13 lessons from 12 months in Asia

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already. I left Ireland in May of 2013. Since then I have spent time in India, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. It’s been an eventful year full of ups and downs. I have met so many interesting people and feel I learned quite a lot along the way.

Here are my twelve takeaways from the last twelve months of travel.

1. Gratitude

A post about India wouldn’t feel right without a street cow picture

I loved and hated my time in India. It’s called the land of contrasts for a reason. The food was amazing.

It’s incredibly cheap for a backpacker and there are yoga and meditation schools everywhere.

The pollution, lack of sanitation, overpopulation, crazy traffic and extreme divide in wealth were all negatives for me.

After spending 4 months in India I realized how lucky I am growing up in Ireland. I have never had to worry about a lot of the daily problems people face in India.

It was here that I started looking at what I have as opposed to what I don’t have.

My “problems” didn’t seem so big after being to India.

2. Don’t plan too much

Probably not the best time to visit India

I probably didn’t plan enough initially. I randomly decided to go to India with my girlfriend at the time. We arrived during the monsoon.

The place we spent the initial two months had more rainfall in four months than Ireland has in a year! Even with this bumpy start things worked out. And they usually do, eventually.

Not having a plan or set routine is what made much of my travels so special. It was so exciting not knowing where I would be or what I would be doing two days from now.

Randomly picking a place on map is so much fun. Some times I ended up in paradise like Udaipur while at other times it was a dump like Jammu. Experiences whether positive or negative have all been important parts of the last 12 months.

 

 3. You don’t need much to survive

All of my possessions

Before I started traveling I was starting to amass a nice collection of “things”. I sold everything before I left to raise money for my travels.

I soon realised how much freer and less burdened I felt without these materials. This was my first taste of the minimal lifestyle.

Over the course of the year I gradually reduced the items in my backpack to the bare minimum.

Now I only have a few items of clothing and basic electronics. If I really need something I will buy it but everything I now own serves a purpose.

I can be packed and ready to leave in less than 20 minutes.

4. Silence

Last October I attended a 10 day silence and meditation retreat at Suan Mokkh monastary in southern Thailand.  At the risk of sounding cliche, it truly was a life changing experience.

10 days of not speaking one word to another human being. No access to the internet, my beloved laptop, no reading, no writing. Nothing! Just me and my thoughts. It was the most peculiar experience.

Eliminating all the noise of daily life you start to actually hear whats going on inside. It can be a bit scary at first and challenging. Waking up at 4am the days were long. Some days I wouldn’t know how I was going to survive without external stimulation.

This is where I realized the power of social support. I wouldn’t have lasted a day if there wasn’t 50 others in the same situation as me.

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After the first few days of pain, both mental and physical (external stimulation is a tough addiction) I started to feel a sense of freedom from all the items in my life.

On the ninth day we did a 24 hour fast. This was my best day of meditation. It made me realise that food can be another distraction.

While meditation is excellent for reducing stress and anxiety, I have found the greatest benefit through assessing my thoughts and self reflection.

Prior to this, if I had free time I would always be on my laptop or phone doing something.

I have found sometimes just sitting and being with your thoughts is a great practice. It can be a great time to reflect on the days events or sort out anything that may be on your mind. You’ll find that you are generally the only person doing this.

5. The importance of a regular sleep routine.

It was definitely challenging at times to get into a regular sleep routine. Over night buses and trains are a great way to save time and cash on the road but not so good for sleep. I found a huge improvement in my energy and mood after doing a 4 week yoga course. There were many factors that helped this (yoga and meditation everyday) but a regular sleep routine was another. Lights had to be out before 10pm every night and I woke at 5.30am every morning.

At the end of the month it had become an effortless habit. Sleeping an hour earlier at night is so much more beneficial than sleeping an hour later the following morning.

6. Don’t forget to breathe

At New Life foundation

No matter how bad things are it can always be worse. Just breath and endure it.

In India me and my girlfriend at the time got out at a random station between Delhi and Agra. Unless you book in advance, the trains between Delhi and Agra are always full. There are cheap standing carriages that are available IF you can squeeze yourself on! We tried this and it wasn’t such a good idea. So gambled and got off at this random station.

India’s famous cities are incredibly dirty so just imagine what this place was like.

We ended up being stranded there for a few hours. It was the nastiest place I’ve ever been. I saw more rats in 3 hours there than my entire life in Ireland!

This was on the back of sleeping on night buses for the two previous days. On top of that we had to get to Delhi that night as we had a flight to Bangkok. We were hounded by locals to get a taxi or bus and poor Claudia was being stared at like a piece of meat.

This was definitely one of the low parts of the trip. Eventually we got a train to Delhi and got to the airport with time to spare. I find that starting to stress or panic in these situations isn’t going to change anything.

Instead of getting stressed becoming conscious of my breathe really calms me during testing times.

7. Nutrition and Exercise

Amazing fresh coconut in Cambodia

I lost 20lbs (10kg) after 4 months in India.

This was due to eating less food overall but also less fresh veg and quality protein sources which are much more difficult to find in India.

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I went from eating wild venison, beef, chicken, fish, organic eggs and organic vegetables from my dad’s garden to a carbohydrate heavy diet.

This coupled with no strength training resulted in the loss in weight.

That being said it can sometimes be counter productive to be super conscious of my exercise and nutrition habits.

Instead of stressing out about the situation I used my time traveling to focus more on joint mobility and handstands than trying to keep my strength and weight in check.

8. Fasting

I have been doing intermittent fasting on and off for over two years. I started doing it for fatloss and to simplify my eating. It really came in handy when I was traveling. Sometimes there wasn’t any decent food available so I would fast and drink water, tea or coffee.

Food poisoning of some sort is pretty much unavoidable in India. Especially if your like me and want to try all the street food. If you go and don’t get sick then hats off to you.

In the first two weeks me and my girlfriend at the time both got a nasty bout of diarrhea. Not the best thing to have when your sight seeing. After a few days of suffering we decided to do a 24 hour fast. The next day we were back to normal.

Fasting kills off the bacterial infection that eating can actually make worse. Just make sure and reintroduce simple foods like bread, rice and bananas when you test food the following day.

9. Mobility

Getting some mobility tips

I considered myself relatively mobile before leaving Ireland. I would always do plenty of mobility before workouts.

After I did a Hatha yoga teacher training cert in Mysore I realized how many restrictions I have.

A few stretches before a workout just wasn’t enough to make a change to my body. Most people in Asia can easily drop to a deep squat and relax there. They can also sit comfortably cross legged. I realised they can all do this because they have been performing these movements everyday all of there lives.

I try and sit cross legged or squat multiple times during the day and have seen massive improvements in my over all mobility and flexibility. Start with holding a body weight squat for ten minutes everyday. You’ll be shocked how much this well benefit you.

10. Volunteering

Meditation hall at New Life foundation, Chiang Rai

“Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you’ll never get back. Your time is your life. That is why the greatest gift you can give someone is your time. – Rick Warren.

I had two really enjoyable experiences volunteering. One in Jaisalmer, India helping out at a local temple. At the time there was a religious festival taking place with pilgrims arriving from all over India. I helped out serving food to the pilgrims. It was a great way to interact with locals and I got a huge amount of satisfaction from it. The temple provided free meals for the entire two weeks to thousands of pilgrims. Pretty amazing feat don’t you think?

The second time was at  New Life foundation in Chiang Rai. It is a mindful recovery community.  This place had 50-60 people staying there all year around. Each day I would help in the kitchen, in the fields with the crops or on the eco buildings. I highly recommend workaway.info if you are looking to volunteer abroad.

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11. Stay connected

Me and my dad getting the boat to Ko Phangnan, Thailand

Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself” – HENRY MILLER.

Whether it’s meeting new people or staying in touch with friends and family the importance of human interaction is often overlooked.

The most interesting thing about the last 12 months has been meeting people from different countries with different ideas and views of the world.

It’s a great way to learn and form new opinions of different stances you once held. I highly recommend using couchsurfing as way of connecting with new people while traveling.

12. Travel isn’t expensive

India travel route

One month of travel in India cost me €280. During which,I traveled roughly 5,000km on buses and trains.

Starting in Kerala in the south all the way north to Kashmir at the foot of the Himalayas.

One nights accommodation at the world famous Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh cost €3.50/ night.

This included three meals and two yoga classes.

Thailand is a good deal more expensive. I spent €430 during a month traveling around the south.

Again this included lots of traveling to different locations so it could be done much cheaper if I stayed in one or two locations.

I was still spending much less than I would have been living in Ireland or any western country.

13. Everything old is new again.

I really enjoyed seeing the major tourist sites like the Taj Mahal and Ankor Wat. It can be a pain going to these places but they have to be seen and they were definitely worth it. For me though the special part about travel is the simple things that seem completely new in a new country. I think this Bill Bryson quote sums up the experience perfectly.

“Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.-Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe

Favourite place

Ko Lipe, Thailand.

This place is paradise. It takes 1 hour to walk the entire island. I spent my time snorkeling, relaxing  and eating awesome Thai food. Unfortunately I lost my camera in India so didn’t get any photos from here.

Least favourite place

Jodhpur, India

It is famous for the Mehrangarh Fort. Some scenes of the Dark Knight  were filmed there. The fort is amazing but other than that the town itself was filthy with little to do. There was also a weird edgy vibe there. People were much more hostile than other parts of India.

After 12 months it was the obscure things that I never would have done back home that I found most rewarding. Travel has opened up so many new paths that I would never have been exposed to if I stayed at home.

What travel experiences have you had? Let me know in the comments below!

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