This past weekend marked my three year anniversary of leaving Seattle and moving to Southeast Asia. Though at the time I didn’t really think of it as ‘moving’, more like I was leaving for an extended trip, I’ve now used Chiang Mai as a home base for longer than anywhere else I’ve lived after high school.
While it hasn’t always been easy, in the end it’s been worth it and I’ve spent the past three years more present and appreciative in my day to day life than before.
Between making Thai wages, traveling back and forth from Southeast Asia (relatively cheap) to Europe and North America (relatively not cheap), making U.S. dollars but spending in Thai baht, working long hours for little pay then working barely at all for hundreds of dollars, spending $1 on a full plate of food in Chiang Mai but $15 for a mediocre wheel of brie…I don’t know what anything is worth anymore.
$1,000 plane tickets around the world seem reasonable, yet I think my monthly rent is a little high at $215. I was happy spending $30 on lunch in Italy for myself, but would never dream of spending that for a dinner and drinks for two in Thailand. I don’t get paid for some of my writing jobs, but then as a perk I get put up in 4-star hotels I would never splurge on myself.
Money, and the things we put monetary value to, are all made up and arbitrary and my perception of what’s a good deal or reasonable price is completely skewed.
When I first left home and had been backpacking for a few weeks I was in awe of people who had been traveling for three months, six months, 18 months – after years of 14 days of vacation from work (that I didn’t fully use), going anywhere for more than 14 days was difficult to comprehend.
Now I’m that person that others look at in disbelief when they ask how long I’ve been in Thailand. The other crazy thing – it hasn’t felt like three years. Maybe one…
I increasingly feel more and more removed from the backpackers I see wandering through Chiang Mai daily, yet no matter how long I live here or how well I speak the language, I will never fit in or belong in Thailand. Ever. And understandably so, but after three years out of America, I don’t think like I ‘belong’ there either.
And barbecued pork skewers. And rice soup. Though when I first came I tried most things, there was still a part of me hesitant about sketchy meat and side of the road shacks. That hesitance has gone completely out the window. I’ve eaten raw crab and shrimp from a street stall, regularly order grilled naem, a fermented pork sausage popular in the north, and unidentifiable curries that have been sitting out for hours. And you know what? I still have never gotten food poisoning. Semi-regular tummy troubles, yes (I blame the chilies), but I’ve never gotten completely ill from eating anything and fully believe that it really comes down to luck. You could just as easily get sick from something in a high end restaurant as from off the street.
“Oh, I can’t go out to dinner tomorrow because I need to go Laos for a visa run.” If I say I’m popping out of Thailand to head to another exotic, often ‘third world’, country to my friends at home they do a double take. Here, it’s barely worth mentioning. Making quick trips to other countries, ordering food in Thai and never having all your friends in town at once (because someone is always going somewhere) is normal. Traveling to foreign countries, working and living abroad is normal. Speaking several languages or being in relationships with partners from different countries is normal.
I don’t have many possessions. Aside from a few clothes, several of which are the same as what I originally brought from home, I care about my passport, my bank account and my motorbike. I’ve collected items of a different sort however – friendships and relationships that I know have to be left behind at some point, the knowledge that things are done differently around the world and the difficulty of integrating them with what I grew up with, the awareness that not everyone has the abilities or opportunities to do the things they want to do, like I do, and the guilt and frustration that comes with that.
I’ve gotten attached to people, places, beliefs, traditions, activities and routines that I enjoy immensely, and that I know won’t always be a part of my life. How can you be completely content somewhere when you know there are other places out there that you love and have left part of your heart in?
Oh, and I have a puppy. Never saw that one coming. I’ve never had any pets, so why would I have one in a foreign country?
Your job and career don’t necessarily need to have a linear or obvious path, you can work on a variety of projects with different income streams rather than focus on one job or one way of making money, and while it’s obviously important for supporting yourself, a job doesn’t have to define you.
Traveling opens up your world in a lot of ways, but I think the most significant realization is recognizing that there’s really no right or wrong way to do things. Everything from working to washing clothes – activities, jobs, housing, transportation, daily schedules, beliefs and relationships are handled in all different ways by all different types of people around the world. There’s also a lot of gray area…things are rarely black and white, good or bad, right or wrong.
While I travel more often, and more easily, than I did at home, I also have more conflicting feelings about it. When I first left I wanted to go everywhere and see everything, but somewhere along the way, the novelty has worn off – just a little bit – it’s still there, but not nearly as strong as before. After living in an area which is a major tourist hub and being surrounded by travelers, tour companies, attractions and accommodation, I find myself questioning what’s the point, value, benefit and downside of travel for both the tourists and the companies catering to them. Particularly in areas where foreigners are treated well, but the local people wouldn’t be allowed the same access or privileges in those foreign countries.
Before I left home everyone, including people I didn’t know, asked if I’d be starting a blog and I always said no. In fact, in my head it was more like, “Hellllll to the no!”. I was so burnt out after several years working in PR and dealing with media outlets, reporters, blog and social media 24/7. Plus I hate the word ‘blog’.
Three years later and not only do I have a blog (that people other than just my mother read) but have actively built up an audience, written and worked for a number of other sites and companies, and also now opened a shop! None of which I set out to do in the beginning. I thought that I would teach for six months and travel for 6-8 months and that would be it.
People don’t tell you that when you’re traveling and living abroad long term you’re going to deal with a lot of little ailments – hopefully never anything horrible, but certainly your body will turn on you in some way. They don’t tell you, because your travel tales will most likely overshadow the random issues, but don’t expect to stay in perfect condition while abroad. Simply flying from one place to another can throw your system out of whack and you’ll experience niggling problems you don’t normally have at home – stomach issues, random rashes, simple mental and physical exhaustion… And through much of the world, a crapload of bug bites.
In a way what I want to do is more clear, but on the other hand I’m even more directionless than before since my world has been opened up in so many ways…guess we’ll see what they next three years bring…
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
Enter your email for a taste of different worlds, must-read posts, and special offers.
(Don't worry, I'll never spam you — just send the good stuff.)
I love this post, Alana. Between living in Korea for 3 years and approaching year one in Colombia, I could pretty much relate to everything you wrote. Oh, and one of the cats that hangs around my host family’s house just had kittens, so I think I’m going to take one…or two. 🙂
But then what are you going to do with the kitty when you leave?? I’m already thinking ahead for that… :/
As a fellow expat in Thailand, you are totally bang on!
Thanks for reading, Ramon!
I feel the same way about not really fitting in anywhere. I’ve also lived abroad for three years now, and while I know that Spain will probably never feel like home, things at ‘home’ change too. It’s a very strange feeling, but at the same time I’ve got two ‘homes’.
It’s true that you wouldn’t want to give up the experience of living abroad just because it makes things at home a little more complicated…but it gets gets a little messy sometimes…
This post feels as though it was written to me. I can relate to absolutely everything. I was living in Chiang Mai for a while and had to leave last week because I could not afford a Visa run. Feeling even more out of place being back home.
Ah, sorry you were caught up in all that…on to bigger and better adventures!
I loved the post and although, I only lasted 6 months in SE Asia. I long to return. I was living in Chiang Mai also. There were times when I felt quite lonely even with so many new friends, but there was never a day, that I didn’t think to myself…Wow! I am so glad I made this decision to live here. Now that I am home, I really, really feel out of place!! Also friends have seemed to distance themselves from me. No one is interested in my adventures in SE Asia. I am just beginning to learn that I need to reach out to fellow travelers who might understand my alienation and passion for traveling and new experiences. Thanks for the post, Alana. Your site is beautiful too!
Thanks for reading, Brian – I know what you mean about both the loneliness living abroad (but still having it be incredible) and feeling out of place back at ‘home’ – good luck with the transition!
I can totally relate to a lot of this. Especially the not belonging anywhere now-I’m a Brit married to an American so living abroad is totally normal for us as one of us always has to be! I’m not really sure where ‘home’ is as we met in Korea, lived in Venezuela then Korea again then London and now Beijing. Home is wherever we are I guess!
It’s great being able to live so many different places, but the flip side is you’re always giving up or missing something else!
What a great post, Alana. Really makes me miss the “simple life” living in Chiang Mai. I often reflect on many of the things you’ve written about… especially the part about the life of travel and tourism, now being on the road again. It’s interesting how living abroad changes your perspective on things… and the entire way your life is lived afterwards.
Now, please go have a delicious $1 bowl of curry or meat on a stick for me 🙂
It’s getting harder for me to just travel and be a tourist since I’ve spent so much time seeing more of the ‘real’ life in a very tourist-y place. I guess I feel like a phony of sorts just popping in and out of places… Thanks for reading, Greg – always enjoy your comments!
Great post, Alana! As an expat myself (in Mexico City, not Chiang Mai), I totally get much of what you’re saying – especially as regards money, passage of time, and food. Time flies doesn’t it?!
Thanks for reading, Scott!
Well done. I’m just over three years in Korea now, and I have been on that same roller coaster of feelings as well. The biggest one that I still don’t know how to process is when to go “home” because I’m not totally sure where that is anymore…
Me neither, Lliam…but I do know I’m looking forward to seeing you soon! xx
Thanks for this post, Alana!
We’ve been on the road only for 6 months, but can relate to your thoughts a lot, especially with the feeling there is no rush to discover all and quickly 🙂
We were living in Chiang Mai for three months and would like to go back there at the end of the year, is simply a great place that allows you to contemplate, too.
Thinking that a two week vacation is long quickly morphs into thinking traveling for 6 months is nothing!
The money point really resonated with me! Even living in the US but working in travel forever, I view the cost of travel through a completely different lens than most people.
I don’t get it! All money and prices and value are made up…
Well written! Travel is aspirational but also damn confusing at times, hey? Wishing you and your puppy every happiness in Thailand!
Thank you, Hayley!
I’ve lived in Chiang Mai on and off for two years now. And also celebrated my 3rd year traveling this week. I couldn’t have summed up my feeling on both any better. And I miss Chiang Mai so much since I left. Especially paying $1 for dinner (living in Australia is nowhere near so affordable)
It’s a hard place to leave for so many reasons!
Very interesting post! We have also been serial expats, living out of our own countries for nearly 5 years now in 5 different countries. Before I read your post I though there would be more similarities than differences between being an expat in SE Asia and in Europe, but you have proved me wrong. In Europe, everything is pretty much the same, I mean the money you pay for things, the time zones and you don’t need to run to a neighbouring country to extend your visa, as we can just travel and work wherever we want within the EU, so we have this one worry less. And I don’t have this feeling that I don’t belong anywhere. I realise that my contact with my home country is not the same and my experiences are different, but I somehow do feel at home. At home not in any particular country, but in Europe in general. I guess, leaving Europe will be a big step as we are thinking of moving to China this year 🙂
I’m approaching the end of my third year in Thailand as well, and can sympathize on pretty much every single thing you talked about here! Crazy how the world works, and life just happen sometimes! I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, though I think I can honestly say there’s been more ups… thankfully. Dealing with things ‘on the road’ or at least in a fixed location that isn’t what you may have once considered home, is often more challenging I find too. You don’t have those familiar comforts… but now you have new ones, and the old ones aren’t quite as familiar anymore.
Such a strange place to be in, yet such a wonderful place too. Imagine if you were still living at ‘home’ with a white picket fence and 2.5 kids instead of a puppy! Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it would certainly have been a different path!
We seem to be somewhat on a similar trajectory Alana – I too am nearing 3 years abroad (mostly Vietnam, but likewise 4 mo. Chiang Mai, and now settling in here at 8,000 feet in Cuenca, Ecuador) and all of your points ring poignantly true. Among them:
“How can you be completely content somewhere when you know there are other places out there that you love and have left part of your heart in?”
So true. Though I l.o.v.e. it here in Ecuador (and certainly am far more easily learning the language here than those squiggles in Thailand or the insufferable 6 tones of Vietnamese), a large chunk of me will forever be in Vietnam. And of course, my beloved Seattle will always be missed (though I can’t even imagine ever living in the States again).
In short, you’re right – I doubt that I can ever be fully content no matter where I live anymore, but… the upside is – I truly feel like the entire Planet is my “home” and I’m acutely aware that I’m now a “citizen of the World”.
I know whenever I leave Thailand I’m going to leave a big part of myself behind and just the thought of it makes me sad!
You summed it up perfectly! I lived in Bangkok for a year before taking a few months to travel and then coming back to the US…I guess because I thought I had to. Anyway, home is a different planet than when I left it and I’m moving back to Asia. Yay!
I know many people, myself included, you have lived in Asia and gone home not auricularly because they wanted to or needed to, but because they felt like they had to for some reason…and then most of them moved back to Asia 😉 Where are you moving to??
I’m going through a period of transition right now and can relate on a lot of points you talked about, especially how I now view working and jobs. I used to be very typical in how I thought about my career but after getting out to see the world, meeting a ton of other travellers, and falling into blogworld I realize that there are so many more possibilities out there than what was put into my head throughout high school. It doesn’t just have to be one linear path up the corporate ladder until retirement at 65!
It’s wonderful seeing how many people do things in different ways, but it’s also overwhelming sometimes!
On time and money, I can empathize – living in Arctic Alaska. Wow!
Glad to have found your lovely blog via Twitter! Amazing you’re having such a great experience of living somewhere completely different for an extended period of time. Just the best thing to do, and when you’re 80 you’ll think, YES that was me! 🙂
Very true 🙂
Great to read, partly because I can identify with so much of it, and partly because it’s really interesting to see how longer periods of time in a country have such incredible effects of people. I envy your prolonged time in Thailand, a country I liked during the few months we were there last year, but now long for and really miss as the months drift by.
It’s a really difficult place to leave!
I’ve been living abroad for the past four years, with Chiang Mai as my base for the past year and half, so I totally related to a lot of these points. I actually just found your blog through TBS and it’s been fun reading about your perspective on life in CM!
Thanks for stopping by, Silvia – hope you find something new or useful you didn’t know about the city yet!
I loved this article. I have yet to travel abroad but I plan on doing a lot more of it post-graduation, and reading this has left me feeling nothing less than excited. These are side effects I would happily deal with.
Although I haven’t lived in one place abroad for anything like as long as you, I know how you feel about being a bit displaced. I’ve spend quite a bit of time travelling, don’t have anywhere to live in England and my family have now moved to Scotland anyway, so my old home-town has little left for me. For now I’m just enjoying being free and if somewhere comes along that I like enough to make me settle down then I guess that will be the place! Thank-you for sharing such an honest post. I love your blog by the way, I’m just looking through your archives now.
Thanks for reading, Katie – I appreciate it. Safe travels!
Love this list and absolutely agree – even though I’m back in the corporate world, I still feel some of these traits holding strong.
My relationship with travel has changed quite a bit as well. In addition to how you spoke about it in terms of increased awareness, part of the reason I’m back in corporate America is because this is how I plan to use this experience to eventually live around the world. Muahahaha
Yeah…I think it just has to be done. There’s no way I could have lived abroad like I did had I not worked and saved for three years beforehand.
Very interesting thinking. Freedom from the all standards. It is interesting, what you will be doing in your 30 or 40 years? What to do and where to live? What country will be your favorite one?
I used to live in different countries. Frankly I can relate your article with myself too. It has almost cover everything.
Thanks for reading, Manu!
What a beautifully composed piece. Love it! Very relatable, refreshing, yet real!
Lovely meeting you over the weekend.
Hope to see you at TBEX.
Nice to meet you too – thanks for reading!
While we travel in a completely different way (we have been on an RV Road Trip across North America for the past 4 years) I feel mostly the same way. Especially on the “I still don’t know what I am doing part”. Too many opportunities in too many different directions causes my mind to twist into a pretzel.
I so don’t know what I’m doing….
I feel like I’m you three years ago… Just moved to Chiang Mai and started a blog. Although it’s scary to think that in three years I still won’t know what I’m doing, it’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one. It’s definitely hard to be on the not-so-linear path because who knows, it might just go around in circles. But maybe that’s not so bad and it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey right? Hope so anyway 😉
I think most things go more in circles and less in clear lines than people think…
Such a great post Alana! I really enjoyed reading through all the points that you have outlined about changing your perspective on so many things. It was my first time visiting Asia this year for TBEX and it really opened my mind in so many ways.
Thanks for reading, Elena – where else did you visit in Asia?
I’ve been living in Tokyo, Vietnam and Hong Kong and relate so much to what you say here. It’s really reassuring to know feeling this way is normal. The hardest part I find is explaining everything all this to my friends and family back home. Of course it’s understandable that they can’t relate or quite get it, but sometimes it makes me feel like I’ll forever be slightly changed in their eyes, and we’ll never know each other quite the same as we used to before I left.
Never! I have some friends who have never come to visit Thailand…so now they essentially can’t picture my life at all considering I’ve been here for 8 years.
And now, what else has changed, 5 years after this post? When you have time, I would love to read an update post. I bet I’m not the only one, either 🙂
62 Comments on Unexpected Side Effects of Three Years Abroad