For some, the word “investment” usually brings to mind the purchase of a car or property, or some insurance representative trying to sell you a plan that claims to be able to look after you for decades to come. But I have discovered an investment that offers something just as significant as financial security.
During my working stint in Myanmar in late 2010, my local colleagues there introduced me to colourful cultures, fascinating traditions, and pristine landscapes that even seasoned travelers would be lucky to witness. It was a place so geographically close to home, yet different beyond imagination. That place ignited my desire to see more of what the world was like outside of my home country.
I have since devoted a considerable amount of time to visiting much of Asia, and all well on a shoestring budget. I discovered the joys of budget travel and the fun of getting to know a place by walking and cycling, eating street food and talking to friendly locals and backpackers along the way. I found out very quickly that there was a difference between being a traveler and being a tourist, and how much I disliked being the latter. The few times I thought, “why not?” in opting for a day tour to check out a popular spot always left me feeling shortchanged, less constructive with my time, and being the owner of the tackiest souvenirs.
Strangely enough, one of the most memorable times I’ve had while traveling happened when my partner and I abandoned a tour midway. We were being taken on a cruise around the backwaters of Kerala in India, and during one of the breaks at a teahouse, we followed the route of some well-groomed locals and found ourselves at a colossal village wedding ceremony. We politely turned down the invitation to join in, knowing that the rest of the tour would be waiting for us.
But once the (rather boring) boat ride was over and the tour van arrived to pick us up, we decided to stay back and find the wedding, despite not knowing if it was over by then, and also knowing how difficult it was going to be to find our way back to town. We borrowed some bicycles from a random family, cycled back to the village hall and thankfully, found that the wedding was far from over. We were spoiled rotten with the most robust spread of banana leaf food, gave our blessings to the newlyweds, and hung out with some of the coolest people we met in South India, before miraculously, surviving the most perilous three-hour bus ride of our lives back to where we came from!
A great reminder of the rewards of traveling is the occasional Facebook greetings I receive from a gentleman called Pheak. Pheak was the tuk tuk driver who showed my sister and I around for five days in Siem Reap two years ago. A warm, charming and honest man, Pheak left such an impression on us that I set up a Facebook page for him to acquire more business to support his family. A handful of friends, and friends of friends, have since used his tuk tuk services, and the well-deserved glowing testimonies on his page, and his genuine gratitude, make me feel so glad that we met him.
Before keeping it regularly on my annual agenda, I had thought of traveling as a grandiose thing that people did when they had money to spare. But I suppose that was because I grew up among people who treated it in a grandiose way. I’m glad that I found out for myself that the concept of travel didn’t need to be for bragging’s sake. It didn’t need to be about faraway lands, about sea cruises or Disneyworld. It could simply be about the spirit and challenge of exploration, about the excitement of looking up to a different sky, about understanding and acknowledging how other people live, what keeps them united, and realising sometimes, through mutual happiness, how surprisingly connected we all are.
Despite it being something that requires some degree of saving up for, what I get back from traveling makes me worry a lot less about what my bank account looks like. I would even go as far to admit that I am allowing travel to change my life. I do wonder sometimes if I am going to grow old as comfortably as the salespeople say I will, but right now, there is so much more out there to be curious about.>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.