Testing my Tolerance for Anxiety

One of my daily affirmations is to unravel my own psychology so as I departed for my six weeks in south-east Asia I set a clear intention to experiment with how much flexibility in my plans I could tolerate and to explore the relationship between four aspects of travel that I am curious to untangle.

The first is that the more planned the trip the less anxiety one is likely or supposed to experience. The continuum will stretch from one extreme – the totally comprehensive all in travel holiday where everything is taken care of – to buying a ticket and arriving somewhere with nowhere to stay and no concrete plans. My trip was to be a combination of both.

The second is one’s capability to manage the stresses that arise. Each of us will adjust differently depending on our current psychology. I understand enough about myself to know that I use planning and control to manage my anxiety. It all stems back to a child’s desire to manage the relationship with the powerful other, therefore I may feel more anxiety than others in the same situation. (This becomes particularly obvious when I encounter what I refer to authentic travelers who shift from one place to another enduring fifteen hour bus trips.)

The third is the fact that a total planned experience inhibits the magic of spontaneity to expand the magic of the journey.

Fourth there is the issue of how much money you are willing to spend to minimize anxiety. For example a car arranged by your hotel to meet you at the airport will cost up to twenty times as much as a taxi.

My niece Amy created a term for a trait that she has observed on my side of the family called “the Simpson Spin” so perhaps there is some genetic influence in all this. The Simpson Spin is a reaction to events not unfolding as hoped and expected. Its features include but are not limited to: impatience, anger, ungroundedness, an inability to make a sane decision, irrationality, loss of centre, frustration and sheer panic. All are consequences of loss of control and the resulting anxiety.

I began this trip with a desire to test my tolerance for anxiety without pushing myself to the point where I get distraught or trapped in the Simpson Spin. I decided to combine some strategic planning with laissez-faire. I knew I arrived in Bangkok on February 3rd and left Denpasar in Bali on March 17th. I knew I needed to meet a group in Bali on March 1st for the more organized part of my trip. The rest began as empty space as I assessed what made me comfortable without over planning.

First I decided I wanted to arrange a Bangkok Hotel so I booked the Mandarin – not the Oriental another one. I decided I would not arrange for the hotel to pick me up ($100) but take regular taxi ($13). This of course led to its own anxiety as the driver had no idea where my hotel but the end result was I saved eighty bucks so the forty minutes of anxiety seemed justified.

I also decided to book a flight to Bali from Kuala Lumpur as I found an inexpensive option and it seemed in the right direction for my travel. I also booked  a flight to Phuket as that was also on my agenda for the same reason.

Both of these in hindsight seemed to be mistakes. My need to manage my anxiety resulted in unforeseen consequences. I ended up having to change my Phuket flight because I spontaneously made what turned out to be a very good decision to go to Siem Reap in Cambodia. The result was it became expensive not cheap and ended up being one of the worst flight experiences of my life. I have learned that my least favourite airline in the world is AirAsia but that’s a story I covered in another blog.

I also decided I had no real desire to visit Kuala Lumpur – it seemed a good idea at the time but I began to regret it. I was only going there to catch a flight. (Ironically after I got there I really enjoyed my time. This very modern, first world style city became a wonderful hiatus from the chaos and drama of Thailand.)

So on this trip my desire to minimize anxiety by planning sometimes had just the opposite effect, conversely the times when I have risked and perhaps have been more spontaneous have worked out very well. I really enjoyed my time in Cambodia, the people are so lovely and Angkor Wat is amazing.

I realized very quickly that I did not want to spend more than six days on Phuket Island; although I enjoyed my time, it wasn’t really the Thai experience I hoped to find. I also had no desire to return to Phuket Airport. To my relief I figured out I could fly from Krabi to Kuala Lumpur and that this created a lot more flexibility and the opportunity to move. Now I could take a ferry to Ao Nang, a lovely beach area near Krabi that I recalled from twenty-three years ago.

I immediately ran into a challenge as I could find no reasonably priced accommodation that wasn’t at least six miles from the beach. I realized this offered me a choice – change plans again or risk the anxiety of having nowhere to stay. Expedia was less than reassuring showing every place as sold out however somehow I convinced myself to take the chance. It seemed a reasonable way of assessing my tolerance of anxiety.

I used a James Hollis strategy – convert the anxiety into fear that can be managed. It came down to fear of not being able to find a place to stay but in fact the only risk was having to travel further. So I set off on the ferry to my destiny. Everything worked out fine thanks to a Tuktuk driver named Noot who for $8 agreed to find me a place to stay. We visited ten hotels before a room was available so I am glad I wasn’t on foot. It was only ten minutes to the beach area.

The outcome of this was somewhat unexpected; a bit like finding the Holy Grail and then realizing you didn’t want it; Ao Nang had changed beyond recognition from the quiet haven I remembered to a typically tacky Thai town lined with massage parlours, tourist offices, restaurants, hotels and convenience stores. The beaches have shrunk and lost at least ten feet of sand. I realized I had no desire to spend the rest of the week there but where to go?

I had heard of an island named Koh Lanta, a two hour ferry away so decided to head there. I found on booking.com a sweet bungalow complete with AC, a safe, tea making gear only 300 metres from the beach for $40.; it has proved to be the best decision I made.

This was the experience I had been craving and although the travel aspect created some anxiety it was well worth it. The trip began poorly when a 9:30 collection from the hotel by air-conditioned mini van turned into a 10:30 pick up in a small truck with bench seats and the ferry departure was scheduled for 10:30! I just made the overcrowded, precarious ferry for the two and a half hour trip and came closer than desirable to the “Simpson Spin”.

It is clear after the first four weeks of my trip that the only real way to eliminate anxiety is stay at home and I am not ready for that quite yet. Following the breadcrumbs laid out for me seems the best solution – accept your mistakes and move on. Travel is unpredictable and leaving flexibility allows room for magic and spontaneity. As the Scot’s poet said, “the best laid plans ….” It’s important to remember it’s all about the journey.

NB Details of my travels are at http://www.hangin.wordpress.com

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