Same Same (but Different): Solo in Southeast Asia

Traveling often turns you into a wide-eyed child. You arrive in a new place, half-asleep after a long and drowsy journey, and you have to figure out all the basics all over again.

Change is a constant in long-term travel

The money looks like it belongs in a Monopoly box, but you have to get your head around what each bill is and how much it translates to in dollars (unless you’re in Cambodia which uses US dollars, but only perfect condition ones (and they give you change in riels instead of coins)).

You look out into the chaotic, teeming traffic and wonder if you’ll ever get across the street or if you should just live on this corner with the lady selling fragrant grilled sausages. Your eating implements are different (no knives in Thailand), the toilets are bewildering (where is the toilet paper and what is that hose in the corner?), and seemingly no one in the world except Americans uses a top bedsheet, at least not anywhere I’ve been.

All of this difference is, of course, one of the points of travel. Unless you’re the type of person who stays in a Hilton everywhere and goes to Pizza Hut, and then I don’t know why you’d bother leaving America at all.

But when you’re solo traveling long-term, it’s easy for this constant difference to become overwhelming. Sometimes when I’ve been moving around a lot, someone will greet me and I’ll just stare bewildered, trying to figure out which country I’m in and how I say hello and where the hell I’m going.

Finding comfort in the same small places

So I’ve been finding pockets of sameness, of friendly faces, when I need them. These constants vary depending on where I am: right now it’s a vegan cafe with comfy beanbags on the floor and friendly Burmese staff who know my name. It’s previously been a pocket-sized wine bar in Venice with a great Aperol Spritz, a quiet coffee shop in Siem Reap with amazing mango smoothies, the corner patisserie in Paris where the baker knew my name and helped me with my French.

This search for small constants is about more than just physical comforts, though I won’t deny the brief exquisite happiness a perfect croissant can bring when all you’ve been eating is rice. It’s about feeling seen in a life where everyone you’ve known for more than five minutes is an ocean away, which is especially heightened when you’re traveling solo.

You can feel some days like you’re only a little ghost in a sea of strangers who look right past you. Slipping into a place where you’re recognized, where you know how things work and what you like, can feel like that moment on a long trip where the bus finally jerks to a stop and you revel in the fresh air and stable ground for a precious few minutes.

The beautiful art of doing nothing

I’ve spent the last two weeks on the island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand doing… nearly nothing. Gentle yoga over the ocean every morning, those comfy cafe beanbags for lunch, a nap in the air conditioning to escape the blinding heat and sun, a lounger on the beach and a dip in the ocean before dinner watching the sun set. That’s it. No touring, no pushing myself to socialize, no adventures or taxis or buses or traffic. It’s been exactly what I needed right now: feeling grounded by the sea and the sand and my stillness.

And then, just like that, I’m recharged and ready for the next destination/language/currency/customs/visa process and the next beautiful thing awaiting me (Bali!).

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