‘You Have the Best Life’ & Other Little Illusions

Travel blogger Ivan Kralj in a bathtub in one of Aria Villas in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia - is luxury lifestyle just travel bloggers' illusion?

We will rarely find social media posts uncovering the Angkor Wat sunrise as a nightmare or Santorini sunset as a hellish experience. The must-see attractions provide a seductive feeling of belonging to the elite. For many people, that in itself seems to be worthy of ignoring the downsides.

In the tourism industry, the power of the brand and the image are super important. All participants in this complex chain contribute to painting traveling like a dream come true. An escape from miserable and boring lives.

Projecting luxury as a holy grail, the rare privilege of a few, is ubiquitous. From luxury travel blogs to Instagram accounts of aspiring starlets, the idea that “looks can deceive” is not unmasked, but exploited

There is something interesting going on here. In most industries, terrible providers and honest consumers would split apart. But in the world of travel, both sellers and buyers participate in this ‘rose-colored glasses’ game.

In the era of Instagram, travelers will close one eye on weak spots of a doubtfully good travel experience, and still paint it pink. Buyers become sellers, selling the lifestyle to their followers. And it seems they don’t even need to get paid to forward the deception.

Our ability to ignore negative details, and focus on what seems to be desirable, is an intriguing aspect of human psychology. In the world that counts value through ‘likes’, hearts, and thumbs-up, selective reporting becomes a widespread strategy.

Projecting luxury as a holy grail, the rare privilege of a few, is ubiquitous. From luxury travel blogs to Instagram accounts of aspiring starlets, the idea that “looks can deceive” is not unmasked, but exploited.

Sometimes, the discrepancy between reality and created illusion is so large that you can wonder whether deception is an addiction we cannot control.

Social media changed the ways we travel and experience the world around us. From stupid selfies in Indonesia to Kanchanaburi sightseeing turning into a photoshoot on a graveyard, examples are unappealing.

5 stories I skipped to tell

To some extent, all travel reporters are guilty of creating illusions. Myself included.

The journalist’s task is to do his/her job fairly. But avoiding certain details in certain articles, and possibly addressing them in others (such as this one) is legitimate too.

Ignoring negative aspects can be perfectly reasonable. And no, it wouldn’t necessarily equal lying.

Whatever the reason behind our actions might be, I felt the need to share examples that could demystify the perfect life of a travel blogger.

1. Floating breakfast in Bali I never ate

The idea for this article came to me when I posted Instagram pics of Aria Villas Ubud, the romantic hotel in Bali with a floating breakfast.

 

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Me standing in an infinity pool, with tropical vegetation in the background. I quoted John Lubbock, English scientist and politician: “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”

The word ‘lie’ can describe quite different things: assuming the horizontal position, as well as telling something untrue. Was I lying, or was I lying?

Well, I was certainly standing in that pool, shivering, and not disclosing how cold the morning water was. There was a delicious breakfast floating in the basket, served for two of course (as how can solitude be romantic?). Neither I nor my travel companion would eat it that morning.

My followers did not find out about the frequent night visits to the toilet. My poisoned stomach wanted to eject the dinner of the night before. That’s content nobody would like to see floating in that perfect pool.

I knew exactly where we got the infamous Bali Belly. It was some local restaurant that had no connection with the hotel we stayed in.

As it was a check-out day, this was the last opportunity to photograph Aria Villas’ floating breakfast. If we wanted to fairly address the hotel’s offer, it was now or never. Enter the pool, take a quick pic, and throw up later. Never mention it again. Well, until now.

Out of embarrassment, I took a spoon and wrecked the food servings, just so that the hotel’s chef wouldn’t take returned full plates as an offense.

Instagram’s alternative reality

One of my Instagram followers commented on the pic with a fire and applause emoji: “You have the best life. Ever.” On another similar image in the pool, a fellow travel blogger said: “Living the life!!”. Someone else commented: “You’ve shared so many amazing sites & sights of your travels, but I think this unexpected floating breakfast is now my favorite. It’s kind of simple, serene, soulful AND – superfluous – simultaneously.”

I was recovering from the food poisoning incident for a couple of days. It had nothing to do with the accommodation we stayed in, and I thought it was best not to address it. But feeling the need to throw up your guts and soul certainly did not resemble how I imagined “the best life”.

Coming back to Lubbock’s observation, rest might not be the waste of time, but ordering a breakfast you don’t plan to eat was certainly producing waste. I am quite conscious about the value of food, and in normal circumstances, I would never order something that I would know it would be thrown away. But these circumstances required staging and all dilemmas that come with it.

As for Aria Villas, I still believe they are one of the best places to stay in Ubud and provide the best massage on the island of gods! The hotel even got an honorable mention in my 2020 year review, not just for its impeccable room delivery service, but also as the winner of the most liked images on Pipeaway’s Instagram – four out of the top 9 pics in 2020 were taken at Aria Villas.

2. Diary of diarrhea in Cambodia

After testing many world cuisines, I can say that issues with digestion occur rather rarely to me. But when they do happen, I’d love to have an exorcist by my side!

Once in Siem Reap, I stayed in Sojourn Boutique Villas. Later I included them in my text about how well are the luxury escapes in Cambodia prepared for post-COVID tourism.

I was lucky to write this thematic piece instead of a full review of the hotel, as I don’t know how I would address the food poisoning, similar to the one I had in Bali.

How do you write about the hotel’s food if your stomach is churning? Can I pinpoint the exact cause of my problems in – the hotel’s restaurant? Or did I pick up my bug somewhere else?

Luckily, I didn’t feel well enough to attend the cooking class they offered. It would be rather hard to find an ethically correct way to report about it without addressing health issues that might or might not derive from the hotel’s restaurant.

But now you know, the “severe stomach problems” I mentioned in the article on Cambodia’s most famous temple, that Heritage Suites staff helped me deal with, started at my earlier stopover.

Of course, as I skipped mentioning my digestive disorder, Instagram pics of Sojourn Boutique Villas were only getting comments such as “So incredible” and “Tropical paradise!”.

Only I knew that I didn’t sleep that night after the sickness made my bowels involuntarily give up, and I made a mess in the bedsheets. I know, incredible tropical paradise, right?

Out of embarrassment, I spent the night cleaning the bedding, as I didn’t want to be remembered as “the blogger who shat on us”. Obviously, I don’t try enough if I tell this unglamorous story now.

3. Temptation of the Ethiopian injera

I can thank Ethiopia for a couple of dietary anecdotes too. Many westerners can. When I attended a conference in Addis Ababa, at least a third of us swapped round tables with 1-on-1 sessions with the loo.

The staple food of Ethiopia is injera, the spongy bread made of teff, the country’s native grain. This peculiar sour pancake is eaten by hand, and spreading germs around is therefore not a surprise.

However, on my last days in the country, I wanted to reward myself with some French pastries, as desserts are not that common in Ethiopian cuisine. And I got sick again! No matter how exclusive the restaurant you choose to visit seems to be, you never know what happens behind the closed doors of the kitchen.

But my favorite episode with injera happened during the Danakil Depression tour. An Asian tourist had just arrived in Ethiopia and saw a fellow Italian traveler Walter eating the injera.

“Can I take a picture?”, she asked.

“No, but you can taste it”, Walter was playing it smart.

She tried the fermented flatbread, and she didn’t like it.

“Can I take a picture now?”, she asked.

You see, social media networks do not recognize flavors for now. Why not share images of food that we never liked, and get some ‘likes’ which we do like?

4. Stretching my capacities in Laos

Not all food experiences end up with explosive gastrointestinal problems. Sometimes, the food can be great, but there could just be too much of it.

I am aware this can sound like a first-world problem. But staying in a 5-star hotel with several restaurants and lounges, and with an expectation to try them all in two days, is different than it sounds. Delivering a proper review after a jam-packed program from early morning to the late evening is still a challenging task.

This is exactly what I experienced at Crowne Plaza Vientiane in Laos. After months of physically active time in Southeast Asia (I had to make additional holes in my belt so I don’t lose my pants!), this hotel’s amazing food changed it all. The room scale showed more than 70 kilos, for the first time in my life. I know that should be normal for my height, but certainly, it came after a regime of overeating that can hardly be described as pure pleasure. I admire people with such eating capacities!

 

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However, the full stomach was not my biggest problem while experiencing the massage treatment in Crowne Plaza Vientiane. My body was still full of wounds I got when I fell off a motorbike in Northern Laos!

You don’t see me mentioning it as one of Luang Prabang tourist attractions, even if this is a particular reason why I will never forget my visit to Kuang Si Falls.

“You know how to enjoy life”, commented someone on a pic where I stand in turquoise (and, pssst, rather cold!) water. I said ‘thank you’ without revealing that the guy who “knows how to enjoy life” almost lost it on the road.

5. Too many hotels or no hotel?

Travel blogging does come with perks. I can see why having free accommodation for a month in Cambodia or Bali could look like a dream job to most people.

In my early blogging days, I was accepting one-night hotel stays in exchange for a full review. I’d rather not repeat that. Today, I feel even two-night stays are a stretch.

After checking in the first afternoon and checking out the last morning, this technically becomes one full day at a place you need to write about.

In between the golden hours of morning and evening for photography, one needs to explore the hotel’s offer, and hopefully some of the town. This transforms your ‘free stay’ into a sprint experience.

Traveling easily becomes an enemy of travel blogging, and you end up not having enough time to do your job – the writing.

After a run through hotels, back to back, one almost needs to take a vacation!

For instance, in the beautiful Coron Island in the Philippines. I booked an Airbnb, only to find out the room was infested with ants. With a silent booking platform, I was on my own. Other affordable rooms were equally dodgy.

I literally spent an entire day in Coron Town trying to find a decent bed that would not break my budget. The hostel I finally booked (and paid for) via Booking.com, turned out to be sold out when I got there. So you cannot really trust booking platforms!

In the end, I took a room in some unlit street for the night, just so I wouldn’t sleep on the bench.

No part of my Instagram report on Coron revealed the stress behind staying at the ‘perfect island’. Followers’ comments were coming from the pool of words such as “incredible”, “inspiring”, “awesome” and “beautiful”.

To read about my experiences in staying with Jesus fans, nudists, and rats, read my Couchsurfing horror stories!

Untold stories on travel bloggers’ glamorous lifestyle – Conclusion

Some travel bloggers might lead a glamorous lifestyle, but it is not an undisputed rule. For instance, Pipeaway reviews extraordinary accommodation, no matter if they are luxury escapes for the rich or hostels for backpackers.

I am aware that any touristic image from an exotic location feeds the deception of beauty. Unless I really intend to photograph something ugly, the image will typically communicate the unique features of the place. We will attach value to these features mainly because they differ from what we are used to.

All of this doesn’t mean that travel reporting is a lie. But readers should be aware that what they see is always a fraction of an experience

When I decided to travel full-time four years ago, I actually googled “the cheapest places to travel in 2017”. Visiting Southeast Asia was not a way to rub anyone’s nose with luxury hotels or tropical paradise beaches. Paradoxically, I chose destinations through an economical filter! I wanted to save money I would otherwise spend in a pricier homeland.

Five-star hotels were surely a privilege that can potentially look misleading. While it was never my intention to trick anyone, I felt the urge to address the phenomenon of an illusionary perfect experience.

Life has its ups and downs wherever we are, at home or far away. What makes it different is only that travel writers dare to report about life elsewhere. In these reports, negative aspects fade into the background more often than they should.

That doesn’t mean that travel reporting is a lie. But readers should be aware that what they see is always a fraction of an experience.

As for Instagram, it bestifies everyone’s life. There are 24 frames in a second, 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day. That means there are at least 2.073.059 snapshots we are NOT posting. And I guess those might tell a different story.

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Is glamorous lifestyle just travel bloggers' illusion? Pipeaway blogger Ivan Kralj reports on the other side of the luxury: stories travel bloggers do not typically share.

Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

10 Comments
  1. This is so accurate! I always say that my Instagram is a highlight reel, and in the same sense, so is my travel blog. We rarely write poor reviews since no one wants to read them, but I do try and stay as honest as possible. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the story behind any picture is worth a million.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kat!
      Writing reviews as a nominally positive construct is an interesting subject.
      I am actually on my way to preparing my reflections on that too. I’ll publish them soon.
      While reviewers and reviewers did develop the expectation that travel blogs should be only praising whatever they write about, I do believe there is still another way to do the job.

  2. Great post! Traveling and GI issues do seem to go together. Practical advice on this topic is out there, but it seems that one must wade through countless articles obsessed with perfection or glamour to get it.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I often feel conflicted with the very unglamorous reality of travel and the somewhat expected “spin” we’re supposed to put on it. Truth is, it’s a job just like any other, except with maybe even more occupational hazards than normal! I appreciate you telling the truth!

    1. Thanks, Ada!
      Always the truth!
      Okay, I do believe sometimes some facts could be left out because humans are often superficial beings, and our words can echo further than we imagine.
      But that doesn’t mean that a lie is an alternative.
      Every truth has pluses and minuses, and nobody will give up on visiting a destination just because it is not “perfect”.
      So balance is always something to aspire for!

  4. I like how you broke down Instagram at the end. IG makes me a little crazy because none of it feels real to me. I really struggle with it.

    1. Thanks, Susan!
      Why do you struggle with Instagram?
      It is just a fun-focused social network, and valuing it higher is a good way to the disappointment.
      Personally, I use it mainly as a tool to support my blog.
      The network was even invented as a way to put nice filters on ordinary photos and make us all look “professional”.
      So we should not break our heads with the fact that it’s a step away from reality. It is what it is, and I believe we are only responsible to ourselves when deciding what we do with our free time.
      That being said, there are surely smarter ways to succeed in the travel blogging business than focusing our energy on this neverending scroll of heart-hungry images.

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* pipe away ['paipǝ'wei] (vt, mar) = to give
the whistling signal for the ship about to
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Pipeaway is a travel blog mapping the extraordinary people, places and passions.
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