How Traveling in Southeast Asia Changed Me Forever
When I flew to Vietnam eight months ago, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I imagined kayaking among limestone karsts and trekking with elephants and tigers in the untouched jungle. I envisioned deepening my yoga practice and becoming an avid surfer in Bali, a place that would instantly feel like home. I assumed I would feel bliss and catharsis often in such a beautifully spiritual place. I expected to internally grow to unimaginable heights.
I thought Southeast Asia would be like Costa Rica, only with temples and pad thai.
I was in for a rude awakening.
Southeast Asia greeted me with hoards of motorbikes and black clouds of exhaust. I took bus rides through countryside covered in every type of trash imaginable. I swam at beaches on stunning islands littered with tourists and techno bars. I witnessed animal exploitation and environmental degradation to an alarming degree.
I never felt so far from my life in Pura Vida.
Simply being away from “home” failed to bring out my “best self” the way that traveling in Costa Rica had. I wanted the fast track to happiness and I did not find it. Southeast Asia bombarded me with everything I sought to escape in Costa Rica. I struggled. A lot.
My first month in Vietnam I considered that perhaps I had made a huge mistake.
But despite my self-imposed internal struggles, I did not run away. I faced the demons that lay dormant among sunshine and oceans on Costa Rican beaches yet erupted in smog and over stimulation in Southeast Asian cities.
In the process I grew more than I thought possible. I guess I was right about one thing: traveling in Southeast Asia did in fact change my life.
Here are just a few of the greatest life lessons I learned:
Why Have the Same Same When You Can Have Different?
While in the past I was constantly looking for what I loved in Puerto Viejo in other places, in Southeast Asia I realized that the best thing about travel is finding something completely different.
In Southeast Asia I can ride in a tuk tuk in a crazy city or walk barefoot on a deserted island and feel bliss. I can eat fried noodles or a raw salad and both will taste delicious. I can kneel in a temple or raise the roof in a club and feel connected.
The fact that we live in a world with myriad languages, traditions, lifestyles, beliefs, is what makes life so beautiful. It’s what keeps us challenged. It’s what continues to allow me to break down my cultural paradigms knowing that there is not only one truth.
We Need Far Less Than We Think We Do
The first four months of my travels through Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia, I was constantly worried about running out of money. Financial fear has affected me for as long as I can remember, and being across the world with only $2000, no return flight, and no credit cards offered little in the way of “security”.
Many times this fear actually hindered my ability to enjoy my experience. I became so fixated on worrying that I couldn’t achieve my goals, that I failed to see that I was already living them. However the longer I spent in Southeast Asia, the more this anxiety began to melt away.
Meeting many people who live on less than $3 per day truly challenged my ideas about how much a person needs. My budget in Southeast Asia seemed scant to me, but for a local person it was beyond extravagant. There were families who were grateful simply to have a bowl of rice every night.
When I dined on a plate of phad thai a quarter the size of what I used to eat, I found myself surprisingly satisfied. When I chucked plenty of things I packed that I believed I couldn’t live without, I never missed them. When I spent less than $20 per day, I enjoyed a fabulous life.
I realized that despite how much I had downsized in the past, I was still living in excess.
So when my bank balance dropped to $50 in Thailand, I did not freak out. I reminded myself that, fair or unfair, simply because of the color of my skin, the country on my passport, and the education provided by my family, I would never starve. I could walk into a hostel and inquire about work trade. I could spend a few extra hours writing articles online. I could go back to Indonesia or Vietnam where I had friends offering a free place to stay. I had, and always will have, options.
$50 sounded small to me, but most people in Cambodia live on that in an entire month. Discovering how little I actually needed encouraged me to never allow finances to control my happiness again.
Don’t Be Cheap
I remember one night in Chiang Mai walking out onto the street to catch a ride home at 3am. I hailed a tuk tuk, who then quoted me a rate three times what I had paid earlier that day. Insulted, I shook my head and continued on.
Except I couldn’t find another tuk tuk, so I walked. Alone. At 3am. The bars were just shutting down and there was plenty of traffic on the street. I thought I’d be safe. Then a Thai guy on a motorbike followed me for blocks before pulling over on the side of the road, exposing and then pleasuring himself. But hey, at least I saved 80 baht! Right that’s less than $3…
The moral of the story is, whether it’s taking an unsafe boat, buying a pair of poorly made shoes, turning down water vendors in the heat while searching for a mini mart, insulting someone with your cheapness, or declining a safe ride at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s rarely worth it in Asia to save a buck. I wish I had realized this sooner.
Yes Southeast Asia is cheap. Ridiculously absurdly cheap. But sometimes, you get what you pay for. More expensive tours will likely be higher quality. More expensive spas will likely be cleaner. More expensive shoes are less likely to fall apart. And when you’re desperate for a bottle of water in the sweltering heat, a hot shower in monsoon season, or a safe ride in the middle of the night, spend the extra dollar. It might not be what the locals pay, but sometimes, it’s worth it.
No Good Comes From Guilt
One of my greatest internal conflicts in the beginning of my travels in Southeast Asia was the constant guilt I felt.
I felt uncomfortable and ashamed when women tried to sell me trinkets and snacks on the street. I felt spoiled when local families waited on me from beachfront hotels. I felt inclined to turn away when approached by children and land mine victims begging me for money. Most of all I felt a barrier as wide as the ocean between the locals and myself.
One day, standing outside of the fancy air-conditioned grocery mart in Siem Reap, a small Khmer boy wearing tattered clothing approached me. He didn’t ask me for anything, he didn’t make any gestures, he just looked at me. He looked at me as if he wanted to say something but did not have the words. I studied him for a moment, reached into my bag and pulled out a shiny imported apple. I handed it to him, he took it, and immediately ran away. As I walked home I passed luxury resorts, disabled women holding soot covered infants, swank cocktail bars, and small children digging through the trash.
I was confronted with an alarming disparity between wealth and poverty and I realized that if I wanted to embrace Cambodia I would first need to bridge the barrier between its people and myself.
To do that I knew I would need to release my guilt.
From then on I interacted with people who were “less fortunate” than me the same as I would with anyone else.
I engaged with children selling bracelets on the beach, teaching them yoga instead of avoiding them or buying their wares. I listened when genocide survivors told me their stories with compassion instead of pity. When locals described their lack of education or impoverished upbringing, I accepted my unfair privilege without questioning why I deserved it. Where I once found guilt I then found friends.
I saw that on the inside I was the same as everyone else. Each of us simply walked different karmic paths lined with different lessons. I could learn as much from understanding their path as they could from mine.
I have learned that feeling guilty about my blessings does not help another human. Rather than indulging this guilt that ultimately stems from feelings of unworthiness, I decided to use my education and my advantages to inspire, empower, and learn from everyone I can.
Validation Must Come From Within
In the West I have always fallen into the “petite” category. In Southeast Asia I towered like a giant. The clothes sold in markets were way too small and I could not fit my feet into a single pair of shoes. One day shopping for shoes a woman saw me approach and literally yelled “NO HAVE BIG! NO HAVE BIG!”
I don’t need to tell you, that no matter a woman’s stature, she never wants to be called “big.”
While in Costa Rica I did yoga, rode my bicycle, and thrived on raw salads, living on carbs and sitting on scooters in Southeast Asia I became increasingly out of shape. I spent months growing out a bad haircut. My typically clear skin rebelled against my diet and the extreme humidity. I did not feel beautiful most of the time.
If Latin America has the ability to boost a woman’s confidence, Southeast Asia stands a chance in tearing it down. Walking down the street in Costa Rica you might hear whistles, in Belize marriage proposals, and offensive things I won’t repeat in Mexico and Nicaragua. In Southeast Asia you hear “tuk tuk!” “motorbike!” You are no longer walking sex; you are a walking credit card. As obnoxious as the attention was in Latin America, without it I sometimes questioned myself.
But as the months passed without male attention, I began to see that whether I thought I looked fat in a photograph or ugly in the mirror reflected the state of my spirit so much more than the body that faced it. I worked on feeling confidently beautiful because of the brightness of my soul.
At the same time I faced harsh criticism from my readers. In the past, praising comments that I was “an inspiration” made my day and confirmed that I was on the right path. Then I published posts that drove controversy and was called anything from “self-indulgent” to “slutty” to “narcissistic.” I wish I had been stronger but in reality that feedback made me feel very low.
Through this experience I saw that the same way a man could never fully make me feel beautiful, a compliment or an insult could never fully make me feel validated. Among the criticism and among the praise, my sense of self worth had to come from my own self-love.
We Can Have Boundaries Without Walls
Traveling on my own with the constant aggression and machismo in Latin America taught me to protect myself in vulnerable situations. Witnessing rampant infidelity, being the victim of scams and robberies, and dodging offensively sexual remarks and stares, all caused me to form concrete walls around my marshmallow soft heart.
These walls protected me but these walls also shut people out.
Southeast Asia by contrast felt innocent. People spoke softly and bowed their heads. Women smiled and called me “sister”. Men diverted their gaze. I heard monks chanting instead of gunshots firing. I rarely heard rumors of rape and home robberies.
I began to carry a purse with me in public. I began to leave belongings on my towel while I swam at the beach. I began to stare at the stars alone at night. I began to feel safe.
Emotionally breaking down my walls was a greater challenge. My subconscious believed that no matter where I was, without the walls, my heart would never be safe. I carried the trauma of my past relationships along with my fifty-pound backpack.
In Chiang Mai, despite the walls I built, I developed feelings for another traveler. I remained cold, I set many boundaries, and I often pushed him away. From not leading with my heart, when we said goodbye, I felt hurt and full of regret.
When we reunited a month later in Bali I promised myself I would be open this time. I wasn’t. I concealed my emotions and chose again to protect myself from what I was afraid to feel.
For the months that followed in Indonesia and Thailand I contracted debilitating food poisoning three times in Bali, stepped on a sea urchin and developed an infection in Lombok, and was bitten by a rabid dog in Koh Lanta. Out of sheer necessity, I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to let people be there for me. I re-learned to enjoy the comfort of closeness and friendship.
Consequently, by the time I reached Cambodia I felt ready to let my walls come down. There, finally, I admitted to myself that perhaps I had felt love for the man I met in Thailand and again in Bali. Though we said goodbye months before, I still had not let him go. Acknowledging and releasing this personal truth opened my heart tremendously.
But a week later in Phnom Penh I saw again the risks of living with an open heart.
I opened myself to people I shouldn’t have. Scammers with ill intentions but perfect poise seeking easy targets along the river. Fortunately I rescued myself out of a shady neighborhood on the outskirts of the city surrounded by six people who wanted to harm me.
In the immediate aftermath I felt the desire to shut down again from fear. I had opened myself to people I thought were genuine and in return they took advantage of me. I felt terrified that I could not trust my own intuition to see through a person’s lies. It reminded me of how I felt when I began building my walls in the first place.
But I wasn’t ready to give up all of the work I had done to let love in. So I made a deal with myself. I created non-negotiable rules for my own protection, but I remained open to engaging genuinely with the world.
Still, I continued to struggle to accept generosity and love from the people I met, often wondering why I deserved it. In doing so I likely made people feel rejected who more than anything I wanted to be close to.
These experiences showed me that we do need boundaries in life to feel respected and stay protected, but they should never come at the cost of becoming hardened. The world is simply too full of magic to block it out with a bulletproof fence.
I Used to Live in a Bubble
Growing up in Seattle to post-Hippie parents, I learned to compost from a young age. I attended a liberal university in a liberal city where people “care” about the environment and human rights. In Seattle every block has a vegan restaurant, a recycling bin, and someone preaching about the destruction of the rainforest or sexism in the workplace or an unjust war.
No surprise I felt at home in Costa Rica, a country that thrives on ecotourism, operates the first carbon neutral airline in the world, and has its own brand of all natural organic beauty products. I composted my fruit scraps in the jungle, woke to monkeys and sloths in my yard every morning, and swam at unpolluted beaches.
The sad reality is that most of the world does not operate this way. Environmental protection, emissions standards, labor laws, women’s rights… these are first world luxuries.
I was living in a bubble.
Try eating “organic” in Vietnam where the soil is so polluted with Agent Orange that villagers in the countryside develop diseases simply from walking barefoot in their own front yards. Try finding recycling bins in Cambodia, a country where only the poorest of the poor collect plastic and tin cans in exchange for pay. Try observing wild animals in countries that build casinos in their national parks. Try preaching sustainability in places that get wiped out by typhoons or sold by governments to foreign billionaires.
In Cambodia and Laos people still die every single day from unexploded ordinance from the American Vietnam War. Country people get kicked off of their land as governments sell it to foreigners building rubber plantations. Children are sold into sex slavery by their own parents.
The West has the privilege to care about things like pesticides while the rest of the world develops without regulation in an attempt to survive.
You can hear about environmental destruction and human rights violations in a classroom, read about it on the internet, watch it on television, but the moment you see it for yourself is the moment it becomes real.
Traveling in Southeast Asia showed me that the world is in serious trouble and we need to do much more than switch from regular Clorox to “green” Clorox to turn it around.
We Choose Our Own Happiness
The major difference between Westerners and locals in Southeast Asia can best be observed in so called crisis situations. Translation: when things go wrong.
I cannot count the number of times I saw travelers become agitated, angry, and voice their discomfort over broken down buses, long lines at borders, scams and corruption, electricity outages, slow wifi, and a whole host of occurrences considered quite normal in the third world.
Meanwhile I watched locals wait patiently without the luxuries of Kindles and iPods.
Hailing from privileged societies we are used to believing that we have control. So when we feel that we don’t have it, we fight against our circumstances instead of accepting them.
From monsoons and typhoons to genocide and war, people in Southeast Asia accept that we don’t actually have control over our circumstances at all.
I met people who lost their entire families to war and starvation but sang and danced and smiled. People who lived on a pittance yet happily invited me to eat their food and drink their beer. In fact often the poorest people were the ones who smiled the widest, offered the most, and expected the least.
These people showed me that happiness is a choice that comes down to one humble quality: gratitude.
We will never become masters of the universe but we can become masters of ourselves. We cannot control our surroundings but we can control our perspective. It is precisely that perspective that can send us into a state of peace and bliss or into our own anxiety-ridden hell.
Given this choice, I choose happiness.
I Don’t Know Shit About Shit
In Southeast Asia the more I sought to understand, the more convoluted the world became.
I felt the magic of nature on unparalleled levels and I struggled to breathe because the pollution was so extreme. I met foreigners deeply dedicated to helping the country they resided in and others perpetuating the industries that led to its destruction. I received unbelievable kindness and generosity in countries where it’s not uncommon to beat or rape a child. I respected the peaceful mentality of acceptance and surrender but wondered how greater persistence and drive might improve many people’s lives.
Instances that warmed my heart could easily have been insincere and full of deception. Things I thought I did to help could have had the complete opposite effect. And as much as I developed fantasies about the people and the places in Southeast Asia, I must recognize that my impressions are all colored by my own personal worldview.
More than anything I realized that the world is wildly complex, ever changing, and layered with a glass pane reflecting the personal beliefs, judgements, and emotional baggage of whomever cares to look inside.
Everywhere in the World is Home
Before I arrived in Southeast Asia I had a pretty good handle on what environments I felt best in. I knew that I thrived in laid back surf towns, taking yoga with other Westerners, drinking green smoothies for breakfast, connecting with nature on jungle hikes, and dancing to reggae in beach bars. In other words, I knew that I thrived in Puerto Viejo.
Consequently I often rushed through countries like Colombia and Morocco, despite how much they excited me, aware that they lacked the things that I believed made me grounded, relaxed, and happy.
In Asia I stuck it out.
I stuck it out when I couldn’t find cute expat cafes to blog from. When I felt ill constantly from eating more street food than superfoods. When no one spoke English and I simply couldn’t grasp the language in any country that I visited. When I visited beautiful places devastatingly destroyed by tourism.
Over time weaving through motorbikes carrying entire families and crates full of chickens, being constantly shouted at by tuk tuk drivers and touts, listening to techno music beside Westerners high on drugs, stepping over litter and Styrofoam and mangosteen peels and marigold flowers, and living among shocking poverty and overt wealth, all began to feel normal.
Eventually I stopped trying to find my Puerto Viejo in Southeast Asia and instead I opened my eyes to the magic of where I actually was. It stopped feeling like “sticking it out” anymore; it started feeling like something I loved.
By the end I felt more comfortable sitting on a stool in the street or on the floor of a local’s house than I did in a Western restaurant or an organic café. I felt more at peace in the hectic stimulation of the cities than I did in a constructed meditation center. I never learned the languages but I learned to speak with my hands and appreciate the warmth and smiles without words.
Southeast Asia became home.
Through this process I realized that if I choose to adapt to a place, to observe and accept the culture rather than try to understand it, to love it for exactly who it is not what I want it to be, and to feel grateful to be granted the opportunity to be there at all, every single time I set down my bag, I am home.