Our recent one-week stay in Siem Reap Cambodia was fun. We would get up early and be picked up by our tuk tuk driver for our almost daily excursion to the ruins of Angkor. We would do lots of walking, then, sometime around lunchtime, would stop at
a restaurant for lunch. Afternoons would be the same; walking, exploring ruins. By late afternoon we would come back to the room, take showers, maybe have a little nap, then go down to the restaurant for a couple of beers and supper. It was really nice. You know why? Because we were on holiday.
We’ve been slow travelling with stops in Europe and Asia for 6 months now. Most people seem to consider this a ‘holiday’ or a ‘vacation’. I’ve had a few comments of the sort from people we know who seem to think we are on a perpetual holiday. We’re not, we really aren’t .
As a traveller you have to deal with day-to-day aspects of living but with the hurdles of being in a different environment, culture, and dealing with different languages. Food is almost always an issue. As a traveller you won’t want to eat every meal in a restaurant (expensive, plus you just get sick of it after a while) and will go to markets and malls to pick up your food. You have to adjust for what they have on the shelves, often not finding some of the things you had back home. You have to cook/prepare your food. You have to do laundry which means finding a laundrymat. In our case we also work as we travel. So honestly things are not so much different than when we were back home. The biggest difference with our lives now is that we have a huge amount of flexibility in where we are based. That’s huge. Imagine breaking the routine of life at home, seeing new places, having different daily interactions, and living in the tropics when it’s -30C at home? It’s what we love most about our new lifestyle.
Being on holiday is different. Most people on vacation don’t deal with the day-to-day. You stay in a hotel and eat your meals in a restaurant. Most issues, like laundry, are taken care of by the hotel/guesthouse. Your time seeing attractions is maximized and you tend to move around frequently seeing different highlights. Your interactions are often with people used to dealing with tourists (hotels, restaurants, transportation) which is both a good and bad thing. Good because it’s easy and you’re dealing with people who are in service to cater to you. Bad because these same people are the most likely to try to scam you. How often are holiday experiences shaped by the lying taxi driver or unfriendly hotel concierge?
Below: the hotel restaurant where we had every meal for a week.
Where you choose to go and how much time you spend there are also very different.
I touched on it above; when on holidays your time seeing attractions is maximized and you tend to move around frequently seeing different highlights. I remember our early trips to Europe, Asia, and South America when we wouldn’t stay put anywhere more than 3 days. It’s normal; you have maybe 3 weeks’ vacation a year so you want to maximize everything you see. We would often come home from our vacations exhausted.
Living as ‘slow travellers’ as we do now is much different. The priority is finding places where we feel comfortable living and which we can use as bases to explore other nearby places. So while places like Bangkok, Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, and Siem Reap might be great places to vacation for a few days, they’re not ideal places to use as bases for the slow traveller. And while we loved our little vacation in Siem Reap it is not a place where we would stay 3 months. Just as Nong Khai, which we love as a base, might not appeal to the vacationer looking to maximize what he/she sees in a 3 week vacation.
The people make all the difference.
I touched on it in this post (Everything IS personal). Not everyone agreed with me. But I realize now that I wasn’t specific enough. For a slow traveller, people make all the difference. If you are somewhere for 3 months, living your day-to-day life, your perceptions on a place will be shaped primarily by your daily interactions, whether they be at the supermarket, post office, coffee shop etc. It won’t be the pretty temple down the street or the beautiful beach that you’re looking at every day. In the end, your appreciation for a place will be determined by your interaction with the people.
That may or may not be true for the short-time vacationer. We’ve been to a few places where the locals were snappy or crabby but where we still enjoyed ourselves. It might be a place of historical significance or of incredible natural beauty and these things, if you’re only there 3 days, may overshadow any negative feelings about the people. These locals are usually just fed up of tourists – ever notice that it is the places that get the most tourists that are the unfriendliest? So you may not care too much as a short-time vacationer. Having said that we were always quite sensitive to the vibe from locals, irregardless of how much time we spent somewhere. That might not be true to everyone.
So the ‘people factor’ will vary according to the way you travel.
You have to give a place time*.
Sometimes a place grows on you and you get to love it for its more subtle attributes. We didn’t love Prague the first month we were there. It is a beautiful city but we found the people a bit rough around the edges. It took us a while to settle in. Then slowly we relaxed, spoke more to the regulars that we crossed paths with every day. With time came warmth and by the time we left we actually came to miss some of the people we met in Prague. I remember in late August going to Dresden (Germany), 2 ½ hours away. We love the Germans, we’ve always found them friendly and open. But at times in Dresden we found ourselves under-dressed; everyone looked so good and so rich. We came back to Prague and I remember the relief we felt. We fit in with our jeans and t-shirts. No pretense. So we grew into Prague and now consider it a very special city that we would come back to without hesitation. Nong Khai is a smaller town so it didn’t take as long. But again, it took us a couple of weeks to really come to love this town.
* That doesn’t mean that you can love any place with time. Someone commented on my post on Hua Hin saying that 5 weeks wasn’t enough to form an opinion on a place, that he had been there 30 years. I think we often know within a very short period of time if a place is or is not for us. It didn’t take us long to realize that while Bangkok was fun place to visit that we could never use it as a long-time base. Some people would think differently but everyone has different criteria in what they are searching for.
The above relates to slow travel and how you feel about a place you settle in. Obviously if you’re a short-time vacationer you won’t have that opportunity, you’ll most likely shape your opinion within a very short period of time. Time allows you to see the flaws or experience some of the subtleties that you may have missed at first sight.
My point with the above? Travelling on a holiday and slow travel are completely different and can’t even be compared. Some people will read the above and say that I am judging one against the other. I don’t like the whole ‘tourist vs. traveller’ debate – I think we are all tourists to varying degrees and don’t believe in making class distinctions. I also think both ways of travelling have their points. The day we stop working we’ll take a break from slow travelling and do much more exploration. It’s ‘fun’ to see different places. Is that a bad thing to say?
There’s a time and a place for everything. As I said above, this post was inspired by our recent ‘vacation’ in Cambodia. Next week we’ll be going to Laos for another short holiday. Because even full-time travellers need a vacation .
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