I got home yesterday morning after an overnight flight from Chiang Mai. This vacation took fourteen days, covered four cities, and involved the purchase of seven airline tickets. “Involve” isn’t the perfect word here, since only four of the tickets actually involved me getting somewhere. The other three were only involved in adding a stress to my wallet when my failed Phuket plans redirected me to Chiang Mai. Even the word “seven” is a bit of a misnomer. Though the flight to Singapore was a single purchase, the wonderful China Eastern Airlines (CEA) kept things spicy at our Qingdao transfer by making me figure out how to get the ticket for the second leg. This included another security check and a trip in and out of customs. Wanting to outdo themselves, CEA had us go through the same process in Wuxi, but without ticketing. I suspect this is because they realized the absurdity of having us get new tickets while we did a circle in the airport to arrive back at the exact same same plane and seats in which we sat an hour earlier. That would be silly. “Wonderful” is also used loosely with this airlines company.
It makes one ask: “Why am I doing this?”
Maybe I’m just a few hours of sleep short of some healthy perspective, but the question actually followed me throughout the most of the trip. It wasn’t the pessimistic “give me one good reason to do this” type of question, but more a question of reasoning and intentions. I have friends here who seem to live in Seoul primarily for the travel opportunities. I’ve heard stories from Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, China and so on. They love it, and are practically looking at the next departures as they walk to the baggage claim. I’m trying to keep up. In the past year I’ve gone to Japan twice, Busan, and Vietnam. These trips ranged from great, to so-so, to flat out exhausting. Yet it’s not until this recent trip to Singapore and Thailand that I’m finally looking back at my lackluster experiences and saying “Why am I doing this?” “What do I want to get out of these trips?” Perhaps these are efforts to answer more practical questions of “What can I do better?” or “Is it even worth it?”
When I write this I can imagine friends and family in the US indignantly thinking “you have the opportunity to see beach sunsets in Thailand and floating markets in Vietnam and you’re asking if it’s worth it?!?” Hold up. I get where you’re coming from, and sometimes I feel like I have a subconscious obligation to experience SE Asia. Unfortunately, living in Korea isn’t the expressway to cheap and easy traveling. All the street food in the world can’t make a traveling “cheap.” Airfare, hostels, taxis, and dinners all add up! Sometimes “because it’s there” just isn’t a good enough reason… especially if you find you don’t care about mountains that much (I actually love mountains, but you get the point).
A more tangible reason for traveling is to see and experience new things. As I ask myself what I want to get out of traveling, this topic definitely has some details left to figure out. What do I want to see? traditional culture? modern culture? geography? history? Do I want to plan everything or make decisions on the spot? Do I want to stay on the move all day or relax more? And when is an admission fee not worth it? Is it best to struggle on my own or jump in the bus with the old Russian tourists?
Younger travelers often desperately eschew those tour groups, or even the sights, in favor of getting a feel of the city and learning about the culture. One of the main cases I hear for traveling is the opportunity to learn about other cultures. Though living in Korea has certainly helped me understand the cultural differences, it all took time. Four days wearing fisherman pants, eating cheap pad thai, and hanging out with other travelers outside of hostels doesn’t make you an ethnologist. I found that exchanging fisherman pants for smelly shorts, pad thai for pho, and hostels for home stays still didn’t make me an expert either. You’ll find that grabbing Japenese ramen at the local joint isn’t much different than a burger at your old haunt. Not that you can’t learn—I hosted a traveler for a few days who amazed me with his ability to learn, understand, and compare cultures in short visits—it’s just a lot more difficult and less likely. I don’t think I even know the questions to ask to really understand the people I meet.
So basically I’ve got some homework to do before I travel next. I’ll be in Bangkok again in February for a swing dancing festival, and hopefully by then I’ll have figured out how to make my traveling experiences better. If not, I’ll at least know that it’s worth it to put all those expenses towards college loans instead. Besides, I still have plenty of Seoul to explore!