Interview With On-The-Budget Backpacker And Cultural Explorer Irina Dubrovina

Life lessons -

“One year of my life offered me an experience of a lifetime!”

On-the-budget traveler Irina

European citizen having traveled through 27 European countries and having lived in six of them, one day Irina Dubrovina decided it’s time to leave the comfort zone that Europe had become. She quit her job, got rid of most of her possessions and, with an open mind and a backpack on her shoulders, headed to Asia. It all started with a one-way ticket to Nepal and ended up leading her to Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. She calls it “the magic of serendipity” and in this interview shares the insights from her most amazing experiences also with us.

Could you shortly introduce yourself to our readers?

Describing oneself is probably one of the most complicated things to do! How to be objective in summarizing your life in one paragraph without praising yourself for your achievements and forgetting about your fears and complexes? Here goes nothing! I like to be called Irina. I am an everyday-ordinary-normal girl with no eccentric tendencies though living a life somewhat outside the social norms and standards. I don’t see myself as a rebel but in following my heart I tend to do things my own way. I am a peace-lover craving for freedom and independence. I am a creature of habits yet I would feel suffocated by a constant routine. I have been blessed and lucky to have had a very happy post-soviet childhood in Latvia, obtained a creative architectural degree in the UK, challenged myself in moving to Norway for 18 months, received a Grant for an international Master’s program that, over the course of 2 years, took me to France, Italy and Germany, I then began my professional career as a Cultural Heritage Project Manager until I realized that far away lands are calling me! I packed up my life and went traveling across Asia for the next 11 months.

What was the motivation and inspiration for you to start traveling?

Traveling has always been a big part of my life and I have my family to thank for it! I believe I have inherited the Wanderlust from my parents and grandparents as they were part of the popular “tourist clubs” back in the soviet times. They hiked the forests, climbed the mountains and rafted the rivers from the far East to the very West of the Soviet Republics. Growing up i got to hear their stories, see their pictures, watch them make their own travel gear, and listen to the bard songs by the fire outside camping tents. I have caught the “travel bug” and since taking my first independent trip to Wales at the age of 18, I could never stop. When it comes to the “Grand Escape”, as I like to call it, my trip to Asia was inspired by the sense of “not belonging”. Two years ago, I was leading a life that satisfied my ambitions and desires up-to 90%, yet some 10% had lead me to question, what else out there would make me happy. The answer came to me in my dream! I woke up with a clear thought, that next year, I will find myself backpacking through Asia!

For how long have you been traveling and which countries have you visited?

Altogether, I have traveled to 34 countries and 312 cities. Yes, I keep count. In the last year however, my journey has taken me to Nepal, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. To begin with, I only had a one-way ticket to Nepal. No plan, no expiration date. I had decided to spend 3 months there, period determined by the obtained visa, and everything that followed was the magic of serendipity. The wrong turn you take in a busy street, the people you meet on the way, the stories they tell would all lead me to most amazing adventures. I have volunteered in schools and orphanages, helped build a school, hiked to a mountain peak, worked with a creative social enterprise concerned with sustainability and waste management, bought a motorbike and crossed Vietnam, cycled for some 2000km, learned about building an eco mud-house and lived in a sustainable community leading a mindful life, practicing yoga, meditation and permaculture. One year of my life offered me an experience of a lifetime!

On-the budget travel

What is your most favorite place you have visited and why?

This is a question that is impossible to answer! How do you compare busy streets of Kathmandu bustling with vibrant colors, music and life to breathtaking, magnificent sights that open from the peaks of Annapurna Conservation Area in Nepal? Or the life on a quiet Cambodian Koh Ta Kiev island, with no electricity or wifi, virgin-white sand beaches and swimming with the plankton as opposed to the freedom of cruising on a motorbike along the scenic serpentine roads of Northern Vietnam? All I could say, I loved every part of my journey, every place my path has taken me to. There was a certain beauty in not knowing my next step. Every new country was a special experience for me full of surprises! I learned to trust myself, listen to my intuition and the Signs around.

Why did you choose exactly these countries to visit?

Choosing the countries to visit was a very organic process for me. As I mentioned before, the first decision I made was getting a one-way ticket to Nepal! A country I knew nothing about, except the inspiring, mystically blue Himalayas on the paintings of Nikolai Rerikh, the fact that Nepal is home to mount Everest and that the country was shaken by the devastating earthquake of 2015. I found a cheap plane ticket and looked for volunteering opportunities, so I could give back to the local communities while I travel. The last month of my stay in Nepal I spent working with “All Hands”, an international disaster relief organization that mobilizes teams of volunteers where help is needed. The children of Nepal were in desperate need for schools that got destroyed by the quake a year prior to my visit. Needless to say how amazing that hands-on experience had been! Working on site along side with local masons and other volunteers coming from all over the world, learning to lay bricks, pouring concrete, bending rebar, constructing with bamboo… We lived closely to the local community, taking part in traditions, festivals and learning some basic language. I have met amazing people on the project, all following their own inspirational journey.

One of these encounters had led me to Malaysia. A fellow volunteer had put me in contact with a Kuala Lumpur based creative social enterprise that designs and makes things out of reclaimed and discarded materials. Biji-Biji Initiative is a group of young, driven, ambitious individuals who are raising awareness about waste and offers creative solutions to upcycling it. I was so inspired by this partnership that I had extended my stay with Biji-Biji for extra 2 months before going to Vietnam to meet a friend.

When trekking in Malaysia I had sustained a foot injury that had considerably limited my mobility so staying in Hanoi with a friend had given me time to “lick my wounds”. The next logical step was buying a motorbike and crossing the country from North to South, that way I didn’t have to walk much. For the next 45 days my companion – Billy The Bike and I had been on an amazing 3000 km long adventure. Half way through it, an inspirational encounter with a fellow traveler had defined the next chapter of my journey. Following in his footsteps I decided to sell the bike and get a bicycle instead!

My visa running out, the closest border I could cross with my new friend Birdy The Bike was to Cambodia. The period of my stay was determined by the validity of my visa; one month was just long enough to cross the country and see what it has to offer: chilling vibes of coastal towns and beautiful islands, rural settlements alongside the main highways, fast-paced capital, lake villages on stilts, Siem Reap and the world-famous temples of Angkor Wat. Two month and 2000 km later I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand.

Could you tell us more about each country you have visited?

Nepal

People, their lifestyle, and culture. What kind of people did you meet?

Nepal is a country with an “ancient” culture very closely related to its old traditions. Folklore is deeply rooted in Nepalese belief system and day-to-day life. It is a culture of Dance and Music and locals are very fond of Bollywood. The society is divided by a cast system; there are 33 million Gods they believe in; arranged marriages are still a choice of most families; Dal Bhat – rice with lentil soup, is the main food consumed daily by the population; locals are very patriotic and proud of their country and kids sing national anthem at schools… Most of my time I was communicating and staying with locals both in cities and rural areas. It allowed me to truly experience life their way.

Budget-travel Nepal

What specifics should we know about the country?

Nepal is home to some 29 million people. It has a very diverse linguistic heritage with more than ten spoken and sign languages. The flag of Nepal is the only flag in the world that is not rectangular in shape and they are very proud of it!

This country truly has many challenges due to its ever-struggling economy, corruption and bureaucracy. Most of the population finds itself stuck in a poverty cycle, there is a lack of education in rural areas, much of the country is hard to access and lacks infrastructure. Power and water cuts, natural disasters are a common thing: floods, landslides, earthquakes. Yet people here are wonderfully kind and happy! I believe the essence of this nation could be summarized in a single word they use here as a greeting: Namaste – “My soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire Universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within me. In sharing these things, we are united, we are the same, we are one.”

Must visit places, things to do, food to eat?

If you find yourself in Nepal do things the local way! Ride tuc-tucs and buses, eat Dal Bhat and use your hands, wake up early, visit temples, go trekking. Kathmandu is unavoidable and essential but everyone loves Pokhara – the city by a beautiful lake. It has a truly chill-out atmosphere enjoyed by enthusiasts trekking the Annapurna conservation area. Lumbini is a birthplace of Buddha and a pilgrimage site with a number of stunning temples. Chitwan National Park is a go-to place for a Safari experience, just don’t ride the elephants! Truth is, Nepal is full of nature and culture, take it all in! Enjoy!

What kind of souvenirs did you take with you from this country?

On my visit, I contributed a lot of my time to work with children and one of the best gifts I kept as souvenirs were their drawings. In general, I hardly ever buy souvenirs, if I do, they are mainly practical objects, clothes, food or jewelry. Especially being a long-term backpacker you are very limited by the weight on your own shoulders! One thing I have gotten to remind myself of my beautiful experience was a pendant with an ancient Tibetan mantra that reads “Om Mani Padme Hum” and is believed to contain all the teachings of Buddha.

What was your budget in this country?

When it comes to Budget it’s much about your personal choices: do you like treating yourself to restaurants or do you prefer street food; are you looking for luxury accommodation or prepared to compromise on the comfort; do you move around with a taxi or use public transport… My average daily cost in Nepal came to 9 euros, keeping in mind that during one month of my volunteering with “All Hands”, full board was provided in exchange for my work. I have spent 2 weeks Couchsurfing with locals; while trekking for one week during the “off season”, I negotiated free stay in the mountain lodges having to consume food in their restaurants. Food prices in the mountains are considerably elevated when compared to prices in the valley towns. When volunteering with the local projects, I was contributing to the costs of provided food and accommodation, a condition I deemed fair, considering that Nepal is a third world country.

Malaysia

What kind of people did you meet?

Malaysia has a fascinating mix of cultures, religions, and traditions that all seem to be united by one single word: MAKAN – food! This simple word is often used as a greeting as if to ask, “have you eaten already, if not, join me”. When you ask information about a place you plan on visiting, you are likely to firstly get suggestions on a special local dish only found in that city.

This is a country hosting a multitude of ethnic groups speaking more than 100 languages. Malays, Chinese, Indians and tribal groups of indigenous people are predominant ethnicities, you can see already, how fundamentally different all of these are. This diversity paints a vibrant cultural landscape of varied temples and places of worship, colorful clothes, and accessories, traditional foods… This country has it all!

What specifics should we know about the country?

Malays, the dominant local community, by definition, are Muslims. They have a major political role, thus the country follows the laws of Islam. Public display of affection can get you in trouble with the local authorities. There are very strict drug laws, possession of controlled substances can get you heavily fined, kicked out of the country or imprisoned. Engaging in drug trafficking is punished by death penalty! Be careful in removing any flora or fauna from Malaysia as that is strictly prohibited!

Must visit places, things to do, food to eat?

Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, George Town, Perhentian islands, Cameron Highlands, Sarawak and the rest of Borneo are all very different and each has something very special to offer! Bear in mind, local food is often very spicy and drinks are way too sweet, don’t forget to ask for less chilly and no sugar when you order.

Malaysia budget travel

What kind of souvenirs did you take with you from this country?

I have always been admirative of peoples’ skillful mastery of arts and crafts. Upon my visit of Sarawak, I have purchased a thin bamboo-weaved mat. It has since served me for yoga and exercising and sometimes as a sleeping mat. Very practical.

What was your budget in this country?

During my stay in Malaysia, I was collaborating with a local social enterprise. My position of concept and graphic designer was voluntary in exchange for provided accommodation and little remuneration that was enough to cover my food expenses. Nonetheless, my daily average cost came up-to some 10 euros – it’s all about your choices, remember? I allowed myself to spend a little more on activities and things because I could.

Vietnam

What can you tell about people, their lifestyle, and culture? 

Vietnam is a country of beautiful landscapes, delicious street food, motorbikes, conical hats and bicycle fruit vendors. People wake up very early and start a day with exercising. Here you can start your morning by joining a collective aerobics class in the nearest park right around 5 am. Have a noodle soup for breakfast at any street restaurant, you will likely be seated on a low plastic chair. When it comes to lunch or dinner, In Vietnam people are accustomed to sharing food on the table. Rather than individual plates, the table would be filled with a variety of dishes to be shared among everyone. Shoes are taken off before entering a temple, pagoda, local house and even some family-run shops. The buildings in Vietnam are surprisingly narrow and deep; this is due to taxes. The wider the facade of the building, the more expensive it is.

What specifics should we know about the country?

Vietnam is still technically a communistic country. There are curfews and you will find most of the shutters in the streets closed after 11 pm.

Must visit places, things to do, food to eat?

There is an all famous thing to do in Vietnam – crossing the country from North to South. It is easily done with open-ticket sleeper buses, which are a pretty special experience on their own. The local sleeper buses are packed with three rows of individual “bunk-bed-seats”, comfortable enough to let you sleep through the journey. Tall people could find it a little challenging though. If you are a little more adventurous, you will follow in the footsteps of the road cruisers and buy yourself a motorbike! A standard price for a set of old wheels will be around 250$, you will stop a few times at a mechanics shop on your way and will be able to resell it at a similar price at the end of your journey.

In both cases, the usual list of destinations would take you to Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh, Phong Nha, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne and Saigon. Each of those having something special to offer for the curious traveler.

Vietnam budget travel

What kind of souvenirs did you take with you from this country?

A hammock bought in one of the fisherman’s villages has been a fantastic addition to my travel gear and a great souvenir from this country. What was your budget in this country? My average daily cost came to 17 euros, keeping in mind that I had purchased and sold a motorbike, traveled for 3000km and bought a bicycle and gear for my cycling tour.

Cambodia

Must visit places, things to do, food to eat?

I absolutely loved living on the Koh Ta Kiev island Robinson Crusoe style. Forget about your electronics and stay connected, bring your favorite book and enjoy a fresh coconut under a palm tree on the beach. Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat are probably the most famous thing to see in Cambodia; they have recently doubled the price of the entry ticket making it probably one of the most expensive attractions in South East Asia but people will keep visiting it anyway. The complex is so big, you will need to hire a tuk-tuk, a bike or a bicycle to explore it. Kampong Khleang is one of the floating villages on stilts sitting at the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake. I was really impressed by this settlement and local lifestyle.

What was your budget in this country?

I was spending some 12 euros per day, most of which was to pay for the food. Both Cambodian Riel and US Dollars are accepted currencies in the country.

How do you travel, what type of a traveler are you?

I am an on-the-budget backpacker, a cultural explorer. I travel with open eyes, mind and heart, sensible shoes and homeopathy in my first-aid-kit. I avoid loud parties and look for more interaction with the locals. I don’t like staying in hotels and riding taxis. Travel is a way to find yourself, learn, grow, share. My favorite quote is “I travel because each time I discover a new place, I discover a new me.”

Were you not scared to travel alone?

Traveling alone is not scary! The paradox is, as a solo traveler I would rarely find myself alone! You are so much more approachable both by locals and other travelers; conversations spark instantly and connections run deep; you’d make plans for a day-trip with someone you talked to for 5 minutes over coffee. In-fact, there were times I was craving for more alone-time!

Solo traveler

How do you plan your time, budget and places you will visit? How much time does it take, do you have any special methods?

In general, I think the longest preparation time would be spent looking for best flight options. Upon my decision to return from Asia to Europe for 2 months, I had to spend 3 full days in looking for the cheapest solution and I ended up buying 4 separate tickets with different airlines for a return flight. As for the things to do and see at a new destination, I always ask for suggestions at the hostel reception. I join the free walking tour, offered in many large cities across the globe; they are often fun, dynamic and give an alternative view of the city. They are free but think of tipping your guide at the end of the tour! I ask the locals for recommendations, they know all the hidden gems. I always stay budget-conscious but I am never overly strict with my choices. If a glass of fresh fruit juice is going to make me feel happy and healthy, I don’t think twice.

Do you know approximately how much money have you spent while traveling all this time?  On which categories did you spend the most, on which – the least?

Throughout my travel experience, I have found that food is always the most expensive category. Accommodation costs can be more variating and will depend on your choices between hotels, hostels, airbnb, couchsurfing, camping or anything in between. Transportation is another big spender that sometimes is hard to avoid. But you can be rewarded if you dedicate a little more time and search for cheap flight options, use public transportation or, if available, UBER and GRAB instead of taxis. Personally, I have not explored hitch-hiking enough but there so many travelers taking full advantage of this road adventure.

Did you experience any surprising spending that you didn’t estimate before?

Since I had no plan in advance, all of my expenses were pretty spontaneous decisions. Buying the permit for hiking in Nepal; going to the World Music Festival on Borneo island; getting a motorbike and then a bicycle; taking surfing lessons… All of those were totally worth it!

Do you use any mobile apps to help you during the travel? (e.g transport, accommodation, navigation, language translator, currency)? Why?

Yes! Mobile phone and apps are a great helping tool while you travel. Here is my selection:

  • Transportation: Skyscanner, KAYAK, momondo are all very similar in finding options for flights but each has some special features that can be useful at times. Grab and Uber instead of a taxi. Some Asian cities have motorbike options – more fun and help get past traffic.
  • Accommodation: Booking.com, Agoda, hostelworld and airbnb will help you find a “home away from home”. Couchsurfing and Warmshowers will find you local hosts to stay and hang out with. Second being a platform created especially for cyclists. You are not expected to pay for your stay but it’s a good practice to bring a gift, cook a dinner or invite your host out for a drink.
  • Maps: Maps.me is a great application with well detailed offline maps and good GPS tracker. Just download beforehand the city map of your next destination and you will not be lost upon arrival. You can set colorful pins with descriptions so any advice you get from fellow travelers about the “best pizza” in town can be pinned to the map. Google maps as a good alternative.
  • Other: XE currency converter is great for any quick conversion calculations. Happy Cow is a listing of local vegan and vegetarian places to eat at. Polarsteps will track you on your journey and document your trip; you can add photos, comments and share it on social media.

Vietnam travel

What have been the major obstacles you have had on your way? How did you deal with that?

Being sick or injured is not much fun when you are in the comfort of your home and can be a real challenge when you are traveling. While on this journey I had to deal with a few medical issues. If you have been to Asia and have not had a “Delhi belly” or a food poisoning at least once, you have not been to Asia. I have been stung by some exotic insect; torn a foot ligament while trekking; gotten a “Vietnamese kiss” or a motorbike-exhaust-pipe-burn; have been down with a dingy-like fever but it’s all just a part of my experience! It is important to learn to listen to your body, be sensible and make the right decisions. Rest if you need to rest, see a doctor if you require one. Oh, and travel insurance will definitely come in handy!

What is your advice for those who dream of traveling but don’t know where to start?

Don’t be afraid! Everything far-away and unfamiliar seems very frightening but once you make the first step, you know you can do it! People and media will tell you it’s dangerous out there, don’t believe those stigmas!

Get inspired! Read those travel blogs that will motivate you, follow those Instagram accounts posting beautiful destination pictures, join one of those Facebook groups dedicated to traveling such as “Girls LOVE Travel” or “Backpacking South East Asia Alone”. Ask any questions you might have and people will respond with suggestions and advice! There is a whole community of keen voyagers, they have been everywhere and tried everything and they will be happy to share their experience with you!

While traveling, have you learned something new about human nature? If so – tell us about it!

People are pretty amazing! I have met so many welcoming, generous and kind individuals along my path! On this Asian journey, I was truly blown away by the encounters I have made; local farmers and small shop owners don’t seem to have much, they are much poorer than any of my friends back in Europe but they are so giving and happy! More than on one occasion I was invited into a house, offered tea and asked to join in for dinner… There is a lot of good out there!

Nepal

How can we make the world better?

Smile more! Open your eyes, heart, and mind! Be curious! Be more thoughtful! Leave a place better than you found it. Contribute to the local communities you visit, share something you know, play with the kids… Travelling is pretty selfish, we do it for own benefit and pleasure, so think of a way you can give back a little.

What are your plans for the future?

To keep traveling! My “Grand Escape” may be over soon, I may settle down somewhere, get a job, build a routine for myself but I will never stop thinking of the next destination to discover! Traveling sets me free. It makes me happy, if it makes you happy too, don’t think twice, just book that plane ticket! To learn more about Irina’s travels follow her on Facebook, Instagram and website “The Wanderlust Me”.

Tags: Budgeting tips, Travel, Travel budget

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