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Lessons Learnt from Three Months in South East Asia

July 3, 2018

Three months in South East Asia whizzed by in a hot, sweaty, spicy blur. The days started to run into each other, we lost track of time and often got lost ourselves, but each day felt like an adventure. As you would expect from long-term travel, there were plenty of ups and a few downs, thrills and spills along the way. There was a missed flight on day one (Wellington weather really hates us), many incredible meals down dingy alleys, a fine balance of luxurious and not quite five star places to rest our weary heads, and a plethora of sights taken in… all rolled into some of the most exciting and exhausting months of our lives.

We left with only a rough outline of which countries we would visit, and set about filling in the gaps and details as we went along. Neither of us get particularly enthused about the planning part of travel so we mostly took each day as it came which seemed to work out just fine. A certain someone and I have travelled together for close to six years now so we’re well versed in each other’s travel styles and moods. I can sense when he needs a tea top up, he can spot the symptoms of a hanger meltdown, and our spats are usually about embarrassingly trivial matters. But this trip still taught us so much, mainly about our approach to travel; some of our actions have changed, some of our views strengthened. These are the lessons I learnt from three months in South East Asia…


Constantly exploring can be exhausting

An average of over 20,000 steps a day in stifling heat and humidity soon took their toll and our bodies were calling out for a break. It was a call which I ignored at first as it made me feel guilty. Guilty because we had the privilege and opportunity to traverse the world and see some of the most incredible sights, and yet here I was, wanting a duvet day or an afternoon sipping cocktails by the pool. But the guilt was misplaced and frankly, ridiculous – I was tired, overwhelmed by all the new sights, sounds, and tastes I was taking in, and to fully appreciate them again, I needed to rest and recharge. One of my biggest lessons was that sometimes you just need to do nothing, it is totally acceptable to have a holiday from your holiday!

Being fashionable is great, but being comfortable is better

Does this top work with this skirt? Can I get away with pairing these shoes and that dress? Do I care? I used to when I had my whole wardrobe at my fingertips, but now that I am living out of a suitcase, not so much. Comfort reigned supreme and I settled into a bit of a uniform… light breezy dresses for city walking, shorts and a tee for the more adventurous days. I am absolutely sick of wearing the same old thing over and over again, but that’s a small price to pay for the ease of it. It has also made me realise that I still overpacked, despite heeding the warnings from my two besties who had also recently completed long travel stints… there are items I’ve been lugging around which have seen the sunlight only once or twice in months!

Not every ‘must-see’ attraction is going to wow you

We might not be great planners but we’re adept enough at this travel malarky to throw together some convoluted daily itineraries full of local attractions and activities. During this trip we have seen more than a lifetime’s worth of temples and shrines, Buddhas in so many shapes and sizes that the inclusivity crowd would be proud, and taken in a small encyclopaedia worth of facts and figures. Some places, people, and things have truly knocked my little socks off and made me stop dead still in awe, and others have just been so-so. I’ve wanted to love them all, or felt like I should be more amazed at some, but everyone sees beauty and intrigue differently so don’t feel like you have to fawn over every gilded archway or rickety swing, just because the guidebooks or cool kids of Instagram tell you to…

Tourists can be incredibly selfish and entitled

So you have a million and one things to tick off your bucket list or a series of ‘look how fabulous my holiday is’ Instagram photos to shoot, and you’re short on time… I get it, a lot of people are in the same boat, however that does not give you a free pass to push people out of the way or prance around like you own that piece of land. We’ve witnessed so much of this and more; when nudged just a little too hard, I’ve been known to retaliate with a sarky quip or uncoincidental positioning in their line of view. I’m not proud of my own immaturity, but the constant rudeness and entitlement is infuriating. It is sad to see that some people think it’s acceptable to prioritise their own enjoyment at the expense of another’s experience.

You cannot eat local food all day, every day

I loved the never-ending varieties of noodles, the curries which set my mouth on fire, and the odd foods bought off little old ladies on the side of the street with little to no explanations. It all made my eyes bigger than my stomach and I was determined to try everything. However, there came a point when my tastebuds needed to pause on the new and exotic in favour of the familiar and comforting. I needed a burger, a pizza, or even meat and three veg… anything as long as I didn’t need to eat it with chopsticks or it didn’t come with a side of rice.

Straws are an unnecessary evil

In London, I barely gave straws a second thought as I very rarely used them, but suddenly here I was in Thailand, forced to face the reality of the damage these flimsy plastic tubes cause. They started popping up in all my drinks and I started to refuse them, often having to employ my subpar charades skills to get the message past the language barrier. The results were hit and miss, but then the final straw as it were, came when I found myself in a restaurant surrounded by diners drinking water out of a perfectly normal glass, with a perfectly unnecessary straw sticking of out it. From that day on, I decided I would try to never use a plastic straw ever again, bought myself a bamboo straw, and it has been the source of many conversations with strangers ever since!

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Haggle less and only buy what you really want

Almost every guidebook or travel blog out there preaches the necessity of haggling, to the point where you will be convinced that every shopkeeper, restaurant owner, or tour guide out there is trying to rip you off. I’m not naive, I know that kind of thing happens but I also truly believe that most are honest people just trying to make a living. We’ve seen people get into painful jostling matches all for the sake of saving less than £1… it just does not seem worth it. With that perspective, our approach is to ask for a price, if it seems fair then we pay it but if not, we just move on. No questions asked, no bartering, no awkwardness for anyone.

Deet became my new best friend

My blood must be like sweet nectar to mosquitoes because they absolutely loved me. Walking anywhere without first being covered head to toe in deet was a hazard, and even then, a few of the pesky bugs would still manage to bite me. Some were unbearably itchy, some swelled up into bullseye-looking rashes, but I am forever grateful that none caused anything more serious!

It’s never too late to learn something new

One of the most unexpected but fulfilling things to have come from this trip was that we both gained new skills which, as adults, we had given up on learning. A certain someone can now swim, it seems all he needed was a private pool to get him started, and my confidence in the pool has also grown. However, my biggest achievement was learning how to ride a bike. I never learnt as a child and I was always a bit embarrassed by that, so being able to get from A to B on two wheels has truly reminded me that it’s never too late to learn something new…

The nomad life is not for us

We packed up, shipped out, and are now spending our days ‘on tour’ – it all sounds wildly free and romantic, doesn’t it? The experience of travelling for such a long period of time (it will be around eight months by the time we’re done) has been such a privilege; we’ve revelled in the freedom of having complete ownership of our time, but it’s also made us realise that we need a base to call home. The reality of moving every few days or weeks and never really having a space to properly call our own is not one which works for us. We still love exploring and have many more travel plans, but after this tour is over, we will be finding a home again… we just need to figure out where!

 

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