Is it strange being back in the U.S.? Yes.
After eight months, we arrived exhausted, a bit socially awkward, really bad at smalltalk (in English, at least), and overwhelmed with the amount of options at the grocery store. Now, three weeks later, we’ve had enough sleep and mindlessly binge watched enough Netflix to reflect on the last 8 months.
Bottom line, all of the cliches are true. This experience changed us. It opened our eyes to how most of the world lives. It inspired us, to aspire to be, global citizens, to think outside the comfy confines of our life. It made us feel free, alive, scared, encouraged and skeptical all at the same time. It separated us from the constraints of the American dream, the skewed definition of success, and inspired us to pursue a life that makes us happy, even if it means having less or relocating to somewhere new in the world.
While we’re desperately trying not to be the smug, enlightened traveler types, there are still many lessons we learned from our trip around the world. Here are our top 14, in no particular order.
1. Have a plan, but be flexible
We all want to be the traveler who goes to the airport and hops on the first plane to anywhere, but the fact is that a little planning, saving and research goes a long way for both your budget and peace of mind. We saved for six months, sold nearly everything we owned, researched the lowest cost flight options and left the United States vaccinated, knowledgeable, with a daily budget and a rough plan of where we would go. That being said, the benefit of long term travel is that you can be flexible in where you go and for how long. It’s all about balance.
2. Locate Life Jackets
While developing countries may have safety regulations for public transportation like ferries and boats, it’s rare they are followed or enforced. Needless to say, there were more than a few times throughout our trip (Indonesia and Vietnam, specifically) when boat safety was... questionable. At one point, we found ourselves searching for life jackets, thinking the boat we were on was surely going to sink (See: Ferry Ride From Hell in Thailand). We’re not exactly the dramatic types, so please know that this is not an exaggeration. Our advice, make sure they’re available, in the off chance you find yourself in the middle of a stormy Indonesian sea.
3. Unplug and Be Present
It may sound a bit new-agey, but it's 100% true. When you’re constantly on the go, it’s easy to get caught up thinking about the next place you’ll be visiting, the logistics it will take to get there, or what life is like back home. The only way to truly experience a place is to stop. Close your laptop, put your phone down and really experience it. This is when the best memories are created.
4. Choose Two Wheels Over four
There’s a reason “wind in your hair” is such a popular expression. Opting for a bicycle or motorbike over a car or bus instantly makes you more connected to the place you’re visiting and gives you the freedom to explore places on your own time. We rode bikes throughout Vietnam, Cambodia (to Angkor Wat), Northern Thailand and Germany. Motorbikes are also an exhilarating way to “feel the wind in your hair” and cover long distances.
5. But Wear a Helmet
It may be one of our best travel stories, now. But at the time of Ryan’s Motorbike accident on Thailand’s Mae Hong Song loop while attempting to avoid a VERY large monocled cobra, we were extremely grateful he was wearing a helmet. The fact is in any country where motorbiking is common (all of SE Asia, most of South and Central America), wearing a helmet is a MUST. Let’s just say the locals (whether it be a single person or family of five on a motorbike) are very skilled drivers and you are driving in their neighborhoods. That, and you never know what kind of crazy animal can slither out of a Northern Thailand jungle. Enough said. Be safe.
6. Learn to Survive Travel Curve Balls
Sometimes (often times, in fact), things don’t go as planned. Whether you’re stranded in a city with no transportation for the night, miss the last ferry ride off an island, or are forced to eat french fries and white rice for dinner, one of the most important things you can do is learn to “roll with the punches.” First, this means letting go of any control you have of the situation. There’s nothing you can do but make the best of it. When things go awry, we suggest having healthy snacks on hand, music or podcasts downloaded (for that 12 hour bus ride), a few beers to make things less stressful, and a good attitude - because it’s never the end of the world, is it?
7. Eat Local Food
It sounds obvious, but a language barrier and less touristy areas can make eating local pretty intimidating. Our strategy: learn to say (or write down and show the server) what you CAN’T eat, and be open to what you are served. For example, we eat fish, but no meat, and learned the Vietnamese word for vegetarian (chay) right way. This, combined with a paper that read “peanut allergy” (written by our homestay host), made us confident in any dish that was put in front of us.
Our all-time favorite food experiences:
8. Drink Local
With the risk of coming off as complete lushes, drinking is BY FAR one of our favorite parts of travel. Where can you get a beer for 15 cents in Vietnam? What is the local spirit in Bali? How do you not drink a corretto (shot of espresso + sambuca) every afternoon in Bologna? Why wouldn’t you travel to Peru JUST to experience a real Pisco Sour and side of ceviche? Is there anything more fun than sipping a stein of Hefeweizen in a beer garden in Germany? Did you know that wine tasting in tuscany is a four-hour affair? Who knew Fernet Branca was so damn cheap in Argentina? All we’re saying is, if you appreciate a good drink, this is your moment.
9. Do Things You Want To Do (and Find Cool Things To Do!)
This may sound obvious, but many people land in a new place and feel an obligation to go somewhere or do something. This is NO way to travel! If you aren’t into fine art, or cathedrals, or museums, or whatever… that’s okay. Spend your time and money experiencing the things that are unique and meaningful to you. For example, we often spent a full day wandering the streets of a city, which we prefer over a museum any day. We looked for hikes or bike rides. And we opted to experience art through local performances and music festivals. The point is, spend your precious travel time doing things that you find fun and interesting.
10. Locate Hospitals and Know Each Country's Emergency Number
This really isn’t being overly cautious. A million things can happen when traveling for long periods of time and you never know when you’ll need assistance (police, ambulance, a hospital/clinic, etc.). The emergency number is different in every country (it’s not 911, people!), so know what it is and where you can get to a hospital if needed. It’s also advisable to learn the word for “help” in every language. We somehow managed not to get robbed during our travels (surprising given how many places we visited). We were only moderately sick (no malaria or dengue, hooray!) but still visited the ER twice. This is one of those situations where it’s just better to be prepared.
11. Be Self Aware
Check in with yourself. This could be the single most important lesson we learned. If you feel tired, hungry, sick, or even just worn out, nowhere in the world is fun. We learned to rest when we were tired, find AC when we were overheating, drink tons of water, and always carry snacks so we were rarely left hungry. We also learned to give ourselves a break if we didn’t see every attraction in every city (we traded the touristy Royal Palace in Bangkok for a quiet afternoon at the park and have zero regrets).
12. Take Risks and Get out of Your Comfort Zone
Leaving our jobs, selling all our stuff, and moving out of our home to travel the world was a pretty big risk. It’s the best decision we’ve ever made. Riding motorbikes 500 kilometers through the Thai jungle, making our way from Fes to Marrakesh by train, and hiking 35 kilometers at 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes (with zero training time) were all well outside our collective comfort zones. Yet these experiences are easily some of the best parts of our entire trip. Things we would do again, in a heartbeat.
13. Ditch the Stuff
For eight months, through our entire trip, we lived out of two 44 liter backpacks. The surprising part - it was easy. While we passed backpacker after backpacker with packs that were twice as big, we were content with our minimalism. We didn’t need more stuff (but we did need more laundry). Since getting back, we’ve been tempted to get more stuff and we can agree that it’s nice to have options, but it often feels like we’re getting more simply for the sake of having more. And at no point has more stuff actually made us happier.
14. Support the Local Community
If you want to be a socially responsible traveler, make sure you give back to the community you’re visiting. What does this mean? Support locally-owned and operated businesses and publicly maintained historical landmarks. Seek out volunteer opportunities (like we did with Thai elephants) or choose tours, restaurants and businesses that benefit local non-profits (see Visit.Org for tours around the world). Be socially conscious - understand local history, etiquette and customs. At the minimum, learn and practice a few sentences in the local language. These are the experiences that connect you the most with the local community, and these are the experiences that will be your most enriching.
Find more lessons in our 15 Best and Most Forgettable Moments in South East Asia