Categories: AsiaCambodiaChiang MaiLaosMusingsThailand

A Little Nostalgia … A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

In recent posts I have talked about how I am a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking, and each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I am in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired. And so, I’ve instead embraced this nostalgia and look at my travels this week through that perspective. I find myself thinking about 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.

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, little side-trips that occur in seconds before I jolt 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 contained in the moment I step out the airport doors and breathe 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 found myself drawn 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. 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 Burma (Myanmar), Malaysia, and Bali too) I wrote about it here and found more things to love about the region each time.

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.

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, or even pervasive cultural attitudes 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 in the past four years.

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 the nature of my personality needed to find more possible answers; I wanted to know the answers other cultures have come up with to the big questions in life.

Definite answers are difficult to find, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives.  And though the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind more, allowed me to find a peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I have come to love. The churches of Europe, and the many, many temples of Asia. These places hold energy invested in them by the people who visit. I like the energy in Asia, it healed me.

Though I am sure there are places of worship visible all over my hometown, we often have blinders on to the commonplace. So in Asia, though locals may be accustomed to temples, this is simply not the case for me. I love sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glint from the gilded tips of temples, wash over the flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminate monks tidying the 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 and they are one of 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. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life. And while I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way. I wanted to jolt her 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, 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 am 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. More of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by being outside and joining in on the eating experience, and I knew I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the US 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.

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 am still processing thousands of photographs (upwards of 5,000 photos) from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Asia 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?

This post was last modified on October 25, 2013, 6:16 pm

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  • 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! :)

  • 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 :)

  • 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! :)

  • 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 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! :)

    • 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 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!

  • 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! :)

  • 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 :)

  • 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.

  • 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!