Back in March 2015, we set off with two one-way tickets to Thailand with a loose plan of how we could enjoy a life of travel. We wanted to travel slowly and immerse ourselves in local culture. We wanted to see places and experience things as a couple that we simply couldn’t do working full-time in England. It was an opportunity to broaden our horizons and leave behind the daily routine of commute-work-commune-eat-sleep. And it was a statement of intent to absolutely stop doing stuff we simply didn’t enjoy.
15 months later we returned to England, albeit temporarily. We wanted to catch up with our family and friends, of course. There was also the small matter of the birth of our first grandson. But we also needed to take stock of what we wanted to do next with our lives.
It also gave us the opportunity to reflect on what we’d experienced and learned from our travels. On how it had changed our outlook on life. And how it convinced us that taking that giant leap of faith was the best decision we could ever have made.
The people we met
The kindness and warmth we received from local people were a feature throughout our trip. Although this wasn’t totally unexpected, it was nevertheless a humbling experience, particularly from those who literally had nothing but their friendship to give.
There were others, too who went way beyond what we could reasonably expect from a chance encounter with a complete stranger.
For instance, we’d only visited the unassuming Resto Cha-Cha, on the Indonesian island of Flores, to have a quick bite to eat before trying to work out how on earth we could get to the remote hill-tribe village of Wae Rebo the following day. But owners, Jofan and Yayuk were having none of it. After becoming aware of our predicament, not only did they arrange transportation for us (in the back of the family cement truck), but they took us into their home as if we were long-lost friends.
There was Saw Nyein, owner of the Saw Nyein San Guest House in Bagan, Myanmar. After Nicky become ill she personally nursed her back to good health over a thirty-six hour period. Proof if there ever was that showing a duty of care to your customers doesn’t stop at the bare minimum.
Then there was Aung Thu, a young guy from Mandalay, Myanmar, who took us on a walking tour around his neighbourhood before inviting us to meet his family and drink green tea back at his apartment. Amongst other things, we talked about travel, about football and the importance for him of practising his English. We also talked about politics, and the passion in his voice told us everything we needed to know about the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi winning the approaching general election (which, of course, she did).
And we’ll certainly never forget Gopal, the amazing little rickshaw driver from Jaipur, India. We hired him for what would turn out to be one of the most uplifting days of our entire trip. I’m sure there are plenty of other rickshaw drivers just like Gopal across India. But in our eyes, it would be difficult to beat the genuine warmth, modesty and humour of this pocket-sized gem.
But there were countless others, too – guest house owners, restaurant waiters, tuk-tuk drivers or just people we’d talk to in the street, on the beach, or while travelling from A to B – who treated us like VIP guests in their country.
Of course, we also met so many other travellers from across the world who have since become real friends. People from Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and Ireland. And people who live further afield in the USA, Canada, Russia, New Zealand, Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and China. Not forgetting, of course, travellers from closer to home in England, Wales and Scotland.
There were also family members, new and old friends, and friends-of-friends who we were able to reunite with from time to time. Some welcomed us into their homes, where we were grateful for some good home-cooking and a chance to catch up with familiar faces.
We met some truly inspirational people, too. Like Mark, an Australian who had set off on a round the world trip – on his bicycle. The last we heard he was in Thailand. You can find out exactly where and read about his incredible story on his website at www.budgieescapee.com.
There have undoubtedly been people we’re happy not to be seeing again, too. The German guest house owner in Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand who trashed his place during a late-night drunken rampage was one. The scamming rickshaw driver in Delhi was another. But these are people who are merely footnotes in our story. Reminders that there will always be a counter-balance between good and bad.
In such a short space of time, we’ve encountered so much warmth, affection and comradeship that simply wouldn’t have been possible without travelling. And meeting the next Jofan, Yayuk, Saw Nyein, Aung Thu, Gopal or another excited co-traveller is just as good a reason for returning to a life of travel as is discovering new corners of the globe. It’s something we’ve missed since we’ve been back.
And it’s something we want back in our lives real soon.
The places we saw
We’ve been to some pretty special places. Some would probably be on most people’s bucket lists. Others were completely unexpected.
Spectacular sites (and tourist magnets) such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, India’s Taj Mahal, and Myanmar’s Bagan temples would be on just about every traveller’s itinerary of South and South-East Asia. But lesser known sites such as Minhitale in Sri Lanka and Katni Mata (aka the Rat Temple) in Bikaner, Rajasthan were just as exciting.
We trekked through jungles in Thailand and Indonesia to explore caves, waterfalls and all manner of wildlife.
And we’ve taken some epic journeys. On iconic trains through scenes of tea plantations and rice paddies in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In shared taxis through bewildering mountain scenery in Northern India’s Ladakh. On boats through the majesty of Indonesia’s Komodo National Park and up the Irrawaddy River from Bagan to Mandalay in Myanmar. And on a Cessna light aircraft across the glaciers of New Zealand’s Southern Alps through to the awesome fiord landscape of Milford Sound.
Some of those epic journeys have been under our own steam, too. A memorable three-week road trip around Western Australia was ultimately just a taster for a two-month road trip around New Zealand in a campervan.
We’ve also chilled out on some of the most sublime beaches we’ve ever seen – just to remind ourselves that it’s ok to do absolutely nothing every now and then.
One or two of those cost an arm and a leg. Some of them didn’t. Many of them were completely free. We just feel blessed to have experienced them.
The food we ate
It’s fair to say we like our food. We like our spicy food even better. So you could imagine how we were literally salivating at the prospect of eating our way through the likes of Thailand, India and Sri Lanka.
They didn’t disappoint. This despite the concessions regularly given to westerners who’d struggle to handle the spices in a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal.
That being said, we had some memorable dishes. For instance, in Thailand there was the fiery Snapper in Red Curry at Nopparat Thara in Ao Nang and the Kua Kling Paksod at Koh Lanta’s Castaway Resort, a tonsil-burning mixture of shredded beef, chilli paste, finely sliced lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and sprigs of green peppercorns.
There were also the more – ahem – “challenging” dishes. Red Tree Ants with Beef and Holy Basil was not a dish I would normally have travelled half the world to taste, but when in Cambodia it seemed a bit churlish not to at least try one of their specialities. Barbequed frog stuffed with rice, lemon grass and Khmer spices was another pleasant surprise. But the deep fried tarantula was a step too far even for this sucker-for-something-different.
India and Sri Lanka were, as expected, up there with the best and spiciest food of all. And I didn’t even mind going vegetarian for a fortnight as we toured around Rajasthan.
The wildlife we encountered
Perhaps unexpectedly, though, it wasn’t the people we met, nor the places we visited, or the food we ate that will live longest in the memory. No, that would come from our encounters with some of the planet’s most incredible wildlife. Both in and out of the ocean.
And, apart from the collective clenching of our butt cheeks when a pack of dingos marched right past our tent while we were camping in the Australian Outback, we’ve been able to appreciate some of the most spectacular ones at close quarters in relative comfort.
We watched in silence as orang-utans in Sumatra dropped down from the trees and ate in front of us. We witnessed groups of formerly mistreated and injured elephants being cared for at Lek Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. And we came face to face to face with komodo dragons on Indonesia’s Rinca island, before watching hundreds of thousands of bats fly above our boat at sunset in their nightly search for food.
But it was underwater that we enjoyed the truly wild encounters.
During our trip to The Philippines, we had the thrill of diving amongst the swirling mass of a million sardines in Moaboal and snorkelling with green and hawksbill turtles in the crystal clear waters surrounding Apo Island.
In Indonesia’s Komodo National Park we swam with a pod of huge manta rays. While in Western Australia we were fortunate enough to swim and snorkel alongside a couple of whale sharks. A truly mesmerising experience.
Best of all, a migrating humpback whale and her calf cruised past us as we prepared for the whale sharks. They were so close to us that the force of the mother’s tail fin blew Nicky backwards by a couple of metres. It was one of those moments that was so unexpected that the only response we could muster was a speechless few seconds followed by screams of sheer delight. A moment that encompassed everything that’s so right about travelling, and believing that there’s always something waiting to be discovered that will completely blow your mind.
The challenges we overcame
There’s no doubt we’re now more resilient than we were before we left for Thailand. For a start, Nicky’s phobia of bananas and my fear of spiders were severely put to the test while we were in South and South-East Asia. Nicky’s not exactly a fan of bananas now, but she can at least be in the same room as them. Small steps and all that.
I’ve still got a phobia of spiders, but in all honesty, I’ve come to appreciate their inverted beauty somewhat. And coming face to face with some of the larger varieties during treks through caves in Thailand and the jungles of Indonesia has undoubtedly hardened my resolve to the point that I no longer break out in cold sweats at the mere sight of one.
The sheer physicality of some of our adventures was also a challenge for Nicky’s acute asthma. And none more so than trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas. In fact, two-and-a-half-days into our nine-day trek and we’d reached probably the low point of our entire trip. The relentless energy-sapping uphill route, followed by the equally morale-draining downhill sections, had left Nicky in such a state of exhaustion that we seriously considered scrapping the rest of the trek altogether. That she insisted we carried on was a testament to how resilient she’d now become following our previous treks in the likes of Indonesia and New Zealand.
And the moment when she reached the summit after climbing 2600 metres in altitude was a pivotal one. She’d proved to herself she was capable of achieving something that she would previously have thought was beyond her.
Having said that, her long list of mishaps along the way reads like a really busy night at an Accident & Emergency Unit…
- A cracked rib and crushed toenail following a fall in the Sumatran jungle
- A toenail removed in Pai Hospital, Thailand
- A gashed knee on the Sumatran island of Pulau Weh, following another fall
- A severely bruised arm after being hit by a motorbike while crossing the road in Bali
- A swollen forehead after slipping and banging her head in our jungle bathroom in Koh Rong
- A strained neck and back after slipping in the mud during our three-day trek in Myanmar
- Another gashed knee after falling over (again) during a cave trek in Khao Sok, Thailand
- A twisted ankle after falling off a kerb in Trang, Thailand
- Food poisoning in Bali, leaving her incapacitated for three days
- Food poisoning in Myanmar, leaving her incapacitated for 36 hours
- Ear infection in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
- Symptoms of altitude sickness in Ladakh, Northern India
Believe me, the woman’s a hero.
If an accident prone one.
What we’ve learned from a life of travel
We’ve learned so many things about ourselves over the past 15-18 months.
Making the decision to unclutter our lives and pursue a life of travel was an important one. But it was ultimately an easy one, too. Call it gut instinct or a calculated guess but we knew, as soon as our decision to go was made, that it was right for us. And it still is.
We know we’ve been extremely lucky to experience everything I’ve described in this post – and more. But, at the same time, we believe we’ve made our own luck by being bold and trusting our instincts.
We’ve learned that we can live frugally and that we can overcome challenges. We’ve learned that we work better as a team (unless we’re in a kayak). And we’ve learned that the best place to keep our cash safe is by storing it in a small wallet deep within Nicky’s cleavage. Beats a money belt, for sure.
Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that travelling long-term is not something that should be restricted to gap-year students and twenty-somethings.
For the first time in a long while, we feel as if we have control over our lives. And we don’t want to lose that feeling any time soon.
What did you think? Have you been travelling long-term, too? Or perhaps you’re thinking about pursuing a life of travel in the near future? Either way, we’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Hi, we’re Ian and Nicky, an English couple on a voyage of discovery around the world, and this blog is designed to reflect what we see, think and do. Actually, we’d like to think it also provides information, entertainment and inspiration for other “mature” travellers, too. So please feel free to pour yourself a glass of something suitably chilled and take a look around.