I stood at the window on the top floor of the skyscraper in the heart of Bangkok looking out at the chaos on the streets below. It was hot and smoggy, and it had taken us about two hours to travel just a few miles to get here. I loved it.
It was 1995 and I was a university dean visiting Bangkok for the first time to meet with corporate partners and recruit potential students for a new international doctoral program I was overseeing. It wasn’t my first trip to Asia, nor was it the last. I had traveled to Japan in the summer of 1971 to attend an academic conference. It was also hot and smoggy and crowded and chaotic. It was, I thought, the worst example of creeping Western materialism taking over the world. I hated it. What was different between my experiences in 1971 and 1995? Me. I was a judgmental know-it-all and hippie college professor who knew with certainty how people should live their lives – at one with nature, in rejection of the material world, and most of all, mellow in all things.
In 1995 I still believed most of that, but maturity had softened my edges, opened me up to other possibilities, and made me more accepting of other ways of being. Rather than judge, I was ready to accept, even embrace. So, what I saw outside that window was vitality. I also saw an exotic culture with roots, practices and artifacts vastly different from my own. I was fascinated, rather than repelled. Fascinated enough to add at least a week or two of vacation in subsequent visits over the next few years to explore Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, then even longer visits years later after I became a travel writer. These trips were not always easy. Wandering narrow streets in strange cities, trying to figure out where I was, where to go, what to eat, working hard to incorporate what I was experiencing into my existing frames of reference, not always successfully. But all of it captivated me – smelling the pungent back streets and markets of Bangkok, observing unfamiliar Buddhist rituals in a mountaintop temple in Chiang Mai, floating down the Mekong River watching children wash the family water buffalo, eating strange concoctions involving lots of chile paste in Luang Prabang, dodging motorbikes on the streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and perhaps most mesmerizing of all, walking among ancient Khmer temples, remnants of the once mighty Angkor empire in Cambodia. All of these places were, if not off this planet, surely out of my world.
These experiences changed my life. They heightened my curiosity, sparked new interests, and revealed new aspects of my personality at an age I figured I knew all I needed to know about myself. For the first time in my life I wanted to explore the world and learn about other cultures. Years later, after several return trips to Southeast Asia and other destinations, a highly regarded travel book published by National Geographic, and dozens of articles I have transformed my life and career. I travel and write and speak about my travels. I win awards, get involved in interesting projects, and receive greater rewards of all kinds from my travel writing, than I did as a professor and dean. If this is retirement, its far more interesting and fun than anything I had ever imagined.
I’ve come a long way from that skyscraper window high above Bangkok. I’m not the only one whose life has been transformed by SE Asia – a list that includes Anthony Bourdain, Somerset Maughan, and Barak Obama, to mention just a few. I am now ready to share my experiences with other travelers who would like to change their lives, as the leader of the upcoming Wildland Adventures trip, Southeast Asia: A Journey of Discovery. Southeast Asia transformed my life: join me in November or February to see if it can also transform yours.