Seven Travel Secrets

I’m travelling with a diary that I bought in Bangkok earlier this year. On one page near the front I’ve been compiling a list of grandly titled “Secrets of Travel” – things I’ve learned about travelling over time and from experience. The following may not sound especially profound, but I had an “A-ha!” moment when I figured each of them out:

1. Sit down when you arrive, preferably with a drink.
Early one morning in March, I tumbled blearily off a bus in Myanmar and steeled myself to find a taxi into town. The three lovely people I’d met on the bus tumbled blearily off the same bus, decamped to a teahouse and ordered coffee. I joined them and, kind reader, it was a revelation to arrive somewhere and spend ten minutes soaking up the atmosphere and getting your bearings, rather than jumping straight into the fray, even if it does mean that you end up drinking a fair amount of bus station coffee.

Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Tibet

Waiting, Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Tibet © Jo James

2. Don’t go the same way twice.
This one stems from my work – if you take a different route each time, then you can cover twice as much ground. Of course the flipside is that I frequently find myself trudging along highways or – as happened last week – driving down improbable country lanes and asking laughing boys on bikes for directions. Still, I think it’s worth it; getting lost is seldom a disaster, and I’ve made some great discoveries this way.

Jungle bridge, Taman Negara

Jungle This Way © Jo James

3. Try everything.
I’m talking about food here, but #3 could equally apply to other things. One of my most memorable meals on this current trip was eating ikan patin tempoyak in Kuantan – catfish curry, flavoured with fermented durian. I was certain I wouldn’t like it, but I tried it and survived (it turns out that durian tastes the same, whether it’s fermented or not), got big props from my fellow diners (three of whom gave me thumbs up as they walked out) and felt strangely brave afterwards – my own Yak vs. Food moment.

Looks weird, tastes wonderful

Looks weird, tastes wonderful © Jo James

4. Long bad journey stories are, well, long, usually bad, and best avoided.
Several times I’ve been tempted to post about particular journeys; the one that left me with scars, the one where the boat started sinking, but no; once was enough. When you chart this particular conversational course amongst backpackers, you open yourself to hours of oneupmanship – one’s own long bad journey story is always worse than the next person’s…

Car trouble, Qinghai © Jo James

Car trouble, Qinghai © Jo James

5. Engage with everyone.
I took a taxi yesterday in Kota Bharu, an east coast town near the Thai border. The driver, a cheerful man in his 50s, told me hilarious stories of using his first car – a Pegueot 204 – to smuggle rice Thai rice into Malaysia in the 1970s. A few days before that I met a Bangladeshi mufti on a bus, who runs an orphanage for 300 children in Chittagong. Way back in April, a kindly Burmese train conductor turned out to have a degree in quantum mechanics. So many people have such interesting stories to tell, but sometimes I need to remind myself to listen, hence secret #5.

Monk and bed, Myawaddy

U Thoma and his bedroom © Jo James

6. Bad books are better travel companions.
A good book can transport you to another time and place, which is part of the joy of reading. But if you’ve already transported yourself to another place, it seems a shame to get absorbed by a book – much better to save the escapism for when you really want to escape. While I was in Myanmar I found I noticed more, started more conversations and took more notes when I was reading a totally put-downable book. When I was reading something more enthralling, I would glance up at the end of a journey and wonder how I had reached my destination – all very well if it’s your commute to work, but somehow not if it’s a one-off trip.

Enid Blyton speaks Swedish

Enid Blyton talar svenska? © Jo James

7. Wake up for sunrise.
Even on rainy mornings, even when it’s difficult to get out of bed, I’ve never regretted getting up before dawn and watching the start of a whole new day – though that’s not to say I manage it every day…

Maungmagan Beach

Burmese light, Maungmagan © Jo James

* * *

And that’s it! My list. I could add a few more (#8: If in doubt, go swimming very nearly made the cut), but I’ll stop at seven. How about you? Do you have different ideas that guide the way you travel?

Soundtrack: Higher Ground by UB40
Written in the garden at Pasir Belanda (

3 responses to “Seven Travel Secrets

  1. I have only one. Trust the Universe and believe in the kindness of strangers. Let them (the Universe and the strangers) show you what you would never be able to see and experience if you were merely following your intended itinerary.

  2. “A towel… is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have… What the strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) will think is that any man that can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still know where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

    🙂 Hope you’re having fun on your travels, Jo!

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