Travelling out of our comfort zone
Since the Vegan Food Quest began, we’ve been travelling independently around South East Asia, exploring at our own pace and following our noses. We get tips and suggestions from other travellers, we chat to locals where we can and we observe a lot, although we also make a lot of mistakes which tends to teach us a thing or two.
It’s fair to say that we feel like we experience the places we visit by trying to immerse ourselves in all sides of life. We stay in all kinds of accommodation from small, family run homestays to some of the world’s best luxury hotels – testing out and helping them to veganise their services to meet the needs of vegan travellers and to gently spread the word about veganism and its benefits.
We travel slowly, often avoiding traditional sightseeing and opting to explore countries by eating local food, scouring markets and just wandering around; when visiting the ‘must see’ sights we rarely take a guide with us, preferring to discover things on our own.
When talking to people about our travels, they often think that we’re out of our comfort zone, being so far away from ‘home’, facing new experiences, cultures and challenges every day, but in truth we’ve done it for so long that it doesn’t really phase us. Arriving in a new destination, not being able to speak the language, trying new food, being challenged emotionally, physically, intellectually – these are all things that we have become quite used to (even if it’s a bit stressful sometimes!).
We’re pretty comfortable with our travel style and feel that it helps us get the most out of our travels whilst also leaving the least negative impact behind.
Recently though, we stepped out of our tried and tested travel style and we took a journey where we were unexpectedly drawn out of our comfort zone. We weren’t rough camping in the jungle or hiking up volcanoes, neither were we squeezed into a packed local bus for 17 hours, confused as to where we were going and when we might get there.
Surprisingly, travelling out of our comfort zone came when we joined an 8 day organised tour that involved cruising down the Mekong in luxury.
Let us explain…
The brand new RV AmaDara, our home for our 8 day luxury river cruise
The RV AmaDara is Ama Waterway’s newest cruise ship, offering 124 passengers a chance to cruise down the Mekong in luxury on their ‘Riches of the Mekong’ cruise, taking in the sights from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The daily agenda is a mix of tours to the surrounding locations, information briefings about local culture, history and customs, and leisurely 4 course meals taken with fellow passengers. We decided to join the 8 day luxury river cruise and explore the Mekong in style.
So why did this amazing experience, where we were looked after in luxury, take us out of our comfort zone?
Firstly, we realised we had to give up control. We never realised how our independent travel has always provided us with a certain degree of control and how much comfort this gives us (fellow control freaks may well understand). It might feel as though we have no control sometimes but deep down we always know we can change course, adjust plans and do something different if we want to.
Being on an organised tour doesn’t really allow this kind of change at the drop of a hat. Although we did have the freedom to opt out of tours or select those that we thought would be more interesting to us, ultimately once you’ve signed up you’re in someone else’s hands and as independent travellers, this took some getting used to.
We thought we may find it a bit overwhelming to have a daily schedule mapped out for us including daily briefings to attend (where we’d get information for the upcoming day’s events) but once we got in the swing of things and trusted that someone else’s plan would work, we were surprised at just how quickly we got used to it; in fact we were surprised that we actually really liked it.
This cruise was starting to teach us things about ourselves that we didn’t really know…
Setting off on an excursion, safe in the hands of the AmaWaterways team
Then, we realised how much we were learning. It wasn’t the learning that we found uncomfortable, learning new things is always enjoyable, it was more that we started to question our previous un-guided travel style and our assumption that our trusted method of travel was the best way to explore the world.
If we are honest, like a lot of independent travellers, we were previously unsure about this form or travel, maybe we had even assumed that people travelling in this was weren’t really getting close to ‘real life’ as tour leaders guided them around from place to place? It was an uncomfortable that realisation perhaps that we had let our egos get the better of us?
We didn’t think we’d get so close to local life on an organised tour – we were wrong…
Having immersed ourselves in this style of travel for 8 days our opinions definitely changed
We loved being thrown together with our fellow passengers; people from all different walks of life who, like us, had an interest in learning about the countries we were visiting. We saw how much information people seemed to take in, how touched they were but the stories they heard and we realised how much effort they put into trying to understand the places we were visiting.
We hadn’t expected that we’d learn so much about the history, culture and daily life of Cambodia and Vietnam, the two countries we were visiting on our tour. Because we had a guide who was constantly telling us about the history, political situation, society and culture of each country, our brains began to fill up with new facts and we began to see beneath the surface a bit.
Thoai, our ‘super guide’, filling Paul’s head and sharing his huge knowledge of the area
As we passed through villages we were told that pink curtains hanging outside of houses meant that the family had a daughter who was ready to marry; and as we sailed through the floating village of Kampong Chnang, dodging wafts of fish sauce from small houseboat ‘factories’, our guide pointed out that people on one side of the river had electricity, whereas the other (poorer) side powered their lives by rechargeable car battery. Small details like these became the final jigsaw pieces to the puzzle of daily life we were observing and helped us make sense of what we were seeing.
The houseboats on this side of the river had electricity from the mainland, others had to survive on power from car batteries
We began to realise that being part of the tour meant that we got to see things we’d never normally have access to and that this meant that we’d experience human connections that really moved us.
Paul taught these children a new game to play when we met them with our guide; a moment of sharing cultures
Because AmaWaterways have been operating in the area for some time, they had taken time to build relationships with local communities and to discover places that other tourists don’t usually go to, places that we’d never have discovered on our own.
When we visited the Vipassana Temple at Oudong in Cambodia, our guide arranged for us to visit the nun’s quarters and witness them offering food to the orange robed monks collecting it. We got to watch the nuns interacting with each other, comparing their food offerings, teasing each other for being late or silently praying before the procession of monks walked by and they humbly collected their food.
Nuns offering monks food to eat at the monastery we visited
We were able to watch as the group of monks chanted thanks to the nuns, who received these thanks and offered theirs in return. It was an unexpected moment where we got to observe something that we had never seen before and where our understanding of life in the monastery was able to go beyond what we had read about from our research beforehand.
It was surprisingly emotional to witness, as was the moment when on a different excursion, a Vietnamese war veteran extended the hand of friendship to American war veteran in our group in a spontaneous act of human kindness and compassion that will stay with us forever; we don’t often get moved to tears (we’re just not really like that) but both these moments left us misty eyed, humbled and (this time) very happily out of our comfort zone.
If there’s one thing our organised tour on the AmaDara taught us, it was to be open minded about all forms of travel. Instead of being constrained by thinking what we know is best, sometimes it pays to try something new.
After all, when we did this we ended up having an amazing 8 days with an organisation who really impressed us with their professionalism, their knowledge and their genuine care for people (both their customers and for local people in communities we were visiting).
Paul and Pheap, who was one of the team who looked after us in the restaurant and is now a vegan expert
But more than this, we ended up making friendships with people that we would never have met; joined together by our interest for exploring the world, we shared countless moments of laughter, learning and of course a little bit of adventure.
Our fellow passengers and new friends – we loved getting to meet them and swap stories, one of the highlights of our trip
Like what you read and want to know more? You can read a detailed vegan review of our river cruise here.