Alex Around the World

Alexandra, or Alex, was born in Bern, Switzerland where her dad is from. When her parents split up, her mom brought her and her brother back to Canada, where she grew up. Currently, Alex is living and working in downtown Toronto and living it up! For now…

Background

How long were you traveling?
Originally I planned on traveling for two months, but I ended up getting home just under six months from the day I left.

Which countries did you go to?
Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Dubai, Qatar, South Africa, Switzerland, France, Holland, Ireland, England, Italy, Croatia, and Greece.

Had you traveled a lot previously?
I’ve done a fair bit of traveling throughout the years. Visiting my dad who lives in Switzerland every year, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel around Europe quite a bit. I’d never gone for more than three weeks before though!

What made you decide to take this trip?
A blessing in disguise. I had just found a new job and quit my previous job only to find out that the new job wouldn’t be giving me what I had wanted. I decided that the new job wasn’t what I was looking for so told them I wasn’t going to be joining the team. Being unexpectedly unemployed is extremely frightening but I made the best of it! I thought that before I found a job I should go visit my dad and maybe go visit a friend in the Middle East that I’d been wanting to visit. So, I wrote to my friend who lives in Qatar about coming to visit her before finding a new job and she said, “I’m going to Thailand next week and my friend can’t come anymore, you should come with me!” That left me with less than a week to book a one-way ticket to Asia and off I went for six months!

How did you find the time and resources to be able to do this?
I had always wanted to travel after school but luckily (and unluckily) I found a job before finishing school and started a career right away. I ended up working at that company for three years and all of a sudden I was 26 and thought I was too old to do an around the world trip. I had been saving from the time I started working and had inherited some money from my mom when she passed away so I decided this was where I wanted to spend it. When I found myself in between jobs and my friend asked me to join her in Thailand, ‘no’ wasn’t an option.

How did you decide to do it solo?
I didn’t really have a choice at first. I had a friend to start off my trip in Thailand but she only had eight days of vacation to spend with me. I had never backpacked or stayed in a hostel before so it was extremely nerve wracking. If I’d had more time to think about it, I can’t help but wonder if I would have chickened out. That being said, going to Asia wasn’t a one week trip for me and I decided to commit since I was fortunate enough to have the time and money. I talked to a few people who’d done similar trips and soaked up as much of their advice as I could then I just went with the flow. I’d meet people along the way who were going here or there and would join them (or they would join me). Traveling alone was the best thing I’ve ever done. I had my own budget. I ate when I was hungry. I slept when I was tired. I did whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I think it also forced me outside of my comfort zone so I was able to try so many cool things and meet some incredible people along the way! I was lucky enough to have friends from home who joined me in different countries every few weeks or so which was a nice break from the solo life.

Prep

How much of your trip did you plan out and research in advance?
Not much. I knew where I wanted to go but nothing was set in stone and I rarely booked anything in advance (more than a day or two anyway). I wanted to be as flexible as possible. The research was usually one of the first things I did when I got to a new place, as well as speak to locals. From there I decided what was important to me and what I wanted to do. The most important thing I would say is to understand the culture a little because certain things that seem normal and okay to us (North Americans) are frowned upon or even illegal in some countries (again, for example chewing gum is a punishable crime in Singapore). In Asia it’s also good to have some understanding of what things should cost (like renting scooters or bus tickets) because they are happy to take as much as your willing to pay. In most cases in Asia I was able to bargain down to almost a third of the original asking price. Some people feel bad doing this but bargaining is expected and they will never go lower than what they can afford.

How did you pack for this trip?/ Any packing tips?
I made a list of essentials and spoke to experienced travelers. The one thing they stressed was to lay everything out, and when you’re done, cut it down by at least half. I didn’t quite do that, but man, I wish I had listened. I must have ended up sending almost $200 worth of shipments home as my journey went on because there was so much stuff I didn’t need. I also gave away a lot of stuff. Even though I had lots of options, I always wore the same things (especially in Asia). I was also told in advance that rolling clothes helps reduce wrinkles and save space which was definitely true. I think bringing one of everything you need is good and two max of the most used things (bathing suits, shorts, etc.). I packed lots of underwear because they’re small and I never knew when I would find laundry next. It’s pretty easy to find laundry and it costs less than $10 CAD to do a full load including washing, drying, and folding. Bring the minimum. I was never stranded needing something I hadn’t packed, not once! If I needed to buy something (say, sun tan lotion for example) it was very easy to find and cheap!! You end up carrying your bag so much more than you want (especially when you’re trying to save money), so the lighter the better!

What were the three things you were happiest to have with you?

  1. My phone. I took hundreds of photos and a journal of everything I did, which I always backed up. I also used the Maps.me app to get around a lot which was super helpful.
  2. Spare toilet paper (specific to Asia). A lot of ‘toilets’, if you can call them that – so many were just holes in the ground, only have sprayers (if you’re lucky). I wasn’t a fan of those.
  3. Ear plugs. The poorer I got, the more people I shared rooms with. I found it very helpful to be able to block out the noise. I usually covered my eyes with a shirt or something. Between that and the earplugs, I was almost guaranteed a good sleep!

I found it really hard to answer this question because these are truly the three things I couldn’t have gone without in a six-month time period, but at home if you asked me what I couldn’t go a day without the list would be endless! It really puts things into perspective.

Was there anything you wished you had?
I do, but don’t, wish I had a professional camera. My phone took some amazing pictures but some of the sights (like a starry night, am amazing waterfall, or the animals in Kruger Park) were impossible to capture on an iPhone. The only reason I’m glad I didn’t have one is because they’re quite large and not the most convenient for carrying through jungles etc.

How did you manage money on your trip?
I had set myself a budget in advance (which had to be adjusted when I extended my trip by almost three times). Asia was quite easy to get away with $30 CAD a day (on the high end) including food and accommodations. Europe cost close to $100 CAD a day excluding any adventures which would add anywhere from $25-$100 CAD each time. I also found hostels where I could volunteer and help out in exchange for free accommodations and food which was nice. Research and speaking with locals was a great way to find deals and workarounds from the typical tourist traps with huge markups.

Lodging and Transportation

What kind of places did you stay?
In Asia I stayed in hostels and guesthouses (depending on where I was). Hostelworld.com was a pretty great tool for reading reviews, although you can save money by going directly to the website or calling the host. In South Africa, I had booked a hostel but ended up staying at my uncle’s with my friend because we had heard that would be the smarter option. In Europe I stayed with my dad for a few weeks, otherwise mostly hostels and a couple of Airbnbs in the smaller towns.

Do you have any tips for finding lodging while traveling?
There are lots of online platforms I checked out on Facebook but would usually refer to Hostelworld.com to get a sense of where I wanted to stay and would go from there. I typically wanted to find a place with decent ratings, at a good price, that was fairly central. Some days I would wake up with no idea where I wanted to go and usually it worked out but a couple of times I almost got stuck with nowhere to stay and ended up in extremely random/remote towns, but again, this added to my experience and I met some really cool people along the way.

Did you find getting around within countries and between countries to be easy?
Usually, yes. Staying in hostels was so helpful because you meet so many people who have done (or are doing) the same thing as you and everyone is happy to share their advice and tips from personal experience. The only troubles I ever had were buses or flights being sold out because I booked so last minute, but this just lead to other fun adventures so I didn’t mind.

Traveling Solo

Who did you meet along the way?
Throughout my six months abroad I met up with six friends from home, some of which I stayed with for anywhere from three days to a month! I visited one city with some, or three countries with others. It was great! I met up with one in Thailand and Qatar, and another girl in Africa and Greece. I am so lucky to have the friends I have who are able to share these experiences with me. In terms of new people I met along the way, there are way too many to name but when I look through pictures or re-read my journal, I am flooded with memories of all sorts of people I met from every corner of the world. I am thankful to have met them all and can attribute a huge chunk of my life’s best memories to these people, who were strangers just a few months prior.

Which countries felt safest?
I felt pretty safe in Europe because I am pretty familiar with the culture and customs. Ireland was great for safety and, other than Dublin, I felt like I could walk around anywhere/anytime and didn’t feel the need to always lock up my stuff. I also felt really safe in Singapore but that’s only because they have very strict laws that no one is willing to break (for example; chewing gum is a punishable offence). Depending where I was in Bali, I felt pretty safe there too. A large part of the population is Hindu and they really believe in Karma so they would never do anything to harm or hurt another human.

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Gardens By The Bay, Singapore (a.k.a. Avatar Land, IMO)
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Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Singapore

Which countries/places felt the least safe?
Although I’ll name two countries which I would consider the least safe, I never had any issues and that’s definitely due to the fact that I was always on guard and cautious with my personal safety (as well as my belongings). If something didn’t feel right, I would typically avoid it and trust my gut. I would never feel the need to avoid these places because they are ‘unsafe’, it’s all about being smart.

Vietnam – only because it’s very overwhelming, specifically in the southern cities (Ho Chi Minh). My first night there I had a guy on a motorbike (scooter as we call them) who drove up onto the sidewalk and unsuccessfully tried to swipe a phone out of my friends’ hand as he sped by. There was always so much going on you had to be very careful with theft and crossing those busy streets.

South Africa – although I wouldn’t necessarily consider this a third world country, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and not a lot of “middle class” so the poor do what they have to do to survive. As a woman, I was warned not to be caught out on the streets after sunset and I made sure to stick to that rule unless I was out with local friends whom I met through my uncle that lives there. Even while I was out with my friends, they always kept me at arm’s length and wouldn’t let me do anything alone.  I don’t know exactly what they were worried about but I’m glad I never had to find out. I was also warned not to carry a purse or wear any jewelry which were both pretty easy rules for me to follow!

Do you have any safety tips to share with other women traveling solo?
Trust your gut. I was so lucky that throughout my six months traveling, mostly alone, I was never robbed or hurt. I always tried to let someone know where I would be and what I would be doing at each stop. It’s also very easy to make friends so typically if I didn’t feel comfortable going out alone or wasn’t sure of what to do, I would meet people at hostels and join other groups. That being said, I wasn’t scared to step outside of my comfort zone and take the crazy night buses in Asia (which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend but also think it’s part of the experience), rent scooters and ATVs all over Asia and Europe, dive with sharks etc. I always calculated risk vs. reward and did my best not to get myself into any dangerous situations. I also tried to educate myself on different companies I’d be using in advance, whether it be for accommodations/travel/adventure, I wanted to see reviews and make sure I was making the smartest choice (cost and safety wise).

The Greatest Hits

What were your two favorite countries?
South Africa and Greece/Croatia (I realize that’s three!)

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View of Cape Town, South Africa from Table Mountain
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View of Dubrovnik, Croatia from the Old Town Wall

What are the best things to do in South Africa?
South Africa has endless opportunities. Although I had to get used to a lack of safety, I always managed to keep busy. I was here for three weeks and have a list of things I didn’t get around to doing (keeping that in my back pocket for my next trip there). Some of my must sees/do’s include: Kruger Park, Table Mountain, hiking up Lion’s Head, Cape of Good Hope, Wine Tour (I did Stellenbosch), Robben Island, Paragliding off signal hill, Shark Cage diving and so much more.

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Cave along the hike up Lion’s Head

What are the best things to do in Greece?
I could have also spent much longer in Greece but only had two weeks there. I went to Mykonos and Santorini for the bulk of a week and the second week was spent island hopping on a sail boat with Med Sailors – this was an unbelievable experience and I highly recommend it. It’s designed for guests between the age of 21-35 so you are sure to have a good time and meet lots of people around the same age. There were 10 boats in this fleet and we all did the same route so we all got to know each other quite well. The weather, people, and FOOD are all amazing!

From your whole trip, what are the top five coolest things you did?
It’s hard to narrow my huge list down to just five but I would have to say the below, in no particular order:

  1. In Abu Dhabi I visited the Sheik Zayed Mosque which is all white, and just takes your breath away. It reminded me a little of Aladdin!
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  1. Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos was so beautiful and serene, even with tons of tourists around you could still find a sense of peace in nature.
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  1. Ireland – stayed in Belfast at a great Hostel called Vagabonds for a week and fell in love with the hospitality, scenery, and culture while staying there.ireland.png
  1. Sailing around the Greek islands for a week with MedSailors was unforgettable for so many reasons; the views, the water, the sun, the people, everything.medisailors.png

This photo doesn’t exaggerate the week at all. This was a daily activity and really sums up how much fun we had throughout the week!

  1. I love Bali because I tried so many things I’d never done like surfing, horseback riding in the water and swimming with turtles bigger than me.balihorsesbaliturtle

Are there any activities or places you recommend avoiding?
I personally wouldn’t avoid any place I visited, even if I didn’t have the best time, everything was a learning experience from start to finish.

One thing I would absolutely avoid is taking a bus from Sapa, Vietnam to Luang Prabang, Laos. I had only heard the same advice anywhere I looked but thought I’d give it a shot anyway. I was traveling with a friend I had met at this point so I figured I had someone to keep me company so what could go wrong? Although nothing went wrong, per say, it was an insanely long and uncomfortable trip which took close to 30 hours in the end. First of all, this is NOT a safe option. We saw numerous busses in the ditch, including the full bus of people and luggage we picked up even though ours was already full. We traveled for almost six hours this way. The border crossing was a nightmare and the bus driver was not friendly (at one point I thought he was going to hurt a girl we met on the bus). Nothing about this trip was enjoyable other than the cool Americans we met and ended up hanging out with!

What were the best new foods you discovered?
When I first arrived in Vietnam I had no idea what to eat and just had a whole lot of rice for every meal for almost an entire week. Finally, in Hoi An, I took a cooking course and fell in love with the food there. I had homemade, by yours truly, pho and fish grilled in a banana leaf which was amazing! Also, the Bahn Mai, which is just a sandwich with God knows what on it, was always a delicious, quick, and cheap meal! I was impressed by the food in Indonesia too. I’m not a vegetarian but after trying so many amazing vegetarian dishes there I think I could easily give up meat! Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to food and looked up traditional dishes before going to different places because I think there was a lot more food I could have tried and a lot of time I learned about these dishes when it was already too late.

What are your favorite stories from the whole trip?

  1. Scootering on the freeway – my childhood bestie, Bryanna, and I were in the north part of Croatia and had a pretty hectic couple of weeks prior so we decided we should take it easy. What did we do? We downloaded tinder. We quickly learned that there was a volleyball tournament going on nearby and when we googled it, it said it was only 15 minutes away. Since we had rented a scooter we thought it would be a fun idea to hit it up. We started driving and about five minutes in we realized we had entered a toll-road free-way… On our scooter.. That only goes 50km/h.. and needs to stop every 30 minutes to cool down… Naturally google maps calculated the time to destination based on speed limits so when we were going 40km on a 120km road, it took us a LOT longer than planned. We also had to stop twice on the highway to let the engine cool down because apparently we were only supposed to use this scooter in the inner-city, not on highways. We were so nervous about getting hit by a car, getting pulled over, or getting yelled at/honked at. We were, after all, two blondes in shorts and tank tops on one scooter driving extremely slowly on the shoulder of the highway. After a few stops and many road trip games to distract ourselves, we finally made it almost two hours later. After all is said and done, we had a great time and it was well worth the trek! We took back roads on the way back in case you were wondering.
  2. A trip with a stranger from California – One morning, in Hvar, Croatia, Bryanna and I were woken up in our hostel by our new roommate who quickly introduced himself and told us he was from Cali. We were both exhausted and hungover but he told us his plan for the day and invited us to join, so we did. We scootered around almost the entire island, stopping at a beautiful beach, going through lavender fields, trying my first octopus salad, and wrapping it all up by chasing the sunset until we found an amazing viewpoint overlooking the ocean and the island. It was just a great spontaneous day!
  3. Late night river swim in Kruger Park – I was with my best friend, Rachel, who came all the way to meet me in South Africa (because her dream had always been to dive with the sharks) and we planned a long weekend trip to Kruger Park. That in itself was absolutely amazing but that’s not what this story is about. We had been in Cape Town for a little over a week and hadn’t done much because at this point we hadn’t met anyone and were always home before sunset as we were instructed to stay safe. So, when we were able to drink with a bunch of cool people at our campsite we were quite excited! We asked the guy who works at the camp site (yes, we camped, we could hear lions rawr-ing and it was terrifyingly amazing!) if anyone was allowed to swim in the river behind our camp. He immediately said no but it didn’t take long for us to convince him that if he didn’t take us, we would just go on our own and we would be much safer with a local expert. So, he took us to the river. There were only a select few of us who were brave enough to go in the water, or maybe dumb enough is the more appropriate term. We didn’t go in too deep and were only in for a few minutes when he quickly rushed us out. Later we asked him why and he told us he saw bubbles in the water nearby and that there had been a nine-foot python that had been swimming in the area the past few days…. End of story. We made it out alive and thank god I didn’t know that while I was in the water!!

Why do you love traveling?
My philosophy in life has always been “Wouldn’t you rather regret something you did than something you didn’t do?” and I think by living in a safe community where I feel comfortable, I don’t always have the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone. Traveling gives me the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone in so many ways. I love meeting new people and trying new things which is so easy to do when you’re not at home. I also cannot believe how much I learned during the six months of traveling compared to six months at work. I learned so much about myself, about different cultures, about foods, about religion, the list could go on and on! I’m also very anti-winter which seems funny considering I live in Toronto, a city in which the temperature can fluctuate from 95° to 5° (give or take) throughout the year, so it’s nice to escape to warmer climates sometimes.

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Camel trip through the desert in Dubai

All photos by Alex Koenig
Interview conducted by Evy Bround

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