
  • No days in Mandalay, Kuala Lumpur, Kuta, Hua Hin, or Hue. I hated those places.
  • I could have done Bagan, Myanmar better. I slept in late everyday but the last day. I should have rented a horse carriage to take me to the major temples. I should have explored the old town more thoroughly.
  • I wish I learned that the beach isn’t all about swimming. I didn’t figure out how fun it was to simply lounge on the beach and read a book, or walk down the shore at night, until I was in Nha Trang, Vietnam. If I had known this sooner, I would have enjoyed my time in Hua Hin, Thailand or Kuta, Bali more

Reliefs: What I would do exactly the same:

  • Keeping a narrative diary and forcing myself to journal every day. The memories are all too fleeting. There is so much to experience and absorb each day and you will lose it quickly if you don't write it down. Most people these days rely on photographs to do the preserving, but a photograph cannot preserve your thoughts or feelings. Now a year post-travel, I have found myself turning to my SE Asia journal many times to relive my experiences. 
  •  Advance planning and research. I am so glad I planned all of the major logistics before leaving. Wifi cannot be trusted and I saved a lot of time and stress knowing where I would stay and how I would get there well in advance. However, in terms of day-to-day planning, that’s not worth doing too far in advance, and I need to schedule in time to do research before each new city or country.
  • Hauling my partner along. Not to diss the solo travelers - I also love traveling on my own, but now that I am happily coupled I think I would miss my significant other too much to go long without him. It was wonderful to have an extra set of eyes and ears to interpret our surroundings and debrief them. It was such a relief to have someone to talk to all the time, which is one thing I was so desperately missing in Japan.
  • Packing lite. It really does make all the difference. I managed to refrain from buying so many things, and you know what - I don't regret it. My house is just as full without those objects collecting dust on the shelf. Because I had to carry my belongings for six months, I was so careful about what I bought. 

Overall this trip was an amazing learning experience. I'm not sure how I could have gained this insight without experience and let this be a lesson to myself in all future trips. 

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