In 2009 I got really fed up with my 9-5 job and decided to quite and spend a year backpacking around Asia. It took a year of living with my Mom, saving every dime and basically driving everyone in my life crazy, but I finally actually did it.
Well that year lead to another year, and another, and I still haven’t managed to find my way back to a desk job just yet. I wrote an ebook about my experiences during that first crazy trip called “A Year Without Make-Up.” It’s not really about make-up though, it’s about traveling in your twenties, falling in love on the road, falling in love WITH the road, having random conversations with local hustlers in Cambodia, acting like a minor celebrity in China and so much more.
I hope you’ll check it out, but in case you’d like to sample before you buy, here is a summary of some of the biggest lessons I learned backpacking around Asia.
1. Traveling Solo is Really Not That Scary
I’m a serious introvert: I hate talking to new people and even mundane tasks, like ordering a pizza, cause unhealthy levels of anxiety. Paradoxically, I loved traveling alone.
For the first time ever I could do whatever I wanted, with absolutely zero judgement. Chocolate shake and foot massage for breakfast? Why not, I’m calling the shots! I didn’t have to talk to anyone if I wasn’t in the mood, and when I was, the fact that I had nobody else to rely on gave me that extra push to get out of my comfort zone. I met tons of interesting travelers and locals, I negotiated border crossings and I even mastered eating out by myself. It was very liberating.
2. You Can Get Used to Almost Anything
It was probably around my third night-bus ride, sitting awake on a dark bus full of snoring Vietnamese passengers while the driver played chicken with oncoming 16 wheelers, when I realized that my perception of reality had become oddly skewed. Almost everyone I knew in life was at home sleeping in real beds right now, and I was listening to my ipod on a careening death bus like it was no biggie at all.
Among the things I became alarmingly unfazed by: squat toilets, riding on motorbikes, being photographed like a zoo animal, extreme air pollution and roosters yelling literally all night (that crowing at dawn myth is total bullshit).
3. Alcohol Buckets are Not A Good Idea
It doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday night, or New Years, or the Full Moon Party. You are definitely going to regret drinking that plastic sand-bucket full of cheap vodka and Thai Redbull. Maybe not tonight, but definitely tomorrow when you wake up in a strange hostel room with weird cuts and bruises and a bad case of the runs.
4. I am Extremely Privileged
Look, I’m not rich, neither are my parents, and I’m currently battling an obstinate pile of student loans, but I’m still a thousand times more well off financially then the majority of the people I encountered on my trip.
Travel really throws this into sharp perspective.Factually I already knew this, but there’s knowing and then there’s coming face to face with extreme poverty, limbless landmine victims and child beggars. Not only did travel open my eyes to a world of injustice, it made me truly grateful for the things I do have.
5. Standards of Beauty are Different Everywhere
I stopped wearing make-up less than a week into my trip (hence the book title). To my surprise I didn’t miss it a bit- and neither did my boyfriend or the Cambodian tuk tuk drivers who serenaded me every night in Sihanoukville. It actually felt really freeing and made me think about the aesthetic demands put on western women.
Of course, almost everywhere has their own unique impossible beauty standards. In Japan it was insane high heels and contact lenses that make your pupils look enormous, in China it was skin whitening creams and in Hong Kong it was a crazy emphasis on high fashion. The more you think about it the more exhausting it all seems.
6. The Best Food is Usually The Cheapest Food
As a backpacker on a tight budget I found myself usually eating quite low to the ground (sometimes quite literally, perched on a colorful plastic stool on the sidewalk in Hanoi). As it turns out, some of the most mouth-watering, memorable meals I’ve ever had were street food costing less than $2.
It makes sense: the less you have to spend, the closer you get to the real, authentic soul of a country. You can spend $100 a night on a fancy hotel or you can spend $10 and stay in a local guest house. I know which I’d choose (well, most of the time).
7. Travel Plans Are Basically Useless
Originally I had huge plans to circle the world, visiting 25 countries in the span of a year. In reality, I managed to hit seven Asian countries and Australia. I traveled much slower than I expected and made some really random and unexpected left turns, like spending months living on a college campus in China of all places (somewhere it had never even occurred to me to visit when drawing up my plans).
Planning for travel is entertaining, but ultimately the reality of life on the road trumps any ideas you had before.
8. 3-D Porn is a Real Thing
A real, and popular thing! I went to see one when I was in Hong Kong, but you’ll have to actually check out the book to see how that one went down.
Mostly I learned that travel is unpredictable, absurd, sometimes miserable, but always interesting. If you’d like to hear more about my adventures, and maybe learn about how to pull off your own big trip,please check out my new eBook here on Thought Catalog.