The Sadness in Travelling: Five months of goodbyes are starting to take their toll

A waterfall in the Bolaven Plateau

Three hours before my ferry to the mainland was due to depart, I decided to stay on the Thai island of Koh Tao and train as a divemaster. Breathing underwater and letting the ocean carry my weight felt strangely right, and there is the vague possibility of a job after I finish my training.

Two and a half weeks later and I finally have a day without any diving. I spend it in bed catching up with the backlog of editing, when the first of several waves of sadness pass over me.

I was correcting the exposure and sharpening photographs of friends I would never meet again in my life. In Chiang Mai I had spent a month with three people I would have trusted my life with, and with whom I had shared the feeling of total freedom that I suspect gets incrementally harder to attain as you age. Elsewhere, I had ephemeral but furiously intense friendships that lasted anywhere between a few days and a few weeks. I had known from the offset that this would happen, and I really had believed that I was good at dealing with the close of good things.

The feeling of loss, for me, anyway, was like a staggered overdose. I was only just starting to feel the effects after five months of saying goodbye to dozens of kind souls who shared a little piece of themselves with me. Despite being able to talk to these people through Facebook, I still felt a sense of mourning for how I felt in the moments captured in the photographs. People grow up and outwards and situations change: in a few years time, you might no longer have anything in common, and you might even wonder how on earth you could have enjoyed their company so much.

A few days ago, I found out that my mother has gone through surgery twice since I left home, which my family had omitted to tell me. The emails I assumed she was sending me were actually written by my sisters. I am lucky in that I have not and still do not feel the ache of homesickness, but there is very little I wouldn’t give to hug my mum.

I am also coming to the beginning of the end of my travels. When I decided to stay and do my divemaster training, my plans for Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Myanmar were cut, and fluttered to the floor like dead moths. Unless I find a job at the end of it, I will be going home this summer to prepare for the beginning of my course at university.

Tad Lo Waterfall, Laos
Tad Lo Waterfall, Laos

Entropy must increase, things must break apart and change; it’s the second law of thermodynamics, and applies to the human condition as much as it does to the universe. Tomorrow will be a new day; perhaps in the morning I will stop dwelling on finished things and instead feel happy for the privileges that I have been granted.

After all, I am living on a tropical island and diving almost every day.

I also haven’t yet lost that wonderfully naive belief in my own invincibility, so all is not yet lost.


    • Oh Caitlin, thank you 🙂 I can say the exact same thing in return.

      It has been ages since we caught up with each other. Now that my internet is a bit steadier, I’m looking forward to a proper Indie Butterfly binge haha!

  1. A very sensitive post. I predict that with all of your travels so early in your life it will be very hard stay in one place for the rest of your life. Not a bad thing at all. Just find a way to make a living that allows you to do it and a partner who loves it as much as you do. Best to you

    • The UK is such an unfriendly and unkind country in contrast to the places I have been, and you’re right.. I don’t think I can settle there now.

      All I can think about is where to go next and how to save the money. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Thank you so much for the comment!

  2. Well said. I traveled for 10 months straight and about 5 months in realized that I was emotionally drained from saying so many goodbyes… And then having to turn right around and start all over in a new country. But, this is the privilege of travel and I try to keep that in perspective… Thanks for the post.

    • Exactly that- travel is a privilege and you have to take the positives from everything. It is a bit hard sometimes though.

  3. Thank you for this lovely post Lana. As you so well understand, the only constant is change. Your sadness will pass, and you already understand the blessings of your life. I wish you godspeed you mighty balloon 🙂

  4. Perhaps that is travel… You visit a place wind up with it and then you break all shackles. Come back with your memories and your memories bring out your travel stories for the world to know….

    • They inevitably will! And as is commonly said, you need to experience sadness before you are able to properly appreciate what happiness is.

  5. Whilst I’m travelling as a couple and so a different situation, I too am terrible at goodbyes. I feel everything you have said. Travelling can sometimes be so bittersweet, but the sadness undoubtedly passes and there is so much that’s good. We are lucky to be experiencing the world. Keep the posts coming – the highs and the lows – we are all in it together 🙂

    • Yes we are! It’s difficult to strike a balance between getting used to the transience of friendships on the road, and becoming detached, but there we go. Thanks for the comment!

  6. I don’t think anyone ever connects as well and as completely as travellers can! I live in HCMC and every day I see, make and lose relationships with people passing through here – every single one is worth it, but so sad to say goodbye. I really enjoyed this post – please keep writing?!

  7. I was having a crappy, stay in your jammies don’t get off the couch unless it’s to get a tub of ice cream, which I happily ate straight out of the tub kinda day today. I was watching some show (a total waste of two hours of my life) when some little fishy flashed on the screen. A big smile came across my face because that little fishy made me think of you. Now you’ve probably never been compared to a fish before but I have to say it was a pretty impressive fish as fish go.
    My son and I had the pleasure of spending a few days in the same hostel dorm as you while we too learned to dive. You encouraged me and gave me the confidence to believe I could dive even though you probably never even realized that is what you were doing (you also scared the crap out of me about the Koh Tao Mafia…but that’s another story). That is the wonderful thing about travelling, we get to have a moment with all sorts of people and maybe take a little bit from each of them. Those moments will stay with us long after we’ve said goodbye and resurface right when we need them most. You are wise beyond your young years and I know you will continue to touch a lot of lives whether it be under the sea or when I see your face one night on the tv. Happy travels Lana

    • This is far and beyond the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me, and I’ll never forget it. I finished my training two months ago and have spent most of my time struggling to stay on top of everything, dealing with a lack of wifi, and trying to find work. I’m only now able to read through my comments and work on my blog properly, instead of rush-posting something quickly using a mobile connection.

      I’m actually sitting in the hostel, stealing their wifi. Can’t believe I only just had that idea now. I’ve found work and have settled in to Koh Tao quite nicely, but I know I won’t be staying here for long. I’ll see where the wind takes me 🙂

      I have your email now and I’d quite like to keep in touch.

  8. While traveling, saying goodbye to new friendships is very difficult, but remember they are there forever. I met a great couple in Europe 3 years ago and this year they joined me in Vietnam since I was based there. We are now moving to Dubai and that’s another reason for them to come say hi!

    • Oh, this gives me hope. That and Facebook- I can always keep track of people this way, and accidentally met up with a couple of people too through seeing their pictures on social media and realising we were both in the same place at the same time!

  9. If you manage to continue your travels and ever make your way to South Korea for any reason, do let me know. I’m stuck in this country for the next two years, and will be more than happy to show you around. Also nice to have someone to translate; English level in this country is a serious hit or miss.

    • Wait- what? Stuck in South Korea? Why stuck? Ahh tell me all!

      I could well be making a short stop in South Korea at some point in the next two years, we’ll see. Currently a bit stuck myself, working on Koh Tao in Thailand.. my budget minus emergency plane ticket fund is at almost zero.

      • I have been called upon by my government to serve up my duty – bestowed upon my birth – to defent the nation from its enemies. I’m off to bootcamp at August 6th, but I’ll be comuting from home after training instead of serving in the barracks, courtesy of incredibly flat feet. Working 40 hours a week without any real compensation, so basically slave labor.

        Oh my Koh Tao. At least the views are lovely (or so they say). What kind of work are you finding there?

      • Oh my. Oh my, oh my. My mentor here on Tao (coincidentally also called Dan!) used to be a military photographer, could you possibly weasel your way into that department? Then at least you’re gaining something from all that slave labour.

        Will the commute at least mean you get to experience a bit more of life in SK? Are you a US citizen? I really didn’t know the draft existed except in a couple of strange and far away countries. As a pacifist who is also very against the idea of government using outdated laws to take advantage of its citizens, you have all of my sympathies.

        I’m a divemaster here. Some people consider it slave labour too, but they have no idea 😉 As for the views- I see forested mountains, coconut plantations, beaches strewn with empty beer bottles, and half naked/severely sunburned tourists every day. Sometimes I am very not in the mood for the latter two.

      • I’m a Korean citizen, hence the complication with the draft. I’m assigned to assist in a local centre for disabled. What the place has in store for, I have absolutely no clue of. I will work 40 hours a week, and I am free to do as I see fit outside that time. (Except for getting a job. Generating taxable income is illegal. Generating untamable income is illegal in general, too. so I’m boned either way.)

        It really does frustrate me because indiscriminately drafting twenty-somethings in comparison to enlisting volunteers with commitment brought up to warrior’s mind undermines the combat effectiveness of the uniformed services.

        And as for Koh Tao, I see. Tourism industry can be a mixed bag. At least you get to dive for free! (kinda) Do you enjoy your work? I suppose it will really depend on the clientele at the given moment.

      • From my cursory research, it seems a lot of celebrities tried to get out of it by faking medical stuff (or changing their citizenship), hah.

        I might dislike some aspects of life on KT, but it’s my choice to stay and I can leave whenever I want. Generally, I love my work. Some days are better than others though 😉

        I hope you get more out of those two years than you feel you lose. I would be bitter about the unpaid and forced part of it though, and I’m annoyed on your behalf.

        But who knows, it might be two years of character-building wonderfulness that you look back on fondly.

      • Woohoo! Are you moving into your off-barracks accomodation now?
        Also, I’m curious- do females have to do it too?

      • I commute from home (thank god) but I’ll be called up to duty in times of crisis or war or crisis. And no, ladies are home-free from service.

      • Super random, but I finally caved into my friends and acquaintance’s demands and made a website. It’s far better than this wordpress thing i have going on: check it out when you’re bored.

        You haven’t posted anything for a while! (well, neither have i) Hope you’re doing well in Thailand.

      • Hey! I know.. I’ve just returned from a trip to Malaysia so watch this space, aha. I’ll check it out!

      • Constitutionally duty to defend the nation apply to all people regardless of sex, but currently the costs of drafting women is deemed unnecessary for current circumstances. In extreme cases, women can be drafted too though.

  10. Don’t be sad, you will always meet good people! And the ones You have met before will be there in your heart!

  11. I don’t like to say ‘good bye’ to friends but rather find comfort in saying ‘see you later’. It gives me the feeling that I will see them again.

    • People in the north of England say “see you later” too. I picked it up for the exact same reason. The world works in funny ways, so I haven’t abandoned all hope yet 😉

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