I decided to become a backpacking solo traveler four years ago, at the age of 39. With my travel experiences up to that point consisting of nights at the Four Seasons while traveling for business, weeks on hot beaches at all-inclusive resorts, and stints in easy destinations like Paris and Florence, I had no idea if this more rustic style of travel would suit me. For weeks prior to departing on my miniature ‘round-the-world excursion, I voiced my uncertainty to several people (most notably to myself): “I could be back in 3 weeks, 3 months, or 3 years.” There was no way to know if I would feel happy and safe traipsing around places unknown, alone, and living without many of the comforts of home.
It didn’t take long for me to find the answer. I took to backpacking like the proverbial duck to water. I discovered I had inherited a bit of my mother’s uncanny sense of resourcefulness (she is still one of the best campers I have ever known), and living simply and without many luxuries (by North American standards, at least) brought me more delight that discouragement. Four months into my journey, I scaled a volcano in Indonesia at sunrise on my 40th birthday and found my authentic self waiting for me at the summit. When we’re happy, we don’t need much.
Flash forward to today: I’m sitting in the lounge of a posh hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, where I am working as the content strategist for a huge telecom company’s international conference. I am surrounded by polished glass and wood and mounds of fresh orchids discreetly arranged by beautiful Thai women dressed in glistening silks and sashes. There is a newspaper placed at my door every morning, a plate of exotic fresh fruit in my room, and a mile-long buffet of local and international delicacies laid out thrice daily in the restaurant overlooking the bustling Chao Phraya River. I marvel constantly at the many facets of my present good fortune, and am intensely aware of the many contrasts to my previous encounters with Bangkok.
Whenever I’ve visited the Big Mango in the past I’ve stayed in the district of Banglamphu, home of the famed and frenzied Kao San Road. It’s got a lovely mix of locals and tourists and while it’s certainly not roughing it by many standards, it’s a much more basic set-up. There, I pay $20 for a room with a balcony overlooking Rambutri (rate seems to always include ants, and sometimes a bit of mold in the bathroom or on the walls); eat fresh-made pad thai in the street for 35 baht (about a buck), and ride the 50-cent river taxi past the very hotel I’m tucked away in now. Overall, budget travel is an experience that I find less comfortable, less clean, noisier, more tiring and more difficult, especially in my 40s.
So why do I miss it so much?
Because from the street-level of this noisy, hot, sticky, polluted, crazy city, I can participate. Unlike in this perfectly air-conditioned, proper and refined haven, in the street I have no choice but to see, touch, and certainly smell the real Bangkok – and while that may sound unsavory to some, to me it is an integral part of what travel is all about. Immersing myself in the life of any place I visit keeps my senses keen, keeps me in the moment, prods my adventurous and resourceful self back into action. It is a piece of me that sadly I allow to fall dormant when I’m living my North American life (which I more or less have been for the last 10 days: really, this hotel could be in any city in any country in the world and I would barely detect the difference. Is this how rock stars feel?)
Tomorrow I will stuff my backpack and check out of this perfect place. I do feel a pang of sadness that there will be no more plush bathrobe, no more down duvet on my bed, no more room service. I realize there is nothing wrong with enjoying the comforts of life, and they do seem more attractive when they’re about to vanish. As I leave the staff and I will “wai” and the glass door will be held open for me as I exit and make my way down the manicured pathway to the street, where tuk-tuk drivers and fake tour guides will instantly begin accosting me.
Part of me feels tired thinking about it; but a bigger part of me honestly can’t wait.