A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

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In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.

Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.

Celebrations are underway as a passing tuk-tuk is pummeled with water! Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Buddha with strings at a wat on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand

When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.

I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.

In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Golden flourishes at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.

Warm smiles.

Open conversation.

A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.

All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.

A wai from a monk statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Details at a temple during one of my many wanders through the Wats in Chiang Mai.

My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.

And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.

Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened.  I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?

monks at Maha Gandayon Monastery in Mandalay
Monks line up for lunch at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.

The churches of Europe.

The temples of Asia.

The mosques of the Middle East.

These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.

The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.

We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.

In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dragon details guarding the entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Phra Singh in at night Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite temple in Chiang Mai, a small one that I would pass each night on my way home.

The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!

And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.

While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.

I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.

food temple thailand
Street food vendors at a local festival dish out piping hot, fresh eats.

Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.

chapati stand mandalay

Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.

In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.

As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.

A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.

And yet, now it’s time to move on.

It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.

Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset near Mandalay, Myanmar.

For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth.  :)

Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?

60 thoughts on “A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia”

  1. Hi Shannon, I love Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. I lived there for two years (2002-2004) and am married to a Thai. I’ve been around the world a bit and Thailand always draws me back. Enjoy your time in Mexico. Enjoyed reading this!

  2. I went to south east asia in 2009. My son and I travelled from Bangkok to Singapore. To this day I think about it every single day. Once South east asia is in your head it is difficult to forget it. The same year we were lucky enough to go to Barbados also. It was wonderful..but that trip does not really stay in my thoughts. Thailand gets such bad publicity but it has everything. Warm climate,great food, lovely people, beautiful scenery, gorgeous beaches and wonderful history and culture. Oh and great shopping and night life!! It is so easy to get around, inexpensive to eat and has fabulous hotels. But there is something else, and I don’t know what it is, but it draws you in and beckons you to return. Does anyone relate to this? ( I’m sure you so Shannon.) Thanks, Steven.

  3. I have just picked up your blog & fascinated by it especially as I’m heading over to SEA in early December. I’m hoping to research traditional textiles / ceremony dress while I am there especially those made by the hill tribes near Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai. Could you advise how best to do this?

    • That sounds like a neat project you have in the works! If you have flexibility of time, I would recommend that you arrive in CM and go from there. Go to some of the shops in town and see if you can make connections for some of them to take you to their rural projects. It’d be cheaper than trying to find those connections here, and they’ll trust you more if you’re there in person :)

  4. I wish I could go back to se asia, especially Laos, you’ve given my serious nostalgia! BTW I love your site, its really REALLY good x

    • Laos was one of my favorites too and I miss it often; I appreciate the support on the site and thank you for stopping in and sharing your thoughts! :)

  5. I find myself traveling back to Mexico at least once a year. It just holds a special place in my heart and for some reason, a constant allure I can’t ever seem to satiate!

  6. I loved this post. I plan to travel to Asia for a year and I hope it will touch and change me in the same way. I believe I’ll find an inner peace exploring these cultures that care for more than materialism. Thank you for this post, it lets me know I’m doing the right thing.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post Kate, and I have no doubt that you will find much to identify with and love about SEA–the lessened materialism, respect for others and elders in particular, and a general settled-ness in the people are always most prominent for me. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you as you prepare, and safe travels! :)

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post Kate, and I have no doubt that you will find much to identify with and love about SEA–the lessened materialism, respect for others and elders in particular, and a general settledness in the people are always most prominent for me. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you as you prepare, and safe travels! :)

  7. Great post about the beauty of Southeast Asia. I’m not that experienced in this part of the world as all my trips went to Africa and America (North and Central) and I was only once on Thailand. Reading your words I really think I should change this one day soon :-)

    • Thank you Anita, it’s hard to say if you’ll fall in love with SEA in the same way I did–my travels have been much the opposite from yours and and I am keenly interested in experiencing Africa and South America. I do love the sense of community in Asia, and being back in Mexico for a week now I see that there are so many cultural nuances I miss from Asia. I think it’s worth a trip to see if the region resonates with you! :)

  8. Thanks for your thoughtful and elegantly written perspective on the gem that is Southeast Asia. It challenged me to be as introspective while on my own travels.

    • I think the introspection will come naturally as you are out — and it certainly comes later once you’re done wandering and back to the pondering!v :)

  9. Beautiful words and equally lovely pictures! Thankyou for summing up Southeast Asia (if it can be done) in such a way that is so close to my heart too.

    • I’m sure it can be ever be summed up entirely, but thank you for the kind words and for reading, the region calls to me even when I decide not to head over there. Cheers and I appreciate you stopping in and sharing your thoughts! :)

  10. I had great experience too in South East Asia. Glad you have the same, Places like Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines are the most remarkable for me.

    • The region is so rich in culture, and I found such openness throughout that it is hard to resist the pull of going back. And you are not the first to mention the Philippines, it is high on my list! :)

  11. Beautiful words. Asia is a special place. I think about my travel memories in Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia all the time and ache when i realize (every time) that I can’t be there right now. I’ll be back soon, but until then, photos and memories of flavors can get us by…

    • The memories surely do make up for not being there, and the friends! I love connecting on Facebook with the people I met on the road to keep the experience with me :)

    • Even now that I wrote the post, friends in the region have started campaigning to get me back–it surely does beckon once you’ve had a taste of the culture and food! :)

  12. Hi Shannon!

    What a great story I have come across! I cannot wait to see SEA in the next few month. Also, thank you for so many great resources on your website. It literally saves hours of net browsing looking for the right info. I am planning going on a venture for about a year or so (open-ended) with my now 3 year old daughter. After that I am looking into South America. I definitely will be coming back to your site!

    • Congratulations on deciding to take your daughter with you on such an adventure! I am so glad you have found some helpful resources on the site, and if there is anything I can do to help you, please let me know. Happy planning and safe travels in Southeast Asia! :)

  13. Oh, what a beautifully written piece.It was lovely to read. We live in Chiang Mai now and I could relate to everything you wrote about the area. This is our first visit to your website but we’ll be back for sure to see what other wonderful insights you have about places we’ve been or are going to. Ligeia and Mindy :):)

    • Hearing that you are in CM makes me super nostalgic to move back there–the city has a charm that just sucks you in! Thank you so much for stopping in and sharing your thoughts and please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything I can do to help in the next places you visit :)

  14. I traveled to Amsterdam a number of times in my 20s- the older I got the more that city and I drifted apart. There were too many other places I wanted to see, so my last trip there was in 2004.
    I’ll be heading back there (if only for 2 days) in April on my European Adventure, and it’ll be interesting to see how my perspective of the city has changed in 9 years- I’m a different person for sure, but I suspect timeless Amsterdam remains much the same. We shall see…

    • Nine years is a really long time, I wonder if you will be able to explore it on new terms, and perhaps find something new to love about the city? You’ll have to keep me posted on how you end up liking it in April :)

  15. What a beautiful love letter to Southeast Asia! I’ve only been to Thailand, which I loved — I can’t wait to see the rest. I think I’m constantly pulled towards Central/South America for the sun, the people, the kids, the slow pace, and the Latin beats. Let’s see, it’s my fourth time down here in four years, so I guess this my place! I’m volunteering in Nicaragua now and couldn’t be happier. Come visit!

    • I love knowing that other travelers have felt this same feeling — and you have me intrigued about Nicaragua. I was actually down to either flying there or Mexico, but Mexico won out … so who knows, you could find me down that way in the next few months if you are still there. Hope your volunteering continues to inspire you, I looked at the organization and it looks wonderful! :)

  16. I’m quite sad to hear you’re no longer travelling in South East Asia, but I’m glad to see you’re still travelling! I’ve been reading your blog for about a year now – and it partly inspired me to take my trip to Chiang Mai (where I am right now, actually, commenting on this post). I hope you have an amazing time in Mexico!

    • I am SO glad to hear you are in Chiang Mai right now, I hope you are enjoying the city, esp if you went there partly on my rec! Do you have more travels in SEA? Wish I could be there, but Mexico is calling, safe travels Molly :)

      • I loved Chiang Mai! I left a couple of days of ago and I was so sad. Unfortunately I don’t have anymore travels there because I have to go back to university soon, but it keeps calling me back! Leaving Chiang Mai was so hard; it really felt like home. Thanks, safe travels to you too! :)

        • University is important, and you are so lucky to have had the awareness to have traveled while you are still studying–I wish I had traveled a lot more in my college years! Safe travels as you head home, and good luck finding your way back on the road soon! :)

  17. Hello Shannon, Many months ago, a friend sent me the link to your blog and I’m only now sitting down to read it. And it’s the perfect time. I sit here in a cafe in Siem Reap, have been on the road for about 2-1/2 months and I’m just now finding myself feeling a bit lost and unsure. I’ve been moving pretty steadily up to now (Thailand, Laos, and now Cambodia) and I’m feeling the need to stand still for a bit. But I don’t think I want it to be here… this town is a little too busy for that. I’m looking for a quiet and peaceful (and cheap!) place to land for a while. Got any ideas?
    As I read this post I really felt like I could relate — with both the feeling a bit lost part and the feeling so much love & nostalgia for SE Asia. Thanks for writing it and for sharing yourself.

    • Hi Nan, thank you so much for the kind words, and I am glad you found the blog at a time in your life where some of what I have written will give you perhaps some solidarity, that there are others of us out there traveling who have felt similarly. Siem Reap would be a tough town to stay in long-term, it’s a tourist hub in a big way. If you are keen to stay in Cambodia, there are a lot of expats in Phnom Penh, but again, that is a big city. I really like Thailand as a place to re-convene (Chiang Mai or the beaches)–or you could consider nearby Saigon. I have two friends there right now who have found great apartments, really tasty food, good wifi and coffee shops, and they report that it’s been a wonderful spot over all (Jodi from http://www.legalnomads.com and James from https://www.nomadicnotes.com).

      I hope that gives you some ideas! Best of luck and shoot me an email if you would like to chat more :)

  18. What an incredibly beautiful and moving post, Shannon! I have not yet been to Southeast Asia, but naturally I’ve been hearing a lot about it… I know, I would probably have to leave my comfort zone when it comes to food and hygiene (I sometimes really struggle with that), but reading this was the first time I actually felt like I truly need to experience Asia soon, because your description was so vivid, intense, and spiritual!
    I can absolutely relate to mind trips and this overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. Sometimes I miss Portugal so bad it almost hurts – but I know I want to concentrate on new adventures for now!

    • Southeast Asia is such a wonderful start to travels in Asia because if you start in a place like Thailand, it can ease you into the hygiene differences so you can become accustomed to that aspect of traveling in the developing world, and then really although it will become a glaring point at times, I know at some point within a couple weeks you learn to look so far beyond that into the experience that I know you’ll be able to sink into the culture and countries.

      Portugal is on my short list of European places to visit, and it’s testaments like yours that put it there! Please let me know when you plan your Asia travels if there is anything I can do to help. :)

  19. Nice piece Shannon. I’ve been there before (feeling lost) many times. I reckon it’s part of life and growth. Sounds like you are gonna kick arse whatever direction you go. Cheers to you.

    • Thanks Sean, I know it’s a phase, and that we all go through the ups and downs both in life and business–it’s one of the aspects I really enjoyed about your honest piece on BnA about the development of the site and community. :)

  20. I’m aiming for South America in the second half of 2013. Actually considering expatriation, rather than long term travel, but we shall see. Hope to cross paths with you Cody!

    • South America will be quite the adventure and I hope you make it over there as an expat! I have several friends in Chile, Columbia and a few other places, so when you start firming up those plans let me know and I will see if I can put you in touch with any other expats :)

  21. Wow Shannon, this is a beautiful piece of writing. I agree with you, this place is magical, but I’m feeling like it’s time to explore new frontiers as well… maybe see you in Central or South America some time.

    • Thank you Cody, interesting that you are thinking of moving on too–have you come up with any place ideas, or do you think you will travel CA and SA for a bit? I’m counting on us crossing paths over there soon :)

  22. Aaaww, no more Asia for now?
    Ah well, it’s fine since Lindsay and I are also leaving Chiang Mai in just 2 months for new adventures on a different continent. I know, sounds weird but it’s time for a change and we’re looking forward to it.
    See you in Europe maybe? :)

    • Wow wow wow! I had no idea you guys were moving on too, have you chosen where yet? CM without you guys would will be weird, but I know we had talked about Oman and other places you both thought would be great in the future, so it looks like that time is near. Can’t wait to see where you end up, you can count on me coming for a visit :)

      • Thanks!
        It’s either going to be France or (more likely) Spain. We ditched the “Gulf” idea. Not worth it.
        You’re most welcome to visit and have free tapas with us :)

  23. We’ve taken the opposite path…beginning in Mexico for 2 years…and now we’ve left it to explore Europe, SEA (Chiang Mai for the past few months), and Bali! Yes, Mexico still calls to us…at least the experiences and joys we felt there, do. But like you, we were ready to move on and create a whole new set of experiences and paint an entirely different canvas. That doesn’t diminish what we DID experience…but I think new discoveries will continue to add to the beauty of this tapestry of life!

    • We are the inverse for sure! I just read through your bio and really admire the leaps you have taken with three kids in tow. I am excited to think about the learning and new cultures the girls will get in Asia as you continue living and traveling there–enjoy Bali! It’s gorgeous in people, culture, and landscape. Safe onward travels and enjoy SEA, though your children are far younger than my niece, if there is ever anything I can do to help on the homeschooling front, let me know, I was pretty connected into the homeschool community for the past year and a half! :)

  24. Sad to hear that you are not coming back, for now (important two words they are!) I’m still loving my time here, but then I don’t have a home base so SE Asia is my stand-in home. I do get where you are coming from though. There is so much of the world to see, so you have to draw the line somewhere and move on. Maybe I will ask you how you feel at the end of the year ;)

    • Those two words are key, so you definitely ask me again in a year–you and Jodi have me convinced Vietnam needs to be in my near future! As you noted though, there is much to see and I still have yet to step foot into South America or Africa, and at this point the explorer in my soul is edging me onward! See you this summer! :)

  25. Love this, Shannon. It echoes much of how I feel about France: I’ve had some absolutely lovely experiences there, but for now, I’m ready for something new. Can’t wait to hear about your time in Mexico!

    • It’s funny how we can crave a place so much, and still love it but be ready for new experiences. Looking forward to seeing how and where your travels and work take you this year too :)

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