Where Experiential Travel Failed Me and How SFT Won Me Over

Experiential travel is about making connections with the local culture. Spending a day on a local farm, visiting an elephant preserve, taking a cooking class, these are all examples of experiential travel. People seek these authentic experiences to feel more human.  They’re like existential currency.
“The more I connect with the world around me, the more interesting I find my life to be.”
Experiential travel suggests it can make you a more interesting person.  It’s an alluring opportunity, but Experiential Travel can be a deceitful archetype.

The Beginning Of My Journey

I went on my own experiential journey in Asia.  I bought a one way ticket to Bangkok and planned to “experience” South East Asia.  I intended to roam around and accumulate local experiences until I “conquered” the region. In simpler words I planned to “DO” South East Asia. Before traveling to this region I did not realized how big these countries were.  I had only seen short YouTube clips of people’s trips there and as I found out, those clips often did not accurately portray the scale and diversity of the region. South East Asia is so vast and diverse it would take a lifetime to experience enough to consider it accomplished. The concept of accomplished was another issue.  It was a vague goal.  How many experiences would it take to accomplish South East Asia?  What were the specific experiences I needed to have? With in the first month I realized how futile my intentions were.  I solo journeyed into the most remote areas of the region.  I drank with local townies, dined with rural families, partied with entire villages, and all the while felt more and more like a tourist. The more I experienced the further away I saw my goal.
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ― Albert Einstein
Sitting on the border of Laos feeling more lost than ever

Sitting on the border of Laos feeling more lost than ever.

While in Laos, I began to wonder if travel was for me.  I felt more lost than ever.  I was considering going home early. Well over a month in to my trip, I found myself sitting at bar in the middle of the Laotian jungle.  I started a chat with a Aussie Expat bartender who split his time between this bar and another local business.  He made his way to this small village in the jungle years ago and decided to never leave. If you’ve never met one of these old Aussie expat guys while traveling, it’s important to know they tend to speak in a farcical dogmatic way, and with the help of alcohol their conversations tend to lead to an existential downward spiral. After several shots of Lao Lao, the local jungle whisky, I began explaining to this guy my dilemma. I felt like a failure and I didn’t even like traveling anymore.  This was arguably the lowest point in my trip.  I built up this monumental idea of what travel was supposed to be and how it was supposed to serve me.  I had a couple good experiences at this point, but in the grand scheme of things, I was viewing my excursion as a failure. The bartender admitted he often felt the same way.  Here’s a guy who spent a large part of his life consumed with living in the area and he had gained little more ground than I.  If I didn’t feel defeated before, I was ready to throw in the towel then.

The Discovery

It wasn’t until someone handed me the keys to a motorcycle in Laos that I realized what I was doing here.
The little bike that changed around my entire trip

This little bike changed around my entire trip.

I’ve told the story before so I’ll spare you the details.  Someone offered me a motorbike and I bought it.  Over the course of the next few weeks, my travels went from “accomplishing” South East Asia to learning how to ride a motorbike. I rode my dad’s dual sport before, but this was about really learning what it’s like to travel cross country. I was entirely consumed in learning about my bike and how it could take me across the country.  I passed up popular experiential tourist destinations in favor of taking on challenging road passages. By the end of my three months on the bike, I was a confident and experienced motorbike rider. My feelings of failure to fully experience the region were replaced by pride and accomplishment in learning to ride a motorbike. This was just one of my Skill Focused Travel experiences on the trip. A month later, I found myself in Bali learning to surf.
Taking a breather in Canggu between surf sessions.

Taking a breather in Canggu between surf sessions.

In two months I went from not knowing a single thing about surfing to riding 6-8 ft waves. On big stormy days most tourist surfers decided to stay at the bar over going out.  I managed a level of confidence to go out among the experienced surfers and catch some killer waves.

The Result

By focusing on acquiring new skills and talents I made my travels winnable.  On top of all that, these skills only occupied part of my day. I had plenty of time to still explore and educate myself on the culture around me. I wasn’t consumed with experiencing the world around me and let it happen naturally.  I opened myself up to more authentic experiences.  All the things I was chasing with experiential travel were coming my way organically. Skill Focused Travel became everything I hoped my journey would be and more.   Cheers, JF   This is one of several articles you can find here on SFT.   

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