The Art of Slow Travel

Homestay Dominican Republic
Homestay in rural Dominican Republic

It’s already been 7 days of travel (on this particular adventure) and already I’m noticing all the different styles of travellers out and about in Bangkok. From the wide-eyed tourists forgetting to cover up for the temples, to the seasoned tanned backpackers clad in their elephant-print pantaloons, right onto the old-school pro travellers expertly perched on the back of motorbike taxi’s without a care in the world. There are the gap year travellers decked out in the latest trainers (when did we stop wearing flip flops in the tropics?!), the mid-life career breakers, and the retirement trekkers. There are families, mother-daughter bonders, soloists, couples and TEFL-teachers. There are the ones with tiny backpacks bootstrapping all the way, and there are the {clever ones ;-) } ones with wheelie bags seeking out the WIFI spots. There is a vast array of travellers in Bangkok.

But what has struck me the most is the different attitudes to travelling. In particular the difference between fast and slow travel.

Fast travel tends to be the bucket list style of travel or holiday-making. It’s all about seeing as many places as possible. Ticking off the list of countries, destinations or experiences as quickly as possible. These types of travellers tend to talk about the number of countries they’ve visited.

Whereas slow travel tends to be about immersion and seeking out more local or detailed experiences in any given location. These types of travellers usually talk about the weird, wonderful or unusual encounters of their travels.

{Quick disclaimer: I know these kinds of posts can be divisive and I certainly don’t want to cause offence. I am merely writing about my personal perspective and what’s important to me.}

Chatting with Burmese Nuns
Chance encounter and provided lunch with Burmese Nuns.

Whilst I have a huge bucket list of places I’d love to visit and experiences to be had, I do prefer slow travel.

When I took to backpacking on my own in 2003 I had set out an itinerary to spend just 2-3 days in each location including travel between European countries. This was a hard and fast approach to travelling and I did get to see loads of wonderful places. I wouldn’t change the experience for the world. But when I went backpacking Southeast Asia in 2008 I took a different approach that gave me such a rich experience I was sold on taking my time with travelling.

Sure, I would love to tick off all the countries and see as much of the world as possible. I am excited about the prospect of learning about different cultures, marvelling at stunning sights and engaging in new experiences. But I want to do so in a meaningful way if possible.

Giving alms in Chiang Mai
Giving alms in Chiang Mai

So, what is slow travel?

To me, slow travel is about not planning such a tight schedule, allowing room for chance encounters, local invitations and changing plans when a great opportunity arises. Slow travel is about spending a little bit longer in a given location in order to see beyond the standard tourist sights and seek out the alternative, lesser known or new.

Slow travel is about letting go, being free and letting fate lead the way.

Some of my favourite memories of travelling are thanks to slow travel. Like the time I switched my plans to stay in Chiang Mai a lot longer than planned so that I could take part in the King’s birthday celebrations and give alms at dawn to over 2000 monks along with the rest of the city. A truly breathtaking experience to be a part of.

Or the time I changed plans in Laos to stay on in Luang Prabang and volunteer at a hostel for a few weeks. There I spent quality time with the Lao family that ran the hostel, eating with them and sharing our different cultures. I even got to try eating squirrel one evening (it was chewy and earthy, if you’re wondering)!

The thing about slow travel is, every time you spend a little longer in a place, you connect with it. It probably comes as no surprise that my academic subject of choice at higher and postgraduate level was Anthropology – a discipline rooted in the idea that in order to truly understand a group of people you need to spend an extended amount of time with them to know them on their terms. This approach to study felt totally obvious to me when choosing a my subject of study. Of course you need to spend a detailed length of time with people to get to know them. The same goes for travel and destinations. The longer you spend somewhere, the better you know the place.

For me, I find much greater pleasure in slow travel – getting to know a place, meeting local people and allowing myself the time to truly absorb my environment and experience.

These days life seems to get faster with every year that passes. Our lives are instant, we are constantly plugged in, and we expect everything now, now, now. Therefore, slow travel is the perfect antithesis for our current lifestyles. It helps grounds us in the present moment and place. It allows our mind to take stock, absorb and appreciate the moments. It gives us the chance to savour life.

I know many folk will be wondering why we’ve spent so long in Bangkok already when most travellers stay here for 3 or 4 days at the most. But by not rushing we are having the opportunity to get to know our local hosts at our hostel, get lost around the city and stumble upon new things. And not risk travel burnout too quickly.

Because life is changing so fast, we need to perfect the art of slow travel. This means spending longer in a destination, seeking out local, off-the-beaten-track activities, maybe exploring without a guide (check local restrictions in some countries) or simply just allowing yourself to get lost for a while.