I had struggled quite a bit before I finally decided to quit my corporate job in marketing and set out what would be my biggest adventure so far. A struggle because voluntarily leaving a well-paid job in a society which seems to put security, continuity and conformity over personal freedom is not an easy task. Being at a slightly older age already and at a stage where people around you start to steer their lives into the save havens of family, house and career didn’t make things any easier. But since I can remember, I have been suffering a severe case of wanderlust. A virus which sometimes was just lingering inside but most of the times ferociously demanding for a cure. I was tired of the regular 2-3 week vacations which just allowed for a small glimpse of a country, its culture and its people. I wanted more, I wanted to time to explore, time for adventure and time to reflect about myself and life in general. Despite all of the adversities I finally decided to take the risk and go for it. In the end, I figured, I wasn’t getting any younger and time is the most precious thing we have. Funnily, once I had taken that decision, I never had any second thoughts. To the contrary, it all of a sudden seemed to be the only right decision there was and I was wondering why I had struggled so much before. Also friends and family congratulated me for making the move and were full of support. The feedback I received was great and from then on, the planning stage could begin and anticipation was rising.
Keeping the planning to a minimum
Talking about planning. I did some planning before leaving but most of it was more of a general nature. I tried to get an overview of which countries and places I definitely wanted to see and designed a rough outline. I didn’t plan any details, made no pre-bookings except for my first nights in Bangkok. The key for long term travel is to stay flexible and not constrain yourself to the corset of tight itinerary. As I backpacked Australia and during my previous Asia trips, I knew that plans can change quickly. Being able to adapt to the changes, to go with the flow, is probably one of the biggest differences compared to a regular holiday and also one of the biggest luxuries. I was basically planning my trip on the go, reading guidebooks on long distance bus rides, talking to fellow travelers and locals and taking it from there. This for example enabled me to leave Cambodia on a short notice to meet up with my Belgian friends Dolf and Chris in the Philippines in order to travel together for two months. And this actually turned out to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip. You just gotta stay spontaneous.
Traveling slowly and thoroughly
The way I like to travel is probably unlike a lot of other people out there. I enjoy getting a real taste of a country, watching how people go about their daily lives and interact with the locals. Checking off all of the top sights in the guide books is not so much my thing and I love taking my time. I traveled almost a full year and saw 9 countries overall. A lot of people make it to twice that number in a year and visit at least two continents. But to just boost the number of countries visited and work my bucket list never was my ultimate goal. Low and slow was my way to go. That means I took ground transportation whenever possible, tried to travel like the locals do and tried to spend a good amount of time in every place I visited. Of course this mode of traveling can be uncomfortable at times but it allowed for unique experiences and encounters. You can rush through a country and it is totally understandable if you are on a tight itinerary. I did it before as well. But in my opinion this is not a sustainable way of traveling if you are on the road for a longer period of time. It will take a toll on you and you might become saturated with all of the new impressions leaving you with the so called “Just another Syndrome”. My recommendation is to stay a bit longer if you like a place, take your time to just relax and observe what’s around you. I have also been receiving messages from people who plan on visiting parts of South East Asia with having only a couple of weeks’ time. My take on this is that less is usually more. Don’t try to see as many places and countries as possible but rather deliberately chose the places you really want to see and take your time to explore those. It will make for a better experience and you can always come back to see the rest. No need to stress and no need to worry that you might miss something. Take it slowly and enjoy. The ox moves slow, but the earth is patient ….
Off the beaten Path
Traveling along the pancake trail, as South East Asia is often referred to, can be a very touristy affair if you only stick to the highlights of the Lonely Planet. Don’t get me wrong, I still went to see all of the major highlights like Angkor, Bali and Luang Prabang in Laos and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But I usually find myself a bit restless and left with a vaguely unsatisfying feeling after having been on the well-trodden path for too long. I can say that traveling to places off the map, usually not even offering any touristic highlights, made for some my best experiences. Arriving in a remote village in the Shan Highlands of Myanmar, getting invited into people’s houses, chatting with the kids and trying to get a good shot were simple experiences but all so worthwhile. It makes me forget about the world around me and all its constraints, it makes me humble and it makes me appreciate the simple things in life. In these off the beaten path areas, you will meet the real people, kind and welcoming and not yet spoiled by the effects of mass tourism. It makes for a whole different travel experience and it usually presents you with great photo opportunities. Of course, getting to these places can be difficult, uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous. Sometimes things might not work out as planned or not work out at all. But the excitement of heading to a remote location, the unforeseeable nature of these endeavors and the butterflies in the stomach are the essence of adventure and the spice of a journey.
The thing about traveling alone
I started my trip alone and I continued traveling alone for the most parts of it. It’s not that I necessarily want to travel on my own but it is hard to find people who are also willing to take a longer period of time off, want to see the same things and who you actually get along well with. So if you want to go and explore some of this magical world out there, you sometimes have to do it alone. I myself also need my alone time every now and then, it has always been like that and won’t probably change anytime soon. But then there are these moments, where you just want to share a special moment with someone, where you want company other than the fleeting acquaintances on the road, where you are tired of being the only white guy around in need of a normal conversation. These times will come but they will pass. On the other side, I found that traveling solo makes you more open to meeting new people, let them be other travelers or locals. You tend to become more social than traveling with a closed group of friends and in the end; you are never really alone when backpacking. There is always a chance to meet someone or strike up an interesting conversation. I experienced both modes of traveling during my trip and both have their advantages and disadvantages. In my experience a lot of people are hesitant to try solo travel, but I am certain that really everyone can do it. Start out with a small trip, see how it goes and then work your way up. I think it is a great chance to reflect, learn more about yourself and grow as a person.
South East Asia as a travel destination
I was already fascinated by the region before I started this trip. I had been there before and was always a bit annoyed by the fact that I had to leave just a few weeks after I had arrived. South East Asia is so diverse and has so much to offer that I felt the need to finally spend a longer period of time there and thoroughly explore this amazing region. I mean once you are there, having paid for the flight, you can live comparably cheap coming from Europe. SEA has something on offer for every taste, let it be adventure, culture, outdoor activities, beach bumming or partying the nights away – you can chose. What struck me most was the friendliness and welcoming attitude of the people. Wherever I was, I had great moments with the locals. Let it be getting drunk in a village in remote Northern Vietnam, spending the night in a Burmese monastery hosted by monks or living with Filipino locals for more than a month. I recommend learning the basics of the language of the country you are traveling as it will help immensely and make for a much better experience.
Of course I was overcharged every now and then but come on… it’s Asia and you know people will try, in some countries more than in others. It’s something you have to factor in and after a bit of time you will learn to haggle and avoid getting ripped off. Just be smart. I never had any serious problems during the whole time of my trip, the only exception being the theft of my beloved camera in Saigon. But even that I can partially ascribe to my own carelessness.
I usually tend not to come back to places since there is so much out there to explore, but Asia definitely got me and I will surely return to some of the places I have been. The mix of exotic cultures, friendly people, good food and adventure is just too much of intriguing combination.
Last thoughts …
I could go on and on here, but I think for now this sums it up quite well. Looking back at it now, I can surely say that having left my job to go traveling, although it was a tough decision, was the best decision I could take. No regrets at all. Thinking about all the things I was allowed to experience, of all the great people I have met and looking at my pictures just makes me very grateful. I came back with a treasure of memories and good stories which no one will ever be able to take from me, no matter what will happen in the future. I experienced firsthand, that there are other ways of living life that people in other worlds have way different priorities than we do and that you don’t really need much to live happily.
I think you can never go wrong when traveling. Unfortunately I am not one of those persons who can say that they don’t regret anything they did in their lives. I admit that I regret a few things and that I probably would do a few things differently if I cold chose to do so. However, the only things I never regretted and which always turned out to be 100% right, where my travels and trips abroad. And this time it wasn’t any different.
As I said, I could have gone on and on here. But maybe there is something you guys want to know about, something specific or a topic that you would like me to write about. Please let me know and I’d be happy to cover it for you. The next post will contain a list of all the Best ofs and all the worst things that happened during my trip. Short and sweet and definitely good for a few laughs…