Eat…Meditate…Realize Some Important *ISH

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…that would be the title of my trip through Southeast Asia.

The first part of my trip was definitely about eating — off the 4 countries that I visited, Thailand had the best food in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong – Vietnamese food is good, and granted – I didn’t stay long in Cambodia or Laos – but they couldn’t top flavorful, spicy-ass Thai food for a dollar at your local street market. OOOOooooOOoohhhh I miss Thai food!

The second part of my journey was also in Thailand — going to visit Tan Thien at Wat Pah Sunan in Kanchanaburi. I am HELLA glad I got to spend time at the forest monastery with him; without that experience I think I still would be a lot more jaded, and a little less grounded in my purpose.

The third part of my trip was about seeing the country. In Cambodia I got to see a lot Khmer history and how it continues to affect Cambodian people today, and got a chance to see how gorgeous Laos is. I just wish I had more time to spend in both countries to get to know them better, especially Laos where most of my activities were pretty touristy (albeit pretty awesome and absolutely beautiful).

My first and last stops in Vietnam were all about figuring some personal shit out. My first visit to Saigon and Da Lat in December left me feeling slightly jaded and shitty, but my second time to Hanoi and Saigon was just what I needed to prepare me for my journey back to the states…to take on the rest of 2012.

SO here’s a list of my MAIN realizations and lessons learned from my trip. Please excuse the corniness and sappiness of these lessons – I know that many of them sound hella cliche…but the reason why you hear about them so much is because THEY REALLY ARE TRUE. Word.

Lesson #1: I really value my interactions with people

I realized this early on when I thought about all the good times that I had during my travels. Sure, I loved being alone and wandering the cities by myself, but there is just something amazing about meeting people – whether it’s 30 seconds or 3 days.

I’ve gone on and on about all the dope people that I met during my travels (that were friends of friends) — from Joe in Bangkok to Jimmy/Kat/Vinh and Co. in Vietnam…but there were other times that really captured my heart too…

Some of my most memorable times include: the local lady in Chiang Mai who shopped for sunglasses with me – even though we didn’t speak the same language, we gave each other advice on what to buy for like 5 minutes. The talkative and outgoing little kid at the Surat Thani train station who, when I gave him a cookie, quickly pressed his tiny hands together and bowed towards me (as a sign of respect) without a word. Seeing an old grandmother smile a toothless smile when I asked her if I could also offer her grandson a cookie. All the cab drivers in Thailand that told me their life stories. My tour guides – from Try to Nick who hustled hard in the tourism industry to make a living…I’ll never forget their stories. The lady in Cambodia who loaned me her sweater to see a temple. My young, Cambodian make-shift tour guide in Siem Reap who showed me around one of the temples – total sweetheart! And last but not least, the cool and really friendly cab driver in Vietnam that took me to the Hanoi airport – who didn’t speak a LICK of English but still offered me cigarettes and smoked with me silently during the 45 min car drive. It’s amazing what connections you can make with people…even when you don’t speak the same language. Those quick and fleeting moments were some of the best moments of my trip.

Lesson #2: You are stronger than you think you are 

Everyone told me that I was crazy when I told them that I’d be traveling alone for a little over a month throughout Southeast Asia. I thought I was too – I’ve never really traveled without my family…and I’ve never traveled alone anywhere. After leaving Dario in Vietnam, however, I realized that you’re actually a lot stronger than you think you are. When you have no one else to rely on, you will HAVE TO rely on yourself to figure shit out. Being able to successfully navigate getting from point A to point B (especially going to visit Thien in Kanchanaburi!) builds a lot of confidence. But even if I didn’t make it to see Thien, I would have ended up somewhere…and I probably would have been fine. That’s what traveling did for me – it gave me the courage to try, and when things didn’t work out, I made it work somehow. That’s just kinda how life is.

A lot of women, especially young women (19 and up!) are traveling by themselves. It’s normal, and it’s pretty safe out there. Being alone, however, does put you more on guard and makes you more aware of your surroundings. Maybe more mindful, even. So you tend to take better care of yourself than you would if you were with someone else, or in a group.

Lesson #3: The rest of the world is just not that violent

I was really afraid of potential violence – of being mugged, raped, beaten, etc. But you know what? The rest of the world IS NOT that violent. I felt infinitely safer out there than I do walking down the street near my house in Oakland. I had a money belt, carabiners on my bag, etc. etc. Yes, pick pocketing is a big problem out there, but guess what – pickpocketing is NON-VIOLENT. Usually. Unless someone slashes your bag off your body and cuts you, you are just getting your money stolen without you noticing. People don’t want to be confrontational! Only here in the states is violence the norm.

I never once used a money purse (the ones you wear around your waist) and I didn’t really need the belt. Just watch your shit and keep your bag in front of you!

I’m thinking of carrying a money belt and a money purse in Oakland – it would be more appropriate here. Shiiieeeetttt…

Lesson #4: Being alone is pretty dope

Being alone can be like an insight meditation – you could just wander around for hours and just observe your thoughts, and what it says about how you’re doing these days. I learned a lot about myself, how I was feeling, and reflected a lot upon my life as I traveled from place to place – taking in the sights, meeting different people, and going on different adventures. I journaled. I meditated. I sat. And I watched life go by around me. The best times for solitude are definitely on 1) trains, and 2) around gorgeous vistas (whether you’re by the edge of the Mekong river in Laos or in the heart of busting Bangkok).

Everyone needs some alone time. It’s refreshing, reinvigorating. It puts everything into perspective. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Lesson #5: Stop worrying about shit that doesn’t matter

Before I left, I was really stressed out. So stressed out, that I in fact lost my period (TMI, I know).

After going through Southeast Asia and meeting all the amazing people along the way, I learned to now worry. I mean shit, THEY didn’t worry! They were in their late 30’s and were single – but they didn’t worry about finding a partner and having kids! They just let life take them where they needed to go, and didn’t try to force it. They accepted their fates and worked with what they had. Meeting people in Hanoi, especially, helped me put most of my life into perspective. From Jimmy who came to Vietnam with $3,000 and no job, to Kat who decided to go to Law School despite pressure from outside people, to Marjorie and Reshirdan who were traveling by themselves at 37, 38 years old (and still partying with 22 year olds!), they all taught me a lot and reinforced a lot of the feelings that I have about not letting petty shit get you down. Life is too short to be worrying, stressing, and being upset. When shit happens, it happens. We can still grieve, but ultimately we must accept it so that we can learn, and move on…

I have more faith now…that whatever happens to me, I’ll make it work.

Lesson #6: There’s a lot of similarities between cultures

I never knew that cultures had so many similarities. Yeah, yeah….Chinese domination, it’s true. But from the strong Buddhist culture in all 4 countries that’s infused throughout all society and families (mostly in Laos and Thailand) , to the language – there’s so much intertwined history and influence, it’s amazing. Everywhere you go in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, animist spirit houses are in front of each and every house and business. Then there’s little things that are interesting – like how for many of the main languages (not the minority languages), 3 = Saam and 10 = Sahp (for the most part – every language has different variations. Vietnamese is the exception, however). Then there’s big things – like how similar Thailand and Laos are.

Hello: Sahwahdikahp! (Thai) / Sabai Dii (Lao)

Thank you: Kahpkunkah! (Thai) / Kahp Jaai (Lao)

The script is even similar, due to some languages being inspired by other culture’s script. Try said that Thai was inspired by Khmer script. Lao also looks pretty similar.

Lesson #7: I love teaching

Jimmy made me realize this during our many late night conversations in Hanoi – I LOVE TEACHING. It comes from my personal experiences of struggle during middle school and high school. I think that’s my role in this world. I’m good at it, I enjoy it, and I find a strong sense of purpose in it. While I love organizing and feel that being a director is important, I really love sharing knowledge with others and creating spaces that are nurturing, where we are learning from one another. It’s the best feeling. I care deeply about how people learn and attain knowledge, because it was such a challenge for me growing up.

Lesson #8: Realize that life IS an adventure

Sometimes you have a plan – but most of the time, those plans change. But that’s the beauty of it all. It’s kinda fun that way – Jimmy helped me realize this the most. Well, he also thinks that death is the ultimate adventure…and while I wouldn’t venture that far, I do believe that really beautiful stuff comes out of riding the waves in life. You learn, you grow, you experience some amazing times. You come across things that you wouldn’t expect. Traveling definitely helped me realize it.

If I ever get paranoid and upset with my life not being stable enough, I’m going to have to go on a long trip again to help me gain a better sense of perspective. EVEN if it’s just traveling cross-country…

Lesson #9: You never know what’s going to happen (AKA: You’re not that old)

Yeah, this kind of plays into Lessons #5 and 8…I’m going to stop being all doom and gloom now. While I still believe in planning for the worst and hoping for the best, I’m going to focus much more on the latter and not the former from now on. There’s just too many possibilities in life to be sad and worrying about shit all the time. You. Just. Never know…

Lesson #10: What’s the worst that’s going to happen?

This is for people like me that have the privilege of having a supportive family that’s financially decent. I get worried about making big moves and failing. What if I go into crazy debt? What if I lose all my money? What if I try but end up defeated? Well, what’s the worst that can happen. As Jimmy says, “you go broke, and end up going back to sleeping at your parent’s house”. This is true. That’s why we should go for broke these days. Times a wastin’….make use of it! Make it an adventure…so you can say that you AT LEAST TRIED before you gave up.

After this realization, I was actually happy to go back to the bay. I was ready to fuck up. In fact, I was looking forward to being a really big fuck up this year, just so I could go through what it’s like and not be so fucking afraid anymore. ..just learn to let shit go and go for broke.

Yes, I know that Murhpy’s law still applies pretty often to my life. But still – go out there and be somebody! At least say that you try. It’s the journey, not the destination.


Lesson #11: FUCK IT!

YES. Fuck the stress. Fuck the judgment (your own, and other people’s). Fuck what your friends say, sometimes they’re right but sometimes they’re wrong. Fuck him, he’s not smarter than you. Fuck people who try to take you down, whether they mean to or not. Fuck the petty shit – life is full of it. FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU.

I apply this one quite often to my work these days – it works wonders. And it’s contagious! We need to say fuck you to the shit that doesn’t matter so we can stay resilient, stay positive…and be at our best.


In the end, the most valuable lesson that I learned was to have respect for myself: for making myself a stronger, wiser, and a more confident person…for being someone that I could finally look up to. I’ve never really felt this way about myself before. And that…is a huge accomplishment in my eyes.

* * * * *


Posted: February 21, 2012

Author: Tiffany

Category: Asia, Blog, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam

Tags: , , ,


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