I was one of those people who sat in her cubicle and dreamed of a better life. A life on the other side of the world, where it didn’t matter how much money you made or how expensive your clothes were. Where paradise was only a short boat ride away, and every day was new and exciting.
When I spontaneously decided to quit my job to pursue my dream of travel, I never really thought about the hardships I might encounter. For those who dream of greener pastures, let me tell you – it’s not all sunshine and daisies.
For years I had been reading travel blogs and expat pages, and I used them as a source of inspiration to get off my ass and pursue the life I wanted. These sites are run by young, fit, good-looking people who post pictures of perfect sunsets and beers by the beach. They write about snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, getting tattooed by Buddhist monks, and skydiving in Bali. I remember sitting at my desk
and looking out the window on to the slush covered streets of downtown Toronto. I looked around my workspace, at the sterile grey and taupe of my cubicle and the ever-growing pile of paperwork in front of me, and thought, “I wish that were me. I wish those were my pictures and my memories”.
The idea of packing up and starting fresh in a new country has been romanticized to death; we’ve seen the movies and read the books where plucky heroes and heroines boldly plunge into the unknown – often with sexy results.
Carey and I are still adjusting to our new lives in Thailand, but there are definitely some things that the movies leave out. Our travels so far have been amazing experiences that I would never trade, but I also want to give you an idea what life is like behind the glossy Instagram photos.
The Downsides So Far:
This is a big one, especially for me, as I was used to having it (Carey has adjusted way better to being broke!). Combined, we had a good household income, and we had a cheap apartment and very little debt, so we had a lot of disposable cash. Going from a life where we could buy pretty much anything we wanted and be spontaneous with spending, to tightly managing and accounting for every dollar, is kind of a shock.
We didn’t have any work lined up when we arrived in Thailand, and no income coming in. We arrived with a little under $5k CAD in our bank accounts, and watched as it slowly disappeared. We dreamed of being freelance writers, earning enough to cover our expenses and being able to put some money aside for monthly trips, but it was harder than we thought. Having no plan and no stable source of income is part of what makes the dream of moving abroad so romantic and whimsical, but it really just sucks.
We moved into an apartment that had basic furnishing (a bed, desk, table, chairs), but little else. I was excited to start decorating and buying things for the new place, but then it dawned on me that I can’t just go to Ikea and whip out my debit card. So, in our lovely Thai apartment, we have 2 plates, 2 forks, 2 knives, 2 spoons, 2 towels, 2 pillows, 1 cutting board, 1 knife, and 1 pan – all of inferior quality and make. That’s it – that’s all we own outside of what we brought in our backpacks.
Beer is pretty cheap in Thailand, but we can’t really afford to drink it. We treat ourselves to Western food every now and then, but usually our meals come from cheap Thai restaurants or food stalls (no complaining, they’re tasty!). I’d love to be able to buy new clothes, mascara, peanut butter, and hair dye, but they’re not necessities, so I can’t justify the spend. “Do I want this?” has become “Do I need this?” and while it feels better from a moral and ethical perspective, it’s actually quite boring.
I thought I’d be on the back of a motorcycle, heading off into the unknown, or trekking through jungles with a parrot on my shoulder, but once we settled in Chiang Mai for the long haul, our adventures were put on hold. You see, unless you have money coming in from a pension or a trust, or have tons of it saved up, you’re going to need to work. I had naively assumed that I would spend my days lounging on the beach, just doing a freelance assignment here and there when I needed the money. Hahaha- nope!
Our real lives are pretty much this: wake up, get brunch at the café across the street from our apartment, sit and write blog posts for 3-4 hours, take a break to watch a movie/TV, look for freelance gigs for 2 hours, get dinner, watch a movie/TV, sit on the balcony and write more blog posts/our own creative work until we pass out. Hardly riveting, right?
Truth is, you can’t just show up and expect someone to hand you a bundle of money because you’re from North America (yes, I thought it’d be that easy). If you’re at all interested in going the freelance writer route, it can take a long time to set yourself up and find credible assignments. Whatever your situation, just keep in mind that the monotony of “work” won’t go away when you move to a new country. Unless you don’t have to rely on making money, you’re probably going to be doing ‘work’ just as you would have back home – the scenery is just nicer.
Wanting to Kill Your Travel Buddy
Carey and I have always been that couple who fights all the time – we’re both hotheaded and stubborn. But, unlike the full-blown fights we’d get into at home, here we just bicker and get annoyed with the other person. Thing is, we are best friends and love each other a ridiculous amount, but being with someone 24/7 for months on end can drive you batshit crazy! The funny part is that a major reason for us deciding to travel, is that we didn’t have enough time together back home, given that we were working opposite schedules. Now, we almost see too much of one another!
We do everything together, but sometimes I just want and need a little personal time and space. If he has to go out to buy cigarettes, I have to go too. If I want to eat a burger and he wants Thai food, we can’t just eat separately. We also haven’t made many friends, so the only people we talk to are waiters and shop attendants, and each other. Sometimes we sit across from one another and say, “I don’t have anything interesting or new to talk about” (then we often joke about how boring we are).
Sometimes, I want to punch him in the face when I’m laying in bed playing Neopets or googling eyebrow tutorials and he wants to work on the blog. Sometimes I just want to throw on my flip flops and go for a walk alone, to listen to music and clear my head. These moments are short-lived though, and I can appreciate that they’re rooted in frustration, so I try my best never to take it out on Carey.
If we weren’t so committed to being with one another, and if our bond wasn’t as strong, I would be worried about spending this much time in such close proximity with one another. If you’re travelling with a friend or spouse, do consider what impact it will have on your relationship. It can definitely strengthen it (as I’ve experienced in many ways), but it can also be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Being Dirty and Gross
If you are backpacking, you will smell bad. Sorry, it’s just how it is. I don’t care how much deodorant you put on, and how often you bathe. SouthEast Asia is hot as hell, and there’s no escaping that kind of heat. You won’t have the luxury of a closet full of clothes, and I doubt you’ll be doing laundry every 3 days, so you’ll be wearing the same sweat-drenched t-shirt more than once. I’ve just accepted that my clothes will always smell of stale sweat, mosquito repellent, cigarette smoke, and Thai food. If you’re on the road and travelling through the night, you may be going more than 24 hours without a shower or being able to wash your face. It’ll feel nasty, you’ll look disgusting, but no one will care because they’re all in the same boat.
This is something that should go without saying, but I’ll admit it continues to surprise me: not everyone outside of North America speaks English. Hell, not everyone in North America speaks English! Sometimes it can be frustrating and difficult to communicate, but then I remember that I’m on their turf, and that I’m the one speaking in a foreign language. Honestly, it’s mostly fine. You can get by using hand signals, a phone translator, a calculator when shopping, and even just smiling a lot. But I have mild allergies to onions and bananas, and I can’t ever seem to be able to communicate this in restaurants. 85% of the time, my requests for no onions or bananas won’t be adhered to. We’ve also had some trouble at immigration when getting our visas for various countries – the immigration officials couldn’t understand what kind of visa we were applying for so they gave us the wrong one. It’s not a big frustration, but definitely something to consider if you’re ever seeking out medical care, have serious food allergies, need to get important paperwork done, etc.
Aches and Pains
Best case scenario, you get food poisoning and some mosquito bites. Worst case scenario, you die. Not to sound all doom and gloom, but you should know that travelling throughout SouthEast Asia puts you at risk of contracting various infectious diseases that you wouldn’t find back home. Malaria isn’t as big a problem as people think it is, but Dengue fever is a very real possibility. Typhoid, Hepatitis A and other bacterial viruses and infections can be contracted from contaminated food or water, and they’re also more common than you think.
We haven’t had any major health problems, but there are definitely some discomforts. I got really bad food poisoning in Koh Lanta, and I was out of commission for a few days. On a regular basis, I get very unfortunately-timed diarrhea that always interrupts whatever activity we happen to be doing at the time (almost shitting myself in Angkor Wat is a real travel highlight). The aircon stuffs up my sinuses like crazy, so I’ve been a lean, mean snot machine since we got to Asia. Our legs are covered in mosquito bites that are unbearably itchy no matter how much we scratch.
Now, I’m not complaining here – the experience is definitely worth mild physical discomfort – but I want to paint a realistic picture of what living in South East Asia is like for us. There’s a lot of shitting, and a lot of scratching, and it’s not nearly as glamorous as people may think.