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3 Sobering Money Lessons From Traveling To Southeast Asia With Friends (& Doing None Of The Planning)

When one of my friends suggested earlier in the year that we take a trip to Southeast Asia together, I blindly agreed. I loved traveling, and had wanted to visit Vietnam, but was too caught up with my own day-to-day business to take any action. My friend essentially planned and booked the whole trip, and I handed over the money and didn’t really spare our adventure a second thought…until I found myself on the plane.

This leads me to the first of my three main takeaways from my trip to Southeast Asia:

1. The unintentional purchase of experiences has the potential to be just as unfulfilling as the unintentional purchase of things.

As someone who tries her best to practice minimalism and intentional spending, I am not one to suddenly drop a large sum of money on impulse purchases. Yet travel is something that I really value and can personally justify splurging for. However, one thing I learned from this trip is that there is a difference between intentionally choosing — and therefore intentionally spending on — travel, and just agreeing to go somewhere, anywhere, and throwing money at the experience.

I had always said to myself that it is better to buy experiences rather than things. However, agreeing to any and all experiences is really just impulse-spending in another form: you get the high of buying something new, but you haven’t made the purchase intentionally.

For me, this meant that I missed out on the (scientifically proven!) joy of planning and preparing for a trip, and while I still enjoyed the trip and spending time with my friend, I felt somewhat as if I was a kid being dragged along by their mum — I hadn’t put anything into the planning, so I didn’t get much choice in the activities we did. How to rectify this in the future? I came to the realization that, for me, a more fulfilling travel experience would be one in which I am volunteering, or otherwise actively participating in the communities I visit, rather than just being a tourist and sightseeing. (In fact, I currently have my eye on an environmental volunteer program for my next adventure!)

2. Traveling in confronting circumstances or in discomfort can breed unhealthy coping behaviors.

Southeast Asia was certainly a culture shock for someone who had only spent time in Westernized countries until this trip. There is a certain mental discomfort associated with being immersed in a culture that challenges your worldview. Moreover, your level of privilege can often be abstract until you are confronted with the tangible reality of people living in poverty.

I noticed that this discomfort leads travelers to turn to their tried-and-true comfort mechanisms. A few people in my group — especially those who had never traveled overseas before — started seeking out the familiar. Pizza, cocktails, keeping up to date with what everyone at home was doing through social media — a lot of things became comfort mechanisms.

Yet the way we comfort ourselves often involves undesirable behaviors. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as excessive alcohol consumption or uncontrollable binge eating (in my case, Oreos which I don’t even like!), can become intensified in these circumstances. And for me, these behaviors began to affect the quality of my trip. (I learned the hard way that just because you’re on vacation and “treating yourself” doesn’t mean that the guilt associated with self-sabotaging behavior suddenly disappears).

This situation put into perspective some of the unhealthy coping mechanisms I’d developed, forcing me to confront my binge-eating, and it has led to me actively seeking help and working on this behavior. However, I do wish that I had been more emotionally prepared to deal with confronting situations and had developed some better coping mechanisms (such as meditation or journaling) prior to dealing them.

3. Single-use plastic waste is no joke.

I like to think I am an environmentally conscious consumer. I use reusable shopping bags and water bottles, tote around my metal straws, always buy things second hand, and at the very least, I recycle. I was satisfied that I was doing my bit for the turtles and the oceans.

Boy, was I in for a shock. The amount of plastic waste in Southeast Asia is frankly mind-boggling. As tap water is undrinkable, people have no alternative but to buy plastic water bottles en masse. By the end of our trip, I was horrified by the number of plastic water bottles I had personally consumed. Most convenience items are wrapped in plastic — and sometimes snacks are even individually wrapped within a larger packet — and if there was a recycling system, we never found it. In the places we visited, the plastic waste was so bad that it was literally piling up in the streets, filling the gutters and floating along the rivers and streams. Even when we went kayaking at the World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay, I was pulling plastic bottles out of the water as they floated past me.

After returning home, I was amazed at how many single-use plastic items I owned, when I thought I was living sustainably. Feeling the residual disgust and overwhelm from weeks of traversing plastic-clogged streets and rivers, I resolved then and there to do more to actively reduce my plastic waste this year.

Lessons Learned

When people wax lyrical about travel “changing you,” they aren’t necessarily talking about taking glamorous photos in front of the Eiffel Tower. I’ve learned that it’s often the gritty, uncomfortable experiences that are the biggest eye-openers. Equally important is truly taking time to reflect on these experiences, rather than pushing them to the back of your mind and only presenting your most envy-inducing Instagram photos to the world instead.

I encourage you to embrace the uncomfortable and the confronting, not only when traveling but also in your daily life. I have realized this is crucial, in order to learn some hard lessons about yourself, and in finding opportunities for personal growth.

Jules is currently navigating her way through her final year of university. You can find Jules on her blog, The Second Hand Millennial, where she shares her thoughts about personal finance, health and fitness, travel, minimalism, sustainability, and more!

Image via Unsplash

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