Travel Stories

5 Unexpected Highlights That Stood Out In My Years Of Traveling

Not too long ago, I penned down my reasons for traveling. And one of it was, I travel to collect experiences. The urge to put myself out there in the world, just to see what happens, was how I got to experience life a little differently.

A few traveling experiences were intentional –  cycling in the dark to watch the sun peek over the horizon from the top of a Stupa ruin in Bagan, eating gelato in Genova in summer, and swimming with whale sharks in Oslob. Those experiences were fun and memorable, but frankly, the unexpected ones that came along the way were even better.

In traveling, there’s only so much you can control, and I say, that’s a good thing. The unknown can be mysterious. But it can also be exciting and filled with a million possibilities. And isn’t that the beauty of travel?
1.  Chasing reindeers in Tromsø, Norway

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I was in Norway for work. As my cruise ship contract ended on that day, where the port of call happened to be Tromsø – a city above the Arctic Circle, famed for Northern Lights viewing – I got rather excited. It turned out that my company had put me up in a hotel in the heart of the city for a night. That meant I was free to do whatever I wanted for that evening before flying off the next morning. I didn’t care much for the hotel. But I was thrilled at the prospect of the little pocket of ‘free time’ that I’d just secured.

Upon finding out about the arrangement, a few days prior to my disembarkation, I trawled through the list of residents on the CouchSurfing website. Someone responded to my post and I made plans to meet with a local named Jon. Jon was a seal and polar bear spotter, working sometimes for a documentary crew. That afternoon, Jon drove me around to check out the city’s public library and Polar Institute. Just when I thought my afternoon couldn’t get any better, Jon asked, “Hey, do you want to see some reindeers?” Are you kidding me? Hell, yeah!

We drove towards the farm houses where reindeer sightings were apparently common. At some point, Jon stopped the car and led me towards a clearing. It was then that I saw them: a bunch of gentle reindeers roaming around. It was a moment of pure magic as I took a step closer to them…and then another.

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2. Giving a talk in a public school in Paris

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I was hosted by a lovely high school teacher in my first sojourn to Paris. Cécile taught English to 15 – 18 year olds in a Lycée (secondary school) that’s situated in one of the poorer districts surrounding Paris. The students are not quite your typical French students, Cécile had commented. Theys came from mainly immigrant families and were more likely to face challenges in academia, discipline and diligence (life as a migrant can be gruelling). Cécile thought they could use some hope and inspiration from foreigners, especially travellers who have seen the world, so she asked me. I was totally unprepared…but how could I say no? 

It was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Just by being there was already enough for the kids. Not because I was of any importance, but a foreigner making her way all the way into the suburbs had made them feel acknowledged. Growing up in a society where they’re often forgotten, my presence had pulled them back into the center of attention. I was just as curious of them as they were of me.

Not unlike the crew members that I taught onboard cruise ships, these students were just as lively, inquisitive and cheeky. After I’d talked about traveling and my life as a cruise ship lecturer, they bombarded me with questions. How’s life in London? How’s life on the ship? Where’s Malaysia? How many languages do you speak? My favourite: Do you have a boyfriend?
3. Surviving a taxi scam run by the mafias in Cambodia

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A travel buddy, Ed, and I were making our way from Bangkok to Siem Reap and we’d opted for the cheapest route. We decided to take the train all the way to the border between Thailand and Cambodia, and then take the connecting bus or minivan from Poipet, the border town of Cambodia, to our final destination. Of course, what ensued didn’t turn out as planned.

Now, I don’t carry guidebooks when I travel and hence missed the warning on Lonely Planet that regarded Poipet as a town you’ll end up in if you have bad karma. TripAdvisor did post a scam alert, but only 5 months after our trip, so we literally landed in the “Scam Central” of Cambodia without knowing it.

Poipet was already exuding the sleazy, uneasy vibe when we first walked into it. The air was thick with debris and smog, and the grand casino buildings were an awkward match to the squalor and squatter areas around.

After crossing the border, we were duped by a well-spoken young man to take the “free shuttle bus” to the bus station. When we got there, we were informed that the public buses were all gone, and since we arrived after 5pm, we either had to spend a night at a guesthouse in Poipet or take a shared taxi. We were quoted USD80 which we knew was daylight robbery, despite him insisting that it was legitimate and safe. When we refused, he changed his tactics and threatened us instead, saying that no one else would take us if not. His boss apparently had the police in his pockets and wouldn’t let us out of Poipet for the night. Ed and I started talking to a Canadian couple who were in the same boat and we agreed to share a taxi together – but not for USD80, and not with the guy, who initially appeared to be nice but now, merely annoying. None of us wanted to stay any longer in Poipet.

The city of Poipet (Credit: tofumax / Shutterstock.com)
The city of Poipet (Credit: tofumax / Shutterstock.com)

After walking out of the bus station, a few men approached us and asked if we needed a taxi. However, before we could negotiate, the annoying man from before joined us and spoke in Khmer. Whatever he said must have been bad because the potential taxi driver just scurried away in fear. The young man looked at us smugly. “See, I told you. If you don’t take our taxi services, no one’s going to take you! Come on, I’ll give you a good price – 75 dollars!” Darkness was fast falling, and we were desperate.

We asked for 40 dollars but the man just laughed. He said he’ll go and ask his boss but the deal would be unlikely. Taking advantage of his disappearance, we quickened our steps and started to approach other people. We saw a plain looking older man holding a baby and jumped at the chance. He offered to take us for 35, but before we could continue our discussion further, he made a waving sign to his back, as if he wanted us to follow him without a word. We saw that the initial tout was coming back from a distance and so we obeyed. We followed our potential taxi driver from afar and into a restaurant. The man with the baby disappeared into the restaurant’s kitchen while we stood outside, not knowing what to do. With our hearts thumping, we took a seat. Now what?

The tout came to us once more, this time offering us 60 dollars – the best his boss could do. We shook our heads. He smirked and left again.

A lady came to serve us. As she put down drinks on our table which we didn’t order, she whispered to Ed, “My husband come later. Wait. But later you stay in guesthouse. Bayon guesthouse. But you no stay. My husband come. Mafia don’t come if you stay guesthouse.”  

We didn’t know if we should trust her. Was she part of the whole elaborate scam? But still, as we discussed our options, we agreed that we liked the lady better than the man. When push comes to shove, we’d just stay the night. Either way, it’d still be a more desirable alternative than to take the mafia’s taxi. Later, a few motorcycle taxis appeared, and we were driven to the guesthouse as indicated. We were taken to a room where we weren’t sure if we should check-in or just wait.

An agonising hour later, the man with the baby picked us up with a battered Toyota Camry. His car was filled with boxes everywhere so we had to put our feet on these boxes and our massive backpacks on our laps. We could hardly breathe but we prayed hard. We came upon a roadblock, but thankfully, the men who flagged down our car were more interested in what was in the car’s boot instead of us.

The journey to Siem Reap was long, uncomfortable and bumpy. As there were no street lamps, the car’s headlights were the only means to prevent us from driving into a ditch. We eventually arrived a little after midnight, and it felt like we’d held our breath throughout the entire car journey. When we finally made it to a random hotel that was still opened in the middle of the night, we threw ourselves on the bed and sighed in feverish gratitude.

4. Partying with locals in the jungles of Mauritius

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The cruise ship that I worked on called on Port Louis, Mauritius, every fortnight and would stay for three days each time. Most crew members on their time off would then hit the shopping malls or the beaches, but I wanted to be in contact with locals. So I ended up meeting with a few locals through an online site.

Arnaud introduced me to his friends, and together, we visited a lake in the forest. Someone mentioned about a party and on a whim, they invited me along. I was taken to a private party in someone’s home in the woods. I made a few new friends, but one introduction stood out. This guy was originally from Mauritius but I met him passingly while I was in university in Australia. He was not a friend, but rather a classmate of a friend. What were the odds, to meet someone you barely knew, randomly again, all the way in the other side of the world?

Later, as the party slowly winded to a halt and the music dial was turned down, I headed towards the balcony of the building. Dawn was breaking and I was lucky enough to witness the most bewitching twilight in the whole Southern hemisphere. All in good timing.

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5. Finding an amazing stay along the Adriatic Coast of Croatia during the peak holiday season

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The road trip had taken place in August, a peak holiday season in Europe, but my husband and I didn’t have a choice – it was the only holiday period that I had from my German course. Croatia was unbelievably crowded and everything was expensive. We had just spent almost 40 Euros for a camping spot in a less than ideal camp site on Rab Island and were disgruntled. We swore we would find something better in Zadar.

As we were driving along the coast, we spotted a few humble resorts with private beaches. We stared at them longingly as we whizzed by, assuming that they would be expensive. If a camping spot had cost us 40 Euros, what would a double room with a balcony looking out to the beach cost?

At some point, we drove by a lonely cove, where only three little homes hugged the coastline. We had no idea where we were, but we spotted a sign: Zimmer Frei (Available Rooms). The sign hung limply at the back of someone’s little home. It looked like a simple Bed & Breakfast instead of a resort. An old lady saw our car slowing down and started to wave to us enthusiastically. She told us to wait and screamed to the person-in-charge. “Vera! Vera!”

Another woman, with grey hair and twinkly eyes, appeared in the doorway. Vera showed us the room, which comes with a balcony. “Here you can have your breakfast every day.” From our room, we saw the glittering turquoise sea. It was a small house with four other rooms – and apart from a couple and another family, there was no one else.

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The whole place looked impossibly lovely but we were afraid to ask for the price. We didn’t want to be disappointed. When she told us it was 30 Euros, we couldn’t believe our ears. We said yes immediately and she grinned, letting us take our luggage from the car while she went into the kitchen.

“Now, you want some coffee yes? Coffee here, free.”

As you can see, not all unexpected events that I’d encountered were positive. But even the most negative ones were overcome, and I am proud that I lived to tell the tale. See how traveling can always surprise you even when you’ve got everything planned down to the T?

That’s what I love most about it. The journey counts more than its destination.

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