It’s Sunday morning and I just woke up from my first solid night’s sleep in almost a week. My hotel, the Chaing Mai White House, is $10 per night and one of the best I’ve found on this trip: a private room with a double bed, fan, private bathroom with a stopper in the sink to wash clothes and a secluded area outside for drying them. There’s no TV or air conditioning and I don’t mind at all, for me having fast internet is much more important than having a TV.
Long term travel can be exhausting. Moving around each day to a new place gets old and when I find a real gem of a place to stay like this I get excited. It means that at any time I can come back to Chiang Mai and have what feels like a real home to hang out in as long as I need.
On the road my priorities are inverted: seeing something interesting isn’t hard, but finding comfort is. At home finding comfort is easy: my coffee pot, my bed, my desk and my chair were exactly what I’d picked after careful research and they were extensions of my mind and body into the physical world — ways to control my experience using physical goods.
As far as I’ve seen there are three types of travelers: those who come to party, those who come to see the world, and those who come to learn about themselves. I started as the second type but have evolved into the third. By any means travel is not an ascetic life — I can pick up and move to another city or blow a few dollars spending an afternoon in an air conditioned cafe at any time. Unlike most locals I have a ripcord: a Visa card with a spending limit two to ten times the GDP per capita of most countries I visit. Unlike the locals I can be on a last minute flight to New York by the end of the day if things go wrong.
But also unlike the locals I’m not used to this. A local knows where to get their hair cut, where to buy clothes, which restaurants are good and which ones are bad. The tourist has relatively little information. The tourist treats each small errand as an expedition and each success as a major accomplishment.
In this difficulty I learn about myself: is it worth hiring someone to cut my hair or should I just trim it over the sink in the bathroom? Do I really need to drink so much coffee or should I drink a water and take a nap instead? Reliances on specific foods and goods become a liability. Wanting air conditioning will cost you almost $10 per night. A good cup of coffee will set you back $5 in many countries and $2 in most, but a water is often free or maybe 30 cents.
For me travel straddles this curious line between excess and minimalism. The towns and places I see are excessive, the comforts and things I carry with me are minimal. Despite having far more access to money than a local, I’ve got far less access to simple comforts: friends, food I’m used to, and a reliable, comfortable place to sleep at night.
As I lower my physical needs and get more comfortable adapting to situations I learn about myself. I learn to control and resist urges, to know that when I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired I’ll make bad decisions, and to avoid those situations or fix them before making a dumb move. I learn that when I’m without internet I have a book to read, when I’m without coffee I have water to drink, and when I’m tempted to blow a bunch of money on a comfortable hotel sometimes all I need is a solid night’s sleep wearing ear plugs and a blindfold.
In the future this will all be easier. Reservation apps will learn my preferences, learn the hotels I like and the food I like, and help me find comfort anywhere on the road. For now I’m training FourSquare by checking in at every place I like and hoping it will recommend good places to visit in the future.
But just like a hike isn’t comfortable for me until the end, sometimes I like the forced discomfort of discovering things for myself and I often go off the map, ignoring travel advice and abstaining from making lists, so that I can experience the joy of discovering things I like for myself. Finding this hotel by just wandering around and looking at rooms felt like a major accomplishment and has lifted my spirits much higher than reading a good review and checking in ever could have.
Notes: The images are all from incredibly poor sections of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I like to look at them whenever I need a reality check on feeling sorry for myself.