From backpacking the Maldives to hiking in Mongolia – a quick tour of the eighty one countries I’ve visited

A brief history of some of the countries I’ve visited during my nearly twenty years of backpacking

Is country counting acceptable in the world of backpacking?

There’s a lot of negativity around ‘country counting’ in the travel community, with some travellers being very disdainful of those who count. It’s not about the quantity, it’s the quality they say.

View from 1000 steps, Dhulikhel, Nepal
Enjoying a rather nice rock in Nepal

Well I don’t see anything wrong with counting how many countries you’ve been to. I’d love to have visited every single country in the world one day and I’m very honest about always wanting to go to a new country rather than return to one I’ve already visited. However I never claim to ‘know’ a country that I’ve visited and try very hard to never, ever say I’ve ‘done’ a country. How can you ‘do’ a country anyway?  Floating through a country in a few weeks as a backpacker can give you a flavour of a place but I feel you’d have to live a long time in a place to really understand it.

But I definitely love conversations with other travellers about what constitutes visiting a country. When are you allowed to add a country to your list?

A stopover in an airport does not count on your list of countries

We all agree (I hope) that visiting an airport in a country does not count if you don’t leave it. For years I didn’t count Finland, even though I’d spent five hours in Helsinki Airport awaiting a connection to India.

What about driving through a country without stopping? This is easy enough to do when you live in Europe. I read once about someone who had been to over a hundred countries. I was really impressed until the article mentioned something about twelve countries in six days. What?! This definitely doesn’t count, surely? Already the water is getting murkier…

Motorcycle trip from London to Croatia
Island hopping by motorbike in Croatia

I once rode my motorbike all the way to Croatia from England, deliberately planning a route through some European countries I hadn’t been to before. At a petrol station in Belgium, right at the start of my trip, I met another British biker on his way home. I asked how many countries he’d ridden through which sparked off the ‘when can you add countries to your list’ debate.

His answer became my mantra. You can add a country to your list if you have had food or drink in a non-chain establishment (petrol stations or and airports do not count).

I love this definition as it’s not about how long you’ve spent in a country, so short trips can count. But you have to have interacted with some local people in a local cafe or restaurant and tried some of the food.

So how many countries have I been to in my long travelling career?

There are 195 countries in the world that are recognised by the UN. If you add Taiwan and Kosovo to the list, that’s 197. Of these, I’ve been to a whopping eighty-one. I’m pretty happy with that. Just 117 left to go then.

Africa

The continent with the most countries is Africa. It has 54 countries which is 27% of world’s total.

I’ve been to a paltry one, which is Morocco. And amazingly I’ve been there three times. I travelled the country first as a solo backpacker, taking a ferry over from southern Spain then flying out of Marrakech. The next time a friend and I travelled from Rabat to Essaouira, finishing with a delightful weeks surfing; and the last time I spent a week at a surf camp near Agadir.

I must try harder on the Africa front. I did mean to go to Africa this past winter. I read an article about San Tome and Principe, a country I’d never heard of before. This is usually more than enough to intrigue me and before I knew it I was planning a whole trip to Africa, taking in Ghana as well. Somehow I ended up in South America instead but that’s another story.

Europe

There are 44 countries in Europe, recognised by the UN. Kosovo is the 45th, which although independent since 2008 is still disputed by some sovereign states.

Of these 45 countries I’ve been to every single one apart from Belarus. Of course many of these trips were ‘city breaks’ and I definitely don’t know European countries as well as others further away that I’ve spent weeks travelling around.

One year when I was attempting to become a model citizen and stay in one place for a while (actually paying council tax for the first time in my life), I decided to do a travel challenge. Read here about my attempt to visit twelve different countries in twelve months while working full-time. Although my challenge was a success, I’ll freely admit that they were very brief, flying visits.

So, yes I’ve been to Sweden, but only to Gothenburg when I flew in on the Saturday morning and flew out on the Sunday night. But boy did I pack in the sights! I ate Swedish herring with mashed potato at a food truck, I had fika at an independent cafe in the trendy Haga Nygata district, I bought seafood at the Fish Church, I saw Nordic art at the Gothenburg Museum of Art and I even caught a tram out of town and took a ferry to the collection of islands that make up Gothenburg archipelago.

One of my favourite trips in Europe was a a short, exhausting but very comprehensive trip through the Baltic States. I’d been visiting a friend in Berlin and I was due in Latvia to meet another friend in a week’s time, in order to go to the Positivus music festival. Have a read here about how I combine backpacking with music and go to a different European music festival every year.

With four countries to visit in just one week, I set myself the goal of seeing two places in each country. With three night buses and one ferry I achieved my goal. I still remember arriving in Vilnius in Lithuania at 5am, walking through the Gate of Dawn into the medieval old town to see all the sights before returning to the bus station at 9am to hop on another bus to Klaipeda four hours north!

Asia

Asia has 48 countries and is the continent with the most people. I’ve been to 18 countries in Asia, the vast majority in South East Asia, a region I absolutely love. I’ll admit it – mainly for the food!

Backpacking India was probably one of my longest trips in a single country. I travel every year for a few months but usually visit several countries by crossing land borders in between. For example, one year I spent four months in Central America and visited five countries. India though was quite unique as I spent four months just in the one country.

I had no real plan on arrival in New Delhi and somehow ended up taking a train east to Varanasi then on to Kolkata. After a side trip north to Darjeeling I decided on a good a plan as any – I simply followed the coast 2,272 km south to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip in India, where three oceans meet. Its also the only place in India that you can see the sunset, sunrise and moon rise all in the same location. I stumbled out of bed on my first morning onto the hotel rooftop, bleary-eyed, to see the sunrise and as the darkness lifted I realised that every other rooftop within view was packed with people doing the exact same as me!

I can’t decide on my next adventure in Asia. At one point it was going to exploring Taiwan by scooter. Then it was going to be surfing in the Philippines. But having just returned from a fantastic trip to Mongolia, I’m very keen on the idea of trekking in Uzbekistan. Oh dear, Asia is just so big with so many as yet unexplored places to visit!

North America

I used to think North America was just the USA, Canada and Mexico. But my very quick internet search tells me there are twenty-three countries in North America! Of these I’ve been to eight. That’s the five in Central America, as well as Cuba, the United States and Canada.

I’ve blogged extensively about my trip to Central America, so I won’t expand on that trip here. In fact it was in El Salvador that I started Tor Goes Travelling Again. That’s only sixteen years after I started my travelling career! Better late than never I guess.  Have a look at my post about Eating my way through Central America or my experience of Volunteering and Travelling in Belizeto get a flavour of my trip.

Cuba and Canada made a good combination for a trip way back in 2006. It was January and I went to Cuba first where it was a delightful 25°C, then I flew into Canada where it was an eyelash freezing -5°C. Oh yes, eyelashes freeze! I went from swimming in the sea and touring tobacco plantations to shivering at Niagara Falls and snowboarding in Quebec. It’s still one of my favourite trips of all times.

Oceania/Australasia

One of the continents I’ve returned to the most is Oceania. Even though, of the fourteen countries here, I’ve only visited three. I’ve actually lived here for two years too.

I started what I always refer to as my travelling career (because I put way more effort into travelling than I do working!) in 2002 when I headed off with a Round The World airline ticket in the vague direction of New Zealand, clutching my Working Holiday visa. On the way I travelled from San Francisco to Los Angeles and had a week island hopping in Fiji.

After a year in New Zealand, I knew I didn’t want to return home so I applied online for an Australian Working Holiday visa and bought a one way ticket to Melbourne from Auckland. I couldn’t even use my RTW ticket to get there as it had expired within twelve months of leaving the UK. I eventually returned to the UK eleven countries and three years later to begin my new life of working one season then travelling for the other.

New Zealand is still my first love, one of the few countries I’ve returned to many times. My favourite trip there was my most recent one, when I bought a backpacker car and circled the North Island freedom camping at beaches. Read all about Freedom Camping in New Zealand here.

South America

The continent with the least amount of countries, South America has twelve countries. I’ve been to a grand total of seven.

I’ve done two backpacking trips to South America now and really enjoyed each of them. The first time, in 2007 I think, was a five month trip travelling a large circle from Santiago in Chile. I picked it randomly as it was the cheapest place to fly to from London. I travelled up the coast as far as Peru, into Bolivia, on to Argentina and back to Chile for my flight home.

Well, I didn’t actually return to Chile as there was a massive earthquake three days before my flight destroying the airport, so after a lot of confusion I ended up flying home from Buenos Aires, via a night in a Sao Paulo airport having missed the connecting flight.

Of course, Brazil was initially prohibited from my list under the strict country counting rules. However, I’m happy to say that following my trip to South America this past winter, Brazil has officially been added to the list. I spent less than twenty-four hours and one night in the country, passing through from Iguazu Falls in Argentina to Paraguay but I did go to a local restaurant and have not only a meal but also a delicious caipirinha Brazilian cocktail. Yep, it definitely counts!

Antarctica

Finally there’s Antarctica, which I would love to visit.  Every now and again I price up a trip there. Sadly I never seem to have a spare £5000 lying around…

Penguin measuring wall at Kelly Tarltons Aquarium, Auckland
The closest I’m going to get to an Antarctic penguin for a while!

I hope this blog has inspired you to make travel a habit and become a frequent backpacker. Travel doesn’t have to be a single trip of a lifetime you spend years saving for. It really can be an everyday part of life.

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