Before I set off on my big trip I read many inspirational stories about what travel had taught other travel bloggers. Having just come back from backpacking through Asia and Latin America for nearly 2 years, I’ve been thinking a lot about what lessons I’ve learned myself.
But how do you even tackle such a big topic? How could I capture even just a slice of the full breadth of what it’s like to travel for a long time? I felt the usual list of general platitudes wouldn’t do it justice, so in the end I wrote this big stream-of-consciousness list of lessons learned (with not everything in it being entirely serious).
As disjointed as it may seem, I think these fragments give a sense of what it’s like to go on a big journey. You’ll find out about some of the crazy things that happened to me, but also how travel can make you see things with different eyes.
It’s kind of a big ass post, but I promise you that by the time you reach the end, that travel bug will be itching again…
Thailand: where my journey began
1. Off-the-beaten-track isn’t always amazing
Touristy places or ‘off the beaten track’ destinations are not by definition better or worse. Going down roads less travelled can be fun and interesting, but sometimes it’s mind-numbingly dull. Some touristy places are so commercial as to be totally off-putting, while others make you instantly realise they’re popular for good reason.
2. Do NOT trust monkeys
Sigh… I remember it like it was yesterday. I was nursing a cold beer on an island near Cat Ba in Vietnam when I was greeted by a happy little monkey, or so it seemed. Suddenly the bastard hissed at me as though possessed by the devil, snatched my beer from my hands, and drank the whole thing—lifting the can to his mouth in the same way a human would—while giving me the evil eye. Never before did I feel so much like Chris Griffin from Family Guy.
3. You won’t know the true meaning of broadband until you’ve used a faxmodem in Laos
I ragequit after waiting 20 minutes for one e-mail to send. On the plus side, I ended up having a genuinely wonderful internet detox in Laos.
4. Speaking the language (even a tiny bit) is super useful
It’s amazing how positively locals will respond to even the most broken attempts at speaking their language. They’ll usually find it endearing, and doors will open for you.
5. But language is not strictly necessary
I’ve ordered chicken noodle soup by clucking like a chicken and pointing at a bowl, or communicated numbers by drawing them on my hand with my index finger. Once in a roadside restaurant in Burma, after several failed attempts at ordering, I walked into the kitchen and pointed at whatever smelled good (to the delight of the staff). Language barriers are only there to be crushed—and it’s fun to approach this creatively.
Ordering noodle soup in Hanoi
6. You don’t have to be rich (by Western standards) to travel
7. People with the most basic lives are often also the friendliest
8. Meeting locals is the key to big cities
I often find large cities more challenging for me to get to know better. They can be a little alienating, or just have so many layers to peel back before you find the truly good stuff.
Hanging out with a local can change that completely. They can take you to that impossible to find roof-top bar, or they’ll know a green grocer that turns into an underground cult cinema at night (!), or they’ll bring you to this amazing street food place that has people lining up around the block. Big cities have little secrets, and it’s often locals who can help you find them.
9. People around the world all want the same things
Work, family, love, laughs, etc. There’s common ground everywhere.
A husband and wife’s tiny fan repair shop in Medellin, Colombia
Hanging out with the three brothers who run Los Tres Hermanos hostel on Madera beach, Nicaragua
10. But we’re not all the same
I get why people say we’re all the same (and in the grander sense we are), but for me travel mostly just emphasises how different cultures can be. You only need to look at all the little details. For me one of the ultimate examples of this is a city like Tokyo: it might seem like any modern metropolis from your airplane window, but on the ground it’s actually incomprehensibly different to anything you’ve ever known.
11. To travel smart is to travel light
12. No amount of prior research will tell you what a place is truly like
13. Your plans will change all the time
14. I am too tall for this world
I am 1.94m (or 6’4). That’s not uncommon in the Netherlands, but in many countries it’s considered extremely tall. As a result I have hit my head on far too many door-frames and market stalls, and spent far too much time crunched up in transit with no leg room. Once in a sleeper bus in Vietnam the beds were encased in essentially a plastic sarcophagus, and since my legs didn’t fit I had to leave them bungling to the side for the entire 8 hour journey. I was a sad panda.
15. Passports are not water proof
My passport got thoroughly soaked while speedboating through a rainstorm in Belize. I’m a little sad as many of my cool stamps are just big ink blots now. Next time I’m bringing a dry-bag.
16. Travel has broadened my interest in world news
When you hear news of foreign places it doesn’t always fully register. When it’s about places you have visited, you sit up and pay a lot more attention.
For instance, this happened for me when the Philippines was struck by disaster in 2013: seeing photos of places I’d been utterly flattened added an emotional dimension, and as stupid as this is, it probably made me want to donate to relief organisations more than I would have otherwise.
Recently I found myself genuinely caring about the outcome of the Colombian presidential elections, which would have a big impact on peace talks with the FARC. I kept thinking back to Pablo, my guide in Medellin, who had told me with such raw emotion about the history of the conflict.
I like that travel has made me feel just a little bit more connected to the world, and not only to Western countries.
17. On a long journey you need to keep a journal, even if it’s really basic
18. Always have a travel soundtrack
You will create some powerful associations with the music you listen to… associations that you will remember forever.
Train ride in Myanmar. The music you listen to becomes part of your journey.
19. The world is mind-boggingly huge
20. But sometimes it can feel absurdly small: it’s full of weird serendipitous connections
21. I kind of regret not bringing a GoPro camera
Sandboarding in Peru, mountain biking down Bolivia’s death road, scuba diving at Palau Sipadan in Malaysia… I would have liked to have some pictures or videos of these experiences. Alas, I only brought a DSLR, so I mostly just have my mental recordings.
Mountainbiking down death road in Bolivia (shot by someone else).
22. Markets are fascinating places
Local markets can be chaotic and intense places to wander around: I’ve often found myself overwhelmed by the smells, sights and sounds. You might see some interesting things for sale (particularly in developing countries), like big stacks of chicken claws or buckets filled with frogs.
A market in La Paz, Bolivia
23. Earplugs. Thank fuck for earplugs.
24. Taxi drivers are the worst
Honest ones are a rare breed almost anywhere.
25. Early bird catches the worm (much to my dismay)
I am not a morning person. Tragically, every important tour, trek, or UNESCO site visit requires getting up at some horrible ungodly hour. I cry.
Of course, it’s almost always worth it.
Had to get up before dawn to beat the crowds at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Was it worth it? Definitely.
26. You have to see the joke in a bad situation
It’s 2 a.m. in a town in Mexico. Due to a lot of bad luck and bad planning, the only room me and my travel buddy could find for the night looks like a prison cell from hell. To make matters worse, we failed to find any kind of proper food at this late hour. We’re tired and broken, sitting outside a closed gas station, silently sharing a Snickers bar we just got from a vending machine. “Well, this is nice,” I say. We explode with laughter, and can’t stop laughing for another 10 minutes. We agreed to do better tomorrow.
27. There is a whole beautiful world beneath the waves
Learning to Scuba dive on Koh Tao in Thailand is one of the best decisions I ever took. My first-ever dive was like stepping through a mirror into a strange other world. I’ve been taking every chance to dive since.
Palau Sipadan, Malaysia. Photo credit: SK Chiuh via Seaventures Dive Resort
28. Seriously, scuba diving is incredible
Nothing surprised me more than seeing a cuttlefish shapeshift right in front of my eyes—its brown and rock-like skin turning into a smooth porcelain white before shooting off into the deep. Seeing light green bioluminescent plankton sparkle as you wave your hands through the water on a night dive is literally magical. And when I swam through a swirling vortex of barracudas as it blocked the sun above me, my jaw dropped so much you’d think my regulator could have just floated away.
I’m actually getting goose bumps just thinking about this now.
29. We need to take much better care of Earth
Overfishing, loss of rainforest, climate change… it feels like so much is slipping away so fast.
30. Yep, that was a cockroach.
Welcome to Asia.
31. If you’re lost, follow a dog
I got lost at the top of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Actually, I knew roughly where I was, but I had to find my way back within an hour to catch the day’s last bus back, and I wasn’t sure how. I couldn’t find the actual path anymore, but I did find this fella here. Within half an hour he led me straight back to the town, where I bought him a ton of biscuits for being such a good dog.
Disclaimer: most dogs don’t know where the hell they’re going
Above: my rescuer. A visitor of my blog actually recognized this dog and said they’d named him Picchio when they met him. Thanks Picchio!
32. Travel long enough and you’ll eventually end up somehow crashing a wedding
33. You’re packing and unpacking every few days. You will definitely lose something at some point.
(If you’re lucky, it’ll be just a toothbrush or a sock.)
34. Space-time is warped in Latin America
30 minutes means 3 hours. “Muy cerca” is still 15 blocks away.
35. Sometimes people will randomly want to take a photo with you, but no one will smile
36. Eat it before asking what it is
37. Local food and street food are just the best
Especially in countries with amazing food like Thailand or Mexico. Though delicious as it is, you’ll inevitably start to crave some variety. Western style food is rarely very good, but sometimes you just really need a burger…
38. In some countries American fast food is not what you think it is
Go to Pizza Hut in Ho Chi Minh City and a waiter will show you to your table. There’s mood lighting with young couples having a fancy night out. What on Earth?? The American fast food experience sold as an up-scale and aspirational thing.
Mexico is a street food paradise.
39. Extreme or crazy food is rarely legitimately good
Eating things like guinea pig, fried tarantulas, giant ants, bugs, etc. can be really fun! But it turns out there’s a reason people eat chicken or cow. When going for the weird stuff, dipping in sauce definitely helps.
40. Chopsticks are fun. I wish I could eat everything with chopsticks
41. Hostels without WiFi: I love them
If you’re looking for that wonderful communal sitting-around-a-campfire-with-people-from-all-over-the-world feeling, a place without internet is where you’ll almost certainly find it.
Communal dinner at Spicy Pai Hostel in Thailand
42. I am my own worst enemy
I suffered no physical harm during my travels… except this one time in Argentina when I was zipping up my backpack. The zipper flew off causing my clenched fist to land right onto my eyeball. Ouch!
43. Take ATM error messages with a pinch of salt
‘Incorrect PIN’ does not necessarily mean you entered an incorrect PIN, because that would just be too obvious. Some ATMs just throw a random error when they don’t accept your card. I’ve been stressed out by ATMs many times, but usually they’d just magically work again the next day.
44. Always say yes to karaoke
No night ever ended badly with karaoke. My favourite time was when a waitress in Singapore invited me and some friends to a karaoke party. It was an after-work thing for off-duty bar staff, and so our booth had all these people doing flair bartending with bottles of liquor they had smuggled inside. We didn’t leave until early morning.
45. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to surf
But it’s fun to try.
I spent a week living on a beach in Nicaragua to surf. At the end of every day, our little group would get in the water to watch the sunset together .
46. Travel changes your perception of distances
I used to think going all the way north to south in my home country of The Netherlands took a long time (about 3 hours). This seems like a cakewalk now compared to some of the 20+ hour journeys I’ve taken.
47. I’m happy with less
Living out of a backpack brings everything down to their essentials, and I haven’t really missed much. That said…
48. Hooray for capitalism?
Spending some time in Cuba forever changed the way I look at a modern shopping street or supermarket. You don’t know what you’re missing until it isn’t there.
In Cuba the food options were often very limited — with maybe just a choice between cheese/tomato pizza OR… cheese/tomato sandwich. Stores had only very few products available. Then after 2 weeks I got back to Playa del Carmen in Mexico… and there were so many choices and so many varieties of everything that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Suddenly I could not only buy ice cream but choose from like seven different gelatarias.
(Edit: to the armchair Che Guevaras who’ve commented on this: relax, this isn’t a political statement. It’s simply about the profound difference you feel traveling between these two places.)
49. The more you travel, the more you want to travel
And you’ll never be done in a lifetime.
50. Something can cost next to nothing in one country and a fortune in another. Accept this or you’ll go insane
51. The world’s tallest palm trees, found in Colombia, are at least as tall as 28 horses stacked on top of each other
I know this because I measured it.
52. You shouldn’t live your journey through a camera lens
I had to remind myself of this a few times. Get too snap-happy and you might just forget to experience the actual thing (in unbeatable high definition).
53. But photographing with intent can enrich your travels
I love to go into a busy street or market just with the goal of taking pictures of interesting things from unusual angles. I end up noticing details that would have otherwise passed me.
54. Don’t piss off a bouncer in Vietnam
Or you might get roundhouse kicked in the face, Muay Thai style, as I saw happen to an aggressive customer in Nha Trang. These guys don’t kid around.
55. Bartering at a market is cool
It’s kind of like a mini improv theatre session. Both parties have to feign shock and dismay at every suggestion, but both know it’s just this little dance you do to arrive at a mutually acceptable price. I was a bit annoyed with the process at first, but it can actually be a lot of fun.
56. Telling people you’re atheist/agnostic can be awkward
This is particularly the case in countries where people are very devout. I’ve had some pretty confused looks, which of course is understandable in places where there’s virtually no atheists. To skip the awkwardness and/or questioning, I’ve sometimes resorted to saying “my family is catholic”, which is only sort-of true.
57. Special events are worth planning around for
Getting somewhere in time for a festival or celebration can be a bit of a pain (because I prefer to improvise and not have too many dates locked into my travel calendar), but it usually pays off.
Carnival in Barranquila, Colombia
Day of the Dead in Mexico
58. The world is not nearly as dangerous as you might think
So long as you don’t do stupid things.
59. Doing scary stuff is fun
I’m not a born adrenaline seeker, but I’ve loved the opportunity to push against my comfort zone. One of them was in Thailand, where I went caving and crawled through crevices that were nearly fully submerged in water while barely fitting a human body. Jumping from a huge cliff into a waterfall down below in Guatemala was another. Then there was that time on a tour in Vietnam that I had to stick my finger in a bee hive… okay, that one maybe wasn’t too bad.
60. Crossing the street in downtown Hanoi takes a leap of faith
Seemingly infinite streams of cars and motorbikes turn this into a nightmarish real-life version of Frogger.
61. Power cuts are awesome
Some developing countries regularly experience power cuts. This is unquestionably a shitty thing for the people who live there and whose lives are distrupted, but it’s not too bad a situation if you’re a traveller. Candles are lit, people huddle up, and they’ll tell each other stories. If you’re lucky, someone has a guitar.
My favorite power-out: in the Philippines during a storm with lots of thunder and lightning. Amazing atmosphere.
62. Going solo? You will never be alone
Traveling solo isn’t weird or lonely. You will meet people everywhere.
Hiking up to the Lost City in Colombia with my travel buddies (who I met sailing from Panama)
63. But it’s also fine to be alone as a solo traveller
Travel can be introspective. Sometimes it’s nice to just quietly enjoy a beautiful view.
64. Whatever happens, you can always find a place to stay
It’s just one of those things you can easily overcomplicate in your head before you’ve started your trip. On the trail you quickly learn that no matter where you are, there will always be a bed. That hypothetical nightmare scenario of having to sleep on the street or something never happens.
65. You adjust to the rhythms of a place very quickly
I spent several weeks on the Gili Islands in Indonesia. The first couple of days I kept waking up at 5 A.M. due to the morning prayers blasting from the speakers at the mosque nearby. I was grumpy (see also: me not being a morning person). A few days later, I got used to it. The prayer calls throughout the day became part of my daily cycle, and I even missed it after I left.
66. There sure are a billion great card games
‘President’ and ‘Asshole’ are my enduring favorites. If you meet an Israeli backpacker, ask them to teach you Yaniv. Are you with Canadians? Have them teach you Moose. (I’m just going to assume that every Canadian knows Moose…)
67. Working while travelling is incredibly hard
Keeping a blog while travelling is do-able, but working on an actual project while also actively travelling seems nearly impossible to me. I had set out to write an in-depth guide to backpacking (the kind that I couldn’t find before I started my trip), but in a world full of distractions I didn’t make much progress. I had to lock myself inside with my laptop for two months to actually finish it. I’m proud of the quality of the book and couldn’t have written it on a beach! (Psssttt, Travel the World Without Worries is available now as ebook and paperback 😉 ).
68. You will bump into people again
Wait, is that Eddie? Eddie the former finance guy from New Zealand who you last saw 4 months and 8 countries ago? Yes… of course it is. Though he’s got a big beard now and learned how to spearfish in the Amazon.
Long term travel is just full of the most seemingly unlikely reunions, and it’s always great to catch up again and hear what crazy adventures people have had since you last saw them.
One of my favorite places is this secret beach near El Nido, Philippines. You enter by swimming through the hole during low tide. Behind it is a coral reef and a small beach surrounded 360 degrees by tall cliffs.
69. Romance is fast and furious on the trail
If you’re travelling and single, you can go from “hey, where are you from?” to “whoa it’s like we are totally a long-time couple now” in mere days. Buckle up.
70. But inevitable heartbreak awaits
It’s easy to fall in love but just as easy to be heartbroken.
71. I’ve met people with the most fascinating professions who I would normally have never met
Just to name a few:
- An Olympic boxer from Cuba
- A VIP airline pilot from Canada (the kind that flies around movie stars and CEOs)
- A Dutch commando who fought the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia
- A heavily tattooed Scottish stripper
- A US navy serviceman who works on an aircraft carrier
- A girl who normally lives and works in a travelling circus in the American mid-west
- A producer of BBC nature documentaries with David Attenborough
- A professional close-up magician with the most stunning tricks I’ve ever seen (apparently he was an international legend)
A little Street Fighter reenactment at the salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia
72. Not every travel day is amazing
It’s okay to have a bad day. You just have to regroup, relax, and try again tomorrow.
73. Whatever happens, go with your gut
And life’s too short to second guess.
74. There’s nothing like that buzz from arriving in a new place
It’s like unlocking a new level in a video game and being presented with all new possibilities to explore.
Iguazu Falls in all its majesty
76. Sometimes you enter a small church in Mexico and, you know, there’s a bunch of dudes from an indigenous tribe taking shots of mezcal while ritually sacrificing a chicken
It’s a thing.
77. During Easter in the Philippines, they’ll crucify a jesus reenactor for real using real nails. Also: he won’t scream.
78. People from high-income countries are ridiculously privileged
We can easily travel just for fun. We are so rich and don’t even know it. Travel teaches you a little humility… and to complain less in the grand scheme of things.
79. I love eating out every day
Go to cheap countries and you can easily afford to eat out three times a day. I love it, though it’s easy to get spoiled… and sometimes I miss cooking myself.
80. I love spicy food now
When it comes to seasoning I used to be accused of being Mr. Bland. But since travelling a ton in Asia, everything changed. Later in Mexico and Belize I found myself in love with habanero sauce.
81. It’s the journey, not just the destination
To me a huge part of travelling is just the process of getting from A to B. I’ve moved by tuk-tuk, taxi, banka, propellor plane, jeepney, mule, horse, quad bike, bus, bicycle, tricycle, speedboat, catamaran, hot air balloon, and more that I can’t remember. But my favorite mode of transportation is always, hands down, trains.
Air ballooning in Laos
82. Long term travel is amazing, but like having too much icecream, you can eventually have too much of a good thing
83. Robbery may be negotiable
Nearly at the end of my journey I got robbed in broad daylight by two street kids in Rio de Janeiro. When they took my phone I wagged my finger, and they gave it back. It was a surprisingly gentlemanly exchange, though they did get away with my wallet. (Plot twist – it was not my real wallet, and it only had about a dollar in it.)
By the way, in 2 years of travel this was the only “bad thing” that happened to me. A robbery is not a fun thing to happen, but it also didn’t feel like it was the end of the world. These were poor people trying to steal money at the lowest possible risk/hassle to them, visibly nervous throughout the process.
I always exercise a healthy degree of caution when travelling, but I also find myself becoming increasingly trusting in the world. Everywhere I went I’ve just met lots of friendly and helpful people, and bad apples are extremely rare.
84. Road tripping? Make sure you have at least a decent car
I drove through Central America with a buddy in a 1983 Subaru clunker that nearly fell apart. It seemed like the only people we spoke with from Honduras to central Mexico were car mechanics. Funny in retrospect, but stressful at the time. Least fun bit: the engine not starting on a mountain in Guatemala just as it was getting dark. (Though fortunately it didn’t take long for some truck drivers to help us out.) Our road trip eventually ended 6 hours from our destination in Mexico with the gearbox literally falling apart… we sold the car for scrap to a random man in the street for a measly $100.
85. Hmmm, Isreali backpackers are cool
It may sound strange but I was ‘warned’ about Israeli backpackers—by travellers and even by official guidebooks. I was told they’re loud, insular, and way over-the-top. Following military service they travel only in tight groups, supposedly ruining everything for everyone else. Well… either things have changed, or this just hasn’t been my experience. Politics aside (and I’ve actually gotten some hatemail for writing this!), every Israeli traveller I happened to meet was generous, funny, and kind. Maybe it’s an old backpacker stereotype.
86. Yellow Dragon Fruit has to be the most delicious fruit on the planet
Volcanoes around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
87. You have to appreciate the little things
It’s nice getting in the zone and immersing yourself. Travel is a great time to try and be more mindful.
88. Experiences are much more valuable than belongings
I find that experiences stay with me in my memories, and become a part of my story and identity in ways that possessions never will.
89. Box-ticking mentality and traveller’s FOMO are the two worst enemies of a traveller
Travel should never be a competition.
90. Travelling long-term won’t tell you where you’re going in life, but it will remind you where you’ve been and who you truly are
91. And finally: Live the life you want today
The one thought I keep coming back to is “I’m so damn glad I did this”. I followed my impulses, and while I spent a lot of time and money going around the world I will always have so many incredible memories that keep putting a smile on my face so very often.
Whatever it is you want to do there really are no excuses: you should go do it now.
- Check out my book, Travel the World Without Worries, which is all about how you can prepare and plan for a big backpacking trip. Beyond the merely practical, it’s about how you can unlock your inner spirit of adventure. Get it on paperback from Amazon or as ebook from IndieTraveller.
- 7 Amazingly Cheap Backpacker Destinations You Should Go To. My most popular post, helping to prove that travel does not have to be expensive.
- How You Can Take The Leap And Travel Long-Term. Longing for a gap year or career break? Extended travel does not have to be a distant idea. This post is all about how you can make it a tangible goal.
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