So what the heck is all this smoke and blather about “intentional” travel? What have good intentions got to do with anything, especially when it comes to trekking to Timbuktu or surfing the beach in Bali? Well, it’s a long story…
We were sitting at the bar in the Long House Villa in the town of Kampot on the southern coastline of Cambodia, watching the sun setting over the Elephant Mountains. Someone had written, either in Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, that Kampot was a charming fishing village beginning to draw tourists to its various local attractions. This, as it turned out, was something in the nature of an exaggeration. Kampot possesses a lot of dirt roads, potholes and falling down colonial-era buildings in dire need of paint, but “charm” is not a word that I could honestly use to describe the town. The only real attraction in the region was the fabulous ruined resort of Bokor, built high in the fog atop 2,500-foot Bokor Hill by the French when they were busy exploiting IndoChine of its raw resources in the 1930s and abandoned to its ghosts decades ago. Some travel writer (this time quite accurately) had described Bokor Hill in the fog as the “eeriest place in the world.” Making an attempt to ascend the ruined road up to Bokor by four-wheel drive or motorcycle was really the only reason for foreigners to come to Kampot.
The Long House Villa possessed the same charm as the rest of Kampot – not much – and its only drawing card was its cheapness. The more expensive rooms were two dollars each, with fans that sometimes worked and toilets that didn’t flush and TVs that didn’t connect to the wall. The cheaper rooms were one dollar, furnished with no fans and no TVs that didn’t work either. Since it was hot enough to roast a goat, all the two-dollar rooms with fans had been taken, save one. I took it eagerly.
There were six of us at the bar, mostly French and Germans gearing up for a run up Bokor the next morning. Their ability to converse in English was about the same as my ability to converse in French and German. Luckily there was an Aussie at one table, and I made a request to sit with him, where for reasons that escape me now I introduced him to the concept of intentionality.
Just as anywhere in the world you go there is bound to be a Chinese restaurant, any bar in the world will be guaranteed to have at least one Aussie sitting in it, attempting to keep their reputation intact of being the biggest beer drinkers in the world. I love Aussies. I think the Land of Oz produces the friendliest people on the planet, and if you put a beer in front of them its all you can do just to hang on tight and listen to the stories and jokes.
“So you went to Bokor today and lived to tell about it?” I asked as an opener.
Robert was quite young, early twenties maybe, and quite red in any places that weren’t still pale blond. He looked like an overdone roast beef that had lain under a heat lamp well past the expiry date. He wore dirty shorts and flip flops and a big floppy hat, and in one hand he clutched a big bottle of Tiger beer, which made frequent trips to his badly burned face where it disappeared down his pie hole with gusto. With his other hand he was busy peeling the labels off the beer bottles and placing them carefully in a stack on the tabletop. There was quite a stack of labels.
“Yeah,” he nodded carefully, so as not to upset his equilibrium, which appeared somewhat shaky. “It’s quite the bloody road all right. mate.”
“Did you rent a motorbike or ride in a truck?” I asked.
“The only bikes for rent in Kampot are these piddly 100 cc skanks,” he said, swallowing the rest of his beer in one gulp and signalling to the bar maid for another. “You’d never make it up that road on that kind of crud. Nah, I road in the back of one of the pickup trucks. That’s what the Lonely Planet guide said to do.”
“How was it?”
“Fucking horrible,” he said with a lop-sided grin. “That really is the worst fucking road on the planet. It’s just a vertical riverbed, really. I must have smashed my head on tree branches a hundred times.”
“So it’s not worth the effort to get there, then?”
“Oh no, it’s worth it when you get to the top, mate. Bokor’s a really creepy place. The guide told us all about the Khmer Rouge machine gunning all their prisoners in the basement of the hotel, and the drunken Cambodian gamblers years ago taking swan dives off the cliffs when they lost all their money in the casino. That’s a very creepy casino, mate. Did you know Matt Dillon made a movie called City of Ghosts there?”
“Can I ask you something?” I said, pointing to the pile of beer labels on the table. “What’s the deal with the labels? Do you collect them as souvenirs?’
“Nah,” he said sheepishly, picking up the pile and sorting through them. “I do that just to keep count.”
“How many do you have in that pile?”
“Let’s see,” he said, putting down his bottle momentarily and counting them one by one. “There’s fourteen, I think.”
“Why do you keep count?”
“To keep track of how smashed I am,” he said. “It’s my own method. I invented it myself. And I always keep my bus fare back to Phnom Penh in a shoe in my room. I learned that lesson the hard way.”
I sat and pondered his pearls of wisdom for a moment, sipping my own beer. The Germans were playing a game of cards at the next table. The French had gone to bed.
“Mathematics,” I replied. “Not my game. Where you from?”
“Sydney,” he replied. “That’s home.”
“Do they have any beer back home in Sydney?”
“Course they do,” he replied, downing the rest of his beer in one swallow. “All the piss in the world.”
“Are you staying in room number one?”
“Yeah,” he replied with a big grin. “The one that smells like a pissoir? Right nasty in there, mate. Toilet’s jammed.”
“So let me figure this out,” I said, sipping slowly on my own beer. “You paid one dollar for the room and fourteen dollars for the beer?”
“So far,” he said, holding up his Tiger. “Could be more coming.”
“Well, here’s how I figure it,” I said, leaning forward. “We have lots of beer back in Canada too, but I didn’t come twelve thousand miles to Asia just to get pissed. Or to follow the muffin shop trail from Lonely Planet, or buy some street hash in Kathmandu, or go surfing in Bali. All that stuff you read in Lonely Planet, it’s mindless.”
“What’s wrong with getting pissed?”
“Nothing, if that’s all you can think of doing. But check this out,” I said. “I was just in Phnom Penh, and I went riding motorbikes all over town, but not to get polluted. I went with people from Street Kids International and ChildSafe. We rode up and down the downtown streets looking for sex predators. We met with street kids and cops and tuk tuk drivers. I filmed the whole scene for a documentary I want to make.”
“Are you serious?” he e said. “You went hunting sex predators? What do they look like?”
“Middle-aged and old men from Europe and North America,” I said. “They buy the books and magazines that the street kids sell in the bars, and then they invite the kids up to their rooms. Little kids, eight and nine years old.”
“That’s enough on the details,” said Robert. “I don’t need to hear any more.”
We sat in silence for a moment. Robert casually picked up the stack of labels and crumpled them in his right hand, then tossed them towards the garbage pail, missing by two feet. We sat and looked at them for a bit, then he bent down and picked them up and put them in the pail.
“So, how’d you hear about this Street Kids International outfit?” he said slowly. “They takin’ on any volunteers?”
“Let me tell you about intentionality,” I said. “That’s what I do. I call what I do ‘intentional travel’ for want of a better word.”
“Say what?” said Robert, leaning forward and putting both elbows on the table.
“It all began in San Francisco. Great city. Ever been there?”
“No, but I heard a lot of good things about it.” He turned to look for the barmaid, and ordered some food. He turned back again. “What were you saying?”
“I was at the annual international travel writers conference in San Francisco, and I met this travel writer,” I explained. “He has a syndicated column, advising backpackers on cheap ‘round the world’ travel. I told him I thought the Bay Area was the best place in the world I’d ever been, and he explained there was a reason for that. He said it was an “intentional community,” and that many people who lived there couldn’t stand living anywhere else, so they paid a premium for living in such an expensive place.”
“What’s an intentional community?”
“Damned if I knew, so I went home and googled it up. Turns out its any place where people share similar ethics and philosophy. Can be an anarchist’s squat or a hippie commune or a rich person’s gated community. No matter, it’s just a question of most people being on the same page. That’s when I discovered the word intentionality. On the google search, that word came up right underneath the phrase intentional community.”
“I think I need something to eat,” said Robert. “Go on.”
“Apparently, its a philosophical term that people with time on their hands – like philosophers – have been discussing for centuries. Intentionality describes both a mindset and a set of practices. There are five components: An action is considered intentional if the agent has a desire for an outcome, a belief that the action will lead to the outcome, an intention to perform the action, the skill to perform the action and awareness while performing the action.”
“You know,” said Robert, “this is all going over my head.”
“Think of it this way,” I replied, signalling the barmaid for some rice and beans for myself. “It’s just faith, but faith put into action with an intent to accomplish something. The key is the conscious awareness part. So, like, being smashed all the time is not part of the equation. You need to develop a certain way of seeing the world in a clear fashion, then interesting things start to happen.”
“Like what?” he said, chewing on a long dead piece of chicken.
“ I’m a traveller, and a travel writer, so I am always looking for stories,” I said, sipping on my own beer. “I travel with a certain state of mind, one that I call conscious awareness, and amazing things happen to me all the time, mostly because of the amazing people I meet.”
“Ah, I love a good travel story,” said Robert. “So tell me more about them street kids in Phnom Penh.”
It can be said that all of life is a magical journey, I explained, an exploration of our outer and inner worlds. You don’t need to travel to the ends of the earth to be on a trip. A walk to the corner store, done with conscious awareness, is no different than a voyage to the high Himalayas. A specific attitude, a particular way of looking at the world, when connected to certain techniques of obtaining this perspective, makes everything in the world new and magical again. What could be better than feeling like a child in a sandbox, when every grain of sand is a source of wonder?
“So how do you get into this particular state of mind?” said Robert. “Personally, I do it with beer, but the problem is the next day I can’t remember anything.”
“You can find all that stuff on my website,” I said, handing him my pen. “Maybe you should write the address down, maybe on the backs of one of those beer labels.”
“Right. That’s how I remember things,” he said with a laugh. “It’s my own method. That way I know how smashed I am.”
We sat and watched the sun go down over the Elephant Mountains. We are all ambassadors for our own cultures and our own selves. I said. Intentional travelers consciously wander the world with the goal of meeting other people and learning from them, of trying to leave the world a better place than they found it. In the end, the journey is not to arrive at any geographic entity but to find our highest self. It’s not a question of sand and surf, dusty old museum or mom’s cooking. Traveling with intent means changing the world; your own world, the only world you can change.
“Have you got a pen?” said Robert. “I think I lost mine.”
Traveling with mindful awareness, I said, the intentional traveler often sees in others something of him or herself. The challenge becomes who to meet? How to open a dialogue? Who and why to help? How to do it? Where? When? Why? Decisions, decisions…
“I was in Bali, once,” said Robert, “and I couldn’t decide whether to go surfing or get drunk.”
The sky was fading into a deep ruby red. We sat in silence for awhile.
“How long have you been travelling?” said Robert.
“Just like you,” I replied. “Like everyone. All of life is a journey”
“Tell me more about this international travel stuff,” said Robert, leaning back in his chair. “It’s weird.”
All of life can be described as a journey, I replied, and it’s merely a question of making intelligent choices when faced with forks in the road. Which way, right or left? Good or bad? Selfish or altruistic? There are no road maps to a good life so we all must make our own decisions. Another way of describing such decisions might not be right or left. No, it’s a question of right and wrong. Living your life in a state of conscious awareness means you are mindful of your own behaviour, and can make decisions based on intelligence.
“Do you have, like, a website or something?” said Robert, getting up to go. “Or a book? I’m not sure I’ll remember all this amazing stuff in the morning.”
“I’m working on a book,” I said. “It’ll be for sale on my website.”
The sun hovered one last moment over Bokor Hill like a tiny golden jewel hanging above a ruby red riot of iridescent flame, and sank slowly into a purple/black sea. A million stars appeared in the sky, and a shooting star flared across the horizon. The tiny lights of some distant seaside village flickered on, and somewhere a dog began to bark. A motorbike puttered by on the street, its engine popping like a pot of popcorn, and then it was dark.
I doubt the above actually explains much about intentionality, but you can always look it up yourself and see what you find. Here’s what I posted on my website: According to philosophers, intentionality describes both a mindset and a set of practices. There are five components. An action is considered intentional if:
the agent has a desire for an outcome
belief that the action will lead to the outcome,
an intention to perform the action
the skill to perform the action
awareness while performing the action
The key, of course, lies in travelling with conscious awareness. Applying action to the belief means that whatever it is that you wish to accomplish will happen. Like free will, this means we are in control of our own fate, and can determine our own future. It is not “written” as some would say. We make change happen with our intent.
I describe “intentional travel” as journeying with purpose and meaning. As someone trained as a journalist I find many types of tourism to be meaningless. What’s the point of flying 12,000 miles to get drunk on a beach? You could do that at home and avoid the jet lag. Why such a focus on touring old buildings and tourist traps via bus tours, all of which lead you to avoid meeting with the people who live in the country where you are visiting?
Those who travel with conscious awareness, intent on making the world a better place than they found it, may have a different perspective than the casual fun seeker. Why not intentionally plan to meet and interact with the people you meet? If you are travelling in the developing world, why not choose to help the less fortunate you are bound to meet? There are choices to be made, ethical choices. Who to help? Why? Better yet, how?
Even with very little money it is possible to make a real difference in the community you visit. All that is necessary is to affect and maintain a certain state of mind, the kind of consciousness that allows you to see the world for what it really is. Then to perform deliberate (not random) acts of kindness, then follow the doors that always open. Like Alice in Wonderland, down that path lies mystery. As a writer, that’s where I find my best stories.