Hi Abdul! Tell us about yourself and your family.
I am 39 years old and have a passion for traveling and understanding the cultural lifestyle of people around the world. My wife, Siti shares a similar ideology. She dreamt of backpacking around Europe during her single days but didn’t get around to do it. We have 2 daughters Hana and Huda, aged 4 and 3.
So we heard you decided to pack it all up and travel with your family. What inspired you to do so?
We had a family holiday to Xi’an planned in December last year, and we were going to travel around China for a few weeks. Siti just left her job and wanted a break to be a stay-at-home mum for the next 6 months or so, and I was considering taking a month off from work.
I watched a documentary about a Malaysian nomad, travelling around the world on his bicycle in harsh conditions, and it triggered me to embark on our adventure. I was very much inspired by his dedication and sincerity in his Youtube videos.
It was that mental geographical map in my head that initiated this adventure, having done several backpacking trips many years ago after NS in Indonesia and Thailand. A few days before our China trip, I told Siti about my idea to travel from China through Europe, into Africa and back into Europe with our last stop being Istanbul, Turkey before heading home. I was targeting about 20 countries in total. I had no idea how long it was going to take, but I estimated it would not exceed 3 months. Siti was sceptical about the whole idea at first! She couldn’t see how we would travel to so many countries with our young children. She told me that she had only packed our luggage for China and was not mentally prepared for our backpacking trip. We “wrestled” with my idea for a day and thankfully, she finally relented with the condition that we’ll talk over what happens after 10 countries. After travelling to our 10th country (France), we were so pumped up and kept looking forward to our next destination. We ended up completing the geographical loop I had in mind.
What did you and your wife work as prior to your travels? How did you manage to get away for such an extended period of time?
My wife was a Paralegal and I am running a freight forwarding company, and I have a friend managing the company while I am away. We decided to take a full year off, as our children are still in pre-school and not yet tied down to school. So we are definitely taking full advantage of this year gap. We filmed our travels and plan to let our girls watch it as a remembrance of our little family adventure. Hopefully, our girls might be inspired to do what we did, or better.
How long were you away for?
3 months and 7 days.
Where did you go?
We ended up in 22 countries and 41 cities in 95 days.
We only got on the plane twice to cover these 41 cities. We mostly took the land and sea routes. In a way we took the “road less travelled”. It was hard to imagine how our very active kids went through the path that we went without flying but we did. That itself was one of our greatest achievements throughout the entire trip.
Can you share your experience of how you budgeted for a trip that long for a family of 4?
We set aside about S$28,000 and we planned to go home upon exhausting the funds in 20 countries or try to stretch a little bit more cities if possible. Honestly, we didn’t really skimp on accommodations – we stayed in moderate-range establishments due to safety reasons and privacy. We narrowed down our options based on reviews and stayed mostly in AirBnbs. Staying in an AirBnb was a great way to meet locals. All the hosts we met were superhosts; they were friendly and very helpful. Some drove us to trains station, brought us around for sightseeing, inviting us for family meals and even helped out with our laundry. We are so grateful for all their help.
Some parts of the journey, like Abisko, Sweden was quite costly as it was peak season for catching the Northern Lights, but it was well worth it.
Not boarding the plane regularly also helped in our expenditure. Our journey was covered by buses, trains, ferries, vans or cars as it was much more economical than flying. The journeys took longer and were physically challenging at times, but it was well compensated by the views. We thoroughly enjoyed the sights and experience of land travel.
As for food, we usually dined out only once a day. We prepared our own breakfast and lunched out while exploring the city, then we would return in the evening to cook our own dinner. We would buy groceries from the local supermarkets and this helped us with our budgeting. Dining “at home” also gave us and the children more time to rest.
Was it difficult traveling with kids that young?
When we first told out family about our backpacking plan, they were so worried about how we were going to cope with our luggage (we were carrying two 80-litres backpacks, one 50-litres bag and a 40kg suitcase) and at the same time handling our active girls whom are prone to running in 2 different directions at the same time. To ease their worries, we bought 2 hand straps from Mothercare which have proved to be one of most useful accessories we brought with us! We each strapped one kid to our persons and we didn’t have to worry about losing them in a crowd, or them darting off. We did get weird stares from some people but there were parents who actually asked where they could purchase similar straps!
Another useful accessory was a travelling stroller which was light and compact. Our younger daughter, Huda can’t walk as much as her older sister so she mostly sat in the stroller. The stroller was also very useful when one the girls needed to take a nap.
One of the biggest challenges travelling with young children is having to be present most of the time. The only time we had quiet time was when they were napping or sleeping. Other than that most of time they looked to us to entertain them. We bought along books, small toys and an iPad. We downloaded a offline app called KidloLand, which is advertisement free and filled with kids’ activities. We also relied on a lot of snacks as the kids got hungry frequently during the cold weather. We are lucky to be able to indulge more candies and chocolates as it was winter season, and they helped us to keep warm.
As our journey progressed, the smoother the entire process became. We became “street smarter” and the kids began to anticipate the next destination with more understanding and interest as we would explain to them the highlights of those places and the mode of transport we would take (ferry rides are an added bonus as there were always new friends to meet in the play area). We also noticed they became more communicative towards people, always coming up with a short intro of where we are from etc. They became more conversational than before!
What are some memorable moments that happened during your travels?
We were temporarily detained by immigration in Helsinki, Finland and almost not permitted to enter the country. We arrived from China and didn’t have Euro on hand as my plan was to withdraw cash once I entered Finland (it would not make sense to do a currency exchange for Euros in China with Chinese RMB). We also had no exit bookings out of Finland. Thus, we had to sit through an hour of questioning and the authorities went through our bank and credit card balances. They wanted to know what our purpose of entering Europe was; did we have sufficient amount of cash or were we just going to add on to Europe’s current dilemma of “immigration crisis”. Eventually the officer escorted me to the nearest ATM and I withdrew Euros in front of him. He eventually shook my hand and explained this was just protocol and we were free to go.
There was a funny incident at Zagora desert, Morocco (Western Sahara) where we stayed overnight. Hana, our eldest daughter, called out to the chief Bedouin, who incidentally, was the meanest-looking and the most blunt of the entire bunch. She saw a bonfire and said to him, “Excuse me! Come here please. Do you have marshmallows?” He was taken aback with her question and there was a look of bewilderment written on his face! He looked at four of us and gave the politest “no” I have witnessed during our entire stay there. Siti and I suppressed our laughter until we reached our tents.
What did you enjoy most about your adventure?
Definitely the people we’ve met. You go into social media these days and it is all doom and gloom with atrocities happening all over the world. Just when you think it is unsafe everywhere, you discover that there is still hope in mankind and there are still much kindness left in the world. We have met countless nice people during our travels. There was always someone who’s more than willing to lend us a helping hand. I think it has made us better human beings, because we became instilled with the purpose of always paying it forward even more after our journey. We were blessed with safety throughout of trip.
Do you have any tips or hacks you can share with our readers who might be considering long trips like you?
Do as much research as you can, especially on the current civil state of affairs of a country. It is much easier now than 20 years ago with the abundance of information on the Internet. Do not book your next destination too far in advance and take it a city at a time and not rush through your itinerary. Take time to explore smaller towns as there are always certain pleasantries about it.
We downloaded Google offline map and found it most useful. We discovered offline maps only halfway through our journey! It was so much easier to navigate with the app and we didn’t have to ask for directions too many times. Our friends and family were very surprised when we told them that we relied on public WiFi and our accommodation’s WiFi throughout the entire trip – we did not buy a single SIM card! We are in a day and age where it is possible! It is easy to find public WiFI in Europe. Not having to buy SIM cards also means additional costs saved.
Another app that is useful is Google Translate. As most of the countries we went to have a native language that is not English, Google Translate is a life saver during mid-conversation, or when you are trying to figure out how to use a foreign washing machine.
Finally, what do you have planned next?
We would love to do the Trans Mongolian Rail from Beijing to Moscow which we couldn’t do the last time round. East Nusa Tenggara, in the southernmost province of Indonesia is also a region which would be amazing to explore. Ideally though, we would probably do the 13 states of Malaysia by road in the next couple of months or so. That would be most practical for us as it is much nearer to home and we’ll get to catch up on the local delicacies we missed for over 3 months.
Traveler’s Log is a new submission-based series curated by Unusual Expedition Pte Ltd. This series features travel stories and adventures from our readers and expeditors from around the world, and we hope to inspire you to pack your bags and just go!
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