It’s two o’clock in the afternoon. I’m writing this as I sip an iced cappuccino at a fancy mall in Vientiane, Laos.
Outside the weather is pretty fine. I could go visit the COPE Centre. Or ramble down the road to check out the Patuxai monument. Or make like the British dude I once met here who busied himself visiting all the different temples and striking up conversations with monks.
As if on cue, a local chap comes by my table and introduces himself as Johnny, asks what I’m doing here all alone, why I’m not out seeing the sights. “So boring inside,” he tells me. “You should be out having fun.” I tell Johnny that I’m working today and that I’ve been to Vientiane before. After a couple minutes small talk he gets the message that I’m not going to be his customer and leaves me be.
But I lied to him, really. I have been to Vientiane before, on another visa run six months ago, but I didn’t see much of the sights then either. And I don’t really have work to do. Nothing urgent, anyway. I could easily spend a few hours out exploring, or hanging out in the lounge area of my guesthouse, befriending fellow travelers and seeing where those connections lead.
But I must confess that I have no desire to do any of those things. I’d rather stay indoors, away from the burning sun, catch up on my reading, and work on some projects.
I was away last weekend in Kanchanaburi in Thailand. I’d been there before, too, back in April. I wrote briefly about that first visit:
…here I am at the famous bridge on the River Kwai, surrounded by people in groups. Friends, families, couples. Laughing, joking, snapping photos of each other. I sit on a step and eat some chicken from a stick.
I was lonely. Not the miserable kind of lonely, but the mildly uncomfortable kind. I found myself wishing I had a friend there to share the experience with, to go do stuff with.
This past weekend was different. I revisited Kanchanaburi with a lady I’ve quickly come to adore. We went to the bridge and hiked a waterfall and explored the Tiger Temple. It was the best weekend I’d had in a long time, in no small part because the experience was shared with someone special.
Chris McCandless came to the conclusion that happiness is real only when shared. I’ve never really agreed with that. I’ve had plenty of happy moments all by my lonesome (some while keeping my pants on). I think it was my buddy Benjamin Jenks who improved upon the McCandless sentiment: “Happiness is better when shared.”
I’d take it a step further: Happiness is best when shared with people you care about.
I could go socialize with fellow travelers here in Vientiane, but those backpacker conversations have lost much of their appeal. It’s no longer common for me to end up good friends with someone I meet on the road. I live a very different life to most backpackers. Most can’t fathom the four-year trip that I’m on, or how a laptop serves as my office, or why I’m not getting drunk every evening. They’ve escaped “real life” for a few weeks or months. I’ve left it behind forever.1
I’m sorry, this is sounding more gloomy than intended. I still love my life. I’m pretty content to be sitting here in this coffee shop.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that I feel my priorities shifting. I’m finding much more value these days in nurturing long-term relationships, with both people and places, than in fleeting interactions. I’ve always suspected that such a shift would occur, but I didn’t know when it would happen, and I’m unsure if it’s a permanent shift or just temporary.
So I sit here in this mall in Vientiane. I’ll finish my writing and drain my glass and then go back to the guesthouse for an evening of reading and working away online. Tomorrow I’ll collect my fresh Thai visa and head straight back to Bangkok. It’s not my favorite city, but it is my home for now, and home to several people I care about.
I know I can be happy pretty much anywhere, but for now happiness is best right there.
It occurs to me that the above might scare people off traveling solo. I hope not. I’ve had some amazing times traveling solo, some of them made amazing by the very fact that I was going it alone. I wouldn’t change those experiences for the world, and I suspect at some point in the future I will again prefer to strike out for some place new all by my lonesome. My point above is that lately I find myself a little burnt out with the solo stuff and thus seeking deeper, more lasting connections and shared experiences.
If you do long to travel but are lacking someone special to share the adventure with, I’d urge you not to hold off for that one reason. I’m certainly glad I didn’t.