Travel Is…: What I Gained During My Solo Adventure To Southeast Asia

by Rachel Jablow

Something had to change; I needed a shift in my life. I was tired of the monotony and the cycle of old patterns. Every day had begun to feel like Groundhog Day. Essentially, everything was, well, fine. But to me, fine was loathsome.

I had somehow stopped challenging myself and felt unchallenged by others. The relationships in my life felt stagnant and stale.

My work felt tedious — a mere means to an end. I felt trapped, like a hamster on a wheel, continuously moving without forward progress, drowning in the repetitive ritual of my life, which, by most accounts, would be enviable.

But, it was a feeling I couldn’t put into words. I was afraid that if I did, I’d seem ungrateful or unappreciative, which made me feel even more restless.

I needed a new beginning — a first. It was as if I had outgrown my skin and was trying to crawl out of it and shed the dead layers.

I had recently read about Janus, the Ancient Roman God of doorways, and was drawn to the myth. Janus was the overseer of the past and the future and of transitions from one to the other — thereby gates, doors, beginnings and ends and of course, time.

He was depicted as having two faces. Each face looked in the opposite direction, conflicted, one to the past and one to the future.

Thus, the month of January — the start of the New Year — is his namesake. He represented new beginnings — marriages, births and the start of anew — worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest, in the hopes that in planting the seed, the upcoming harvest would be fruitful.

This past January, I knew I needed to make this year different. I needed a transition — to walk through a new door and close some old ones.

I no longer identified with the themes that plagued my NYC life: the parties; the newest restaurants; the work steak dinners; the weekend trips to the Hamptons; the endless un-stimulating conversations about the latest diet fad, fitness craze and what happened on that episode of “Game of Thrones.”

Snooze. It was all so BLAH. I was desperate for a connection that surpassed the superficial.

While NYC is my home and I didn't see myself abandoning it, I needed to escape. I was craving change, a challenge and a connection with people who could teach me something new. I needed to learn, to experience and to explore. I needed to travel.

I didn’t want your average party-all-day-and-night vacation like I would get in Ibiza or Mykonos. I wanted to immerse myself in a local culture outside of my comfort zone.

So, after planting the seed and months of anticipation, the time for harvest came.

I recently took a month-long trip to Southeast Asia to volunteer with an NGO by teaching English to Cambodian children, as well as to adventure through parts of the world I had only imagined.

With stops throughout Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, I needed to do this on my own to fully understand and appreciate what travel really is.

Travel is...

Travel is the butterflies in my stomach from the mix of anxiety and excitement that I feel after boarding a plane headed to the other side of the world, embarking on the unknown. 

Travel is the culture shock I experience as I arrive to the 100-degree-plus, oppressive heat of Cambodia and experience the dusty, dirt roads in my first tuk-tuk ride. Travel is seeing the locals ride their motorcycles with babies on their laps… without helmets!

Travel is meeting Douk, a Khmer man, who lost both arms in a landmine explosion and walks the streets of Siem Reap, selling books from a crate tied around his neck. Travel is Douk extending his residual limb to shake my hand. Travel is when a local woman carrying an infant begs me to buy formula for her baby and when I do, it costs five times what I spent on lunch. Travel is learning later about the known scam: The mother returns the formula to split the proceeds with the store. Travel is spending less money in a whole week in Cambodia than in one day in NYC, including the day I got swindled.

Travel is arriving at the school where I’d be teaching and within minutes, children were jumping all over me in excitement, freely doling out hugs, cuddles and high-fives. Travel is watching these malnourished, unkempt, louse-ridden, poverty-stricken children, with smiles from ear to ear, singing, “If you’re happy and you know it.” Travel is falling in love with these children immediately.

Travel is visiting the local village where these children live only to be stunned and heartbroken by the conditions — the piles of trash, the open-air, 10’x 8’ straw huts, the lack of running water and of medical care. Travel is a grandmother who has no teeth and worn, weathered skin; a six-month-old baby with hydrocephalus and a family unable to afford her surgery, awaiting her impending death. Travel is seeing true poverty.

Travel is eating fried crickets from a street vendor and realizing they’re not so bad... compared to the other options of fried tarantula and snake. Travel is knowing that no matter what food you eat in Thailand, it will be spicy. Travel is the amazing French pastries and endless banana pancakes in Laos. Travel is not being on a diet. Travel is drinking beers around a Khmer BBQ with a group of local Cambodian men blasting dreadful American love songs, which they prefer, because the music is slower and they can better understand the words.

Travel is being in awe of the famous Angkor Wat temples, which contain the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire from as far back as the 9th century. Travel is exploring the photogenic, smiling faces of the Bayon temple and the same deep-rooted trees, growing from the ancient ruins of Ta Prohm that Lara Croft scaled in “Tomb Raider.”

Travel is riding in a taxi in Vietnam and fearing for my life when I realize there are no lines or lanes on the roads and traffic goes in both directions, at 60-plus mph, like a game of chicken. Travel is closing my eyes until I get there. Travel is putting my feet in the same white sand and crystal-clear blue waters where our US Military forces came to unwind during the Vietnam War. Travel is getting three cashmere and wool coats, tailor-made in Hoi-An for the equivalent of $300.

Travel is introducing myself to a guy in the Hanoi airport because he was wearing basketball shorts with a logo from a high school in my hometown in Maryland. Travel is meeting a fellow New Yorker on a plane to Laos who quit her job in the entertainment industry because she, too, needed a change. Travel is spending the next four days exploring Luang Prabang together. Travel is instant connections and swapping life stories by the end of those four days.

Travel is getting to make first impressions. Travel is making new friends from Australia and finding myself saying the phrase "a bit dodgy" way too often. (But, it sounds better than "a little shady," doesn’t it?) Travel is sharing a drink and a hookah, discussing favorite books with an American guy, who recently finished Stanford business school and decided to travel the world indefinitely, without a plan. Travel is not having a plan, and for the first time in my life, enjoying it.

Travel is meeting up with a group of local Laotians in a bookshop just to chat and help them practice their English. Travel is realizing that John Cena is a favored topic of conversation and the most popular American celebrity in Southeast Asia. Travel is having life-changing experiences with people I just met.

Travel is jumping off a cliff into a waterfall in Laos when the sign says, “No swimming allowed.” Travel is jumping on the back of a motorcycle with no helmet (if the babies can, I can, right?) when a taxi refuses to make the journey up the dangerously steep mountain, to a hotel that is home to the most magnificent views of Koh Samui. Travel is ditching the bike halfway up when it is unable to power through the near 90-degree-incline with the weight of an extra person. Travel is hiking the other half to the top… in flip-flops. Travel is the stunning view that made it all worth it.

Travel is not using an umbrella during a monsoon because it’s just more fun that way. Travel is not using a phone and loving the freedom. Travel is not needing an alarm clock but waking up to see the sunrise because, for some reason, it looks more beautiful from the other side of the world.

Travel is no flight delays or long waits on the runway. Travel is your bags being ready as you step off the plane. But, travel is also getting hundreds of bites on both ass-cheeks from mites burrowed in the old airplane seats of Laos Airways. Travel is laughing about it. Travel is arriving to Bangkok just in time for a Military Coup. Travel is having a 10 pm curfew for the first time since I was 12. Travel is feeling excited to be a part of history.

Travel is the indescribable emerald green of the Andaman sea, the grapefruit pink of Krabi sunsets, the fluorescent orange of monks’ robes in Laos, the shimmering multicolor mosaics sparkling at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Travel is seeing life as vibrantly as possible.

Travel is the heaviness in my heart as the trip came to an end. But, travel is knowing that I am forever changed by the experience. Travel is missing the people who barely spoke my language. Travel is recognizing that human connection is universal.

Travel is not having a past or a future and just being in the moment. Travel is a gateway to change. Travel is a transition. Travel is a doorway to a new beginning.

When one door closes, another one is just waiting to be opened.

Check out my travel photos on my Instagram page @minijabs hashtagged #travelis and tell me what “travel is” to you.