Decisions, not kilometers or baht, are the basic unit of travel. This is what makes it so exhilarating, and intimidating, and vital. You must make decisions without all of the necessary information. You must make decisions without knowing how things will turn out or which option will be most delicious or satisfying or enjoyable. You must make decisions understanding full well that you might not be able to unmake them. Once you depart, you might never return. Once you arrive and the bus or the plane or the motorbike taxi or the minivan pulls away, you must agree to be where you are.
Let's say you are trying to decide where to go when you leave Chiang Mai. A friend who has been to Thailand several times tells you that Pai is the place to go, goes so far as to offer recommendations and suggestions of things you might enjoy there. An expat you've met in a corner restaurant in Chiang Mai, someone who has cycled throughout SE Asia and is dating the owner of said corner restaurant, tells you that Pai is nothing but tourists, pretty perhaps, but overpriced and inauthentic. He recommends Mae Hong Son instead, describing a small town centered around a picturesque lake, describing its local flavor and slow, gentle pace. Another friend, a seasoned traveler who passed this way over 15 years ago, tells you to use your Lonely Planet book as a guide of where NOT to go, says that you should pick a place that is beneath notice. There, he says, you will find the best places.
And let's say that although you've enjoyed Chiang Mai, you're starting to feel that you are just another tourist following the exact same route laid out by the exact same guidebook you see in every foreigner's hands. In Chiang Mai, you've randomly run into the same German couple that took your picture in Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station and they asked you about going to Doi Sutep, where you have just been, and say they are thinking of going to Pai, which is where you may be going next. The Lonely Planet is starting to feel positively overcrowded.
What do you do? Which decision is the right decision? Should you follow your friend's glowing recommendations and go to Pai, even though you may find yourself in the same guesthouse as Helmut and Marta? Should you take the British ex-pat's advice and bypass Pai, choosing Mae Hong Son instead? Or should you cross these towns off of your list because your guidebook has described them both in great detail? Perhaps you should go to Nan, a rarely mentioned city in a primarily rural, agricultural province in NE Thailand. Which of these is the RIGHT decision?
This is why I dislike sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor. Everyone has an opinion, and yet the more opinions you read, the less sure of your decisions you become. Yuki from Japan, says that Pai is overrated. Carl from Canada says Pai is just perfect. Hanna from Austria says that the hotel you were thinking of staying in is dirty and a long walk from all the sights. Martin from Germany says that its conveniently located, quiet, and that it serves the best breakfast he's had in all of Thailand. I mean how can you make sense of any of this? Maybe Yuki is an entitled princess and Hanna has OCD. Maybe Martin hates spicy food and Carl is scared of drinking anything that isn't pre packaged. How can you know? With all of these conflicting opinions, how can you make the right decision?
Here's a secret: There is no right decision. You cannot know what destination will make you happier because it's not the destination that makes you happy. The decision itself is what makes you happy. You choose a direction knowing full well you have no idea what will happen, and you begin walking. We chose to go to Mae Hong Son, a perfectly lovely town set into the mountains of NW Thailand, and we had a great time. We ate more street food and visited more temples; we continued to mangle the Thai language and we expanded our comfort zone; we visited places that we had never even imagined and witnessed sights that we could never have predicted. Our universe of experience expanded. We grew.
And the truth is, this would have happened whether we had decided on Pai, Nan, Mae Hong Son, or Chiang Rai.
This is one of the ever-present — but often obscured — truths that the act of traveling lays bare: It doesn't matter what you decide so much as THAT you decide. The acknowledgement that you have the power to choose how to interact with the world is an initial step towards conscious living. You may not be able to choose how everything will turn out, but you do have the power to choose your next step. Will you complain? Will you accept? Will you step off of the path you've been walking and into a frightening unknown? Will you continue on with faith, or anger, or resentment, or hope? These decisions are more subtle than Pai v. MHS v. Nan, but they carry more weight because we face them every single day.
If you forget that you have the power of choice, then you have surrendered a mighty gift. If you choose to live a life of regret and self doubt, constantly wondering if things would have been better if you had followed a different path, then you accede to the role of victim. You cease to be at play in the universe, you become the universe's plaything. I, for one, believe we are here to play.
Would we have liked Pai more than Mae Hong Son? Would we have discovered unexpected delights in Nan? Perhaps. Probably not. Absolutely. In the end, these are pointless questions. The real questions are these: Did we make the most of our time in Mae Hong Son? Did we engage fully in the world we chose to inhabit? Did we free ourselves from the hold of ego and release into the immense flow that brought us here; that has always carried us every second of every day of this life?
Perhaps. Probably not. Absolutely. But it's nothing to worry about. We'll be given the gift of another decision very very soon.