Blogger Times: Interview with James of Plus Ultra
My last blogger times, I posted an introductory post about James of Plus Ultra, a travel blogger. So here it is:
1. As a travel blogger, why did you decide to create your website?
I was in my last year of university, doing my undergrad, when I decided to spend nine months studying in Spain after graduation. So I started the blog as a way to record my experiences of travelling around the country. That’s how I got the name Plus Ultra, which is Latin for ‘further beyond’. It was adopted as the Spanish national motto back in the 16th century, and remains in place even today.
2. Where is your hometown?
That’s a difficult question. I’m a Canadian citizen who’s spent pretty much all of my life abroad. For most people their hometown is their place of birth, which in my case would be Singapore. But I consider it Hong Kong because that’s where my parents are from, where I grew up and also the place I’ve lived the longest.
3. Where was your first trip?
My first trip abroad? That would be Canada, to visit the relatives on my dad’s side. A lot of them live in Toronto, Ontario and we used to go regularly each summer.
4. Where do you start when choosing your travel destination?
Well the first thing I have to think about is how much time I have. If it’s only a few days to a week then I’d rather not travel too far by air. I’m very lucky to be based in Hong Kong because it means I have most of Asia at my doorstep. Japan and Indonesia are just four hours away; Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are even closer. It’s the same for the Philippines and Taiwan.
5. Who are you travelling with?
I travel with my best friend, Bama, who also happens to be a travel blogger. We met via our respective websites and I showed him around Hong Kong when he first went in January 2012. Bama and I hit it off immediately – we shared the same interests, the same travel style, and it wasn’t long before we started planning trips together around Asia. The first one was just under a week in Laos and we’ve never looked back since.
6. What kind of trip do you have in mind right now?
I’m focused on the six-month trip Bama and I are doing at the moment. We are retracing the historic Spice Route between India and Indonesia, taking in Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Neither of us have travelled for this long before, and it’s been a big challenge in a number of ways.
7. What website do you find for your travel deals?
If you want to get around Asia quickly and cheaply, look up http://www.airasia.com. AirAsia is a fantastic low-cost carrier and they fly to so many places in the region. The key is to book a long time in advance – even a year ahead if you can. Every now and again they will have promos with flights at knockdown prices. Booking through these promos saved Bama and I a lot of money.
8. What is your carry-on bag? What is on your carry-on bag must have/s?
It varies depending on the length of the trip. I have a couple of backpacks, but the main concern is to carry one that can fit my camera equipment. For trips of two weeks or more I’d also want space to stash my laptop and an external hard drive, just in case.
9. What kind of camera do you use?
I have a trusty Nikon D5100, and it’s been a valuable companion on my travels since late 2011.
10. Your tips on choosing the most affordable hotel/s?
Know your basic requirements. Ask yourself whether you need a private bathroom, air conditioning, things like that. Walk-in room rates are generally more expensive than those advertised online, so I usually reserve mine several weeks or a month in advance via Booking.com.
11. What is your preferred method of transport: (Air/Cruise/Bicycle/Walk/Car/Train)
Well, each one has its pros and cons. Travelling by air gets you there much quicker, but then you miss out on the joys of overland travel. There is something romantic about going somewhere by train and you can see why Paul Theroux used it as a common thread in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’. I love walking around a new place to soak up the sights, sounds and smells, but I also relish the sense of freedom you get on a road trip.
12. What is your favorite destination?
If you’re talking about a specific country, it has to be Indonesia. I love tropical islands, volcanoes, ancient sites, traditional cultures and great food. Indonesia has all that and more. A lot of people don’t understand just how diverse and massive it is – you have something like 350 ethnic groups speaking 700 languages in a country that spans the distance from London to Tehran or Seattle to Orlando. You know, it’s wider than the continental United States. So you don’t just visit Indonesia once; it’s a country you can go to again and again. I’ve been there 10 times and I never got bored.
13. Your top five tourist destinations? (visited or not)
I have a very long wish list, but Easter Island would be in the top five – I’ve wanted to go there ever since I was a kid. Tikal in Guatemala would be another for its Mayan pyramids. Iceland is up there too because of the magnificent scenery… to imagine a volcano erupting in the snow just blows me away. I’ve never been to Egypt either, and I would love cruising down the Nile and visiting all those temples and tombs. Then I’d also pick Iran. It has so much heritage and culture but the country is very misunderstood.
14. What is on your to do list when you arrive at your destination?
Answer/s: It depends on how I feel when I get there. If I’ve come from a long journey the most important thing is to rest, because being exhausted and getting sick on the road is not something you want to happen. Of course each destination is different so I can’t really generalise – sometimes you head right away to the local landmarks and historic sites, other times you’ll just want to kick back and relax.
15. Best meal you’ve eaten anywhere?
Answer/s: It’s really hard to choose just one. There have been so many memorable meals I’ve had over the past five years. But on this current trip I’ve realised that the best food is often home-cooked – we loved taking a Nyonya cooking class in Penang (Malaysia) and I’ll never forget the dinners we had at the homestay in Kandy, Sri Lanka. We also got to stay with Bama’s parents for 10 days in July and his mother made this incredible Javanese chicken curry called opor ayam. It didn’t just look great; I was blown away by its rich flavour and the blend of classic Indonesian spices.
16. Do you have any irrational fears that your travels have helped you overcome?
I grew up in a household that is almost obsessively clean. So that meant an underlying fear of places that look unhygienic. Travelling has taught me to worry less about this – now I am perfectly OK eating at street-side stalls and swatting flies to keep them away from food.
Another one is Islamophobia. When you don’t have any Muslim friends in school or the workplace, and the media constantly bombards you with shocking news about extremists and suicide bombings, you don’t realise that the vast majority of Muslims are normal people just like everyone else. I think it all stems from the fear of something or someone you don’t know. I’ve done quite a bit of travelling around Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And I’ve found that the people there are some of the kindest and friendliest you’ll ever meet.
17. Most creative thing you’ve ever done to save money during your travels?
Um, I would say sleeping overnight in an airport terminal. That’s not very creative because a lot of budget travellers do that, but I can’t think of anything else in particular.
18. I always bring home….
Photos. Lots and lots of them. I do bring a few souvenirs for family members from time to time, but not always. That depends on how much space I have in my backpack.
19. I travel because….
Travel is education. It opens your eyes to so many new things, new perspectives and ways of thinking. We all get used to living in a comfortable bubble but travel forces us out of that. You get to meet a lot of interesting people along the way, you learn from their lives and experiences, and that helps to put things in perspective. When you get home, you’re not the same person you were when you left. Travel really does change you for the better – I’ve become more open-minded, flexible and accepting because of it.
20. What are your travel philosophies and future plans, and anything else that readers may find interesting to read about.
Travel isn’t just about how much you can get out of it, but also how much you can give. And it doesn’t only mean volunteering for a noble cause. Bama and I had long been planning to visit Nepal at the end of our six-month trip. With the huge earthquake back in April, the recent violence over the new constitution and India’s unofficial fuel blockade, a lot of people would be tempted to cancel and go somewhere else. But we are still going. So much of the country’s economy depends on tourism, and Nepal really needs all the visitors it can get. It’s empowering to know that we can make thoughtful decisions about where we spend our tourist dollars.
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P.S. Just want to say thank you James for your time, I hope you learn tips from James as much as I do. Please spread some love ❤
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