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.)