A Life Transformed in South East Asia

I stood at the window on the top floor of the skyscraper in the heart of Bangkok looking out at the chaos on the streets below. It was hot and smoggy, and it had taken us about two hours to travel just a few miles to get here.
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I stood at the window on the top floor of the skyscraper in the heart of Bangkok looking out at the chaos on the streets below. It was hot and smoggy, and it had taken us about two hours to travel just a few miles to get here.

I loved it.

It was 1995 and I was a university dean visiting Bangkok for the first time to meet with corporate partners and recruit potential students for a new international doctoral program.

It wasn't my first trip to Asia, nor was it the last. I had traveled to Japan in the summer of 1971 to attend an academic conference. It was also hot and smoggy and crowded and chaotic. It was, I thought, the worst example of creeping Western materialism taking over the world.

I hated it.

What was different between my experiences in 1971 and 1995? Me. I was an insufferable boor in 1971. A judgmental know-it-all and hippie college professor, I knew with certainty how people should live their lives - at one with nature, in rejection of the material world, and most of all, mellow in all things.

In 1995 I still believed most of that (well, not so sure about the mellow part), but maturity had softened my edges, opened me up to other possibilities, and made me more accepting of other ways of being. Rather than judge, I was ready to accept, even embrace.

So, what I saw outside that window was vitality. I also saw an exotic culture with roots, practices and artifacts vastly different from my own. I was fascinated, rather than repelled. Fascinated enough to add at least a week or two of vacation in subsequent visits over the next few years to explore Thailand, then Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Even longer visits followed years later after I switched careers from academic to travel writer.

These trips were not always easy. Wandering narrow streets in strange cities, trying to figure out where I was, where to go, where and what to eat. Working hard to incorporate what I was experiencing into my existing frames of reference -- not always successfully. But all of it captivated me - the pungent back streets and markets of Bangkok, unfamiliar Buddhist rituals in a mountaintop temple in Chiang Mai, floating down the Mekong River watching children wash their families' water buffaloes, eating strange concoctions involving lots of chile paste in Luang Prabang, dodging motor bikes on the streets of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, and perhaps most mesmerizing of all, walking among the ruins of ancient Khmer temples in the Angkor ruins near Seam Reap (aka Angkor Wat). All of these places were, if not off this planet, surely out of my world.

These experiences changed my life. They heightened my curiosity, sparked new interests, and revealed new aspects of my personality at an age I figured I knew all I needed to know about myself. For the first time in my life I wanted to learn about other cultures. In my personal life this new interest was reflected in my attitudes toward other cultures in the city in which I lived, Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities on earth. I not only became more tolerant and accepting of these cultures, but started to seek them out by exploring the ethnic neighborhoods of the city, especially via their food and music.

These experiences also influenced my travels further afield. Until that fateful trip to Bangkok in 1995, most of my travels had been domestic, usually backpacking and kayaking trips in North America. Great trips but the cultural range was limited.

My explorations of SE Asia impacted my professional life as well. As an organizational psychologist with expertise in work teams, my focus expanded to include cross-cultural and international issues in teamwork and collaboration.

But the most profound impact was ultimately on my career and life style. My world changed - literally -- in November 2004 as I was having dinner with a close friend. As the drinks arrived I handed him a copy of my latest book, on cross-organizational and international collaboration. My friend, who is a very successful consultant and corporate speaker, asked me if he could give me some career advice. Of course, I agreed, looking forward to encouragement from a person whose opinions I valued highly.

"Don," he said, "stop writing this shit." Not exactly what I expected to hear. He explained by noting that I talked more enthusiastically about my travels than about my work. The metaphorical light bulb went off in my head. He added that I would have a lot more fun writing about my travels (he was right about that) and would make a lot of money speaking about my travels to aging baby boomers (not so correct about that one!).

So here I am several years later, well into my latest career at age 73. I travel, I write, I speak, sometimes even getting decent remuneration for my so called "work." I win awards, I get involved in interesting projects, I receive greater rewards of all kinds from my travel writing and speaking than I did as a professor and dean. If this is retirement, its far more interesting and fun than anything I had ever imagined.

I've come a long way from that skyscraper window high above Bangkok and that fateful dinner with my irreverent friend. I'm not the only one whose life has been transformed by SE Asia - a list that includes Anthony Bourdain, Somerset Maugham, and Barak Obama, to mention just a few. Visit SE Asia and see if it also transforms yours.

(Don will be leading a trip to SE Asia in November. For more information go to www.wildland.com/active50)

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