Travel Burnout and Culture Shock (aka my Chiang Mai Meltdown)

“Um, I was next in line- what is wrong with you?!” Spoken in clear English and in my direction. I turned to see an American man glaring at me with a look that could kill (we’ll call him Angry Tourist Man).

Thai people are incredibly friendly, so it was a total slap in the face to have such a vicious tone directed at me in this kind country. I hadn’t realized this man was next in line for food, as far as I could tell there was no line, and he’d been standing way to the side of the counter where orders are placed.

Nonetheless, I politely apologized and said that I hadn’t realized he was in line. He continued to berate me, saying that I should pay more attention…and at that point I was starting to see red.

So, I did the only reasonable thing I could do, I turned around and began practically running out of the restaurant towards the extremely uncomfortable guest house I had just arrived at the previous day. Poor Tom had missed the entire exchange with Angry Tourist Man and followed me as fast as he could, probably assuming I’d lost my mind.

I reached our room and barricaded myself in the tiny humid bathroom. And THAT is when I had my first ever total travel meltdown. I couldn’t control it, the floodgates opened and before I knew it I was sobbing uncontrollably.

Travel burnout and culture shock- a killer combo

In my stationary life in the states I would have had no trouble shrugging off a rude stranger. I would have bristled at his attitude, but I would have laughed it off and moved on with my day.

Two weeks into a backpacking trip through Southeast Asia? That same rude stranger made me feel like I was drowning in a sea of stress. And the truth is- I kinda was.

We spent most of our first two weeks in Thailand lounging on a glorious island (Koh Chang) while sipping fresh coconuts. The island was easy, comfortable, and relaxing. However, to get from that island paradise to the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai required a grueling several days of travel through a very unfamiliar country.

In the days leading up to my encounter with Angry Tourist Man we had taken a 1 hour nauseating minibus through the mountainous Koh Chang to a 1 hour ferry boat ride, which then led us to a 6 hour bus ride to Bangkok that gave me a solid case of motion sickness.

Next, we took a 13 hour overnight train to the Chiang Mai train station where we waded through a crowd of tuk tuk drivers to secure a reasonably priced ride to a Chiang Mai guesthouse that turned out to be dark, gloomy, and outfitted with a bed that had a giant metal bar running horizontally across it’s width, making decent sleep impossible.

When Angry Tourist Man took out his bad day on me I was experiencing my first ever case of travel burnout, with a healthy dose of culture shock added for good measure. I’d read about travel burnout before, but I had no idea it could happen so quickly and so intensely! I mean, we’d only been in Southeast Asia a little over two weeks!!

Before I move forward with this story I need to define travel burnout and culture shock so you know where I was coming from.

Travel Burnout

Travel burnout is when you become grouchy and miserable with every aspect of travel, you have no wish to explore or even leave your hotel room. It’s basically when you’ve moved too far too fast, and the stress of it has become overwhelming.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is something I had experienced before so I recognized it instantly. Culture shock is when you arrive in a new culture (usually in a new country) and you are overwhelmed by the fact that nearly everything is unfamiliar to you.

Travel burnout and culture shock often go hand in hand, and they are a super intense emotional combo to deal with.

What to do when travel burnout and culture shock hit

I cried in the bathroom for a good half hour (and went through 2 packages of tissues) until, finally, I felt some relief and laid down on the impossibly uncomfortable bed where Tom was nervously waiting for me.

I told him that I was completely overwhelmed and that I needed to just stay in the hotel for the day. I also felt like I needed to get out of the city to a quieter, more relaxing location for at least a few days.

Tom was very supportive (and was feeling some of the same stress I was) and we decided to cut our stay in Chiang Mai short so that we could head to the quiet mountain town of Pai.

When travel burnout and culture shock hit, allow yourself to lose your s***!!! Cry your eyes out in your hotel room for as long as you need to- you will feel better, I promise.

Once you’ve released some emotional baggage by crying, consider what you need to do to relieve some of the stress you’re carrying. This may be as simple as ordering room service and spending the day in your hotel room. It may mean finding something familiar that reminds you of home (something like a western restaurant serving your favorite food, a movie theater playing a movie in English, etc). It may mean changing your plan to give yourself some relief from the stressors that caused your burnout.

A big part of my burnout was the time we were spending in busy cities. I am not a city girl, and that is amplified when I travel. The noise, crowds, and traffic of big cities stresses me out, and while I still want the experience of visiting cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it’s really important to give myself permission to leave them when I need to.

So that’s what we did! We packed up our backpacks and caught a bus to the jungle mountain town of Pai. We could not have made a better decision!

We booked a bungalow outside the town of Pai, set back in a beautiful jungle forest. At night we fell asleep to the sounds of the stream that ran right in front of our bungalow, and in the morning we woke up to monkeys howling at each other in the distance. We relaxed on our bungalow’s porch, hiked to some beautiful viewpoints, and swam in several natural pools and hot springs.

We extended our 2 night stay in Pai to a week, and it was exactly what I needed to re-center myself for our onward travel.

The moral of the story

Don’t beat yourself up if you run into travel burnout or culture shock- they are both totally natural, and most travelers experience them at some point (this article goes into even more detail about the realities of travel burnout).

If you find yourself overwhelmed with your travels take the time you need to decompress, and give yourself permission to change your plan!

(Also, don’t be Angry Tourist Man. If you’re feeling stressed try not to take it out on the people around you)

Are you planning a trip to Southeast Asia? Check out our tentative Southeast Asia itinerary!

Want to read more about our travels? We wandered all over North America for two years in a camper, we spent two winters exploring Baja, Mexico’s idyllic beaches, and every year we head to the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man!

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7 thoughts on “Travel Burnout and Culture Shock (aka my Chiang Mai Meltdown)”

  1. Robin Satterwhite

    My initial reaction is to go find Angry Travel Man and beat the ever-loving shit out of me.

    Funny that my worst experience in Thailand was from Americans, too.

    Funny, I was relieved when getting a little good poisoning in India (nothing compared to what I had in Krabi) because it gave me an excuse to stay in my room for a couple days.

    Being an in-the-moment person, while I can get travel fatigue pretty easily, homesickness hasn’t been too much of a problem. We’ll see how being in A Korea goes, though. Seven weeks this time last year in India was fine but a year? Oie!
    Thank God for online travel buddies and communities! 💙✈️💙

  2. You’ve been BUSY! I look forward to hearing about Korea. I absolutely love Korean food, and have considered traveling there at some point.

  3. Brittany, I love your blogs. This culture shock entry couldn’t be truer to my experiences. No one had explained the possibility of a meltdown or two, prior to my first visit to a third world country. The first time I was in Kathmandu, many, many years ago, the noise, the smells, the lack of street signs or any recognizable way of getting familiar with the city, was staggering. Fortunately the idea of returning to the airport was more intimidating than hanging around and gutting it out, and, eventually, it made sense to dodge sacred cows on the street, and, to use a Buddhist stupa as a landmark for returning to the inn. Thank you for your honestly.

  4. Hi Libbi! Thanks so much for your comment, it’s great to hear from other travelers who have had similar experiences. That was a tough week for me, but in retrospect I learned a lot from it 🙂

  5. hi Brittany, just want to thank you for this and many of your other very helpful and insightful! I definitely needed to read this one in particular as I’ve been wrestling with burnout recently. Thanks so much!

  6. Chiang Mai was magical 10 or 15 years ago; now (with more people & traffic) not so much.
    My life has been a series of moves away from wonderful places-to-live that became overdeveloped: for 3 years Chiang Mai was one of them.
    I remember that meltdown feeling really well from my first month or two there. You’re right: it is catalysed by culture shock.
    Thanks for your posts: at 69, I’m contemplating the van life in Australia now.

  7. Hi John! Thanks for your comment. I definitely can see what you mean about Chiang Mai, it did feel very overdeveloped. Van life in Australia sounds amazing!

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