Our Go! Girl of the week is the wonderful Becki, the traveler behind Backpacker Becki. Read on for her tips on volunteering abroad, what it’s like to travel in North Korea (Dennis Rodman isn’t the only one who’s been there!) and some of her favorite cities for ladies’ solo travel!
GGG: Hey, there! Welcome to Girls That Go–what’s your name, where are you from and how did you get your start traveling?
Hi there. I’m Becki of BackpackerBecki.com and I’m from the UK. I first started travelling when I had the opportunity to visit Europe and Russia on two separate school trips as a teenager – to learn about Third Reich and Russian cold war history. I never travelled abroad with my parents and spent most of my holidays during my early adult years on short beach holidays. But I always had the itch to explore more and be more adventurous, alongside wrestling with a huge childhood desire to visit Asia, which I finally made it happen at the age of 24 with a trip to Vietnam.
I started my website around six months before I left to go travelling long-term – a trip I saved 18 months for. What was supposed to be nearly a two-year trip around the world, ended up being 15 months in central, eastern and southeast Asia – a region of the world that has become my expertise and my passion. But I’m taking off again soon in a few months to continue further across the globe.
GGG: You lived and worked for a while in Cambodia before doing that epic trip through Asia. What drew you to that region to settle in for a while, and would you live there again?
I first went to Cambodia four years ago on a short trip that took me to the main sights and I immediately feel in love with the country, the people and the stunning landscape. I always say it’s a place that breaks your heart at the same time as making you fall in love with it. It’s a tough place to travel at times, but when you have a deeper understanding of the complex issues and terrible history there it becomes easier. If you go there with no understanding or no desire to learn, since many problems still exist today, you will find it a hard place to traverse.
It was a country whose troubled past and difficult present hit my emotions hard and I left with an immediate desire to return and to help in whatever way I could. There are hundreds of NGO’s in the country, mainly in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and I knew that I had to include some time volunteering there as part of my long-term travels and set about researching where.
I worked for a fantastic charity called New Hope in Siem Reap, where I lived for over three months. I then travelled more around the country for one month, taking in areas of the far eastern corners of the country and the very north. I still have so much more to see and write about and my plan is to travel full-time for another year and look for a job in Siem Reap that combines travel communications/PR with development, and which also allows me to continue to write, travel and grow my current business.
GGG: Sort of speaking of volunteering/working…Can you tell us a bit more about those volunteering experiences you had? Would you recommend other travelers to check out those places as well?
I don’t think it’s as easy as saying to a fellow traveller, “You have to volunteer in x country.” In my opinion, volunteering isn’t just something you do for fun or to cross off the list, but something that you inherently feel the need to do. It’s a part of you and always stays with you. So much so that where you volunteer will most likely depend on someone or something you have seen or experienced first-hand, or, like me, where you return from a country with a huge desire to return.
Volunteering is tough, especially emotionally. I once had to leave work for four days because I needed space to reflect on an upsetting situation I had to deal with. I’ve seen too many people sadly not take what they are doing seriously, as if it’s just a casual extension of their holiday – hence the ‘voluntourism’ debate that you always hear about. In my opinion, that is the wrong attitude that needs to be curbed and which some charitable organisations need to monitor more and avoid. However, just that one experience can change a person’s life forever, so it’s a double-edged sword.
For me, it’s the most incredibly rewarding type of work I have ever undertaken in my entire life. I’ve met so many beautiful, strong-willed and special people who have given me so much perspective and happiness. It’s hard coming back to western life where people do not realise how lucky, stable and well off they actually are.
My tips on volunteering and how to research a worthy organization to work for can be found here.
GGG: You’ve done a lot of thrilling things on your travels (I mean, not everyone hikes to Everest Base Camp). Do you have any similarly physically–and mentally–demanding goals to accomplish in future travels?
Of course – I have an addiction to adventure and adrenaline and a fixation with climbing mountains, even though I couldn’t walk properly for four days after summiting Mount Kinabalu! I’d like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, hike the Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s route through Spain and complete the legendary Inca Trail, but maybe also try the El Choro Inca Trail from Bolivia. Then you have things like the European Tour du Mont Blanc and Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador. So the list never, ever, ends! I am open to trying anything, but the one thing I can’t train my mind to accept right now is bungee jumping. But…all in good time. I’m crazy!
GGG: Sounds like fun! So, you’ve written before about actions travelers take that have negative impacts on the communities in which they travel. What do you think is the best way for travelers to avoid being part of the problem and contributing positively, instead?
The best thing a traveller can do is to research as much as possible BEFORE entering the country. Look at the main issues that exist there and what organisations and campaigns have been set up to help solve the problem. Usually they offer the best advice, educate tourists on best practice and usually provide a comprehensive list of what local projects and community initiatives you can support instead.
When travelling and in doubt, ask the local people – they are always undoubtedly your best source of knowledge – as are expats. However, the number one rule is not to give to individuals, as this perpetuates the notion of begging and dependence, and to instead give to projects that help the community as a whole.
GGG: Good advice. You traveled to North Korea, which sounds like a pretty unique experience. Why did you want to go, and what are some lessons you learned from the experience?
I have always had a keen interest in history, politics and society and North Korea was always somewhere that fascinated me – especially how the world seems to just stand by and let a place like that exist. I had no idea you could travel there and remember going to a bookstore after work one day to browse through travel guides books and flicking through the South Korea Lonely Planet. There was a box-out about how to travel to North Korea and I immediately made it a part of my travel plans.
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to travel there. You know what is going on yet you are on a cleverly organized tour that makes you question a lot of your preconceived notions. It certainly messes with your mind. As much as many people say it’s wrong to travel there and that you are giving money to a military regime (even though many travellers do the same in Asia and the Middle East), my personal view is that the more the world opens up to North Korea, the more North Korea will open to the world and then hopefully, there many be room for change, both from the government and from the people who will see the truth and potentially make a stand. Even if it’s a slow movement, it’s a start.
GGG: What have been a couple of your favorite cities or towns to enjoy as a solo female traveler? Why?
That’s a tough question as I am a city girl through and through and will always promote my hometown of London because of the abundance of history here and the incredible New York City for its easy navigation, bold architecture, shopping, and nightlife. But more recently, here’s my pick of my favourite spots from my travels:
Siem Reap, Cambodia – a great place to cycle around and begin a love of biking in Asia, whether that’s within the Angkor Wat Temple complex or just around the town (which is larger than most people think). I even cycled seven hours to the Beng Mealea temple, through the most beautiful off the beaten track villages I have ever encountered.
Beijing, China – because I love diving head first into a new culture and revel in trying to make sense of the onslaught of people, food, smells, sights and everything in between. The metro system here also makes navigation a lot easier, especially in a country where the language barriers can be very challenging.
Kathmandu, Nepal – Frenetic, dusty, chaotic and exciting, I felt as if I was stepping back in time and I enjoyed wandering the narrow alleyways and ancient streets without a map or a plan. It’s also a great place to meet other travellers before embarking on a trek elsewhere in the country.
Tokyo, Japan – a unique, funky and ultra modern city I will never forget and which has too many amazing sights and experiences to be able to list here. Japan has brilliant infrastructure, easy to use transport systems and the locals are always very helpful – perfect for independent travel.
Mandalay and Yangon in Myanmar were both so different yet so new, different, and vibrant and where you could really get off the beaten track. In both cities I wandered for hours and hours, where I met and spoke to various locals including shopkeepers, market vendors, newspaper sellers and even a nun about their lives and what has been happening in the country. Burmese people are so approachable and excited about change.
Finally, for those who love shopping, head to Taipei, Taiwan. It’s a haven for a vast selection of night market heaven, like I’ve never seen elsewhere.
GGG: Any exciting adventures planned that we can look forward to reading about?
I’m off to Israel for two weeks in December where I hope to be able to break down some of the myths about travelling there and show what you can do independently, as well as speak to both Israelis and Palestinians about the current situation. I’m also looking at travelling in Ireland to find out more about my family history, get off the beaten track in Germany (where I first headed on one of my school trips 15 years ago), as well as some other projects currently in the pipeline.
After that I will return to Asia where I am planning on visiting Bhutan and hopefully Tibet, then onto south India and Sri Lanka where I hope to also volunteer. From there I will travel extensively in Indonesia and the Philippines before heading to Australia and New Zealand. Watch this space!
All photos in this post courtesy of Becki Enright.