On Nov. 30, 2018, Selvaganeshamoorthi Balakrishnan, at the age of 20, decided to embark on a nine-months long trip from Singapore to Montreal, Canada, without flying.
The route took him through Southeast Asia, China, Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
He shares how he saved up for a budget of S$10,000 to make the trip and limited himself to spending only S$25 per day.
This included sleeping in a tent at beaches and parks, spending the nights at bus stations, or using the Couchsurfing website to stay at the homes of locals for free.
While acknowledging that such a travelling style came with its fair share of difficulties and dangers, there were also many instances where he received various acts of kindness from strangers.
You can find out more about Selvaganeshamoorthi's account of his trip here.
By Selvaganeshamoorthi Balakrishnan
While waiting to enrol in university after my National Service ended in end-2018, I had about ten months to do long-term travelling.
So, at the age of 20, I decided to embark on an ambitious, flightless trip from Singapore to Montreal, Canada, with the entire journey completed over land and sea.
The overland Singapore-London route was a top choice for me as many heavy weights in the travelling world, including the founders of the travel company Lonely Planet, had done this trip.
But wanting to challenge myself, I thought: Why not extend this flightless trip across the Atlantic to Montreal?
Travelling halfway across the world at 20 years old
I left home on November 30, 2018. My route took me across 23 countries, three continents and an ocean.
On average, I spent around two weeks in each South East Asian country and Turkey, around a month in China, ten weeks in Central Asia, five weeks in Iran and just a few days for each European country, as Europe was expensive.
It took me nine months to meander my way north through South East Asia and China, do a small tour of North Korea before swinging westward to travel across the great deserts, steppes and mountain ranges of China’s Xinjiang province, Central Asia – the ‘stans – and Iran.
By early-June 2019, seven months into the trip, I was in Turkey and I quickly hitchhiked my way up Europe to Bremerhaven, Germany, where I took a cargo ship to sail across the Atlantic.
I arrived in Charleston, the U.S. in mid-August and for the last two weeks of my trip, bus-hopped my way across the U.S. eastern seaboard to Montreal.
On a budget of S$25/day
In my quest to save up for my trip, I gave tuition (English and French) to primary and secondary school students.
Within a span of 22 months, I managed to save up a significant amount and spent around S$10,000 for my trip, which included transport fees, accommodation and daily expenses.
Over S$6,000 was spent on daily expenses across nine months. The other S$3,000 involved S$2,500 to sail across the Atlantic on a cargo ship and S$600 lost to a motorcycle scam in Thailand.
While on the road, I scrimped as much as possible. In fact, I was on a shoestring budget and set aside S$25 a day for my three meals, accommodation, transportation and miscellaneous spending (like entry tickets to attractions, for example).
On average, S$12 to S$15 was spent on accommodation – when I couldn’t find a Couchsurfing host and didn’t tent – S$8 for meals and S$5 for miscellaneous expenditure.
Often, any balance in the daily budget was rolled over to the next day, and if I had a considerable balance after a few days, I treated myself to a ‘luxury item’, such as a meal or a beer at a local pub.
Fortunately, many of the cities I visited were very affordable. In places that are more expensive, I walked a lot to avoid spending on intra-city transportation.
Staying with strangers, pitching tents, and sleeping rough
Me ‘roughing it out’ meant that I had to neglect comfort. But I not only quickly grew accustomed to this vagrant-like travel lifestyle, I also fell in love with it.
I wasn’t afraid to eat cheap street food (while being aware of hygiene standards, of course). My rule of thumb? If the food is served hot, it’s probably safe to eat.
From time to time, I would also lodge at dirt cheap hostels. However, I mostly used Couchsurfing – a hospitality website where travellers can stay at the homes of locals for free.
In such cases, I’ve learnt to always read a potential host’s review before requesting to stay with them. Also, it’s better to stay with a family than with someone living alone.
When I was unable to find a place to crash for the night, a kind stranger I met at random might take me in for a few nights.
I recall a particularly touching incident in Uzbekistan. I wasn’t able to find affordable accommodation and thus slept under a store awning in my sleeping bag in Bukhara. In the middle of the night, I was awoken by a middle-aged woman who told me in Russian that I was ‘a visitor in her country and not a dog’. She took me in for a night.A few times, when my luck with finding a Couchsurfing host fizzled and a bed at a hostel was over my budget, I even tented in city parks and beaches, or spent nights sleeping at train stations.
When tenting, I would pitch the tent in a visible and non-secluded area (anywhere near police stations or brightly lit-up city parks are good options).
Alternatively, I would sleep in a sleeping bag in places that are crowded and highly frequented by the police – train and bus stations, and subway stops are good locations.
Once, I camped at an abandoned and decaying section of the Great Wall in the dead of winter — an experience that I do not recommend as it was very dangerous.
I almost fell from a height of four floors when scaling the almost vertical wall as a brick that I had clung onto dislodged itself. It was also frigid – the temperature was around minus 20 – and the winds were strong and doused the campfire I had made. A bottle of water I had completely froze through as well.
For intercity travel, I mostly thumbed and, at times, took buses and trains, especially when constrained by time (often due to short visa durations).
I found that Hitchwiki.org is a good resource to find the best waiting spot, and hitchhiking in places like the former Soviet states and Iran were the easiest.
The hitchhiking culture was still very much alive in these regions, and that meant short waiting times thumbing by roads. (Hitchhiking in Europe, on the other hand, was often a drawn-out endeavour.)
I also found people to be extremely frank when driving, and I’ve had many interesting conversations. Some drivers even treated me to a meal and invited me over to crash at their place.
Not having a plan can be helpful
Yes, while guidebooks can be useful at times, I find that most of them tend to only feature popular tourist attractions and are geared more towards tourists with deep pockets.
During my trip, in order to get a more authentic and off-the-beaten-track experience, I decided to ask locals for their recommendations instead
Even in this age of the internet, many hidden gems are known only through word-of-mouth.
The lack of planning also gave me greater flexibility, which is especially important when hitchhiking and Couchsurfing. Additionally, when hitchhiking, you simply can’t be certain when you’ll arrive.
Sometimes, my host would also have other plans for me, and I was happy to go with the flow.
Learning to take care of myself better
While I was open-minded and would treat everyone as a potential friend, I also learnt to be cautious and trust my instincts — if someone seems sketchy, it means I should walk away.
Being overseas alone, I also learnt to be more street smart and protect myself better.
There were a couple of instances where men had inappropriately touched my inner thighs and groped my groin. One of them was a Couchsurfing host in Beijing, but most other instances involved a random stranger in a packed bus or a shared taxi.
In such situations, I either stood my guard and directly confronted the perpetrator – which often led to the miscreant scurrying away – or extricated myself from the situation.
Once, I was also held against my will for half a day by a Couchsurfing host in Tajikistan who locked me in his room. I suspected that he got jealous that I had planned to meet another local in town.
I escaped from his room in the cover of darkness by leaping out a window.
Brushes with law enforcement
Having grown up in Singapore, I assumed, naively, that law enforcers are there to do their job – to enforce the law. But I quickly learned that that’s not the case everywhere.
In Koh Tao, Thailand, a group of policemen colluded with a rental bike shop owner to scam me. While I had damaged her bike, I was definitely overcharged for just a few scratches. It was a painful and unforgettable S$600 lesson.
But that experience was still better than getting kicked by a group of policemen, though.
I was resting in my sleeping bag at a bus station in Tabriz, Iran when a group of policemen kicked me.
They had assumed that I was a homeless Afghan refugee. Many Afghan refugees had fled their homeland due to war and sought for shelter in neighbouring Iran, where they have gained a reputation for engaging in petty crimes.
After I flashed my Singapore passport, however, they not only profusely apologised but also invited me to sleep the night in the comfort of their air-conditioned police post.
Another nerve-wracking experience took place in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. As there were only a handful of foreigners in the city, this invited the attention of suspicious police.
My Couchsurfing host told me that the secret police were watching me.
I noticed people (policemen and possibly policemen in plain clothes) were following me for a good half a day. Fortunately, that was all they did. Though I was creeped out, I didn’t feel scared because I knew I had done nothing wrong.
No intention to stop
As a self-proclaimed culture aficionado and adventurer, my travels are primarily motivated by an insatiable thirst to learn about the history of foreign lands, to experience the local culture, and to discover regions less-travelled.
I first travelled alone at 18; backpacking and hitchhiking across Western Europe for a month.
Lands, distant and unknown, have always enthralled me.
During my Secondary school and Junior College years, I spent much time in my room drawing crude lines across maps, drafting itineraries for improbable trips and worming through travel guides.
After this remarkable experience backpacking from Singapore to Canada, I hope to do something equally crazy and seemingly impossible in the future.
Perhaps travelling by land and sea, maybe even on a bicycle, westward from Montreal to Singapore via the U.S. West Coast and the Pacific Ocean.
Then I can finally say that I’ve circumnavigated the planet without getting on a plane.
Top photos courtesy of Selvaganeshamoorthi Balakrishnan