This February I celebrate 10 years of traveling and life on the road. To commemorate this milestone, I’ve come up with a series of Top 10 posts. These choices are based solely on my personal experience.
Top 10 countries
In these 10 years of traveling I’ve been to many countries. And it’s not easy to narrow them down to just 10. What criteria should I use to choose them? What constitutes favorite? After debating with myself I have narrowed it down to 2 criteria; my experience in them and my desire to return. So here are my top 10 countries:
Women in colorful bulky traditional dress and top hat, bus rides with local folks carrying chicken, chewing coca leaves, food poisoning; whatever your images of Bolivia is, it is true. This is one of the most rewarding countries for travelers in South America. It’s by no means easy or stress-free, but it’s cheap and it more than rewards you for your effort.
In the 2 months I was there, I had 4 bouts of food poisoning and countless diarrhea; because I enjoyed eating in the market and buying street snacks. My body got so used to it that my last 2 bouts of food poisoning lasted only 24hr each; all I had to do was lie in bed, hydrate myself, and the next day I was as good as new.
Bolivia is also about conquering my fear of enclosed places. At Potosi, a city at 4,090m I went on a tour of the mine. I was a little apprehensive at first so they told me to chew coca leaves, that was supposed to make me feel better. I did manage to keep my fear under control for the duration of the excursion though. Could it be the effect of chewing the coca leaves? Your guess is as good as mine.
In Santa Cruz de la Sierra I found a cheap hostel and stayed for about a month there. I was living with artesanos (vagabonds, street artists, etc.). I spent a lot of time with them, heard their stories and was very impressed. They were from many different parts of South America. They left their home, armed with different skills to earn money along the way, i.e. making handicrafts, street performing, juggling, etc. they traveled from one place to another; usually spending a long time in each place to save enough to move on to the next. They lived only in the present and didn’t worry too much about the future. I was captivated by their lifestyle. Even though I had been traveling for a few years by then, it was with a safety net – I had my savings. I admired their carefreeness, their ability to truly live in the present without worrying about the future. This encounter planted a seed for a later unforgettable experience in Colombia.
The sun was climbing lazily on what promised to be another stifling hot day in Yangon. I found a small road-side tea stall and sat on one of the impossibly low stools. As the city slowly woke from its slumber; children dressed neatly in their school uniform walked hand-in-hand to schools; tuk-tuks carrying young women wearing elegant Burmese traditional dress, ala Aung San Suu Kyi, taxied up and down the streets; men in western long-sleeve shirt paired with longyi spate out spittle of betel nut juice as they go around their morning routine. The whole scene was quite hypnotic. As I was nursing my cup of the aromatic chai tea I heard the sounds of bell and chanting from a distance, and they steadily grew louder. Then I spied a group of young novice nuns, with their shaved heads and white gowns, going around collecting alms.
This image could be from any cities in Southeast Asia, but one thing that set it apart was the smile on the faces of the people in Myanmar. The nuns smiled shyly when they saw me looking at them, the waiter who served me had a smile that you don’t see in waiters anywhere in the world. Wherever I went, be it the holy temple of Shwedagon, the breathtaking Bagan, the unforgettable Kalaw-Inle Lake trek, it was the smile of the people that left me with a lasting impression. They were not the put-on smile we give to strangers, but a genuine gesture born from the heart that would generate a reciprocal smile in return. They were not the kind of smiles that worked to disarm foreigners so as to take advantage of them, but a sincere expression of their mere intention to be kind and friendly. Untouched by the greed and scheming intention of the capitalistic society, the people of Myanmar still have a good heart with pure intention. Here’s hoping it wouldn’t be spoiled by the influx of mass tourism.
Traveling in Romania was exciting! I was almost robbed on my very first train ride in the country but I managed to escape; while trying to get from a small town in the northwest to the northeast, the bus stopped me in the middle of nowhere and asked me to wait at the opposite side of the road for the bus to my destination so I asked the bus driver how long I had to wait and he said he didn’t know; at the Merry cemetery the people asked to take pictures of/with me, turning me instantly into a celebrity.
On a train to Transylvania, a group of college students took me under their care. They were really friendly and asked me lots of questions; I learned from them that the Romanian language is a Romance language, and most young people could speak some Italian and Spanish. Our chatter were accompanied by a bottle of cheap Romanian liquor, which I was encouraged to take many sips. For a couple of hours, I felt like I was a student in Romania as I was engulfed into their fold; I laughed with them at their jokes, shared their excitement about Romania joining the EU, etc. When I arrived at my destination, we were all a bit tipsy. They hugged me and we parted like good friends parting for summer holiday.
As interesting a country as Romania is, the reason it features so highly on my list is because it’s the only country where I fell in love. In my 10 years of traveling I only fell in love once and it happened here. We spent 3 intense days together thinking it was nothing but a fling, but we both realized that there were feelings involved the day I left. We tried to make it work but in the end, the distance was too much. Now, it’s just a sweet memory.
Growing up in Malaysia, hearing the Muslim’s call to prayer was very common, but hearing it at Aleppo on my first day there had a tinge of foreignness to it. It’s at once familiar and exoticly foreign. Wandering through the souks of Aleppo and Damascus was almost an out-of-body experience; as if I was transported back in time: to the time and land of Arabic tales; men in tea shops smoking sheesha; women in black burqa walking in twos or threes as they darted through the maze-like alleyways of the souks; the air smelled of spice and freshly baked flat-bread.
On our first evening, my friend Stephen and I went to a restaurant for dinner. We couldn’t see what they were serving so we asked for the menu. But that didn’t help because we could neither read what were in it nor their prices. It was my first time traveling in a country where I couldn’t even write the number to be understood. That night, back in the hostel, I took out my Arabic phrase book and started to learn 0-10.
Unlike the image portrayed by the media, Syria in 2007 was a safe country with really friendly people. There were so few backpackers, and even fewer tourists, that it’s common to have a whole site to yourself. We explored the ruin of Palmyra without seeing another foreigner. On a bus ride we got talking with a local English teacher who invited us to his small house for lunch. We could see that they were not rich but they bought a chicken and the wife cooked many delicious dishes for us. We truly experienced Syrian hospitality that day. And when we arrived by bus at Damascus, we didn’t know which bus to take into the city center and we couldn’t read the sign, a guy came up to us and guided us to the right bus, took it with us and made sure we arrived safely then took another bus and went on his way. There were many other incidents where the generosity and kind of the Syrian people touched me and made traveling in Syria so memorable.
Most travelers know how amazing Turkey is: the vibrant and exotic Istanbul, the otherworldly Cappadocia, the crystal clear water at Fethiye, the iconic Library of Celsus. But 2 incidents during my month-long travel there stuck in my memory and made Turkey special for me.
1. A week before my departure for Turkey, my couchsurfing host in Istanbul wrote to tell me that he had been called away by work so he wouldn’t be in the city during my visit. But he said that he would still host me: he would leave his house key at this office, all I had to do was to collect the key and the map to his house from his office when I arrived. I was blown away but how trusting he was. Would you leave your house key to a total stranger? Someone you’ve never met before? That gave me an extremely good first impression of the country, especially the people.
2. While waiting for my bus from Izmir to Selçuk to depart, I sat at the curb watching 2 kids playing next to me. Soon they included me in their game. Their uncle who was a seaman came and talked to me. We found out that we were on the same bus. So they asked me to sit next to them on the bus. We spent the next whole journey chatting; I learned many things about Turkey from them and they asked me questions about my country and my travel. An hour before arriving at my destination, the bus stopped in a small village. They family got off and invited me to their house. Spontaneously I agreed and got off the bus with them. Their house was a small farm set on a small hill overlooking a huge farmland. In my honor, they slaughtered a chicken, we barbequed it under a starry night lit only by the glow of the bbq pit. I taught the kids some children games from my childhood and the father kept pouring me rakı (Turkish liquor). The evening was cozy and being there surrounded by the family with the laughter of the children, the whole experience was surreal but unforgettable. Sometimes this kind of experience has a more lasting impression on us long-term travelers, than seeing a historical monument. That night, with a full stomach and an even fuller heart, I slept soundly by the hearth in the kitchen, where they had prepared a bed and fire to keep me warm in the chilly night.
5. Patagonia (Argentina/Chile)
The local people called Patagonia, God’s paradise for its stunning landscape and breathtaking scenery. But there’s also something really attractive about its remoteness and isolatedness.
Trekking in the pristine and incredibly beautiful Torres del Paine was one of my most cherished memories. The 5-day trek felt like a walk in paradise: there were really beautiful landscapes, imposing mountains, emerald lakes and foxes. Yes I saw a fox on one of the days. I had always battered with the cold but I managed to overcome it while trekking there: taking cold showers, sleeping in a small tent under heavy rain, being drenched to the bones and battering with a strong wind! I would do it again and again.
One of my most vivid memories of Patagonia was hitch-hiking along the Carretera Austral. I was picked up from Chile Chico by 2 brothers in their pick-up truck, they were really friendly and shared their crate of beer with me. By the time they dropped me at a crossroad, they were slightly drunk. I wished them safe journey and proceeded to wait for my next ride. And for the next 2 hours I didn’t see a single person. There were no cars coming or going, no houses nearby, not even smokes to indicate there were sign of a human being around. It was the most isolated I had felt in my life: I felt like I was alone in this world. It was unnerving at first: Would anyone come by to pick me up? Were there be dangerous animals? But once I addressed my fear and embraced my isolation, I was fine.
I’ve only spent a total of 3 months in Brazil, and I could see myself spending an entire year exploring this incredible country and I still would only cover less than 50%. But most of all I can see myself living there. Brazil has a strong economy, extremely friendly people who know how to enjoy life, and tones of adventures to be had. What more do I need?
It’s so easy to fall in love with Rio de Janeiro, a city endowed with ethereal beauty and a samba soul. But my favorite place in Brazil is actually Florianopolis, affectionately called Floripa. Floripa has a small manageable city center that’s not choked with traffic or crowded with tourists. I spent about 2 weeks at Costa de Dentro, at the south of the island. It was a peaceful fishermen’s village with a 2km beach that had more seagulls than people. I took walks in the mountains, strolled at the beach, watched fishermen returned from the sea, and went out drinking with friends I made there. Life moved in a slow pace and I was contented. The scary thing was, I could truly see myself settling down there.
But I will always equate Brazil with my experience on the boat ride up the Amazon River. Those few days spent languidly cruising along the café-au-lait river, with the mysterious Amazon rainforest as the backdrop, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The rest of the world seemed to exist in a different plane. I was contented to sleep in my hammock, chat with the people and play with the children.
I’ve been telling people Taiwan is the only country in Asia that I could see myself living in. There’s something about the mixture of Oriental cultural values with Western open-mindedness that lend Taiwan such irresistible appeal. Taiwanese culture is where millennia-old Chinese cultures are interjected with Japanese politeness and civility, then add generous helpings of Occidental openness. Taiwanese are quite religious, temples are always full of people, young and old, but they are also very modern and forward thinking. This dichotomy is what makes Taiwan unique. I appreciate and love all the nuances of the Taiwanese culture.
I loved riding on a scooter and zoomed through the traffic. There’s an unspoken freedom in being able to stop right at the door step of my favorite milk-tea stall, ordered a big glass without stepping off your scooter. On the surface Taiwan is a law-abiding society; people generally follow traffic rules, but it’s also not uncommon to see a handful of people breaking minor laws. It’s this kind of fluidity, instead of rigidity, that attracts me to this country.
I also love the café culture. There are countless of cozy and quiet cafés all over the island. One of my favorite activities while living there was spending quiet afternoons in one of these cafés with my books, or doing my work there. The environment was very conducive to reading and writing.
Taiwan also boasts some underrated but amazing food; it could rival Malaysian food for the title of best food in my book.
There are 3 types of Taiwan. 1st is the guidebook Taiwan that travelers who don’t speak Chinese see. 2nd is the Taiwan that you can experience if you speak the language. (Or you can join my tour and see this Taiwan). 3rd is the Taiwan you can explore and love, like the locals when you live there.
I love Colombia. It’s the only country, besides my birth country, where I lived uninterrupted for over 1 year. Colombia has a lot to offer for travelers, with beautiful colonial towns, Caribbean beaches, exotic cultures, etc. but it’s the people that ultimately had me undone.
Colombians are among the friendliest, most passionate people I’ve ever encountered in my 10 years of travel. It’s really easy to make friends, and then it’s even easier to go from friends to good friends. I was invited to homes of friends within weeks of meeting them, to had lunch or dinner with their family. I count many of them as my close friends and miss them dearly. The family with whom I rented a room with still sends me emails to tell me how much they miss me, urging me to visit them soon. That I will do this November with my tour in Colombia.
I had one of the most unforgettable experiences while I was in Colombia. One month after arriving in Colombia and not finding enough temporary work, I decided to join the rank of artesanos: hippies, street artists that sell their crafts/skills on the streets of Cartagena. I didn’t know how to make any handicrafts, or acts to perform in the streets. So I decided to write people’s names in Chinese characters, make into bookmarks, and sell them. In the day I would set up my makeshift stall outside the university, and at night on streets in the touristy areas. Some days I made good money, but there were day I made nothing. It allowed me a taste of living life in the present. At first I still worry about the future, whether I would make enough money for my meals, etc. but I soon learned to not let this worry cripple me. It was a very humbling experience: the way some people looked at me as they walked pass. But I also experienced some generosity that would restore my faith in humanity. There were also a strong comradeship among the artesanos, we helped each other like brothers would, be it buying food for those that didn’t make any money that day, or helping them pack up their belongings when the police came to chase us away.
When the novelty of having their names written in Chinese wore off, I moved to Medellin. Medellin was the most dangerous city in the 1980s-90s, for being the home of Pablo Escobar. When I moved there, most foreigners and travelers advised me to stay in the rich people’s area, or in gated community. But I decided to stay right in the center, for cheaper rent, and also to experience living in the city like the locals. My first night there I heard what sounded like firecrackers and naively asked if there was some sort of festival going on, and I was told that those were not firecrackers but gun shots! Soon I got used to it, and the sound rocked me to sleep every night.
I have only one word to describe Spain – home. For a long-term traveler like me, that speaks volume. Even now when I think about home, or the idea of home, Spain pops into my mind.
Spain was also the first country I backpacked in. But the reason I chose to live in Spain came while walking the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ Way). A medieval pilgrimage that has seen a revival in recent years. For 37 days I walked through vineyards, medieval villages with cobblestone streets, parched land and tall mountains; I saw great cathedrals, atmospheric chapels, and medieval rituals; but above all I experience a change. It was a very personal and spiritual journey. It completely changed my life. So I decided to live in Spain.
The Spanish lifestyle was what my heart responded to. The laid back attitude, taking things slow and easy might frustrate some, but came very naturally to me. It spoke to me in another level because it’s a place where success and achievement aren’t as important as personal fulfillment and enjoyment. Coming from an Asian background this was a little foreign to me. But when I set out on my journey in 2004, my aim was to deconstruct me, then build it up with all the new values and philosophies I would learn along the way. And so I did.
When Spain played in the final of the European Cup in 2008, I was in a tapas bar with all the Spaniards cheering them on. I screamed my heart out when Spain scored and bit my nail nervously for the final whistle. When Spain won I was caught in the euphoria that engulf the whole country. I went to the streets, shouting and chanting; I felt like one of them and they welcomed me as one of them. Emotionally I had adopted the country as my own.