South by Southeast: The Tao of long-term travel

Welcome back to Gadling’s newest series on Southeast Asia, South by Southeast. Long-term travel is a topic with considerable baggage, both in the travel community and the world at large. For those tied to life’s obligations – jobs, children, mortgages – checking out to spend a few months (or years) on the road is irresponsible. For those righteously living out of a backpack on the other side of the world – nodding their heads smugly at their “enlightened lifestyle” – the people back home are afraid to take chances.

But both sides of this debate get it wrong. No matter your perspective on the issue, the decision to take a long-term trip must be grounded in personal circumstances and aligned with reality. To do it any other way is to fall victim to the same old travel cliches.

So what is long term travel really about? And how is it different than a vacation? The answer to this question is complicated – there are as many justifications for long-term trips as their are places to visit. But in order to give some perspective to the topic, let’s take a look at some of my own reasons for taking a long-term trip. Whether you empathize with me or think I’m an idiot, it will help explain why long-term travel isn’t just “another vacation.” Click below to see why…Long-term travel is not about “Escape”
Perhaps the biggest myth of long-term travel is you can escape responsibility and worry. Critics of long-term travel mention this as justification for why long-term travelers are irresponsible. To them, these individuals are all doing drugs on the beaches of Thailand and postponing the realities of life. Part of this argument rings true. If you hate your job and think going to Southeast Asia will fix your troubles, it’s worth taking a closer look at what’s leading to your dissatisfaction. The same issues that plague you at home will be waiting when you return.

But done properly, long-term travel has nothing to do with escape. Sure, there are backpackers out there “doing dope” and living off a trust fund. But to generalize all long-term travelers this way is an oversimplification. Instead, long-term travel is a life-affirming opportunity to open our minds to new ideas, new challenges and new ways of thinking.

Long-term travel is about slowing down
When I was working 9-5 every day, I treated my vacation days as precious gems. I spent hour after hour meticulously researching and planning my trips, scheming about where I would go and what I might do in order to maximize my time. If even an hour of the trip wasn’t enjoyable, it felt like the time had been squandered, lost to the ages. Instead of being able to live in the moment and enjoy my experience, I was too busy worrying if I was having fun.

Vacations are great, but we are all guilty of packing too much into them. Long-term travel allows us the luxury of time. We don’t have to rush from place to place, frantically taking in sights and acquiring painful new blisters on our toes. We can take our noses out of our guidebooks for a few seconds to look around. And if we find a place we love, we have the privilege of staying a few extra days.

Long-term travel is a challenge
It’s great when you plan every last detail of a trip. You know where you’re going and what you’ll be doing. But aren’t our lives already orchestrated enough? The best opportunities for learning and personal growth is not when we succeed, but rather when we fail.

The spontaneous, think-on-your-feet character of long-term travel forces us to make tough choices. In the process you’re likely to learn a lot about yourself and your priorities. And if you can adapt to tough circumstances on the road, it’s likely you’ll be able to do the same when you return home.

Long-term travel helps us meet the locals
Thanks to the Internet, we now know more about the world than ever before. But there’s a problem with this. Humans tend to seek out other humans and information that match our own values and interests. When we travel, we tend to follow a similar pattern, staying in the tourist quarter and isolating ourselves in hotels. There’s nothing wrong with this behavior, mind you, it just makes it more difficult to meet anyone but other travelers.

But arguably one of the best parts of travel is meeting the locals. It helps break down the “wall” tourism frequently creates and helps us truly get a sense of a place. But when our visits are short, meeting locals is made more difficult. The the knowledge of your imminent departure impacts your relationship. Long-term travel, again, is about the luxury of time. It’s over these longer periods that genuine friendships are formed.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.