On a humid day in the congested city of Bangkok, I decided to visit Wat Pho, the largest and oldest temple complex in the city. There lives a giant gold reclining Buddha — the largest in Thailand. Superlatives like "oldest" and "largest" attract tourists who seek out sights and experiences that they want to remember for the rest of their lives. I observed the reclining Buddha quickly; annoyed by every tuk-tuk driver I met on the way who claimed to have a “special deal” just for me; annoyed by the group of western girls that broke every single local custom possible; annoyed by the specific path I was told to take around the room, the clothes I was told to wear and the drums I was told to drop money in.
Having "been to" Wat Pho, I mercifully allowed myself to head back to the hotel for a much needed day off from battling the crowds. If I had a list, I would have checked “largest reclining golden Buddha in Thailand” off, but did I experience it?
“Bucket lists” came into the mainstream conscience with the fairly recent publication of “1,000 Things to Do Before You Die” in 2003 and the following movie, “The Bucket List,” starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. The message was clear: Your lives will be complete only if you check off a list of exotic locales and daring adventures. Social media allows us to show off these accomplishments with photos and the ability to edit out all of the frustrating circumstances and experiences that led to the checked-off item.
What does it mean to have been to a place? Many people claim they've "at least been to the airport" in one country or another, using geographical coordinates to check names and places off a mental scorecard. Instead of understanding and experiencing the local culture, people and places are itemized into a neat bucket list. When the goal is to collect names of places, check off monuments or tally the different stamps you acquire in your passport, the purpose of travel is lost. You want to be kissed under the Eiffel Tower, but if that doesn’t happen, is the trip ruined? Or are you going to kiss a stranger just for the sake of the list?
Travel — for me, anyway — is about the spontaneous and random experiences one has in a wide variety of circumstances. For every trip you take, there is a reason you are there: a reason you left home in the first place and a reason you landed where you did. There is a reason you are hiking, or lounging on a beach or staying at a temple. Travel brings out the child, the introvert and the adventurer in all of us. To plan out minute details is to retract any chance meetings or spontaneous decisions that reflect those larger purposes.
Spontaneity does not mean a lack of planning. “Voluntourism” has quickly grown in popularity, where one can travel to different places around the world to help others and make lasting connections. Spending more time diving into one country’s culture can provide more insight than jumping from city to city. While bucket lists can skew toward ideas and pictures that you want materialized into realities, sufficiently thought-out goals and research will reflect personal objectives and passions that allow for the improvisation needed for travel.
A less exotic moment: I was in St. Louis for work, and we only had one night in town before catching an early flight the next morning. One colleague suggested driving to see the famous Gateway Arch, just visible through the buildings from where we were. We hadn't planned to see it, but why not? We piled into the car.
Moments later there we were, underneath the world's largest arch and America's tallest man-made monument. It stands over the Mississippi, the fourth largest river in the world. But, none of that mattered. It was closed and abandoned — we didn't get a tour or a picture in the sun. But, if someone asks me if I've been there, I will undoubtedly say “yes,” remembering the way the stars reflected off of such an inimitable building in the foggy and abandoned night.
If you are going to travel to experience these moments — to learn about yourself and the world around you — please share your stories. Talk about that magical moment in Bali, the insanity of Las Vegas or your romantic night in Paris that happened because you were in the moment and open to new experiences. If you are keeping a bucket list, consider the small towns you may have missed, the amazing meal no one told you to try and the issues a country is navigating beneath the tourist-industry surface. Traveling is not a paint-by-numbers task; it's about using colors and shapes you never thought existed to make something new, original and fantastic.