Friday, 14 October 2011

What is the point of travelling?

The south-east Asian leg of my trip is drawing to a close and in 5 days I'll be on my way to Mumbai to meet Rory. At the moment, I'm in Siem Reap in Cambodia, having just spent a few days in the capital city Phnom Penh. For the first time on this trip, I am staying in a dorm room in a hostel, which up to now I've been telling myself that I'm too old for. But the room and the hostel are fine, and it's easy to enter into those casual traveller conversations if you feel like it.

Vietnam was brilliant. I ended up staying in Hoi An for a record-breaking 8 days (I'm sure many of my fellow travellers would be shocked at all the time I wasted here). There's not much to do in Hoi An apart from wander around, sit in cafes, and shop, but it's a totally charming place. I met a good crowd of people there, from New Zealand, France, Brazil, England and Scotland, all of whom had been travelling on their own and on several days running just found myself waking up in the morning, packing up my backpack with the full intention of heading to Nha Trang that night, then thinking ''OK, one more day" and booking another night in my hotel there. Some of the people I met in Hoi An had been travelling around Vietnam on motorbikes, seeing remote bits of countryside, stopping here and there, and their attitude to travelling was miles away from the tick-box approach I complained about in my last blog.

Hoi An is a small, fairly touristy city. It's got lots of lovely old French colonial architecture, some old pagodas, nice restaurants and cafes, a couple of markets, tons of tailors and even more hotels. The time I spent there I wasn't really seeing any sights, or seeing 'the real Vietnam'. But I had a great time. I did spend one day being driven around the surrounding (beautiful) countryside on a motorbike by Mr Chinh, and that was pretty damn cool. And one of the best nights of my trip so far was spent in a very touristy bar there with the people I'd met, drinking beer, playing pool, chatting and mucking around. The bar was full of Westerners, was showing Arsenal v Spurs, and playing British indie music. On a superficial level, looking at this place, I could've been at home. Playing pool and drinking beer and listening to indie music are things i can do any night of the week in London. But then, thinking about it, I could only have had a night like that while travelling. If i was in London, I wouldn't have been in a place like that, or been with those people, or felt the way I was feeling. And that was why it was so much fun.

Is there any one point to traveling? The cliches are that it opens the mind, broadens the horizons and all that. I suppose those things are true but there is no one way to do that. You don't necessarily open your mind by  going to look at a temple or visiting three cities in one week. The whole experience is quite personal and probably a bit selfish. If I have one regret about this bit of the trip it's probably that I've tried to do a bit much. Arriving in Cambodia the other day - the fourth country I've visited in 6 weeks - it occurred to me that it's difficult to actually engage with places when you pack them in like this. Because essentially you're a bit tired, new places and cities can just become another step on your travels, a generic south-east Asian experience, rather than a distinct country with its own culture, history, politics etc. You don't actually have the energy or mind space to properly take these things in. I wanted to see Angkor Wat, but changing things, I'd probably spend a whole month in Vietnam and skipped Cambodia. I'm determined to come back to this part of the world anyway.

I don't think I had any particular purpose in mind when i started this trip, which is possibly why it was a bit difficult at the start. In a vague sort of way, it felt like it was something that would be good for me, that would challenge me, shake me up a bit and give me a bit of perspective on things at home. And I was lucky enough to have the money to do it. If there is any point to travelling for me so far, I suppose part of it was summed up by the way I felt in that bar in Hoi An, and the way I'm feeling today, after a knackering day looking at the temples at Angkor, doing nothing but feeling perfectly happy. So, i had my travelling epiphany in a pub, drinking beer and playing pool. How predictable.

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