What Backpacking Through Southeast Asia Taught Me

8 countries. 27 cities. 29 Towns. 22 Villages. 12 Islands. Here is what backpacking through Southeast Asia taught me.

I spent 8 months with my husband, Jesse, roaming around and exploring Southeast Asia. I left thinking we were prepared, we were ready. I researched and planned but little did I know, I really knew nothing. There are things no amount of book reading, or blog searching will teach you. You need to be there to absorb it and to live it.

Sure, I learned a lot of helpful things that I can share and prepare our readers for their Southeast Asian trip like…

  1. Accept your feet will never be clean, like never. You’re barefoot or in sandals all the time, liquids of unknown substances splash on your feet daily and let’s not forget monsoon season when your wading through water that is carrying lord knows what. Yum.
  2. Always carry tissues in your bag for squatters. I was not a fan of the bum gun and the idea of using a bucket to splash myself clean just didn’t do it for me, so I carried rolls of toilet paper with me in my day bag and it was the best decision I made, really.
  3. Street food is the best food. Like FOR REAL. Don’t be afraid to eat street food. It’s home cooking by cute Asian grannies. You want authentic food? Eat on the street!
  4. Your definition of clean changes. Changing your underwear every day? Ha. Ha. Ha. Let’s be honest, you’re wearing those for 2 days to save you time and doing laundry. Gross? Nah.
  5. Hand sanitizer is your best friend. Do you know how many things your hands touch on a daily basis in Asia? Plus, you’re seriously mistaken if you think all public restrooms come outfitted with a sink and soap.
  6. Whitening products are sneaky little products. The lighter the better for Asians. When buying any sun screen, face moisturizer, bar soap, etc. make sure you say “no white” repeatedly until the shop workers knows what you’re asking. Majority of Asian products contain a bleaching agent to lighten your skin. If you’re trying to get your tan on, this is your enemy.
  7. You’re a sweet tasting morsel to a mosquito. You’ll get over your fear of deet once you realize those organic products don’t do anything for you. I accepted defeat when I was constantly being bitten 20 times a day. Happily surrendering, I covered myself from head to toe in that wonderful poisonous substance that is deet. Talk to me in a few years to see if I’ve grown any extra fingers or toes.

While the above is good to know, I’m more so wanting to talk about how Asia changed me. I miss it over there. I really, really do. I was a different person over there. A person I didn’t even know I could be. Being happy everyday was easy – it took no effort, it was mindless.  Back home, you’re thrown back into layers of stress and commitments. Routine is fatal and for me, being back home is difficult. But how do you say that to family and friends who are beyond ecstatic you’re in front of them and not over Facetime? Sure, you can try, and I bet they’d be understanding to an extent but really, do they understand? I’m going to go out on a limb and say no.

When I got back home the number one question people asked was, “How was your trip?!” A genuine question to ask me but also an insane one. How am I supposed to sum up 8 months of my life and articulate deep feelings and eye-opening experiences? Well, I can’t. So, short and sweet I said, “amazing and life changing.”

To those people that are about to go, you are in for an incredible ride. An unforgettable journey. A Life changing experience. To those people back home that are curious, here are the 10 things long-term travel through Southeast Asia taught me.

A Smile And Learning A Few Words Goes A Long Way. 

Before Asia, I was not one to usually strike up a conversation with a stranger. The thought of it was just awful to me. Knowing full well I was going to have to come out of my shell a bit once I started traveling was a bit “meh” to me. Queue Asia.

I’m not sure if it’s by nature but Asians are among the kindest souls I’ve ever met. Not only are they easy to talk but if you take time to learn a few words, they will welcome you with open arms. The smiles and laughs I shared with local people that didn’t know how to speak a lick of English are some of my fondest memories. Not to mention, the fellow travelers I met along the way. What incredible people they are. To think, if I didn’t open my mouth to a few folks lounging on hostel couches, I wouldn’t have made amazing travel companions. I guess you could say I was forced a bit to step out of my comfort zone and man, was it worth it.  

Practice Being In The Now.

I was always planning and managing. Planning vacations, a wedding, get-togethers, etc. Managing 60-hour work weeks and trying to keep my head above water. Being in the now, was never something I thought about. It was like my brain was triggered to think in “check this off, onto the next one”.

While in Asia, things slowed down. I would think to myself “Holy shit, I am here. I did it. Remember this, Lauren. Remember this feeling.” I took the time to be in the moment and savor it. Closing my eyes, breathing in the air, taking in the sounds. Truly being appreciative of what I was in. For the first time, I was honoring the now. Sure, you can say, “Well yeah, you were in paradise for 8 months, I’d savor it too”. While this is true, being in the now has carried over the seas back home with me. On drives home from work, I notice beautiful sunsets. Early morning walks to get coffee, I hear birds chirping. Simple things yes, but things I didn’t stop and “live in the now” for.

Simplicity Is Wonderful. 

I admit it, I’m not the most confident, secure individual. I have plenty of doubts about myself and image. I felt the need to always look a certain way and dress in a particular style. The thought of not wearing foundation and mascara on a day-to-day basis was something that just wasn’t an option for me. Sure, I put on a front to appear confident and tried to live the “I don’t give a shit what people think of me” life, but lies.

Living out of backpack for 8 months completely changed my perception of “image” and what I view as pretty and important. I wore the same clothes over and over and for god’s sake, I wore hiking pants and Tevas. No disrespect to people that rock those all the time, but those two words wouldn’t even fall out of my mouth from 1988-2016. However, come 2017, my thoughts changed to “Why the hell have I not been wearing these since day one of life?!” My hair. Ha, my hair. I always had to have it curled or straightened and teased a bit to give it volume. In Asia, I couldn’t carry hair products with me so styling my hair any way besides “air drying” was out of the question. I rocked the natural look like you wouldn’t believe, and IT. FELT. GOOD. Make up. Pssh, please. You sweat so much that my once daily makeup I wore became obsolete. Like, get serious. It’s 90+ degrees every day. Whatever makeup you have on in gone in two hours.

After a few weeks, I surrendered to myself and it was beautiful. I wasn’t worried what I looked like or cared what I was wearing like I did back home. When all your options are packed away in a 65-liter bag, you realize what you really care about. My image insecurities didn’t seem prevalent while I was backpacking. Not having a plethora of options had a serious positive impact on my life. It was incredibly freeing and it showed me my true self – no make-up or hair products needed.

Things Are Out Of Your Control, And That’s Okay. 

Before I left for Southeast Asia, I was in a high-stress job where deadlines where a very real and unforgiving thing. By default, even though I was on my own time, when things didn’t go right in Southeast Asia be it missing a bus, not being able to see something, you name it, I would internally have a feeling of stress and failure. But why? Missing a bus? So what, I’ll catch the next one! Not being able to see something? Well hell, look at this stuff I did get to see! That feeling of needing to complete tasks was very much real in my life.

Taking my career break was the best thing I could ever do for myself. Being aboard taught me that yes, things are out of your control and IT. IS. OK! I had to have everything in my little OCD palm and I needed to see it through to completion. Well, ha, nothing runs on time is Asia and things often tend to go wrong or take longer than expected. I learned to roll with the punches and enjoy the ride even if that ride was 5 hours longer than they said 🙂

Spiritual.

I am a baptized Catholic. I went to a Catholic grade school and high school. From a young age, God was very much a part of my life. As I got older, I began to question faith and the idea of God. I haven’t been to church in years and I guess you could say I distanced myself from God. Not because I was angry or anything, it just happened in a weird causal manner. In Asia, I instantly noticed how much Buddha is a part of their everyday life. It was a bit hypnotizing.

I found myself visiting more and more temples. Getting blessed by more and more monks. Till eventually, I was researching Buddha and his teachings. No, I am not going to even pretend I am a Buddhist. I’m the least Buddhist, Buddhist there could be. However, what Asia did do for me is to remind me to live by the golden rule, “Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Between the constant reminders of Karma and Reincarnation, it became apparent that every religion has a foundation of just “be nice to each other.” I still don’t go to church on Sundays, but I do find myself being more mindful of my actions and thanking “God” for a good day. I guess it took me flying half way around the world to be reminded that there is something bigger than myself.

Live Now. Figure It Out Later.

Simple in nature, incredibly difficult to do. Our society has made it a taboo to do anything less than the norm or what is expected. So, quitting your job after 5 years, going into forbearance on your student loans and leaving the country with your husband after you’ve been married for 3 months was insane to a lot of people.

This trip taught me a lot about following through, being true to yourself, happiness and the roads to success have many different paths. I fulfilled and lived out my biggest dream at the age of 28. I overcame so many fears and doubts, but I followed through and I proved to myself that nothing is as impossible as it seems. One should never let their dreams just be dreams. I truly mean it when I say, “Live now and figure it out later.” Because I promise you, you will figure it out. Life’s beautifully ironic and has a world of wonders in store for you. Take the leap and do it because the days may go by slow, but the years go by quick. 

What We Really Need In Life.

Spend 8 months in a third world country and you’ll understand the value of things. No, I don’t mean when your grandparents used to lecture you on, “Do you even know the value of a dollar” spiel. I’m talking about you. Yes, you. “How can I be what I really need in life”, you ask? Well, let me spin it for you this way. Take me, Lauren. I was unhappy at my job, feeling meh with my current situation and was constantly seeking something to make me happy. Key word in something being thing.

Looking back, I was approaching this all wrong, but I’ll keep going. It dawned on me that Asia was that “something”. Well, not Asia exactly but Asia in the fact that I’d quit my job and see a part of the world I often dreamed about. A bit erratic, maybe? But what I needed? Definitely.

I viewed Asia as the thing that could make me happy, but it was only the vessel. I land in Asia and I immediately notice poverty. It’s everywhere and it’s hard to ignore. There are some scenes that I’ll never get out of my head that will forever break my heart. However, within that poverty I saw the most genuine smiles and interactions. People living in conditions westerners can’t imagine were…happy? They don’t own much and very much live day to day and they’re perfectly content. What did that teach me? You need spirit. You need family. You need friends. Not things to fill you up. You need interactions, love and kindness for substance. Not things to temporarily fill voids. When I said, you need you to be happy. I wasn’t lying.

Trust In Strangers.

Look, I’m not telling you to jump in a van because someone offers you candy. I’m simply saying, maybe let your guard down a bit. Back home before I left, if anyone I didn’t know approached me, I’d grab my purse, avoid eye contact, speed up my pace and simply say “no thank you.”

In Asia, don’t get me wrong, I did the same. I’m not going to pretend everyone in Asia is 100% honest. Just like everywhere else, if someone is looking to take advantage of you and you give them the opportunity, it’ll happen. Did I got scammed in Asia? Sure, I did. However, I also had incredible experiences when I went on a limb and trusted people. I was welcomed into homes and had home cooked meals with Nepalese and Indonesian families. I met an incredible man that allowed me to teach his classroom of orphans in Cambodia. I met Malaysians who took me on a tour of Chinatown in Kuala Lampur. I hopped on the back of motorbikes allowing strangers to drive me around and zip me through traffic. None of these things would have happened to me if I had my mindset of grabbing my purse, avoiding eye contact and saying, “no thanks.”

The real experiences abroad are those interactions you have with people. Keep your eyes open but don’t be afraid to take a chance – you’ll never know what adventure you’ll find.

 “You Know Nothing John Snow.”

Forgive my Game of Thrones reference but it totally fits. Before I left for Asia, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Southeast Asia. I was prepared and totally ready to kick butt on my adventure. While I did kick butt on many occasions, there were times where I was blown away and reality hit hard. I think one of the biggest things is how much I didn’t know about American conflicts in Asia.

Being an American, we come outfitted to think we are the greatest country on earth and whatever we do, we do it because it’s right and we are helping. I love my country and believe me, I understand the opportunities I have because of where I was born. However, I had no idea about the Secret War with Laos nor how we bombed the hell out of the eastern side of Cambodia. I knew a bit about the Vietnam war but when I visited the War Museum in Hanoi, I was brought to tears.

All these things that generations before me had to endure, things that I was ignorant to where suddenly right in front of me. I felt like a bit of a failure, like an idiot for not knowing these things. It’s hard to describe the confusion and anger I felt in those moments but it was a reality check I was grateful for. It opened my eyes to the world. Not everyone is good. A lot of awful things happen to innocent and not so innocent people. Fully knowing how naïve I sound, being abroad for 8 months opened my eyes and heart to the world. It’s ugly but insanely wonderful at the same time and there are endless opportunities for learning and growth.

The Smallest Gesture Means The World.

I think living in a country where our culture tends to be a materialist society makes people forget about small, genuine gestures. I’m not talking about when someone dies, sending the family flowers or buying someone a birthday gift. I’m talking about the “just because moments”. I can’t tell you the last time I wrote someone a letter and mailed it to them or got random flowers just because it was Tuesday. The day tends to get away from people, me included. The hustle and bustle of life happens, and people get swept up in it.

While hiking in the Himalaya’s, I was welcomed into a home of a woman who was making lunch. I was there with Jesse and a few other trekkers we met along the way. We spent 2 amazing hours in her home and to thank her for her generosity, Jesse gave her a quarter. Now, don’t think we’re cheap. We wanted to give her something from the US and that was all we had on us.

Well, the woman thought it was nothing short of amazing. She ran back into her home and came out with 8 white scarves for our group. For those of you who don’t know, white scarves are meant as a blessing. She was blessing us on our journey no matter where we roamed. To say our group was moved is an understatement. I still have that scarf and think of that moment often. A small gesture such as a quarter and scarf meant more to her and me than words can describe. It’s the thought that counts and what matters most.

Thanks for reading. I would love to know if anyone else has similar feelings after getting back from a long-term trip.

WANT MORE INFORMATION?!

How To Include Travel On Your Resume

Responsible Tourism. How To Be A Considerate Traveler

Backpackers Guide: Packing For A 6 Month Trip to Southeast Asia


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Happy Travels,

– Lauren (1/2 of The Stüs)

4 Replies to “What Backpacking Through Southeast Asia Taught Me”

  1. Wow this is so cool!!! Thanks so much for sharing your travels with us!

    1. You two are most welcome! Thanks for following along.

  2. Lauren Schweiss says: Reply

    Thank you for sharing your amazing story and journey! ❤️

    1. Thanks for following along!

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