The Eighth Ring of Hell, Otherwise Known As “Sightseeing”

Elephant ride in Koh Phangan, Thailand
This is one of my favorite "I am having a moment" moments. Elephant ride in Thailand.
Sightseeing is a given when you’re traveling. You’re not traveling to a new and potentially expensive place to scratch your balls. No, you’re out in the world to refresh your worldview, to take a break from the mundane, to fulfill your societal contract to post something interesting on social media.

All right so let’s not disparage sightseeing. It’s one thing to sightsee at a fake haunted house in Guanajuato or wherever and pretend like you’re having a moment. It’s quite another to sightsee at a revered, possibly holy site such as Angkor Wat. You are having an experience, of course, you are being forced to see with new eyes. Perhaps the event won’t translate into any change in your life, it won’t translate into any good in the world. But oh hell, in that moment you saw. We deserve these life moments of wonder to refresh ourselves from the expected.

 I’m not really working while traveling Southeast Asia, unless you count spinning such crap as “How To Know If He’s Still Interested” as working. I don’t know when it happened that I thought I could afford such outlandish dignity. I cling to it, even when I really should be grateful to earn a living. But I like to think I’m an intellectual, so I scoff at the rough bread I bake to keep going. Life is just better when you’re above it.

 It’s logical then to think that sightseeing would be my “job.” Right? Every day I should get up at a reasonable hour and see things. Important things are best, though they can be padded with a few minor sights as long as I’m making the effort to fill the day. During the day I see and at night I relax, or I shift the schedule around slightly. Perhaps I relax all morning and see at night. After all, let’s not get tyrannical. We’re not working after all, no, we’re on vacation. A seeing vacation, full of importance. Full of sights. Report back the sights or they didn’t happen. Social media, quirky updates.

 I’m in Bali! Today we did x, y and z. We didn’t waste a minute, or not that you’d ever be able to tell. We saw all the top sights on Tripadvisor, plus this locally relevant restaurant and look at our inexpensive but grand hotel. We’re enjoying ourselves so much! Look at us posing. We’re little traveling monkeys, looking traveling appropriate, posed in front of whatever background we think should be there, or you think should be there, it’s all the same. 

I can't even think right now about contributing. Volunteering. That's another post, that's one where you'd really need a dose of humility. I believe in volunteering while traveling. I am writing this because to not say so would be monstrous.

Back to the subject at hand: I’ve stopped sightseeing. I’m full of anxiety because I think I’m not traveling but loafing. I’m not fulfilling my social contract. I’m not educating the masses, or myself, or lying hard enough that I’m seeing. I’m very obsessed with my little project, my traveling, and that it is important enough to be anxious over. Whether I am sightseeing or not -- this is important. This is the stuff that life is made of.


Lilje said...

I think the magic of travelling happens quite far from Tripadvisor-recommended sightseeing spots. If you want to spot other tourists, on the other hand, then that's where you should be, trying to see a glimpse of a temple from behind a thronge of loudly "oh-my-GAAAAAWDing" Americans/Japanese/add your land here. Of course there are places that are a must-see despite of this, like Angkor Wat and what have you, but basically my point is that you shouldn't feel bad for not faking a smile in a tourist snapshot in front of a "mandatory" sight. And the stories of people who steer clear of the well-frequented spots are usually the most interesting ones.

August said...

You know I want to read that article now.

Also I don't think you should feel obligated to visit or see anything, but also bear in mind that a lot of these touristy places attract people for reasons, and maybe try to look through the layer of schmaltz and find that reason. My favourite part of Egypt wasn't the Pyramids (aka the Big Show), but rather Karnak and many of the smaller temples. But if I hadn't seen the pyramids or the bazaar in Luxor or any of the super big places, I know I'd be kicking myself now.

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Anonymous said...

I have been to Thailand couple of times but never get chance yet to enjoy elephant ride. Some of my friends have been to Khao Sok national park, Sampran Zoo and I heard there enjoyable experiences. Now after reading your article I will definitely plan a Thailand trip with a best online vacation planner. Your article is really so encouraging and informative. Thanks for the post.

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