Thailand, Travel

Does Travel Really Change the Mind?

I often talk about how travel changes the mind. Travel is one of the best tools we have for radical self-development. That makes it a crucial spiritual practice, and excellent training for the Heroic Life.

But part of the reason for my own travels is to put my beliefs about the Heroic Life to the test. And the thing about testing is: sometimes it proves your hypothesis wrong.

So, now that I’m out there doing it, is travel changing my mind?

Mission: Pharang

First of all, let me set the stage. I’ve left my home country and I’m living alone in Thailand. I am out of my comfort zone, as I’ve prescribed many times. I am here for one month, I don’t speak the language, and when I arrived I knew no one.

Home is 30 hours of plane rides and airports away.

When I arrived here, I spent 2 days looking at maybe 30 -50 rooms and apartments in Chiang Mai. I walked everywhere, thus learning the layout of (parts of) the city.

When I settled into my room above Phil’s Restaurant, I still drank bottled water. When I asked where to get water, my host asked if I drink the local water or not. After some research I found out that the water in Chiang Mai is safe to drink, so I nervously filled my water bottle at the tap and slugged it down. (Well… not that nervously. My bottle has a built-in charcoal filter.) No problem.

From there, the number of adjustments I’ve had to make has grown like a pubescent hippo. A few highlights:

  • Thai toilets. Thai showers. I’ll let you do the googling on that.
  • Getting around a city where the traffic never stops and there are no effective crosswalks.
  • Rats. I’ve seen a few. I’ve heard a lot more. Garbage gets heaped up any old place in Chiang Mai, and at night the rats are on a mission.
  • Cockroaches, my favorite of the various bugs that have been added to my life.
  • The food. The food can be amazing, or scary. I’ve learned the right places to go.
  • I thought I had dengue fever, but it probably wasn’t, maybe.
  • There is next to zero greenery. This is city, Manhattan style, but less parks. (Grand total of parks: 1).

I could go on. There are so, so many differences from what I’m used to. Some are great, some are really bad, but when you aren’t used to them you tend to lump them into the “bad” category.

I actively fight that tendency. I didn’t want to get used to Thai showers. I looked everywhere for a place with a Western style bathroom. But I chose a compromise (Western toilet in a Thai style bathroom) and now I really love it. I’m happy to take my two showers a day in that weird little closet. It’s quick and so underwrought. People don’t get underwrought about enough things in America. Here, everything in underwrought.

I only wish it was a full traditional bathroom, so I could get used to a squat toilet, too.

I made a point of eating at a street market. I was careful what I chose, because bravery doesn’t defeat bacteria or parasites. But I sat down at this little counter in a warehouse full of vendors and had my noodle soup. It’s not meant for Pharang (foreigners); it’s not a cafe. The lady couldn’t speak enough English to take my order or tell me what anything was. There was no menu. We communicated with pointing and facial expressions. She stuck a spoon in my mouth to show me how spicy it was before she filled my bowl. She laughed at me sweating so I dumped more spice into the bowl and kept going. We were able to laugh and joke even though we couldn’t even say hello to each other.

I had horrible indigestion later, but it passed. Now I eat the street food quite often. I know which places are gross and which are good. I can pay 40 baht ($1.25) for a meal instead of 200 baht.

I cherish these experiences. They don’t always end well—getting lost and walking for three hours is not fun. But I still cherish it. It’s part of the challenge of being here.

So is meeting new people. British Phil, who owns the place where I stay, has the steady gaze of Professor Snape. Instead of “how are you” he asks “you okay?” which made me think I must look sick. Thai Phil, who works there, wants to know all about the gods of Europe and in exchange he tells me about the gods of Thailand. Dave Dean (the “drifting Kiwi”) met up for coffee with me. We’re going to the night bazaar later to make a video of how insane it is. And sometimes I just buy a drink for a random expat to hear a language I can understand.

Do these experiences change me? I have to say they do.

My squeamishness has been knocked down. Something has to be an honest to goodness danger to my health to make me squeamish now. A cockroach running across my foot or a giant spider dangling above the toilet are just scenery. My fortitude is building.

My awareness is up. I feel that tingle that straightens my spine and I intuitively side-step hazards. I stop before I walk into somewhere with rats in it. I see whether someone is going to accost me and I stop them before they do. At first I thought this added awareness was imaginary, but then I started my meditation retreat. Practices that used to be massive obstacles of distractions now fly by peacefully. My mind is primed.

My manners are better. I really value manners. I have a raunchy sense of humor but I believe in respecting people. Here, I am fucking courtly. I don’t want to be the blundering foreigner. Every morning I remind myself I am a priest of Lugh and then I go out and act like it. I step to the side to let older people have the sidewalk (and I go to the left, not the right. Figure it out America!). I know how to wai and when I should wai higher. I smile at people. I help people who need help. Not just white people. I just walk around trying to remember this is not my house and I don’t live here, and try to act accordingly. It seems to make a difference.

It’s hard living here. I love it. Every day I’m grateful that I took control of my life and made this possible. I could still be in a mortgage and a cubicle and drinking every night. Instead I’m here learning how to be a human being. I’m glad about that.



11 thoughts on “Does Travel Really Change the Mind?

  1. What a great post. I will most certainly share it. I completely agree with your assessment of travel, but I do think it only affects people who allow those experiences in. I have known too many people who have traveled to another country and expected everything to be exactly like it was at home. When it wasn’t, that wasn’t just their perception – it was something fundamentally wrong with that other place.

    As you know I just got back from South Africa and that was the most “out of my comfort zone” place I’ve been – and I loved it and I am really anxious to go back to be honest. It got under my skin and into my blood and there is just something about it. I was able to see the opposite side of traveling when one of our companions was more worried about the water than about walking around the city center with a fanny pack and a camera looking like a quintessential tourist. It just gave me a different perspective on the trip itself.

    • Yes you are definitely right about that. People can close themselves to the experience. That said I also think sometimes travel forces them to open their eyes. Have you seen the movie, “Art of Travel”? The main character there didn’t intend to be solo in Central America and he certainly never planned to cross the Darien Gap. He went there wallowing, essentially. But when these events presented themselves, it changed his life. I think oftentimes travel can be that kind of eye-opening tidal force.

      I’d really love to hear more about your time in South Africa, Laura. Are you writing anything about it?

  2. The only thing to pop into my mind is to ask, “What is your favorite Thai Food there?” and, “Is there a place in Thailand you wish to go to, but haven’t been able to yet? Like a temple perhaps?”

    • Hi Rua. Excellent questions.

      The food in Thailand surprises me. Somehow I assumed that Thai food in America was “Americanized” and the food in Thailand would be even better, and a little different. It’s really not. The green curry or pork with basil you get in Chiang Mai is the same as what you get in the West.

      However, here I have access to a lot of northern style Thai food. This includes a lot of dishes that are eaten by hand with sticky rice or greens. They use a lot of ginger, and the dishes tend to be savory rather than sweet. Examples include sun-dried pork with sweet or spicy dipping sauce, grilled pork with ginger and herbs, spicy dips made from eggplant, or my all time favorite, laarb. I had eaten some of these dishes before and knew I loved them but didn’t know they were specifically the Northern style of Thai food from up in the mountains. I’ve found a little mother/son operation on a back street here that specializes in these dishes. I go there for lunch a lot.

      The street food is also very special to me. Portions on everything in Thailand are small. It’s nice being able to stroll along and order one skewer of grilled pork balls with spicy sauce, or one steamed bun. With time you get to know the local street vendors and who is where, when. You can just graze all day as you see fit. Prices for a single skewer, bun or spring roll range from 5 to 15 baht, or US 15-50 cents. It is much cheaper than sitting down at a restaurant which charges foreigner prices, and the food is (often) better.

      There are lots of places I’d like to go but haven’t. I’ve been planning a trip to the village of Pai (rural tourist town) and now I am being convinced to extend that trip to Chiang Rai (small laid back northern city) and a highway along the Burmese border (camping sites, small towns and really friendly locals who don’t see many tourists). I need to price it out and decide how many days I want to motorbike around… we’ll see how it goes.

      • *Drool* My mouth had watered quite a bit on those food descriptions. And to think I’ve only ever had Thai once in my life, and that was because it was the only time I had access to it – when visiting Toronto.

        Please let us know how those potential trips go. :)

  3. I hear those squatting toilets are better for your health–less strain or something–compared to our Western-style toilets:)

    Travelling to a place where you don’t know the language is an interesting experience (somewhere in Montreal I have a fiance–lesson: do not say yes in their language if you don’t know what you’re being asked!).

    Have you started to develop a thai accent with your inner thoughts and dreams?

    • Grace, haha, I WISH I had a Thai accent! Sadly no. Most of the people I talk with are foreigners like myself. The Thai people in Chiang Mai deal with a lot of tourists and are a little guarded. Short of ordering food and paying the bill, we don’t get to talk to them much. My conversations with Phil have been the exception to that. But I’m more likely to develop an Australian accent than Thai!

      And yes, squat toilets are far healthier. Countries that use squat toilets have essentially zero cases of hemorrhoids, ever. That condition just effectively stops existing when you are pooping the way Nature intended. Westerners can get the same effect by squatting a couple inches over their toilets rather than sitting on the seat, but it takes some discipline – maybe four weeks for those muscles to build up.

  4. Soon we’ll be back in India taking bucket baths.

    Going out of your comfort zone to me is important. It lets you reevaluate your life and its hang ups.

    Glad you’re feeling better and having a blast. You’re a great traveling companion and look forward to sharing journeys again.

  5. I would say… and don’t think I’m being too picky here, Drew, but, I would say travel doesn’t really “change” the mind, it CONDITIONS it to make the body more adaptable to change.

    My mother was a traveling counselor and missionary. I grew up traveling. We never stayed in one place longer than a few months, the longest was a year, and even though it trained me to be an adult who is more aware, it can, like anything else done in excess, have its disadvantages, too. Not to be disparaging, but too much travel can wear out the mind.

    So, like you did say above, buying a drink to just hear a language you understand is one way to take a break from all the strangeness around you. Keeping to a good middle road, finding the familiar, and even getting lost in order to find your own way around are all things to keep in mind. Very true, good guidelines to keep in mind!

    I think the best thing I get out of travel is a better appreciation of home and in life. I cherish everything more and learn to make do with less. Don’t you agree?

    You’ve pretty much answered my questions! I look forward to seeing any video you can take from Thailand. That would be awesome. :-)

    • I would say… and don’t think I’m being too picky here, Drew, but, I would say travel doesn’t really “change” the mind, it CONDITIONS it to make the body more adaptable to change.

      I would say… and I don’t think I’m being too picky here, Val, but I would say…. that’s semantics :)

      But yeah that’s exactly what I mean. And if we’re treating travel as an exercise, just like any other exercise, too much too fast can be unhealthy instead of healthy. It can definitely wear you out. But a sustainable, sensible use can become part of a healthy lifestyle. Right? Open to thoughts…

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