Shouldn’t it be…harder?: On Travelling in Comfort

Let me introduce you to a few key examples of how I have traveled in the past.


They named a street after me in Phnom Penh!


Let’s start at the beginning, when I was barely 20 years old. In 1994, I spent two months sleeping on my friend’s sofa in a small flat above a pagan shop in Galway, Ireland. I lived on packets of soup stretched with veggies from the market and a few pints of Guinness per day. I walked a lot. I hitch hiked. I looked out at the water and wrote a lot. I think I spent $3000 in just over three months.

On my way back home via London, I couldn’t afford a hotel so I took the tube out to Heathrow the night before my morning flight and slept on the benches in the Concord waiting room. They were crenelated benches so there were ridges digging into my hips and my shoulders. I couldn’t afford airport food so I just didn’t eat. It was a logical conclusion.

When I finally got home after a three day bus-ferry-tube-bench journey from Galway to Vancouver, I had to go to the doctor for muscle relaxants because I’d done terrible things to my trapezius from all my awkward sleeping positions combined with an ergonomically cruel backpack.

In early 1998, I spent a month in a small shack outside of Accra, Ghana, sharing a foam mattress on a wooden platform with my ex London flatmate, Jan.  We had no electricity, bucket showers, squat loos. I read a lot, wrote a lot, ate fufu and kenke and jollof rice and rode in trotros on pot holed red dirt roads with bags of chickens in my lap. I had flown to Ghana on Balkan Airlines via Sofia, Bulgaria. We had stowaways on our flight and most of the carry on baggage consisted on enormous square plastic zip-up bags full of the passengers’ life possessions. I spent approximately 150 pounds sterling that month.

For most of the mid-to-late 1990s, I slept in dorm rooms. Mostly in London, but also all over Europe. I rarely set foot inside a restaurant. Baguettes and cheese and tomatoes were my mainstays. A room of my own seemed laughably decadent and wasn’t even considered. I walked, I took buses, I walked even more. For three years, I lived out of a backpack.

I won’t bore you with an itemized list of all the ways in which I ruined my health and musculature and sanity with endless night buses and train station floor beds and bread, bread and more bread. I won’t rattle on about my daily calculations and re-calculations of budget and the gnawing I felt inside knowing that my 1500 pounds had to last from, say, November until June. I made it work. I’m still alive.


Phnom Penh decor


However, nearly 17 years since I first started traveling overseas and 9 years since I was first able to afford a room of my own (which was in Kayseri, in Cappadocia, Turkey, when my school provided me with my very own room in a shared flat), I am still hesitant to step out of my discomfort zone and embrace the fact that, by gum, I can afford to be comfortable, well fed and not in constant stress mode. I don’t have to pull back muscles getting from here to there. I don’t have to coast on the edge of self imposed poverty.

I’m in Cambodia right now, with Doug and his parents. Three Clevelanders and a Canadian in Phnom Penh. Yes, Virginia, Americans do travel.  We’re staying in a really cushy guest house near the riverside. Our room has a private pool. Yes. A private pool. And wifi. And a few loungey pillowed platforms for reading amongst our ferns beneath the lovely sunny skies. And A/C. There is a gorgeous reed tapestry on the wall.

We’re paying $75 a night for this.

For the next two weeks, we’ll be staying in similar places in Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. We’ll be hiring taxis to drive us from here to there. I think tonight we’ll be taking a boat cruise on the Mekong. We’re eating in restaurants– with cocktails on terraces, appetizers, mains, white table cloths. We’re eating out three meals a day. In restaurants. With white table cloths. Not bread and cheese, or more aptly, not noodles.


Why yes, that is our private pool you see


When Doug first started researching places to stay, my first instinct for every suggestion that was more than, say, $30/night was a knee-jerk NO.

We can’t afford that. That’s not me. That’s insane. No squat loo or bucket shower?  That’s crazy talk!

And to hire a taxi and not go by cramped overnight bus, covered in chickens, being forced to listen to blaring Cambodian music videos for twelve hours? Seriously? What are we, bourgeois? Spoiled? Decadent?

And the best Khmer restaurant in Phnom Penh? Us? What about that street stall? I like plastic chairs! What’s wrong with plastic bowls full of mystery noodles?

When we flew in from Guangzhou at 10pm a few days ago, my gut reaction to our late arrival was, oh shit, I hope the last bus hasn’t left, I hope we don’t have to sleep at the airport.  And then I remembered, oh, hey, we can take a taxi! I don’t have to breed new ulcers every time I pull up in a new country late at night!


Posh eats (by my standards, at least– look, a table cloth!)


Cocktails on the terrace.


However, I have to silence my inner illogically-frugal traveler and remind myself that it’s not actually necessary to impose such restrictions on myself or on others.

It’s a short trip, just two weeks, and we can afford it.

And since Doug’s folks only get 12 days off a year, it’d be cruel to tell them to suck it up and deal with squat loos and bucket showers and crowded overnight buses and dorm rooms and endless bowls of street noodles just because my brain is wired to expect that.

Yesterday morning I awoke to my first tummy bug of the year. I was sick all day, reduced to sipping passion fruit juice and lying feverish on the lovely pillowed bench by our private pool, feeling absolutely appalling.  And, really, to be honest, I was glad we weren’t in a dorm with a shared squat loo and bucket shower.  It’s nicer to puke in privacy.


You don’t get these wide open spaces in Shanghai, unless you venture out into deepest, darkest Pudong.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.