When I first decided to travel in Southeast Asia, I went on that journey with only 1 goal in mind: to travel to as many places, for as long as I can, on as little as possible. I had set out with 1 backpack, with around 2,500 USD and very little expectations.

I ended up exploring 9 countries in the region for 6 months and came back with more than a backpack's worth of wisdom earned from the road. Southeast Asia taught me many things. To be humble, to lose myself, to let go of attachments, among many things.

But most of all, it has healed my soul and opened me up to limitless possibilities. Here's how:

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I learned to channel into the NOW.

One of the most poignant moments of my trip was sitting in a slow boat in Laos on the Mekong river and simply staring at the water and the foliage. It was in that moment when I realized that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was not in a rush to be somewhere or to do something. I was simply allowing the moment to unfold without interrupting it with my own thoughts and interpretation.

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I learned to accept strangers' generosity.

In Indonesia, I was forced to rely on the kindness of a stranger. I had to fly out of Bali during Nyepi, the Balinese Day of Silence. It's a day where the locals don't work, travel, talk or even eat. It was very unfortunate for me because I didn't have enough cash and the ATMs at the airport were all closed. At boarding time, the ticket counter would not let me get on the plane because I did not have the 15 USD airport fee. I felt very helpless and was close to tears. Then the guy behind me asked what was the matter. I explained the situation to him. Without another word, he opened his wallet, took out the money and wished me a good flight. 

This was not an isolated case. I've received kindness from others on a regular basis while traveling in the region. I've had to borrow money from an Indonesian guy when I went broke in Thailand. I've been offered tea and pastries by teenage girls who had very little in Myanmar. I was handed 100 USD by a Canadian traveler just because she thought I could make good use of it. I've been hosted by countless people through couchsurfing who have never asked for anything in return.

And the most surprising thing? Those who have little are often the ones who give most.

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I realized just how trivial my problems were.

Back at home, I found myself complaining about the littlest things. A rude co-worker. Traffic jams. An expensive camera that I couldn't afford. Bad weather. But while traveling through Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar and Indonesia and all those far flung and less developed places, I realized that I had so much to be grateful for and very little to complain about. 

I met a farmer who was wounded and could not afford to buy bandages and antiseptic. I dressed his wound with my first aid kit. I've seen little children who could not even return my smile because they were suffering from hunger. Being exposed to these realities were painful at times, but it balanced my perception of the world. So now, when I'm faced with something difficult, I simply remember my travels in Southeast Asia and tell myself, "You can hack through this. You've seen worse. You've been through worse."

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I felt so poor and found meaning in suffering.

While traveling in Southeast Asia, I ran out of money a few times. I became literally penniless because some of the places I went to didn't have any ATMs. There were places I went to that wouldn't accept the currency I was carrying. I knew what it was like to be hungry. I knew what it's like to have to sleep on a cold airport floor. I knew what it was like to have to be resourceful to survive. I may have been in a pitiful state but I never felt any self-pity. I knew that everything I was experiencing was fleeting and temporal. But what I learned would stay with me forever.

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I felt so rich and developed compassion.

Alternately, I landed in places like Vietnam where I became a millionaire overnight, albeit in the local currency. I've paid a few dollars for lunch in some places where families had to survive for a week on that amount. I've witnessed people working so hard in fishing villages to bring home a pittance to their family but shared with me the fish they caught that day.

All in all, I learned that poverty and affluence are only a matter of perspective.

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I've practiced an attitude of gratitude.

I'm not a very religious person and people often ask me why I always remember to say a prayer before each meal. It's to express gratitude that at that moment I had something to eat. There were days when I had to go without. While hiking across Myanmar, there were moments when I was grateful to be able to sleep on a mat and have a bucket of cold water for a bath.

Even today, I remember not to take these small luxuries for granted.

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I've accepted that nothing is within my control.

 
I missed a flight in Thailand. I got a flat tire while biking in Angkor Wat and missed the splendor of the sunset. I ran out of money in Myanmar. I've thought I lost my passport while trying to make a border crossing in Vietnam. I've left my luggage on an island in Batanes and had to go for days with almost no possessions. I've been forced into situations where absolutely nothing was predictable or familiar. So I learned to let go of that need to always be in control of things. Because nothing truly is.

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I learned to test and go beyond my limits.

Traveling for 6 months in Southeast Asia tested me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I learned how far I can actually walk with 10 kilos on my back. I learned to endure nonstop bus and train rides. I've even gone for days without a decent shower or a bed. It tested my patience constantly. It made me realize how much I can actually carry, literally and figuratively. I learned to stare at Fear in the eye, acknowledge its presence, and discovered we were actually on a journey together. I lowered my expectations in every place I visited and was always amazed each time.

The cornerstones of all spiritual practice are reducing fear and expectation. And if that's true, then travel is one of the best ways to attain enlightenment.

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I learned to suspend judgement.

Because I was exposed to different types of cultures and environments, I realized how we are all essentially the same. We all have dreams. We all have fears. We all love and protect those we love. So I became less on my guard and more open to the little miracles of daily existence.

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I learned that I am not my ego.

Before this trip, I had a very comfortable life. I had a stable job, a great place to live, the respect and admiration of family and colleagues. I had been on my way to what would have been a very fruitful career in the banking industry. When I exchanged my heels for hiking boots, and power suits for tank top and shorts, the change was absolute. Stripped of a job, my most prized possessions, a familiar and comfortable environment, affection and support from family and friends, I asked myself "Who am I?"

That's when I realized that identity and other people's perception of me did not matter as much as I thought. All that was just ego. When you put yourself in a wildly unfamiliar and often uncomfortable place, you begin to be more aware of your thoughts, your fears, your hidden desires. And then you come face to face with who you really are.

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I allowed myself to be. 

In Chiang Mai, I chatted with a monk and learned about the Buddhist principle of anatta, or the non-self. It's the doctrine that allows you to let go of the trappings and get down to who you really are, which is the observer.  The observer feels, but is not the feeling. She sees but is not the scene. So she becomes lighthearted and free to see the world as it is without getting herself caught up in it. 

And so, when my 6 months traveling around Southeast Asia was up, I came home to the Philippines knowing that it was not the end of my exploration. I arrived where I my journey began and started to see the place for what seemed like the first time. Nothing had changed. It was I who had been completely and irrevocably transformed.

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When I first planned this trip, I stared at a map of Southeast Asia and marvelled on how vast it was and how small I was. I saw myself as this tiny dot, fragmented and broken, apart from the whole. 

When I came back from the journey, I learned to see who I really am- a more expansive, more connected part of a much greater World. I found my true, humble place in the World, and all is well with my soul.

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Our ebook "Where Should I Go in Southeast Asia?" is available only until June 30th! 
This was co-created with Marie of Miles of Happiness.
After that, we will be removing it online. It's now on sale for only 9.99 USD! BUY NOW!


Sole Sister Lois has traveled extensively and has lived in Asia, the United States, and Europe. She is currently based in Europe with her husband and daughter. She is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of We Are Sole Sisters and has written the ebook "Where Should I Go in Southeast Asia?" based on her travels in the region for 6 months on less than 2,500 USD.

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