Over the past six months, I’ve quit my job, moved to Chiang Mai, backpacked around Southeast Asia, and now I’m back in my Thai hometown to spend another month writing, working, and practicing MMA. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But it’s not for everyone.
If you have a location independent job or project that you can work on, if you have a sport or hobby that you can practice, and if you have the self-discipline to stay focused without supervision – then yes, a one-way ticket might be a good idea.
In my case: I spent 3-5 hours a day training Muay Thai, and I’m a professional blogger (my parents are so proud). I probably worked harder during my vacation than I have for any one-month stretch of my life.
I’ve also met quite a few guys out here with similar lifestyles. They’re managing SEO companies, scouting factories, building information products, affiliate marketing, making porn (true story), and writing software. They are, in short, on the grind. They are working, training, and building.
If this is the kind of lifestyle you can realistically envision for yourself while living abroad, hop on a plane.
The hustlers described above are a slim minority.
If you are fresh out of college, have no idea what you want to do in life, and want to spend the last 10k of your student loan money on a year-long trip around the world to “find yourself” – don’t. You’ll wind up on a path to being forty years old, without a dollar or a marketable skill to your name. Southeast Asia is full of these types, and you don’t want to be one of them.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe, eavesdropping on a woman who is making my point perfectly. She’s 34, Australian, and has spent the past ten years teaching English and working for NGOs. She is single, twenty pounds overweight, with short frizzy hair that looks like it was styled with a chainsaw. Her wardrobe is straight out of Wal-mart’s Winter 2012 ‘Frumpy’ collection. She took a train into Chiang Mai this morning, and has invited the middle-aged Thai woman who shared her sleeper car to breakfast, no doubt in search of a truly authentic experience.
Let’s play a game called annoying Hippie Traveler Stereotype Bingo with Ms. Frumpy McFrumpleton:
1) Physically unattractive and unkempt – Check!
2) New balance hiking shoes and Columbia track pants rolled up to her knees – Check!
3) Satchel – Check!
4) Describes herself as a “foodie” – Check!
5) Uses the phrase, ‘Oh, you need to go to Laos!’ – Check!
6) Laments the increasing tourist presence, and declining authenticity of Thailand – Check!
7) Insincere perma-smile plastered across her face at all time – Check!
8) Feels great shame for not speaking Thai and apologizes for this repeatedly – Check!
9) Hairy legs – Check!
10) Cannot hold a conversation about anything except a) places she’s traveled to, or b) places she wants to travel to.
Congratulations Frumpy Hippie Traveler. Today, and today alone, you score a perfect 10/10.
The male of the Hippie Traveler species (Hippidae Nomadicus) is similar in many respects, but with more drugs, less volunteer work, more tattoos, and less subconscious terror of dying childless and alone. Also, one hopes, more angst at the prospect of having nothing to show for his life beyond photo albums, acid flashbacks, and a thick passport.
In case I’m being overly circumspect about my feelings: I do my best to avoid these people. They are boring, uninspiring, and since they have nothing in their lives beyond travel for the sake of itself, they have very little to teach me. Their problem is that they’ve fallen for the great myth of Traveling.
According to this myth, the mere act of living somewhere that is not your permanent home is somehow educational, productive, and ennobling. Sure, they haven’t learned anything in the past decade that I couldn’t find on trip adviser. Sure, they are penniless and alone. Sure, the only people who can stand their company are others like them. Whatever man!
Their path is an easy one to take. If you aren’t doing anything with your life, the easiest way to distract yourself from that fact is to start living out of a backpack. Your days will be full of activity – finding food, finding hostels, catching buses, going out, keeping an eye out for pickpockets. Much like white-collar workers who distract themselves with busywork, aimless travel is a way of filling your time, so you don’t have to ask hard questions about how you’re spending your 25,000 days.
So please, don’t become that guy. Don’t pack a bag and fly away from home without a plan. Don’t go abroad until you have a project you want to work on, a skill you want to develop – anything more than just a list of countries you want to see.