From Bangkok, I took a bus to the border, made my way through two brutal little border towns (the Wikitravel page for Poipet, on the Cambodian side, actually makes a point of rhyming the town with “toilet”), then continued along to Siem Reap. I spent a week there, swimming in my $8/night guesthouse’s pool, visiting Ankor Wat, and firing off machine guns at the rifle range on Valentine’s Day. (No cards needed!) I spent another week in the dusty, chaotic, and infinitely broken city of Phnom Penh—a city big enough to hold millions of people, but so broken it couldn’t sustain any form of public transportation. I then took a series of boats and buses into the Mekong Delta, and, after a few days, ended up in Viet Nam’s capital city, where I drank tar that masqueraded as coffee until I flew back to Bangkok, my newest adopted home.
All told, I spent just shy of a month travelling through Southeast Asia, and I’m not entirely sure I liked it. That’s new for me. I’ve visited dozens of countries and hundreds of different cities, and I’ve never really landed anywhere I just didn’t like. I think I may have liked Sai Gon, but it’s hard to tell, as I spent the vast majority of my time there working from waking to sleeping. Cambodia, though, where I spent vast leagues of time, I despised. I think I’m attracted to places that are chaotic because they’re so far from what I know—but Cambodia was another world altogether, and I just never felt that I really enjoyed it.
As with anything though, I learned things. And while I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Cambodia, and I don’t think I’d ever say I was happy while I was there, I don’t for a second regret doing it. Beyond anything else, it taught me an awful lot about myself, about how I work, and about parts of the world I’m not comfortable with.
1. I can cross any street.
I’m an enthusiastic pedestrian even in my hometown (wherever that may be). When I land in a new place, the first thing I do is walk for hours. I’ve done this my entire life, and it’s bar none the best way to get a feel for a place. I love getting lost in strange places. I love accidentally discovering interesting places I may not have come across were I driving. I love walking down a street and drinking in the environment surrounding me.
In Southeast Asia though, sometimes this is a trickier task than you’d assume. There are people everywhere. And the further you get into Viet Nam, the more bikes there are, which means that instead of two columns of traffic, you suddenly have to cope with twelve. In Cambodia, there’s usually four streams of traffic, all going in opposing directions: crossing is less “look both ways” and more “look everywhere constantly”. Viet Nam, in spite of having about a hundred bikes to every car, is far more organized, but the crossing-the-street situation is still so intense that, in the tourist districts of town, there are people there solely to help tourists get across the street. When I went to the grocery store in Ho Chi Minh, I walked along a “hem”—basically a series of tiny little criss-crossing alleyways-cum-streets. Most of the way, it was about wide enough for two people to walk abreast, and I was walking along, in the dark, next to two streams of motorbike traffic heading in alternate directions, desperately praying they’d stop for me when there was another bike passing at the same time.
I was actually quite terrified just walking down the street.
And I’ve adjusted to the strange cadences of street-crossings in all kinds of other cities. Cities where there’s no such thing as right-of-way, and marked crossings are clearly just decorative. I remember when Rome and NYC made my nerves spike as I crossed the streets. The rhythms of Southeast Asia, however, are wildly removed from anything I know. When I first landed in Bangkok, there were certain streets I had troubles crossing. I’d watch for a local waiting, and follow them across the road. Now, after Cambodia and Viet Nam, streets that once left me paralyzed seem calm and laid back in comparison. I no longer am thrown if I’m left standing in between lines of traffic, waiting for the next seam.
I’m pretty sure I can cross any goddamned street you could throw at me, at this point.
2. A traveller and a tourist are very different things.
The Mekong delta was gorgeous, and interesting, and I’m glad I went. But honestly, I would have rather explored it myself. I’ve had this trouble before, in a place with a similar feel (the Amazon) and a similar motive for me: I don’t think I’d have been able to explore either of these tropical, water-dwelling places without purchasing a tour, but I didn’t like it either time.
In the Mekong, they kept waking me up at 6am to go do something wretched, like see a fish factory. By the by, a fish factory is pretty much as disgusting as you’d expect: it reeks, there are some fish, and that’s pretty much it. Of course, I tend to go to sleep around 4am anyway, and in Asia, because I’m twelve to thirteen hours off from most of my clients, my night-owl tendencies have become infinitely worse, and I tend to go to sleep somewhere between sunup and 10am. So waking up at 6am for four mornings straight was basically my personal idea of hell.
But that, I could have handled. What threw me was being, essentially, stripped of my independence. Sure, I had lots of time to go visit places and wander about on my own. But ultimately, I felt as though I was on someone else’s schedule, and that bothered me intensely. I spent much of that time feeling like a little kid being taken on a field trip. I know lots of people do this and have no problem with it. I, on the other hand, cannot handle it. I’d rather spend a week wandering about cafés in a city on my own, never seeing anything, than I would be led by the hand through a place.
I’m certain this ties into other things as well, like my reluctance to travel with other people, my inherent introvert nature, my gazelle-like desire for space that’s mine and empty of anyone else but me, and my tendency to avoid tourist traps, even if they might be tourist traps for good reason. My style of travelling is just different from most peoples’, even if I’m not working, which doesn’t happen more than once every ten years. It’s nice to try other people’s styles from time to time, but I can’t sustain it, and it’s best if I just admit as much and let myself absorb a place the way I want to.
3. Every now and then, take a goddamn break.
I’ve been working from the time I wake to the time I sleep—and then sleeping about four hours a night—for the past month. Maybe longer. It’s really grating on me, and I can feel myself getting horrifically burned out as a result. Last weekend, I took the whole thing (almost entirely) off–I think I only worked a few hours Saturday morning, and a few more Sunday evening. Having two days off was pretty fantastic, and I suspect I would have completely lost my shit had I not done so. As it is/was, the stress is/was biting into me so deeply I spend/spent some nights doing nothing but drinking, working, singing along to sad songs, and crying. I honestly don’t know what it is that’s setting me off: is it that I feel so displaced and lost? Is it just that I’m overworked and overdone and teetering on the brink of burnout? Either way, I think there’s a certain balance to be met. Yes, I need to work a lot, even if it isn’t healthy for me. I run a business, its rhythms are as unpredictable and wild as Ho Chi Minh City traffic, and I can’t always be in control of them. But if I’m determined about taking one day off, once a week, that may help me hang in there until the 18-hour days are over and I can finally go back to being human again.
This may not suffice. It’s entirely possible that I need real, live, actual time off. It’s been some time since I’ve felt so overwhelmed and burned out. But part of running a business means that’s not always possible, and I’m so freaked out about money that I’m motivated to keep working like a madwoman. Ideally, everything I’m doing—much of which is unbillable, investment-in-my-future type work—will pay out in the future. However, the longer I do this, the more aware I am of burnout. That awareness, I think, will be enough to drag myself out of it eventually.
Ultimately, I suppose I just took a trip and I didn’t like it so much. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me, and so it’s a bit of a challenge for me to deal with. But I don’t, even for a single second, regret it in the least. I did learn a lot—mostly about myself, but also about the world around me. And really, that’s what I’m aiming for here. This whole crazy trip of mine is all about pushing my boundaries, learning new things, and making myself stronger.
Even if I spend a month or so going through hell, I’m coming out of it infinitely stronger, more adaptable, and more aware of the world around me. As miserable as I’ve been, that’s still a win as far as I’m concerned.