Our trip has not been all sunshine and rainbows. We get lost, have misunderstandings, miss our transport connections, or waste time. Sometimes the weather is bad, the AC is broken, or the wi-fi connection is out. At times, we forget things in hostels, have trouble finding good places to eat, or can’t figure out how to open the rental car’s gas tank and it’s due back 30 minutes ago. Here are some of our worst travel experiences:

  • In Cambodia, we decided to travel by boat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. The trip is up the Tonle Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong, and we thought it sounded very romantic. When we booked tickets (at US$35 each,) we were told we were lucky, because the day we were traveling just happened to be the last day the boat was running until next season. During the dry season, the water level gets too low and the boat doesn’t run. I tell you what: the water level was already WAY too low. The large boat couldn’t travel far enough upstream, so we had to take a tiny boat to a smaller boat to the large boat. The trip, which was supposed to take five hours, took ten. We had no food besides a few raisins, and none was available for sale. The smaller boat didn’t have enough seats for everyone, and don’t even ask about lifejackets. Almost all the other passengers were German, and they had brought beer, which they started drinking heartily at 9 a.m. It was a rowdy ride.

While on the boat, I read my dad’s Cambodia guidebook. It recommended taking the bus instead of the boat, as the road between Siem Reap and the capital has recently been improved and the fare for the five-hour ride is only $6. Ugh.

Cambodian boat ride

But at least the scenery was nice.

  • In Lijiang, China, we returned late from hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Chinese restaurants tend to close early, so after putting our bags in the hotel room, we scurried out to look for a bite to eat. We’d been in Lijiang a few days before, so we had seen some places we wanted to try, but they were all closing up. Even the street vendors had gone home. In desperation, we went in a restaurant that happened to have an English menu. Everything was more expensive than we were used to, so I chose the cheapest chicken dish there was: chicken Jane. It was less than half the price of the others, which should have clued me in. When it arrived, it looked nothing like chicken. It tasted nothing like chicken. The texture was of rubbery mushroom caps—it was like chewing a ribbed balloon. We had no idea what part of the chicken it was. It was stir-fried with green onions, so I picked out those and ate them with white rice.

About a month later, we were on a train with a Scottish couple who had also been traveling through China. They described eating something very similar. “And did you find out what part of the chicken it was?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” they said. “It was chicken ovaries.”

  • From Yangon, Myanmar to the ruins of Bagan, the only way to travel is by bus or plane. Naturally, we opted for the cheaper (and probably safer) option: the overnight bus. The road to Bagan is paved all the way, but it was so bumpy it was like riding on a rumble strip for 10 hours. The driver had cranked up the AC as high as possible, and of course our jackets were in our backpacks, stowed under the bus, so we huddled together for warmth. To make matters worse, he never turned off the interior lights, so it was bright as day inside. Once or twice we made pit stops, and when the engine was off, the bus was quiet, still, warm, and dark; that was the only time we could get to sleep. At about 4:30 a.m. we made another pit stop. We happily curled up on our seats while everyone else filed off. Five minutes later, the driver came to get us. “Nyaung U,” he said. “No,” we said, “we’re sleeping,” and closed our eyes again. He tapped one of us and told us the name of the town again. We willfully ignored him. Another man boarded the bus and also told us we had to disembark. Grumpily, I asked why. “We’re here,” he said. “Get off.”

Thanks to that bus ride, our first day at the beautiful ancient ruins of Bagan was spent catching up on lost sleep.

  • Driving in Melbourne is one of the worst things one can ever do. There’s the normal city craziness, like one-way streets and hellish traffic, but Melbourne’s main streets have a weird system of putting medians between lanes that are traveling in the same direction. So, for example, a four-lane road will have with three medians across it. If you’re on the far side, you can only go straight or turn left. If you’re closer to the center, you can only go straight or turn right. God help you if you realize you’re in the far lane but need to turn right.

These streets are impossible to avoid, because the fastest way into town is to take the toll road, but the tollbooths don’t accept cash, only prepaid electronic cards like SmarTrip, and cars that attempt to pass the tollbooth without one will be fined hundreds of dollars. So tourists are pretty much screwed. In two months in Australia we never did figure out where to buy one of those cards.

And if you arrive in Melbourne on the first night of Sexpo, and the convention center is right across the street from your hostel, I repeat: God help you.

Unhappy campers
  • In Bordeaux, France, we had planned to couchsurf the entire time, two nights each with two different hosts. However, by the day of our arrival, our first host hadn’t gotten back to us. We were getting in on a Sunday night, when *everything* in France is closed, so we booked a hotel and emailed to let them know that we were getting in late. We never got a response, and on arrival, found that there was no one at reception and that the door was locked. Luckily, after a few minutes of waiting, another guest came out, so we could get into the lobby. There was an emergency telephone with a contact number posted next to it, which we tried to use, but (of course) it wasn’t free, nor did it accept coins. We needed a French phone card, which is (of course) impossible to buy at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Plus, we didn’t even know how to dial the number. We tried several variations, accidentally called the police, and gave up. We were seriously going to sleep in the lobby, and had already moved our backpacks over to a nice cozy corner when another guest came through, saw us waiting, spoke a little English, and had a cellphone. She was our savior.

Did we get any apologies from the staff? Hardly: in the morning, when we checked out, they tried to charge us the full rate for the room.

Whenever we have one of these days, we say to each other:

“Today was difficult. Tomorrow will be better.” –Mr. S, Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, by Kevin Henkes


Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad


In Sydney, we stayed in a six-bed dorm room with another American and two Germans, which prompted one of the Germans to declare, “I’ve never seen so many Americans in one room.” In Indonesia, the only other Americans I met in three weeks were a couple on vacation in Bali. It’s true. Not many Americans travel abroad.

That story, by CNN, lays out four main reasons Americans don’t travel: not enough time off work, the high price, our own cultural and geographic diversity, and our fear and/or misconceptions about the world beyond our borders. It’s true that we don’t get as much time off work as citizens of many European countries, for example. And taking “gap years” is generally not done. (That’s a topic for another post.) Our geography is extremely diverse; whereas a Singaporean wanting to go skiing over the winter holidays has no choice but to leave the country, we can just fly to Colorado. And yes, it’s expensive to cross the Atlantic or Pacific (although low-cost carriers are trying to break into the Pacific market, so watch that one.)

In my opinion, our cultural diversity probably leads more people to travel, not fewer. Let’s be honest: most of us hang out with people who look pretty much like ourselves. This prevents most of us from truly learning about another culture. And even if you do have lots of friends from many different backgrounds, it’s probably impossible to have friends from everywhere in the world. In the article, one guy mentions that since he lives in LA, he can visit one of many ethnic neighborhoods for a cultural experience. He theorizes that for some people, that may be a substitute for travel. I disagree. While residents of many cities can visit their local Chinatown or eat at a Spanish or Thai restaurant, I don’t think anybody comes away from that experience thinking “Okay, I don’t have to go to China/ Spain/ Thailand now,” unless it was a bad experience! Usually those are the kind of experiences that pique one’s interest- trying a new cuisine, witnessing a festival, making friends with someone who was born in foreign country. My trip to Thailand five years ago can be directly attributed, in part, to the fact that I had tried and enjoyed Thai food in Virginia. Being able to try things out at home before traveling abroad is a great resource we Americans have.

I think that the number one obstacle to international travel is fear, skepticism, misconceptions, ignorance- whatever you want to call it. It’s in our own heads. We’re afraid that we’ll be misunderstood, ripped off, mugged, or worse. We don’t want to get hurt or sick. We’re skeptical of the benefits of international travel, or we’ve heard that the locals don’t like Americans. And we’re ignorant of countries and cultures themselves- we’re just not very internationalized, compared to most people I’ve met overseas. It’s partially a media problem. While the Japanese watch Desperate Housewives and the Indonesian high school girls I met absolutely adore Twilight, the converse doesn’t happen to us: we don’t get very many foreign movies and TV shows, and the news on foreign countries tends to be much less than favorable. This leads us to think destinations are dangerous or scary, without ever having seen the human side. It’s partially a school curriculum problem- we don’t emphasize foreign language learning or classes on comparative cultures. And it’s a self-perpetuating problem: if my friends and family didn’t travel, it would be very hard for me to go against the grain and go abroad. Unfortunately for us, we are rather isolated geographically, but that’s no reason to put up barriers in our own minds.

Luckily, there’s a cure, even if you don’t currently have the time or money to travel abroad (or think you don’t.) Take all your vacation days- you earned them, and plenty of studies show that taking time off boosts productivity. If it’s just a money issue, try looking at other destinations. In the comments section for that article, lots of people complained about the high cost of European vacations. Central and South America and much of Asia are very good value- it’s much cheaper here in Asia than staying home. If you find yourself thinking that travel outside the US (especially in countries less developed than the US) is too scary, think again. Most places, in fact everywhere I’ve ever been, are not as bad as most people think. Jakarta and Manila have a fairly dangerous, slummy image in the American media, but both are developed, world-class cities with air-conditioned shopping malls and English newspapers, and most residents do not live in slums. You’re probably just as likely to get hurt or sick as you are at home, and a lot less likely to get mugged than in most American cities. And actually, most people do like Americans. Many don’t like our government constantly meddling in their business- but people are very good at separating the American public and the government, and don’t blame us for their actions.

The cure is knowledge. Read, read, read- but try something other than the news once in a while. Blogs and novels offer different viewpoints. Embrace the cultural diversity we have on our own soil. Educate yourself. Even if the number of Americans with passports remains low, we don’t have to be so misguided when it comes to foreign travel.