I’m in Luang Prabang, in Northern Laos. It’s a UNESCO site, nestled in the mountains, along the Mekong river, with Wats (temples) abounding and a mix of elderly colonial buildings and quiet, small Laotian houses and shops. A hub for commerce and visitors to this region, but quiet. It’s the first time I’ve been able to hear myself think since I left home three weeks ago.
My time in Bangkok was fun, but tiring — I felt pressure to See Things, to be fully there. I walked and walked and walked and ate and ate and ate. And my bike trip in Sri Lanka was good, and full — stunningly beautiful country, cultural sites, what felt like a huge physical accomplishment. Fun. I really liked the other people on my trip. But… it also felt draining and not what I wanted it to be, really.
Now that I’m here, alone, in a place that doesn’t call out to all the things I “should” be doing, I feel lightness for the first time. There’s a spiral of layers about why.
The first layer is about the difference between being on holiday and traveling. It’s a bit of an arbitrary line, and I know I risk a certain snottery in framing it this way, but it’s the best way I can describe it. Holidays are escape, I think — a place we go to be away from our work lives, where we want comfort, luxury, to be taken care of, to feel pampered. Pools and drinks and all needs met. Traveling for me is different — it’s about opening up, not expecting things. I think most people wouldn’t be aware of this distinction, or would feel defensive about it. But it’s something at the essence for me.
On the trip in Sri Lanka, the hotels were about three grades fancier than I expected. We would troop in all filthy and exhausted, dripping mud all over pristine marble floors, too grimy for the infinity pools, no place to rinse and hang our muddy clothes. The restaurants required reservations, dressing for dinner, no flip flops. No place started serving dinner before 730.
It’s lovely — and it also makes me feel “off.” When a hotel is expensive and fancy, I start to feel underserved rather than taken care of. I notice slow service, billing mistakes, get irritated when I can’t get what I want Right Now, when the coffee is nescafe or when the wifi doesn’t work well or is only available in the lobby. In Sri Lanka, several hotels had these vast, abundant buffets, and I would survey them and be turned off by choice, not find anything I really wanted to eat. Feel dissatisfied, not grateful. Roll my eyes at the lukewarm shower. I feel this way generally, and felt it more so in Sri Lanka. The country does not have much of a service culture even though every hotel has countless smartly dressed inefficient people buzzing around. In every fancy hotel, we might wait more than half an hour before a server even said hello to our table. (In one, after 45 minutes of sitting with the menu and no drinks or order-taking, watching six servers run around and bring everyone else who came in with us their food, I finally stood up and said randomly into the room “will someone please talk to us?”). They *always* got the bills wrong, or brought the wrong food. And in the fancy hotels, instead of rolling with it, I felt grumpy, badly served. It’s like I’m engaging in a promise of being taken care of, and notice when the promise is not met. I start thinking “for $225/night, I expect more than this.”
In the simpler hotels, it’s the opposite for me. I am grateful for every hint of care. Appreciate that my needs are boiled down to clean sheets and a functional bathroom, am delighted by the shutters that open onto the tiny busy streets, happily don earplugs when there is noise from next door, hearing it not as “this hotel is so fancy but noisy,” but rather, “those people sound happy.”
In Luang Prabang, my hotel is simple, in an old villa. I’m delighted to discover it’s right on the Mekong and that I have a little shuttered balcony all to myself. I love that the manager says laundry is too expensive if the hotel does it, I should find someone on the street. I find a woman in the laneway about 200 m from my hotel, and all my filthy stuff costs 20,000 kip — about $3. I get to sit in the floor and pet her snuggly dog while she folds. The dog purrs like a cat. In Kandy at the fancy hotel, my laundry was $38 and they shrunk my jerseys. And there was no purring dog.
My least favourite hotel in Sri Lanka was the beach resort where we began and ended our trip. I left for the airport in the middle of the gala new year’s eve party, with the buffet with the ice sculptures, an infinity buffet of fancy appetizers, grilled food, Sri Lankan food. I was glad to have the experience, but oddly pleased I had to go early. It felt *vulgar* and overwhelming to me. And while the food was meticulously prepared and beautifully and proudly presented, it didn’t taste of much. No nuance.
My favourite hotel in Sri Lanka was an old colonial tea plantation on the top of the hill with pristine, simple rooms, a dinner served with no options, and no alcohol. I wanted a gin and tonic after the long day, but settled happily into a cup of tea with the glorious sunset. My second favourite was the eco-lodge on top of the mountain, with comfortable simple beds, where there was literally nothing to do but be there. I said I wished I could stay for three days; my friends said they couldn’t imagine what they would do there for three days.
Throughout my trip, I’ve tried to find a way to make sense of this dissatisfaction, disoriention I felt. There’s nothing “wrong” with luxury — but it’s not my preference. And I realized that I have a harder time being fully present when there is so much abundance, so much comfort — it creates an expectation of happiness when my being is more contrary than that. I am happiest when riding or hiking hard, then having simple quick meal in my riding clothes and then crawling into bed. I don’t always want a carefully planned four course meal that takes two hours and requires conversation, especially not after a full day.
There was someone on my trip in Sri Lanka who was another clue to why I feel “off” in these spaces. My Russian friend in the UK is a profoundly “silver lining” person. She was encouraging when I felt unable to keep cycling, and extremely kind. She relished good egg rottis by the side of the road, and sought out massage in every possible venue, coming back fully relaxed, shining. I admired her ability to be so grateful and appreciative of everything around her. And yet — it also made me feel contrary. Because as grateful as I am for having the privilege to travel, to have the physical body that makes it possible, I felt in that space with her a lack of permission to find it hard, to acknowledge that my body was sore. Couldn’t be cranky and upset that I lost my glasses. (My Russian friend’s response to my lost glasses was “Yay — now you can get new ones!” Well yes, but I liked those ones, it will be a massive pain in the ass, cost me $1200 and take at least a month from now, and meantime I’m wearing my backup glasses that are completely inappropriate for cycling and can’t read with. And I’m annoyed at myself for being such an idiot for leaving them in the bathroom at our last lunch stop. Some things ARE upsetting).
So this dissatisfaction is about modes of travel, and why I travel, but it’s about a lot more than that. I think I travel because I want to find ways to be present to what is, to find the essence of what I need, to test myself and strengthen myself while opening up to the new. Fancy hotels insulate you from the world around you, and they also create a tiny eco-system of needs and (dis)satisfaction. I feel free-er, more centred, when I am on my own, where I feel a weave with the world I am in, not buffered from it by a huge buffet and a “room boy.”
I think, at heart, I travel to be alone with myself, in a new world. This bike trip started out with three others, then six more joined us. I liked all of them — but realized this is not really for me. Every meal is in company, every move is in unison. Riding with others, I feel pressure to ride too fast to stop and look when there is a snake in the road, to fish my phone out of my camelback to take a lot of photos. I feel mildly shamed for being tired (and two decades older than almost everyone else), for needing food reasonably soon after a 100km ride. When “This is beautiful but I found it hard and I’m tired” is met with “I didn’t,” there’s not much room for the shared wonder of having accomplished it.
I realize that all of this sounds like a massive complaint when it looks to the outside world that I have had a stunning, unusual experience and should be grateful for it. And I am. I am grateful for riding through the mountains of Sri Lanka, through the tea plantations, dipping into the fancy beach resort world. And I feel grateful that I had such good people on my trip. But I am also realizing that this kind of travel doesn’t satisfy the essence of why I travel at this point in my life.
I think, at heart, this kind of travel is about temporary escape from one’s real life, work life. But what I need when I am not working is unplanned days that flow in a rhythm I don’t have time for when I’m home, about wandering and discovering things, about liminal creative space where I sit in the edge between being somewhere and not quite knowing what to expect. And I need to move my body in those spaces. Fancy hotels and organized trips have preset expectations, and the experience is mediated through those, not the possibility of wandering off on a new path, discovering a restaurant or cafe, watching the street for an hour, a conversation with someone new. In the airport in Vientiane yesterday, I struck up a conversation with a young French woman traveling on her own for 3 months, guitar on her back. She was full of delight and openness to the world. When we reached Luang Prabang, I paid for our taxi downtown, protecting her savings enough for at least one more meal on her trip. I felt like I was where I was supposed to be.
The second part of my trip in Laos is another bike trip, a much shorter one. The hotels are simpler than in Sri Lanka, and my own expectations are clearer. And I have the understanding now of my need for quiet, riding alone, taking the time I need to feel where I am. I will be in it differently. And think differently about future trips.
Coda: after I wrote this, I spent the afternoon wandering around, then went for a short, slow run before dinner. As I ran a group of young Aussies passed me toiling on rickety guesthouse bikes, on their way to a dinner river boat ride. “Are you on holiday?” called out one. “Yes” I said. “Then why are you exercising??! We should buy you a drink!”
Holiday. Travel. Me.