Southeast Asia is a sightseer’s daydream. It’s home to beautiful and ancient monasteries, incredible museums, and impressive statues of the Buddha. For the industrious traveler equipped with the TripAdvisor app or a Lonely Planet guide, one can find activities and tours to fill every moment of every journey and still miss “must-see” attractions. The traveler’s dilemma (a great dilemma to have) is that every city in every country has something worth seeing.
Kira lived and worked in Germany for a year, and spent every weekend going town- and country-hopping across Europe. She’d make exhaustive lists of attractions and from the early hours of Saturday until the late ones on Sunday, she’d take in as much as possible, trying not to miss anything a place had to offer. But one doesn’t have to travel far for this dilemma to set it: in my home state of Kansas, for example, one finds both the longest grain elevator and the largest ball of twine. (Roadtrippers be advised.) There is always, simply, too much to see.
The problem with Kira’s approach, she reflects, is that while she saw a lot, she simply didn’t enjoy the traveling enough. It was exhausting. The sights became easy to forget, the days and towns ran together. Where was the vacation, the relaxation? Does the leisure really come at the end, when you finally sit down to comb through the thousands of images?
So we learned while traveling together on an extended trip in Southeast Asia that we needed to decide, not between which things we should see, but on the kind of traveling we wanted to do. We decided that our travel was as much for rejuvenation as sight-seeing. So we chose, daily, between leisure and adventure, between the must-see and the must-sleep. We taught ourselves to forget about what we should do and simply worried about what would make us happier in each moment.
So what did we miss this way? We’re not entirely sure. Sunrise at Angkor Wat might have been beautiful. We don’t know. We slept in a bit and hit the place by 9. They offer a three-day pass. Great. We opted for the one-day and spent the other two in Siem Reap lounging poolside at the top of our hotel, eating local dishes and drinking local beer. By all means, visit Angkor Wat. But don’t feel obligated to buy the three-day pass because UNESCO declared this one of the most important sites in the world; unless you want to. We saw a circus that was highly rated on TripAdvisor, and it was incredible, a highlight of our time in Cambodia. You should go there. Or not, because the mid-day drinks we had while chatting up our waiter ranked up there, too.
In the historic Hoi An, Vietnam, Kira woke at 5:30am and took a sunrise photography tour. Some of her best photos were captured on that journey and she considers it a highlight. I used that time to sleep until I thought I might get interrupted by housekeeping and subsequently spent the morning on a lounge chair writing a mediocre short story.
By the end of our two-month trip, we regularly lazed in our hotel room sometimes until 10, sometimes until noon. Others might find this lack of travelers’ ambition frustrating, a waste of time and money. And if they do, then they should. (That’s one reason I prefer not to travel with a large group.)
We slept more. We lounged around more. We watched local TV. But we don’t have regrets because we saw what we wanted to see and didn’t worry about what the internet thought we couldn’t miss.
We didn’t make it to Borobudur while in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and looking back, I think perhaps we should have. So I’m not advocating skipping any attraction you want to see. I’m strongly advocating skipping any attraction you don’t want to see. It’s too easy to get caught up in the idea that because you may only come here once, your vacation needs to be an endless, exhausting slog from one destination to the next, taking selfies in front of everything from sunup until you can’t stand anymore.
Another monastery? Should you skip it? Yes. Or not. It’s your vacation, your money. Let your friends go by themselves. Walk to a local restaurant, order something you’ve never heard of, and then browse Facebook on the free wifi. Or don’t. Either way, allow yourself some time to enjoy the journey your own way and ignore the myriad lists and guides that want to sell you on every last attraction. Or, you know, don’t.
Words by Bradley Geer, Photos by Kira Morris.