The Transformative Power of Travel

The Transformative Power of Travel

on Jan 25, 2011 in Spirit | 4 comments

Moonlight at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Moonlight at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand

No journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us,
it goes an equal distance into the world within.

—Lillian Smith

As I write this, I’m staying at the Suan Doi Guest House in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and being serenaded by a chorus of frogs and geckos. For the next month, I’m here in northern Thailand on a journey that includes Buddhist temples, elephant sanctuaries, and some of the most fabulous food I’ve ever tasted.

Over the past few years, I’ve created the kind of life where I can take my work with me as I go, so my office is my MacBook Pro and I stay connected with several projects I’m responsible for via the Internet. I don’t need to ask permission to take time off to do a trip like this, except from myself, and I’m grateful for the freedom to do this.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been on an epic adventure like this. While I’ve traveled around the U.S. quite a bit over the past decade, my last overseas trip was back in 2000, another month-long adventure to India.

There are some familiar sites in Chiang Mai (like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts) and I have a few friends who live in this area. But there’s enough here that’s out of my ordinary comfort zone – language, cultural norms, climate, traffic patterns — that it reminds me of the reason why I love travel so much.

Travel has the capacity to change our lives. In looking back over the journeys I’ve taken, I now see that these are four of the many gifts I’ve received as a result of these adventures:

1. Sharpened awareness

Today, my fifth day in Thailand, I had my first solo public transportation experience. I’d been staying with friends in a small village about 30 km north of Chiang Mai and today I had to get back into the city on my own. My friend Ginger dropped me off at the song tao (bus) stop in the village. Then I navigated my way back to the center of town, where I picked up a tuk tuk (Thailand’s version of a taxi) to return to my guest house. Up until this point, I had been driven around by other folks and didn’t have to fend for myself. Now I had to pay close attention to where the song tao was going so I didn’t miss the stop, otherwise I would have been completely lost in this city where I have no bearings.

Travel through a place that is completely unfamiliar has a way of waking us up, of heightening our awareness. When we transfer this awareness to our ‘everyday’ life, we can see old things in new ways.


2. Trust

There’s a kind of flow that I drop into when I’m traveling that is different from my usual day-to-day mode back at home. I’ve learned that staying open leads to all kinds of wonderful surprises, if I can trust in the process rather than trying to control outcomes.

Last night, I went on a moonlight visit to Doi Suthep, a magnificent Buddhist temple on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Most tourists visit Doi Suthep during the day, when it’s a noisy, bustling place. But after dark, it has a completely different quality — everything is quiet, save for the sound of wind chimes and Buddhist monks chanting their evening prayers, and there is a serenity that I’ve felt in few other places. If I had followed the conventional tourist script, I would have visited in the daytime and missed all that.

Travel invites us to let go of our planning mind and instead practice trust. When we do that, we open ourselves to serendipity and the beauty of chance encounters and experiences. There is truly magic in those moments.


3. Remembering our interdependence

Travel to foreign countries almost always puts us in the position of depending on other people who usually don’t speak our language. To borrow a phrase from A Streetcar Named Desire, we rely on “the kindness of strangers.”

Of course not everybody is going to be friendly, but I’m always amazed at how many people will take time to explain things or go out of their way to make me feel at home or help me get where I might be going. And I try my best to do the same when I see tourists in my hometown, Santa Fe. Travel reminds us that this may be a big planet, but it’s a small world—and we all need each other.

4. Expanded possibilities of what it means to be human

A lot of people try to figure out what’s similar about humans all across the planet. Frankly, that bores me. I think it’s so much more interesting that we are all so different from one another, and that there are so many ways of relating to our lives.

When I spend time in Asian countries, I realize how much my own U.S. culture is driven by time and money, usually at the expense of relationships. The first time I traveled to Bali, in 1995, I was amazed at how little separation there seemed to be between work, family, worship, and play. Balinese women spent most of the daylight hours working in the rice paddies, but with their children right alongside them, laughing and playing. Small Hindu shrines were scattered everywhere – in the fields, on the corner of nearly every street – and decorated with offerings of flowers, fruits, and incense.

Witnessing this way of life planted a desire in me to have my own life feel more seamless rather than the compartmentalization that is so common in Western cultures.

I love these lines from a poem by John O’Donohue, which capture what I’m wanting to say quite beautifully:

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

How about you? What have been some of your most memorable adventures? What gifts have you gotten from travel and how have you brought those insights back into your life at home?

P.S. Recently I’ve come across some wonderful web resources if you have a dream of international travel as part of your liberated life. See:

• “How to Organize an International Travel Adventure” by Tyler Tervooren

• “How to Plan a Trip” by Aysha Griffin

• Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity, offers a good product to help travelers make the most of their dollar: Frequent Flyer Master (affiliate link)


I’d love to stay in touch with you! When you sign up for my mailing list, you’ll receive my monthly newsletter with reflections on life and liberation, as well as my e-book, “9 Keys to a Liberated Life.”



  1. Beautiful post, Maia. It reminds me of all the special, subtle things I loved about independent travel in Asia. And amazingly, most of those subtle experiences continued throughout nine years of living there.

    The sharpened awareness while being moved about on various modes of transport. Discerning small differences in unfamiliar characters on street signs. Noticing landmarks with unaccustomed clarity.

    The trust and stepping into the flow of life in a different world, letting go of the illusion of control, and allowing a game whose rules you don’t yet know to play through you.

    Connecting with people and receiving their kindness.

    And YES, I so agree with you: my experience of our sameness was trivial compared to my vast and always growing appreciation for our differences. Culture is a powerful force in our lives. We share a planet but live in completely different worlds. I find it incredibly challenging, as well as liberating, to recognize that my “reality” is just one among many. I think this may be the greatest gift of extended travel in unfamiliar cultures.

    Thanks for writing. And happy travels!

    Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo

    January 25, 2011

    • Leslie, thanks for sharing your experiences. I just came across a wonderful quote which sums up what I’m feeling right now:
      “Culture shock, like love, is a temporary madness. The most wonderful and most depressing feeling in the world. An experience to make life more complete.”
      ~Robert Cooper

      Maia Duerr

      February 7, 2011

  2. Love your post from Thailand! I would so love to be there…visiting the buddhist temple at night by moonlight – with frogs and geckos singing…what could be better? are you slowed down? sounds like it!

    • June — yes, I am definitely slowed down from the American pace of life, and loving it!

      Maia Duerr

      February 7, 2011


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