Last updated on July 7, 2023
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.
Why People Love Southeast Asia
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 and cookbook author 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.
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, 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.
For now, I move 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?
Southeast Asia Travel Guide
A guide to everything I learned while backpacking Southeast Asia. From Thailand to Vietnam—and a lot in between—here’s where to go, my favorite places, and everything you should know before you go.