Off The Beaten Path Interviews

An inside look at Earth’s explorers

Every now and then you meet someone in your life who just makes you stop and think “WOW! This guy is really living! I’ve really got to get out more!”. These inspiring folk are ordinary peeps, just like you and I, yet manage to fit the extraordinary in to their day to day routines. Bjorn Troch just happens to be one of these people. Driven by his travel lust and his desire to connect with the world, and those who inhabit it on a deeper level, Bjorn has found himself in some of the most incredible situations and off the beaten path locations, and his journey has only just begun. Self titled “The Social Traveler”, he thrives off the network of people he meets and is introduced to, thrusting him even deeper down the rabbit hole, into social situations many of us only dream of… today we get to learn of his journey and the reasons that drive him.

Meet Bjorn Troch

The Social Traveler Bjorn - a rice field hat

The Social Traveler sporting his rice patty hat while en route in SE Asia

Bjorn, you’ve been travelling for some time now, and in your most recent trip, took on a personal challenge which took you on a trip of a lifetime that most people would dream of! You rode a bicycle from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, all the way up to Beijing (I think that’s where you ended, isn’t it?)! That’s a MASSIVE distance covering about half a continent. This would have brought you to some very remote places and seen things most people don’t even know exist! Not only did you ride the bike the whole way – it was a tandem, and you found ‘volunteer’ riders to join you along the way. That’s so awesome! How did this come to fruition? Who challenged you, and what kind of planning was needed?

The tandem bicycle challenge took me from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong crossing Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, a bit more than 5000 km all together.

I got this challenge from Melanie, who is now a good friend from The Netherlands. We met on Gili Island, Indonesia and after I explained to her how I had been traveling, she came up with the tandem idea. I let it sink in a little bit and after a walk around the paradise island, I agreed to the challenge.

As ‘The Social Traveler’ there’s not much planning to be done. I can for example not use a guidebook or look for information online. Everything that I do has to be linked to me by people I’m connected with. So when I go somewhere I ask people online via social networks or in real life where I should go, what I should do there, who I should meet there and so on… I’ve been doing this the past 3 years, so everything I did on my travels is connected from day 1.

The only thing that is kinda fixed is the trajectory that I follow. It has a start and a finish and in between is the world. My goal is to make it to the finish just by being social.

Before the start of my tandem challenge I went back to Belgium to see friends and family over the holidays. While I was there I reached out to friends and followers to find brands/companies to be part of my tandem adventure and small charities that I should visit and support along my journey.

Via the community, I got in touch with AGX and Engagor who supported parts of my itinerary, and I found out about Agathian’s Shelter as first charity to visit in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur.

Mid March 2012 I got on a plane with pannier bags for a bike, but no bike, and made my way to Kuala Lumpur. Once there, I first had to find a tandem bike and of course my first ‘tandem buddy’.

From there the adventure started…

Bjorn - Tandem Bike

Daily meditations for good vibes, happy tandem partner, and world peace. 😉

I think one of the most interesting aspects of doing your bicycle trip would have to be that you first had to do some pretty strenuous and challenging work biking great distances with strangers. This meant you would be connecting with them along the way. Additionally, when you arrived somewhere, tired, hungry (and probably pretty stinky), you would then need to connect with the locals to find places to eat, sleep, and also to explore. I imagine there was some situations where you were really in desperate need of some help. What situation would stand out as the most memorable… what happened, and how did you get out of that jam?

There are so many stories on how welcoming and helpful the locals were. Something went wrong with that bike almost on a daily basis. That led to many encounters and little adventures with the locals.

I kinda like the ‘Bike man to the rescue’ story. I was on my way to Bangkok. This was one of the few times I was alone on the bike and I started to get some chain problems. Again. The front gear got twisted a bit and that made the chain come off when it got a bit loose. Every kilometer or so I had to put the chain back up until I found a bicycle shop. So I was standing next to the road looking a bit frustrated at my chain that just came off for the 10th time. Suddenly, there’s a girl on a motorbike stopping and asking me what the problem is in quite decent english. I explained to her what the problem was and while I was doing this, a middle aged Thai guy in a pick up truck pulls over as well.

He gets out of the car and immediately starts looking at the gears and chain. He didn’t speak any english, but the girl explained him the situation for me. They had a little chat and he started pointing from the bike to his pick up. His 2 little daughters were waving from the rear window. He wanted me to put the bike in his pickup so he could bring me to a bike shop. It felt safe, so the bike AND myself ended up in the cargo area of the truck!

We head off to the closest village in search of a bike shop that could help solve the chain problem. We were quite the attraction arriving in that city. Here we are, this Thai guy pulling up with a tall European looking guy, holding a tandembike in the back of his truck. We visited 3 shops but none of them could help us. Then he  explained something very passionate in Thai to me, but I couldn’t understand a word. I just decided to go with it. So back in the car and off we went again.

Bjorn - sitting on a sand dune

Breathing in the desert air atop a massive sand dune!

He drove onto some abandoned scrapyard with only a little shed at the very end of it. We stopped at the shed and in front of it there were hundreds and hundreds of second hand bikes of all sizes and shapes. He was so passionate about bikes that he collects them and tries to fix them. He took me to the back of the shed to show me a rusted tandembike for 3 people. He clearly was very proud about it. It’s there and then that I started to call him ‘Bike Man’.

‘Bike Man’ began to fix my bike and while he was doing that I was playing football (soccer) with his 2 daughters. He managed to fix it (somewhat) and after giving me a bottle of water and a warm goodbye, I drove off again in the direction of Bangkok.

2 hours later my chain stated coming off again and another adventure unfolded…

When you travel, you have a very strong focus on ‘being social’. I know interacting with locals and other travellers is very important to you – why is it such a strong point in your off-the-beaten-path travels?

The Social Traveler is a social travel project where it’s all about being social. It’s the ONLY way I travel. If I stop connecting with people I’ll get stuck. So I constantly step out of my comfort zone and talk with people around me or meet up with people that connected with me or were introduced to me via social networks. It’s also what makes this way of traveling so rich. People open up very quickly when you start talking to them in an open and respectful way and they’ll be happy to introduce you to THEIR ‘world’.

Bjorn - palm tree seat

Grabbing a seat in a palm tree.

Do you feel it takes a special kind of person to be able to just go to somewhere off-the-beaten-path and mingle with the locals, or is anyone capable of it? If it’s possible for everyone, do you have any tips on how you should approach people that have helped you along the way?

People are social beings, so I believe it’s something everybody can do. My best advice is to be just yourself and really try not to be afraid to say hi to somebody. Trust your gut, your primal instincts, they are hardly ever wrong. Just say hello, smile and go from there. 🙂

Every encounter truly holds the opportunity of a new learning, a lovely chat, a good laugh, a social adventure, friendship and yes, even love…

What would you say is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from your travels with respect to getting off-the-beaten-path or through your interactions with locals?

Most people really have the best intentions. So don’t let fear of the unknown (people, ideas or places) hold you back on taking that first step out of your comfort zone. Trust your intuition and trust that your mind and body is a lot more flexible and capable than you might think. Step by step, adventure by adventure your comfort zone will expand and that’s where living starts!

Bjorn - sitting over a valley

Bjorn, overlooking a breathtaking valley.

Do you plan on taking any more challenges such as your last one (or have you already accepted one)? If so, will it involve more volunteers – and where do I sign up if you do?

I’m currently in Berlin and after my stay here I’ll start my guitar challenge on the West Coast of North America. I’ll have to find a VW minivan in Vancouver and drive it all the way to Panama. Along the way I need to find people to teach me how to play the guitar. The tricky part is that I have to earn my gasoline money by playing the guitar! 🙂

I’m currently looking for more companies to sponsor a part of my itinerary, and for tips and recommendations on where to go, what to do, who to meet, where to stay for the cities I’m passing through. So if one of your readers want to be part of this adventure they can contact me, be social and join in my West Coast Guitar Challenge!

Bjorn, Thank you so much for all your inspiring tips and tales from your adventures so far! I’m excited to see how your next challenge goes, and to follow along in all your journeys! I think it’s time I get outside and Be Social myself, today!

Have you ever had any situations where you needed to rely on the kindness of strangers when you were in a bind? What happened, and how did things get resolved? Please feel free to share your stories and feedback in the comment section below!