I recently returned from a three month travel trip in Asia. It was the most extended period of time off I’d taken in more than 5 years.
I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how I found it.
Relaxation and experience chugging
Before I left for my trip, I was imagining that the whole adventure would be a simultaneous exercise in both mind-clearing and adventure. That the deluge of experiences in new places would come alongside a deluge of introspective thoughts about “who I am” and “how I live my life”. Not only that, but that the amount of experience and introspection would be directly correlated, almost hour by hour.
But I often discovered the opposite.
After my first week in Thailand, I’d spent a few days in Bangkok, cramming in food and visits to unique places, taken a train down to an island called Koh Samui, spent a few days there, then returned to the mainland. At this point, I realised that I did not in fact feel relaxed at all. I had no mental space, and had been on a constant “planning treadmill” of figuring out where I was going to stay the next night.
It was an awkward realisation: it turns out that for me, adventure and mind-clearing are two pretty separate activities. But once I came to terms with it, I felt a lot happier. Throughout the rest of my travels, I seesawed between short periods of adventure and short periods of reflection – sometimes a few days each, sometimes a week.
My notebook filled up with new personal reflections and project ideas much faster during my times of deliberate calm than when I was trying to rapidly chug new experiences and places. But having recently experienced a new place was incredibly helpful in loosening and priming my mind for idea generation and introspection.
Notes on planning travel & experiences
- You don’t feel truly free unless you’re making up some of your itinerary on the spot. But you won’t have any headspace if you’re trying to find a new place to sleep every other day. Do some research in advance, but don’t book anything.
- All of the absolute highlights of my trip had considerable risk, required trusting someone random, and I nearly didn’t do them. Trusting strangers backfired a few times. But it was a small price to pay for the upside when the trust was well placed.
- None of the “must do” attractions of different places were in my highlights (apart from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul). If every travel blog mentioned something, it was almost always disappointing and extremely touristy. But it’s difficult to chuck away all of the signal and listen to the noise when you’re planning.
- My favourite places (Koh Jum, Koh Mook, Mardin, village in north Vietnam) without exception had almost nothing about them online. There were one or two travel blogs explaining how to get there, but little more.
Can I relax?!
Throughout my life, I’ve been subject to thoughts like this: “man, if only I could go and live in a hut in Vietnam, build and repair boats all day, that would be the life”.
I thought about this a lot on the trip. What I actually realised was this: even if someone gave me a stipend to travel the world indefinitely and do no work for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t take it.
In fact, as much as I grumble about the UK, prod at capitalism, and bemoan how much I miss working with my hands, at this point in my life being a knowledge worker in London is the thing that I want to do next with my life the most in the whole world.
Wow – that sounds kinda sad to admit? At first, it felt like an admission of guilt – conclusive proof that my mum was right: I can’t relax. But then I started to unpick why I felt this way. There are three main reasons:
- I take fulfilment in life through creating new things and projects
- The world is on fire and I have some skills that can help
- I love spending time with my friends and family
Taken together, they feel like pretty good reasons for making the statement in bold above. I feel extraordinarily lucky that that the end of my travels doesn’t denote a dreary return to a daily grind, but an opportunity to make the world a tiny bit better. I’m very aware of the privilege of this – a lot of lucky stars were counted on this trip.
At the start of my journey, I found myself looking forward to the end of my travels, then feeling angry at myself for wishing away an experience that so many would love to have, and trying to suppress future feelings of happiness for the end of my trip. But once I processed the reasons above, I felt a lot more at peace. Looking forward to returning did not mean degrading my enjoyment of travels – in fact it was an important part of de-stressing (I didn’t have to worry about the future).
Overall this process made me feel a lot more comfortable about where I am at this point in my life. It was a reminder that my current life is an active series of choices that I’m making, not just the natural continuation of what’s come before.
You normalise your happiness to your environment much faster than you think you do
The fourth and final country that I visited was Turkiye. By this point, the process of landing in a new city, getting a new SIM card, withdrawing currency, figuring out public transport etc had become more of a process, rather than part of a magical experience. “Wow, hard life Ben,” you might say. My point is not that “travel becomes boring”, but that I felt that by the end of the trip I was treating new places with less awe than they deserved.
If I had arrived in Istanbul on a standalone trip a year ago, I probably would have found it twice as magical as visiting it in a series of new cities. I felt uncomfortable that despite my best efforts, I had become slightly desensitised to the awesomeness.
This happens in the short term too, much quicker than you’d expect. On my fourth day in Bangkok, I rode the sky train for the 4th time. The sky train is amazing. It’s a metro in the air, about 20m off the ground. You can see incredible views of a vibrant city as it whizzes between stops. But the 4th time I rode it, I caught myself staring at the floor, the signs, and the adverts instead of out the window. It’s amazing how quickly your brain adjusts to a new environment. I found it super important to actively make choices about how to experience a city/place that would ensure my brain didn’t slip into “normal” mode over time.
Parts of other cultures that gave me joy
Previously in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to visit family in the US, visit some countries in northwest Europe, and briefly live in Germany. Ie, my previous experience of non-UK countries could only be described as the most culturally western destinations in the world.
So I was pretty excited to experience new ways of living. It sounds obvious, but it’s actually hard to gauge what the vibe of other countries will be like, just from consuming pop culture & media.
Here’s a small list of some of the things I loved about different cultures:
Hospitality and generosity
In the UK, it’s rare to experience generosity without the expectation of anything in return. Particularly with strangers. But there are few things that make life feel as warm.
If I had to list just one example, I would list Mustafa, who I met on the train in Turkiye and within five minutes had insisted I be his guest. Who spent all day showing me around his hometown, bought me copius amounts of food drink, and drove me several hours to my next destination. Who offered to gift me his pet canary.
You don’t realise how much something is missing in one culture until you experience it in another.
I don’t think I have to explain this one. If there’s one thing that everyone in the UK (left & right) can agree on, it’s the spiritual disaster of the death of the community.
I loved experiencing small villages with tightly bound communities. When you live in a small group of people, the level of trust in your humanity is far above the norm.
On the small island of Koh Jum, I asked a restaurant if I could rent a moped. They said yes, gave me the key, and asked me to return in two days. They didn’t take my name, number, check a license/insurance or anything. When I brought the scooter back, they didn’t check it for damage, or check the fuel level. They trusted me.
Living in a society where that level of trust was normal is something I’d never even considered before.
Newsflash: English food is not going to win many prizes. I was daily blown away by the depth of flavour in Asian food, even in the simplest of dishes. My spice tolerance has considerably improved from three months of going to the spice gym.
Nowhere was a different relationship to food more visible than in Thailand. Previously, a Thai person had said to me, “In the west, you eat to live. In Thailand, we live to eat.” From the moment I stepped onto the street in Bangkok, I could see the evidence: every street, every part of the city is filled with food carts, markets, and restaurants, all day long.
Supermarkets in Thailand don’t really have food-to-go, because there’s always food wherever you’re going. You are only ever a matter of meters from a food cart.
As a result, the streets of a southeast-asian city feel more alive than any western city. The smells, the steam, the moped drivers pulling onto the pavement to grab food for dinner, the people chatting to vendors, and eating and drinking. Buying and eating food is a good reason for people to talk to each other. So the streets are not just full of food, but of conversation as well.
The common factors
Perhaps the greatest thing that travel arms you with is a better knowledge of what is universal. When you can only communicate through hand signals, actions, and laughter, you discover what is universally understood, and what is universally funny.
Or put differently: when most aspects of a culture change, you can observe what stays constant.
Did three months in Asia change me into a new person? Not really.
But I feel calmer and happier. I’m the most clear-headed I’ve been in years. I met people that I’ll never forget. I ate a lot of food, and lived in some unforgettable cities. I came up with plenty of ideas for what to do next, some of which I’m executing. And I’m starting my next chapter with a full tank of energy. Overall, a pretty sweet deal.