Lying by an infinity pool overlooking the Indian Ocean. Wandering across the lantern-lit cobblestones of Hoi An. Drinking your way through the hedonistic streets of Bangkok. There are certain mental images that emulate the perfect holiday. Three months ago, I got to do them all.
Just to be clear, I’ve never been the adventurous, job-quitting kind. I’m literally the opposite. I’m so dedicated to work that my phone has been pulled from the tips of my twitching fingers to stop reading emails at dinner. But when my husband and I decided to relocate to Canada, we knew this was our only shot.
We heard stories of couples taking six months off, bidding goodbye to sleepy Monday morning commutes and sluggish Wednesday afternoons for that permanent Friday feeling. I pictured myself reclined in an Al Fresco cafe, my head in a classic novel, radiating peace and feeling like the wholesome person frenetic London made it difficult to be.
Numerous studies have found that those who spend their money on experiences rather than material items are generally happier. So it's little surprise that a survey of more than 34,000 people from 137 countries showed that the number of backpackers above the age of 30 has risen by 10% (the highest increase in any age group) and we’re increasingly growing in favour of long-term holidays.
The internet is full of examples of people who have taken the leap: one woman holidayed for three years and counting, a couple turned their maternity leave into a worldwide adventure with their newborn baby, and a Brit ditched her draining city existence for a lifelong holiday in Italy.
Swapping employment and two-week jaunts for long-term travelling has become a kind of urban act of rebellion. It’s throwing your hat in the face of the rat race for a supposedly slower, more exciting and fulfilling life.
So, is it really that great? Should everyone do it?
Many travel bloggers hail the experience as life-changing, and I certainly agree with them. However, there were some unexpected moments that few divulge on.
They're not enough to discourage you from travelling, but they certainly do chip away at you while you're out there trying to have the time of your life.
Here is a candid look at spending over two months travelling India, the Maldives, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
Travelling can sometimes feel like working
The dream: The joy of long-term travel is that you can take each day as it comes, go off-the-beaten path to explore untouched areas and indulge in a pace that your 9-5 work life never allowed.
In reality: Unfortunately, if you're thorough (nigh-on OCD) at work, little changes when you're travelling. When we took off on our one-way flight to Delhi, we had a fortnight of our trip organised and booked. But once that time was up, we spent entire days scanning TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Hotels.com and Nomadic Matt for accommodation reviews, recommendations of things to do and places to visit. I had to be sure that our choices would leave us completely satiated, that we won’t find ourselves glaring enviously at another backpacker's holiday snaps.
And if that wasn't enough, every meal time brought on another bout of intense research. "What's the most authentic restaurant we can go to without messing up our stomachs? What street food am I supposed to eat here? Where are those cheap eats everyone talks about?" When you're in Asia, you can't help google your way through every lunch and dinner. And then you're worrying about wasting valuable time seeking a wifi connection for your phone. It's exhausting. Travelling is not a holiday for anyone who's a planner. Yes it's an adventure, but you have to consciously initiate days of relaxation.
Travelling doesn’t always bring out the best in you
The dream: Find a new, calm and adventurous version of yourself
In reality: When you've been bitten a dozen times on your back and ankles, when a large cockroach-like object lands on your head, and when the handle on your backpack suddenly snaps, so does your patience. The problem with long-term travel is that there is no escape. There were days when I wanted to curl up on my own sofa with a mug of milky hot chocolate for just one night, before heading back out into the raucous streets of Ho Chi Min City.
To make it worse, these moments led to inexplicable, explosive bursts of rage towards my partner. If he made us walk in the wrong direction, if he stepped in a puddle, if he ordered a can of diet coke he couldn't finish - I would flip. My mind was a mess, I felt terrible, and I could not control it.
I have to say, this did pass once we acclimated to Asia in the fourth week. But now my husband has plenty of embarrassing stories up his sleeve to point my way.
Living abroad isn’t dirt cheap
The dream: Get by on a fiver a day with plenty of money to buy clothes that are so cheap you can discard them at the end of the trip
In reality: "Where is our money going?!" I asked every time I pulled out another £200 worth of cash from the ATM.
There are some countries in Asia where your money does indeed go far. Vietnam is a great example, where most of our hotels cost £13 per night and dinner ranged between £5-£15 for two (depending on quality). Meals in Pai, a small hill town in Northern Thailand, cost £3-£8 for two. Those nights were brilliant. On those nights we felt like millionaires.
But there are some days when we stretched our brunch out until 4pm to save on money. The most exciting cities such as Mumbai, Bangkok and Hanoi, are naturally more expensive and we were constantly exceeding our budget of £25 per person, per day (including hotel).
"Why didn't you stay in hostels?" I hear you ask. Hostels are naturally the cheapest option, but if you're at a point in life where you've worked for a few years and are in or about to hit your thirties, sharing a room with teenagers on bug-ridden bunks just isn't an option. Most backpackers we met within our age group shared the same sentiment.
It's also cheap to do nothing. It sounds obvious, but many reviews brush over the costs incurred outside of food and accommodation. The moment we threw in tickets to a Muay Thai fight and a mini-bus fare to a national park, we blew our budget. After all, tourism is expensive and when you're doing it for longer than a month, very little will feel cheap.
FOMO (fear of missing out) occurs both ways
The dream: To never miss home because you're having The Time Of Your Life.
In reality: When friends get engaged or former colleagues are promoted, you'll feel as if you're missing out on life. Of course, your experiences - snorkelling in the Indian Ocean or kayaking through Halong Bay - can quash those emotions, but I always felt as if I was missing out on key moments and experiences back home. It's one thing long-term travellers have to learnt to accept.
Of course, there were plenty of moments to compensate for the downtimes: feeling a baby elephant kick through its pregnant mother's belly, watching an old man throw together the most incredible soup I've ever tasted and trekking to the top of a seven tier waterfall. These experiences have left me feeling elated, inspired and full of amazing stories.
But if you're sitting at your desk, post-summer holiday, enviously flicking through a long-term traveller's photos, just know that you're looking at a highlight reel.
And the greatest lesson I've learned is that you don't actually have to leave work and pack up your life to relish in the pros of long-term travel...
Three ways to feel like a backpacker without quitting your job
- Plan holidays around experiences and not destinations
For example: feeding rescued elephants in Chiange Mai, eating your way through the best street food in Hanoi, trekking through the mountains of Pai.
- Spend two-weeks in one big city, province or small country to really explore and get to know it
We spent two weeks in an Airbnb in Bangkok, a city that travellers normally advise spending four days in. It helped us to really explore the city, walk off the beaten track and feel satisfied without an air of exhaustion.
- Request long-term, unpaid leave from work
Don't be afraid to think outside of the box. Chances are, your company is more flexible than you realise.