An Interview : Nomad – The Tiny Wanderer

written by Carolyn Chon January 15, 2015

It was about 8-9 years ago when I first met Ying, otherwise known as her moniker – Piccola or now going by name of The Tiny Wanderer. I still remember it was back in my heyday of CouchSurfing when we first met. We’ve maintained our occasional friendship throughout the years, I call it an occasional friendship because I hardly ever see this girl! I was lucky enough though, that when I got married she was actually in town! Ying has been a friend who has been living the life I secretly want to live, but probably too chicken to actually follow suit. So, I thought to myself that surely, there are many people out there who are aspiring full-time nomads and they need to hear from someone, someone small and seemingly unlikely to take on the world. Oh! And someone who has even made it onto Buzzfeed!

* Please take note that this will be a long read, even Ying said she felt exhausted answering the questions. Ha! So, I apologize in advance but I would like to think that it will be worth your time.


The Interview

1. We all know that in these times, travel is becoming more and more accessible, with various and affordable means of transportation as well as accommodations. Can you briefly share with us, how did it all start for you? When did the bug really take a big bite off you?

Y : I could attribute the beginnings of my wanderlust to a series of catalysts but firstly, it truly started off with the death of my mother. Death, I’d experienced, was a great teacher. It reminds you, almost mockingly, that everyone is stamped with an expiration date. It takes everything you know and every value and belief that you have so blindly clung on to, and chucks it out of the window. All those opinions, ideas and things make no difference when you come to the finishing line.

Grief, I was left with, but after grief, came an overwhelming sense of urgency. The urgency to start living. Then, I met an Australian meditation teacher whom had travelled vastly, before he turned to living a life of simplicity. His travels had taught him about the nature of the universe and humanity. As he shared his experiences with us, in his calm yet commanding presence, I couldn’t help but wonder, if only I could be like him too! He spoke a lot about Myanmar as he’d spent most of his youth, training as a Buddhist monk there. Lured by his stories, I found a school in Myanmar to volunteer as an English teacher. That was the first country that I backpacked to–solo–besides Thailand. In 2006, AirAsia didn’t exist. The only way to get to Myanmar was to fly Bangkok Airways from Bangkok. After spending more than a month in Myanmar, I’d decided the life of travel is possible and surely there is a way to sustain it. That was then I discovered Hospitality Club and then CouchSurfing. Travel information were scarce then but CS allowed me to explore the world further without a dime on accommodation.

Strolling along the tracks in Hsipaw Station, Myanmar.

Strolling along the tracks in Hsipaw Station, Myanmar.


2. You’ve traveled to over 60 countries! A big feat for any (stereotyped) Asian! Please share with us (stereotyped or not) your secret.

Y : Fortunately, the real secret is, if I could do it, you could too. I made a conscious decision to live like a vagrant. I lived frugally when I was working. I never get caught up with material things or statuses. I dedicated my life to making travel happen. It was by sheer tenacity, a little bit of luck and a lot of knocking on doors that got me to where I am now. So you could say, you must really want to make it happen. Long term traveling is about hard work, patience and plenty of sacrifices. I gave up a home, an ex-boyfriend and comfort to become a nomad. I gave value to freedom instead of things or ‘events in life’ that would label you a success. In the eyes of my conventional Chinese dad, I’m not successful in any way. But this is a choice I have made and I accept the consequences that come with it. On a more practical note, apart from determination, I knew from the very start that I’d need some money to travel. No, you don’t need too much to start off with but you do need some to sustain years and years on the road. I knew that earning Malaysian Ringgit would get me to nowhere so I researched hard and found a connection who introduced me to working as an English Trainer on an Italian Cruise Ship. Naturally, the path to this discover was a long and tough one. I left home without having this certainty that I’d eventually find this well-paying job that could sustain my life on the road. So, I took the leap of faith. Thankfully, when I was in Amsterdam, broke and looking for a way out, the cruise ship company –who’d initially rejected my application–wrote to me and asked if I was available. Apparently, they had a vacancy for someone with my skills. With that, and Working Holiday Visas for the UK and Australia, I managed to continue my pursuit of vagabonding.


3. Having to keep going, starting new conversations and also perhaps retelling your story over and over to new travelers, does it not get tiring as a nomad?

Y : It sure does. It got tiring after 6 months, I think! 🙂 These days, I like my privacy. It’s OK for me to be on my own and explore cities solo. I tend not to stay in hostels, if I can help it. I also tend to be picky with the kind of travelers that I’d hang out with.  

Ying soaking up the views of Hsipaw, Myanmar on a little cycling trip.

Ying soaking up the views of Hsipaw, Myanmar on a little cycling trip.

 4. Can you share with us your most horrible experience you’ve encountered in your times of travel. What were you thinking after that experience and were you dying to get out of it?

Y : I must say that it’d happened recently. I used to be able to journey on long-haul busses without worrying about comfort and time. However, this 19-hr bus ride from Dawei to Yangon changed my mind. It was so uncomfortable that I felt physically sick and wished for the ordeal to be over. I also told myself that I’d do anything but to take busses like this again. I felt almost traumatised. Not to mention that the toilet stops only offered 2 options: you pee in the dark with large hairy spiders and cobwebs or join the men, on the side of the road.


5. If you were to name us one or two of your favorite travelers whom you’ve become friends with, who would they be and why are they your favorite?

Y : I’d say they are Noel Lau and Zaed Aznam. They are two equally crazy Malaysians who totally get what I’m doing while being travellers themselves. Zaed was my first partner-in-crime, someone whom I’d travelled with when I first started out. When I first met him, he’d told me about how he travelled Europe with almost nothing. He’d hitch-hike, get donations from a mosque and worked his way around despite not knowing the language or anyone else. Anyone this crazy surely earned my friendship! Then, there’s Noel from Miri, whom was introduced by a mutual American friend, Nithin. Nithin put me in contact with Noel after I told him that I’d wander indefinitely. Noel’s story and mine, share similar starting points except he was 30 years old when he’d started out and now, he’s 41 and still out there (currently in Colombia!).


6. Has there been anything that you have done that you otherwise would have never even dreamed about doing, had it not been for traveling?

Y :  I guess I’d have not known how to approach strangers or make friends within a few minutes of meeting them. It’s a rather valuable skill, to be able to turn any situation into a friendly one. We’re always advised to not talk to strangers but seems like talking to strangers is the way to go when you travel!


Joining in on some cosplay action in Cologne, Germany.

Joining in on some cosplay, or was it Halloween action in Cologne, Germany.


7. Solo-female travelers are on the rise these days and there are definitely safe countries and places out there, as well as the dangerous ones. Where would you recommend our female readers to try checking out if they are planning for a solo trip?

Y : I’m not a big fan of telling females where to go, just because I’ve ‘felt safe’ in those places. I’d say every place is both safe and not safe. I’ve spent ungodly hours in Pudu Bus Terminals in KL and yet, was not robbed, harassed or raped yet my own dad says that KL is not safe! While in Cambodia, everyone tells you it’s safe, yet my travel buddy and I found it dangerous–especially at the border town. It was so dodgy that we were surprised that we got to Siam Reap at midnight, in one piece. But what we went through, was a harrowing experience. So I’d say, go anywhere you want as long as you pack some street wisdom with you. Don’t wander into deserted alleys on your own after sundown, keep your valuables with you (generally safer than leaving a wad of cash in the hotel), and stay mindful of your surroundings. It’s okay to talk to strangers and sometimes it’s even okay to have a cup with them, but perhaps in a more public place.


8. What are one of the more important lessons that you’ve learned while traveling?

Y : I’ve learned that sometimes, you need to take a leap of faith. There are no safety net anywhere but once you jump, you’ll see the endless possibilities that are stretched out in front of you. But first, you must jump.


Ying gets toned abs while trying to a good shot of the Transfăgărășan in Romania.

Ying gets toned abs while trying to a good shot of the Transfăgărășan in Romania.


9. Can you share with us your top five challenges you face when you’re on your travels, be it long or short ones.

1) Time. There’s never enough time!
2) Weight of my belongings. I tend to keep it under 6 kgs and yet I hate lugging my backpack around.
3) Not knowing the local language. Yes, there’s only so much you can mime and understand through body language. To get around isn’t difficult when you don’t know the language, but it can be hard if you really want to have a deeper understanding of the place.
4) Passport. Hate being questioned when I have a one-way ticket or the amount of hassle we’ve to go through to get stuff like Working Holiday visas. Why can’t we do a quick 5-minute online application and get it right after? 
5) Finances. You always have to watch it so that it doesn’t vanish so quickly.

10. Packing. After years of traveling and over 60 countries covered, have you mastered the art of packing?

Y : I believe I have. Lately, I’ve been keeping it under 6kg, for shorter trips like from a few weeks to 1.5 months, and 8-10 kg for longer trips, where temperature and seasons can be inconsistent. When it’s under 6kg, I get to save money and time by not checking in my luggage. Having said that, there are a few essentials that I’d never go without: a hairdryer, a bunch of toiletries including hair conditioner and face moisturiser, and my kindle. I even stopped taking towels because most guesthouses (and hostels) provide them.


Ying's life on a cruise ship.

Ying’s life on a cruise ship.


11. If you could pick any destination and any living or dead person to travel somewhere with, where and who would it be with and of course, why?

Y : I’d like to travel to Europe with my mum. She was the one who’d put all these silly ideas into my head by buying me tonnes of story books, especially those by Enid Blyton. I’d like to show her the castles, the forests, the lakes. I’d like her to experience high-tea in England, because those characters in the books so often have tea parties! I think she’d be a great travel buddy, even if she was more wise than adventurous.


12. What are your destination plans for 2015?

Y : Hard to say. I usually don’t plan things so far ahead. But I can tell you that my boyfriend and I will be going to Prague next weekend. Also, I have a free return flight ticket to anywhere in Europe (Christmas present courtesy of my bf). I’d really like to go to Raja Ampat but seems like I’d have to postpone the trip to next year instead.


13. What book would you recommend an aspiring full-time traveler to pick up?

Y : Plenty, but I’d say, start with Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. It was my bible (though I never owned it) when I first started out as a nomad. The book confirmed my beliefs that long-term travelling was possible, even for Malaysians. 🙂


14. Your website, The Tiny Wanderer has been something in the making for a while now. Do you promise to keep a constant update this time for your readers?

Y : For sure. That’s a promise. Now, I know I’ve broken many promises before but not this time. Not after all the effort I’ve taken to set up the website!


Ying in Pamukkale, Turkey.

Ying in Pamukkale, Turkey.


15. Last but not least, if you woke up and suddenly found yourself butt naked (i know, a bizzare question), where in the world would you want to be waking up naked in?

Y : The Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. It’s a geothermal spa in Iceland, and it’s definitely pleasant to wake up, butt-naked in its mineral-rich water. 


Like a bawse in Iceland!

Like a bawse in Iceland!


Thanks for making it all the way to the end of the post! Ying is now currently in Germany shivering in the cold. Remember to read and follow her adventures on The Tiny Wanderer!

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