As cliché as it may sound, travelling is a life-changing experience. As cliché as it may be, it’s also very true. Travel is eye-opening, allowing you to experience different cultures and lifestyles. Not only will travelling widen your view of the world around you, but it’ll also widen your view of the world within you – a landscape many forget to venture to.
Just the mere idea of backpacking has always intrigued me. In fact, I remember how as a child, I was fascinated by people at the airport with nothing but a backpack. Partially due to how everyone else at the airport usually has several pieces of luggage per person. I’d also catch myself wondering what it would be like to live minimally.
So at the beginning of this year, I finally stepped into the shoes I’d always been compelled to wear, and explored Southeast Asia as a solo female backpacker for three months.
I started in Vietnam, a country that blends the extreme with the mundane. Then I proceeded to Laos, a mountainous country willingly stuck in the past. From there, I journeyed to Cambodia, a country that defines the word ‘hope’. Moving onto Thailand was a shock with its modern skyscrapers, but finally, visiting Myanmar lessened the impact with its rich culture and age-old traditions.
Naturally, I evolved throughout my journey. By embracing each emotion along the way, but continually remaining in motion, I found my way to the changed person I am today. So here’s what backpacking taught me – I call it the four Ps.
The main life lesson I learned while backpacking was perspective. Some may feel that watching a documentary on the country you’re visiting is enough. While I agree that you can, I disagree that it’s enough. Reading about or watching something is entirely different from experiencing that something first-hand.
I’ve read, and even seen photographs, about the effects that Agent Orange still has on the Vietnamese population, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing it with my own eyes. On my trip, I saw an actual person – a child – with deformities caused by Agent Orange, and my heart broke. I couldn’t help but tear up at the injustice and unfairness of it all.
Naturally, my perspective towards certain things has changed, especially my depth of gratitude for everything I have. I’ve gone through life believing that I don’t have much, but I realise now that, to some, it’s a whole lot.
I’m just going to say it: we have so much more than we need. Even then, excessive consumption is still a major issue in developing countries. Obviously, living out of a backpack (and not a big one, mind you) taught me to be practical; basically to minimise and trim the fat. For example, despite the endless knick knacks I discovered on this trip, I always asked myself two crucial questions before making a purchase: Do I want to carry this around in my backpack for a prolonged period? Will it even fit into my backpack?
Now, even before tucking into a meal, I question its excessiveness. Do I want to spend that extra money on a soft drink or milkshake? More often than not, it’s a ‘no’ for me. Maybe it’s extreme for some, but hey, it allows me to save money for my next adventure. Cutting tiny costs where it won’t be missed can do wonders for your wallet, but most importantly, it’ll help you differentiate between a want and a need.
In an era of instant gratification, patience is often left on the side-lines, waiting for you to remember its existence and importance. Truth is, and let’s be real, we can’t always get what we want, when we want. The sooner we make peace with that, the sooner we’ll find peace within.
I was on a strict budget throughout my three-month trip, and so I opted for public transport most of the time. However, public transport in Southeast Asia is something else. Picture this: I was leaving Cambodia for Thailand via bus, and the journey was supposed to last for around 16 hours. It’s crazy, I know. Just as Murphy’s Law would have it, for reasons still unbeknownst to me, the journey lasts close to 24 hours instead!
I didn’t complain, though. The best thing to do is just accept the adventure and remain patient, because really, what could I do besides be angry or at peace? Getting angry wouldn’t change anything, and the driver wasn’t going to drive faster at my demand (though I wish he did).
If there’s one common quality shared by developing nations, it has to be perseverance. Despite the tragedies that Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar have endured, the people of these countries persevere by embodying hope and happiness.
I was genuinely touched throughout my time in Laos because despite mass poverty, children are still just children. You see them creating fun games using their imagination and laughing with everyone and anyone; persevering despite their circumstances. So I learned that, yes, sometimes you can’t control your circumstances. However, you can control your attitude towards those circumstances.