We’ve had six full weeks travelling Southeast Asia now. From the south of Thailand to the north, then down through Laos to Cambodia, it’s been a whirlwind.
Travel, for me has always been about two things – finding stories and learning.
I’ve certainly built up the stories – there is enough from these six weeks to talk about for a lifetime.
But what have I learned so far?
As I sat and thought about it this morning, I thought I would put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and share some of them.
I Live In A Nanny State
One thing that hit me the second we arrived in Bangkok, was the lack of rules around safety. A hole in the pavement with no warning signs, food being cooked right on the street, electrical cables hanging live from pylons, people driving scooters without helmets, bamboo scaffolding being put up by people with no ropes. Just crossing the road is like a moped fuelled game of Russian Roulette!
Believe me, I’m not saying these are all good things (Thailand has the second highest volume of road traffic fatalities in the world), but it did make me reflect on how far Britain has gone.
Regulation can make things really tough in the UK. In retail there’s an audit and compliance check for everything, which really slows down progress and takes large chunks of productivity out of business.
And if you do fall trip in a hole, or a badly maintained drain, what happens? Well, thanks to a change in law back in 2000 (the Access to Justice Act) making it easier to pass on legal fees if you win, daytime TV has become full of those ‘have you had an accident that wasn’t your fault?‘ adverts – claims have gone up by 250,000 a year since the 1970s.
Don’t believe me? Have a read through this article and the comments at the bottom.
Oh, and then also cast your eye over some of the bullshit here. And lawyers insist they don’t ‘encourage’ claims!
I want to emphasise this again, I don’t think it’s all bad.
Fall down an unguarded hole when works are taking place, break your ankle and have to take time off work? Yes, I get it.
But I’ve personally seen some pathetic examples. Once we had a claim lodged (and paid out) because the kerb was slightly higher in part of the car park at the shop, I ran and and a customer (with an overladen vehicle) had damage their bumper on it. Another slipped on a grape, causing a small amount of bruising, yet because we hadn’t filled in one of the hundreds of checks we have to do daily we had no ‘due diligence’, and ended up paying out nearly £4,000! They didn’t even have a day off work!
What there is in the UK is a lack of responsibility, and a culture of blame. Too often it’s someone else’s fault, and then their responsibility to sort it out. What then follows is over regulation, more paperwork, more loss of productivity and an aversion to taking risks for worry it will cause problems.
In Asia the responsibility seems to firmly rest with the individual.
Don’t want to slip and fall? Concentrate and look where you’re going. Damaged your car because a kerb was too high? Well go and get it fixed, and stop trying to blame anything other than you’re own driving ability.
The system in Asia needs ALOT of refining, but the system in the UK needs alot of tape cutting.
Somewhere in the middle is the answer.
I Have Too Much Stuff
This isn’t exactly a revelation, I’m sure most people who’ve lived out of a backpack for any extended period of time feel the same.
But what I have come to realise is more stuff = more stress about stuff.
When you know where every single thing you have is, what its purpose is, and that you can pack it up in less than five minutes, there’s a freedom that is really hard to describe (see everything we took with us to Asia here).
When you have one shirt, you wear it, one pair of shoes you look after them, one book you read it.
And if you don’t have something, you find another way!
I’ve managed to light bug coils from the element inside a toaster, screwed the tiny screw back into some glasses using the end of a knife and tame mosquito bites with toothpaste!
Too often in my life I’ve been guilty of purchasing without thinking, buying yet another tool, gadget or piece of clothing without understanding why. And with anything new, comes additional stresses that you might not expect. A new gadget that you’re worried about damaging, a new bike that now needs maintaining, a mail-order shirt that doesn’t fit and takes precious time to pack up and return.
It’s something I had been working on over the last year or so, and had made some really good progress (just ask my family about trying to buy presents for us last Xmas!), but these few weeks have really brought it into focus.
I’m not saying there’s some radical life-overhaul coming – I’m not really an epiphany kind of person – just that now I’ve lived with such a small amount, I’ve started to realise that new things don’t actually make me that happy after all. The anticipation does, but the thing itself is rarely as good as I imagined, and I quickly move on.
But new experiences do, and that’s always money well spent….
The Simple Things Mean Alot
At home, it’s easy to take the real basics for granted. On the road, when you’re moving around all the time, each location is slightly different and what that does is refine down the list of basic things that are important.
It’s a fairly obvious list, and not desperately original, but in future, when we’re home, I’m going to try and look past the small frustrations, and feel grateful for the things that we’re lucky to have.
1) Feeling safe
It really doesn’t come much more basic than this, but it’s not a given everywhere. You make a gut decision on a street and guesthouse to stay in, which doesn’t always work out right.
We’ve been REALLY lucky with the places we’ve stayed, but some of the situations we’ve been in have pushed us a long way past comfortable, especially given the nagging feeling, that if something does go wrong the systems designed to help aren’t as reliable or trustworthy as we’re used to.
2) A warm, powerful shower
Given we’ve stayed in places where most of the population use the Mekong for cleaning, this feels like a luxury, but knowing there’s a warm, powerful shower waiting is such a good feeling in a humid climate, and not something I’ve ever considered myself lucky to have at home before.
3) A clean bed with a decent mattress
I always thought I could sleep on anything, but having slept on buses, trains and even a few days on a leather mattress (yes, they really exist), I feel very lucky when I find a comfortable bed!
4) Half decent WiFi
I know, it’s not very ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’, but I like to stay connected to the world, and it’s hard to do any writing like this when I’m not.
Pretty much everywhere we’ve stayed has had WiFi, which is remarkable given some of the remote places we’ve got to. It doesn’t quite tell the whole story though.
Spending an hour sitting in a humid, smelly corridor to download an episode of Becca’s favourite TV program (in a valiant aim to make her feel a bit better after a nasty fall where she badly grazed her leg), because the WiFi wouldn’t stretch to the bedroom, should give you a picture of a regular scenario here!
5) No mosquitos
The little buzzy bastards get everywhere. And do yourself a favour, if you have a mosquito net, make sure there’s none in it before you bed down.
And Ouch Again.
The Small, Unexpected Moments Are Often More Exciting Than The Big Ones
It’s unusual to take on a trip completely blind. Even the bravest of travellers has an idea of the direction they’re going and the big sights they want to see.
And with this comes expectation. You read a few blogs, see some photos, thumb through a travel guide – by the time you arrive at a key destination you have a vague idea of what to expect. Whilst every day is different, and a photo doesn’t give you every angle, or the sounds, smells and feel of a place, occasionally a place can feel familiar, or even a little disappointing by the time you arrive.
Case in point – The Grand Palace of Bangkok!
What I’ve begun to realise though, is that the big moments aren’t why I travel. Sure they’re something to tick off, an immovable goal to head for, but they aren’t everything.
It’s the small events on the way there that knock you sideways, clear the dust from your eyes, and create a lifetime’s worth of unusual stories.
Here are just a few from our adventures so far:
- Spending twenty minutes in complete tranquility as monks went about their evening ceremonies.
- Walking past the entrance of Wat Pho at night, realising it was open, and having the ENTIRE place to ourselves.
- Our first night in Bangkok. Trying to stave off jet lag in a local park, and instead finding monsters!
- Sharing a coffee with a monk, on a wooden platform at a random coffee shop overlooking the Mekong.
And you know the difficult bit?
If you go looking for them they’re harder to find.
You’ve just got to chance it.
Go out, keep your eyes open, say yes to opportunities, and occasionally something magical will happen.
I Need To Be More Patient
I’ve known this for a while now, but no-where is it more apparent when my senses are on permanent overload.
I need to become more patient.
Not for the expected stuff. Long journeys doesn’t frustrate me nor busy cities. I know they’re coming coming and get myself mentally prepared.
It’s the unexpected stuff where I react.
The bus driver who decided to pump out loud music for a 6 hour journey, the lady who accused us of damaging her car and then threatened to call the police when there was clearly no damage, or even just generally snapping when I’m low on energy.
But annoyance and aggression hasn’t got me anywhere in Asia.
Saving and losing face is important here. It’s not a concept I’d really heard of before, but having experienced it first-hand it is very real.
Raising assertiveness levels can be incredibly useful sometimes in the West. Letting people know you’re not going to be pushed around – raising your voice slightly, making eye contact and being strong in with body language – is a classic and much encouraged technique in business.
But it simply doesn’t work here in Asia.
Those kind of behaviours are met with aloofness, apathy and eventually withdrawal.
But they’ve also made me realise that they are my go to option far too often. When I’m put under pressure I don’t take time to figure things out, I lose my temper more quickly than I should and I’ve relied on being able to talk my way out of far too many situations.
I need to learn from the experiences I’ve had here, and figure out some ways to be a bit calmer when the heat it is on.
And if it doesn’t make me a happier person, it certainly will make Becca!
Travel Doesn’t Always Need To Involve Travel
There are an infinite number of places to see, but if you try and get to them all, what you’ll remember is seeing life through a window.
We’ve had some of our best experiences where we’ve stayed put for a few days and just kind of made friends with a place.
Once the big sights are ticked off, the fun begins. The unexpected restaurants, hidden markets, local music, perfect sunset spots, tourist-free parks, resident personalities, endemic birdlife and unique quirks that differentiate one location from the next.
I’ve been guilty on many occasions of trying to stuff too much into a trip. Taking a sabbatical has given us time like never before, but it has also changed my perspective on what it means to travel.
Relaxing is ok.
Going slow is ok.
Staying put is still an experience.
Whilst I still think beaches are for lazy people, I’ve certainly learned that there is more to a place than the headlines.