Why I Choose Transformative Travel Experiences

Last week, a friend called to let me know she was going to take a trip to South America. She wanted me to tell her about all the authentic experiences I’d had here, because she needed to see the ‘real Latin America’. Then, just a few days later, whilst sipping Pisco Sour in my favourite bar in Santiago, I overheard a group of young travellers share stories about their recent trips. Once again, the words ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ kept popping up.

Why I Choose Transformative Travel Experiences

When my mother called me last night to announce she’d be paying a visit, I was over the moon. Until she, too, started throwing around the good old ‘authentic travel’ term I’ve been hearing too often. This latter conversation got me thinking about my own travel experiences, and whether I, too, had been a victim of the ‘authentic travel’ bug. What is it about travel that I seem to not get enough of? What are the most valuable things I take home after visiting a new place? A few deep-in-thought hours later, I had my answer, and it certainly wasn’t authenticity, it was transformation.

I still remember packing my bag for my first trip to Asia. Me and my mum had decided to take a mother-daughter holiday and, advised by Michael, her business partner, we chose Thailand. Michael had lived in Southern Thailand for many years, and during the three weeks leading up to our adventure, he showered us with stories about untouched, deserted white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, cheap lobster and small fishing villages. In all honesty, he had me at lobster, but nonetheless, my expectations were set, and I was ready for the most spiritually enlightening, relaxing holiday of all time. Then I got there.

Looking back at my time in Thailand, I find the whole experience hilarious. I sometimes laugh to myself on my way to work, just thinking about my mother’s face when she found a 5 cm long cockroach in our beach bungalow. It was dry season, but it rained almost everyday. There was no cheap lobster in sight, the beaches were crowded and the women were not wearing the traditional Thai clothing Michael had spoken of so many times!

We spent our holiday moving from place to place, desperately searching for the ‘authentic’ Thailand Michael had described to us, and of course, we never found it. By the end of our vacation, we were exhausted, frustrated, and downright angry. I promised I’d never return to Asia, and my mother considered finding a new business partner since Michael was clearly insane.

When we came home, something felt different. My phobia of insects seemed to have disappeared, whilst my mother’s obsession with hygiene had improved a little. Jokes aside, something within us had shifted, we just couldn’t figure out what exactly. A year later, despite the promise I had made myself to never return to Asia, I moved to Hong Kong. Today, Bangkok is one of my favourite cities.

Why I Choose Transformative Travel Experiences

So, what happened during that holiday? First of all, we had expectations, unrealistic ones. We created a picture of Thailand in our heads, a picture that did not, in any way, reflect reality. We knew what we wanted, and left no space for the best part of traveling – the surprise factor.

Instead of going with the flow and taking in all the beauty that Thailand had to offer, we hung on to our own projections and constantly felt like we weren’t getting the real deal. Finally, when we realised the ‘real deal’ was a fabrication of our own imagination, we allowed disappointment to take over and just gave up. What also happened was transformation, Thailand completely transformed the way I travel. I always do as much research as I can before going to a new place, but, once I arrive, I take things for what they are and I appreciate what is in front of me, instead of focusing on my own expectations.

Now, when I travel, I search for that which will transform the way I feel about others, myself and my surroundings. I seek conversations and experiences that force me to shatter my paradigms, whilst also helping me to build new ones.

I won’t lie, I wasn’t ecstatic about Domino’s pizza opening in Phnom Penh. I loved the old city, with the broken roads and the local noodle joints on the street. The malls and skyscrapers create a big dark cloud over the memories of the city I once fell in love with. However, places change, they evolve, just as people do. What might have been the ‘Cambodian way’ of doing things five years ago, is now nothing more than just a fading memory, and the hip teenagers queuing outside the city’s place to be seen – Domino’s pizza – will confirm that.

Shouldn’t we be happy about the constant changes occurring in our world? I think we should, because if the most valuable experiences are those that transform you, constant changes give space to a never ending cycle of transformations.

So, what is your choice, authentic or transformative?