‘Life begins just outside your comfort zone’

Your comfort zone doesn’t challenge your thoughts. As soon as you’re outside of it, you start doubting yourself, giving you an opportunity to exercise that habit of recognising negative thought patterns and trying to stop yourself from identifying with them. Travelling (solo, importantly) affords me a sweet spot that makes me feel so alive and empowered, challenging me just the right amount, for so many different reasons. I find it to be especially true in countries where the culture is vastly different from my own, so arriving in Bangkok with little-to-no preparation felt good.

The first thing I was conscious of was how different it would be to be making ethical purchasing decisions here, compared to New Zealand, especially when in the past the thirst from the extra heat and humidity would’ve sent me straight for a Pepsi! This is something that’s been forefront in my mind for months now: buying local food, trying to avoid supporting multinationals, choosing to buy foods with as little packaging as possible, and so on. So instead of buying packaged food from the mini-market, I went to eat cheaply at a restaurant full of locals… three policemen on their lunch break must mean it’s a good place, right?!

The vast majority of travellers in this corner of the world seem to spend a lot of their time in Thailand, but I got up early to start a very enjoyable six hour train journey with the aim of spending my tourist dollars in a much poorer country instead: Cambodia. These are some of the challenges to my comfort zone that I’ve experienced in my month here. Some may be different to what you might expect!


The backpacker uniform of a baggy vest/singlet and short shorts.
This struck me because in South America and New Zealand, there didn’t seem to be a ‘uniform’, everyone just wore what they wanted, everyone looked different so I totally forgot that sense of needing to ‘fit in’. Here, probably due to the predominance of young English-speaking tourists, so many travellers all dress the same! I found this challenging to be around.
My brain: “Should I be wearing this too?”
I wonder if I will have this feeling again when I’m back in the trend-and-image-conscious UK!

Why is everyone else having fun and I’m not?
…is what my brain would’ve said in the past. There’s a perception of travelling in South East Asia which is that it has to be a non-stop party. “It’s gonna be so crazy!” “Last night was mental!” etc. I had an intention (rightly or wrongly) to question my own perception of this while I’m here, which to be honest is (rightly or wrongly) that those people will just bore me. So I was going to take opportunities to challenge myself to get off my soapbox and ‘be normal’. For example, on the party island of Koh Rong, I knew the music would be playing loud all night and anyone who knows me knows that (when I’m in the mood) I LOVE to get on the dancefloor; I’d been missing it! So after some of my usual fare of in-depth happy conversations about my passions, I surrendered to the impulse and got up. As I lost myself in the music for hours, smiling from the natural high, I was aware that those very people repeatedly claiming to have such a “crazy” time were actually all just sat around lethargically trying to make themselves heard over the noise of the music, looking pretty bored, or complaining that the music wasn’t right to make the drugs they’d taken have the desired effect, or that there weren’t enough people dancing for them to want to dance.

Now I hear myself thinking: I’m really having fun, I wonder if other people can see that just from the irrepressible smile on my face even though I’m not saying it. I wonder if they actually had fun last night from the animated stories they’re trying to convince me of amongst their bored/tired-looking faces*… I think I’ll stick to my version of fun. I don’t want to be ‘normal’!

* I do acknowledge that sometimes people might have genuinely had fun. The point is that they’re not honest about the whole truth of it, which perpetuates a lie and unrealistic expectations and self-doubt in others.

Beggars and the disabled
Cambodia is not a country where the government looks after people who are injured or poor or uneducated or otherwise disadvantaged. It is still suffering all kinds of social issues following the Vietnam War and the total destruction of public systems and educated society under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, including a low-standard and corrupt education system, poor workers’ rights, no social security, child prostitution, human trafficking, poor land-owners’ rights… I’m no expert but I’m sure this list goes on and on. This means that beggars who’ve (for example) lost their legs through land-mine injuries, swallow any pride and approach tourists for handouts. There are lots of things to consider when faced with a grown man with flip-flops to protect his hands as he drags himself and his dignity along the pavement.

Lots of travellers here (I’m sure?) are the same as me – we want to help but haven’t come prepared knowing the ‘best’ way to do so. Thoughts cross my mind of not just giving handouts to individuals or encouraging begging (especially children, because their family then depends on them in this way instead of sending them to school/letting them enjoy their childhood) and how can I know how much will really make a difference to him? What about all the other people in the same situation who aren’t at my table right now? Anything I could give right now would still leave him returning to this same routine tomorrow and the next day and the next wouldn’t it? What else could I potentially do? How do I resolve the guilt of sitting here with all the comforts I need and saying no? Or ‘doing the right thing’? I don’t have the answers but I tried to treat him with respect and gave him a little money.

Then I met someone who thought differently, and later I read something that made me think differently again. An incredibly commendable fellow traveller went round the local clinics to source a wheelchair for a beggar who’d lost his legs, found out where his community lived, paid some rent for them and bought them two months’ worth of rice. Wow! That came straight from his heart and would’ve been way, way outside my own comfort zone!

My (at arm’s length?) inclination would be to support an organisation that knows better than I do how to help. Quickly in Cambodia I learned about so much corruption and destructive practices amongst NGOs and unnecessary-orphanages in particular. I was reading a book about organisations that are actually responsibly doing good work here in the right way (there are many). One story included a Western man who gave a lot of financial support to a family, only to return months later and find they’d needed to sell the things he’d bought, because their culture is so ingrained to live in the here and now that they couldn’t conceive of planning ahead and building a future. So he’s now changed his approach entirely and has set up a holistic charity working with communities and education. I’m pretty sure this would not have been inside his comfort zone when he first stepped foot in Cambodia as a tourist!

As I said, I don’t have the answers but surely doing nothing is not one of them. It’s too easy to spend tourist money here supporting the wrong things, but actually, it only takes a little effort to spend it supporting the right things. For now I’ve tried to stay in responsible-tourism guesthouses whenever possible and learn about the consequences of the dollars I spend. I’ll be thinking about this more, despite its uncomfortable nature.

Being honest with people
It’s not just the places and circumstances that push you out of your comfort zone when travelling but working out how to accommodate and tolerate all kinds of different people. Valuing myself enough to have difficult but open and honest conversations about how they make me feel, when necessary, is becoming just a little easier, though I still feel I have a long way to go with that! Remembering to try to put myself in other people’s shoes and question what assumptions I’m making about the situation continue to help. It’s interesting to me when people claim to be within their comfort zone yet use the words “I hate…” numerous times a day! Lately I’ve noticed myself more often pointing out the little things I love.

Giving people the chance to let me in
Going over to join a group, or inviting someone on their own to join the people I’m sat with – it’s clear that during the year I’ve got better at trying to make connections with more people, assuming that they’ll be happy to talk to me instead of assuming that they’ll think I’m weird. This has not always been within my comfort zone! But it’s less of a challenge here than in South America because here it feels like there are more travellers and they’re largely English-speaking. Once again I’ve met some awesome interesting people in Cambodia who I’d never have met otherwise!

As everyone knows, this can happen whether you’re with people or not. It’s only when I start to be hard on myself that I start to feel lonely; when my brain starts with the negative thinking, which I noticed happening here in the first week or so due to being in a new environment. I compare myself with others and this is a strong root of suffering for me. Each time I overcome that I gain a little more strength, so I’m glad to have gone through it!

On reflection I’m grateful to have had only fairly temporary travelling companions during this year because, much as I’ve really enjoyed the company of the ones I have found and often wished I could see them again, I can cherish every experience, memory and connection with new people as my own and mine alone. I know this kind of travelling isn’t for everyone but it is for me!

Dorms with rustic facilities and old-smelling mosquito nets, signs of poverty, litter, dirty streets, exotic food and the thrill of using non-standard modes of transport and having unforeseen experiences were already familiar to me but thick humid air is not! It’s very tiring. Perhaps this will make me more grateful for fresher cooler air when I get home!

Facing change
It might sound strange, but the thought of finally heading back to the place I call home is currently outside my comfort zone. My heart is excited to see the people there that I love, it’s been a long time and I want to give each of them my attention and a very big hug! But I’ve got very used to connecting with new people on a daily basis, finding my feet and finding ways to relate very quickly, and I will miss that wonderful freedom and sense of the unknown and chance and sharing. To me right now, strange places are my home comfort.

I’m afraid of depression sucking me in again like the vortex it can be.
I’m worried I’ll be judging myself again.
I’m worried I’ll forget a lot of the lessons I’ve learned.
I’m worried I’ll feel like I don’t belong anywhere, because home probably won’t feel like home anymore.
I’m worried I’ll find it difficult to relate to people who’ve been at home all this time and I will feel like I’m a bad friend!

All of that is definitely outside my comfort zone, but worrying and avoiding achieves nothing and actually, even writing those sentences down and seeing them from outside of my brain helps. So I’m going to face it all, accept it and deal with it, when the time comes. I remind myself that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And if the title of this post is true, then rather than an end, it must be another beginning, which has got to be a good thing!


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Posted in Cambodia, People
4 comments on “‘Life begins just outside your comfort zone’
  1. Lahja says:

    Thanks for this honest blog! The end brings tears to my eyes which tells me that it triggers my own feelings and fears! Thanks for letting me know on this way that I’m not alone! I miss you and I’m proud and impressed of how you step outside your comfort zone and learn so much every day!!

  2. Rach says:

    Emily…I predict your worrying about coming home will be for nothing.
    Those who are worthy of your time will be so excited to see you and hear all about your travelling tales and all the things you’ve learnt over the last year.
    As we’ve already discussed, yes, home is probably pretty similar to how you left it but there’ll be lots for you to catch up on too!
    I can tell you have grown stronger over the last year and I’m sure you will be fine with whatever challenges coming home presents you…at least you’ll have ‘proper’ cups of tea for comfort and I’m always here if you need 🙂
    Can’t wait to see you!

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