Off The Beaten Path Interviews

An inside look at Earth’s explorers

Brining back the Off The Beaten Track interview series, I’d like to welcome the Founder of Where Sidewalks End himself, mr Ian Ord. You can find a lot of interesting facts about and tid bits of his escapades by reading any number of his articles found within this realm, or through any of his published work scattered around the inter-webs, but for a slightly different angle, we thought it would be a good opportunity to know Ian on a more personal level and find out what really makes him tick. Let’s go behind the scenes and find out a little bit about what drives him to continue exploring the uncharted off the beaten track world, shall we?

Ian Ord at Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia
Ian Ord at the off the beaten track Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia

You’ve clearly got a passion for travel. Apart from your travel site Where Sidewalks End, you have a pretty serious rap sheet of places you’ve traveled, and presently, you reside in Thailand. What first gave you the travel bug and where did it take you?

That’s really a difficult question to know the exact defining moment, to be fair. My parents might argue that from the day I could first walk, I had an urge to push my boundaries. I had a tendency of ‘running away’, if not leading the way. My father would walk me to his work, and I would storm off ahead exploring in gardens along the way. When shopping, I would crawl under the clothing racks and pretend them to be far away caves. I once took my younger brother on an adventure for us to go see the world, pulling behind us a wagon full of toys and rolled up pennies (which we quickly spent on candy – the necessary fuel for our journey). Needless to say, this caused both my folks a fair bit of stress!

When I was 16, I left home and hitch hiked off the beaten track across Canada. Again a stressful situation for my parents, but for me it was probably the experience which not only did I need as a kick in the pants for a somewhat rebelious teen, but also the expedition which opened up the rest of the world to me. From sleeping under the Northern Lights in a desert in Manitoba, to being chased by an Elk (large deer) in the Rocky Mountains, and exploring rain forest on the oceans coast in British Columbia, I got more off the beaten track in my own country than many Canadians ever make the chance to do – and I was only 16!

Ian Ord - hammock bed in Siquijor Philippines
Relaxing in a hammock in Siquijor, Philippines

Photography appears to be an integral component of your travel experience. What first made you interested in photography and why is it so valuable to you now?

I think photography is just a natural hobby for many travellers – though I got into it in a slightly round-about way. When hitchhiking Canada, I had a sketch book, and tried to document some of the beautiful off the beaten track scenery I saw by putting pen to paper. I got a disposable camera (or a reusable equivalent) on my first trip to Europe. That same little junky camera came with me on my next around the world journey. It was then, upon returning to Canada with 23 rolls of undeveloped film that I found myself working in a film developing lab which also sold cameras. This was in 2001. Digital cameras were just appearing on the public markets shelves, and were terribly slow and clunky (and quite expensive). I had taken the job to get cheaper developing on my film, but also to learn more about something that had become quite the hobby while travelling.

Having access to all the new ‘toys’, we were encouraged to go and play with them for a day to learn them best, to be able to sell them best. I worked with a great team of photography enthusiasts. We would go off shooting rolls and playing with settings, to best learn how to use them. After a few years, a work colleague and I actually started our own photography courses, where we would take people out to teach them what we had learned. Well… once I started travelling again, and could take much better photographs, the addiction was there. I still learn new things about the art almost every day, and love it more and more as it goes. It’s quite easy to get into at first now with the digital being as it is, but you will never stop learning – which is the most exciting part!

Photography to me is the tool in which I’m able to share the world I see with everyone else. Taking a picture is one thing – telling a story with it, or capturing the world as you really see it… that just comes with practice and patience.

Ian Ord - Monks at Yi Peng
Monks at the off the beaten track festival “Yi Peng” in Thailand

So, let’s talk a little about travel philosophy. Certainly not everyone likes the same things nor seeks out the same experience. Within the context of travel, there seem to be two main schools of thought: Indie or Guided (and a whole lot of grey in between.) It’s quite obvious that your style falls in line with the former, but how did you come to develop these views? What experiences led you to develop your off the beaten track travel philosophy?

That’s an excellent question and I firmly believe that there’s a time and place for both. I’ve had fantastic experiences with solo travel and able to get quite far off the beaten track in doing so, just as I’ve had otherwise unattainable experiences in guided groups! I think the fact that I started off a solo traveller, part of that independent philosophy has stuck with me. I love going where I want, when I want. That being said, without a guide, I had to learn a lot of things the hard way, and often missed out on many of the cool wonders, especially if on a short time frame. I’d say my travel has been a healthy mix of both, to date. The benefits of guided or group based tours is that you have a local expert who can tell you what’s important, what’s cool, and what to avoid. You can often also go places otherwise not easily possible in solo travel. Tall ship sailing down the coast of Brazil, overlanding through the arid plains of East Africa, island hopping in the Galapagos Islands, and of course, being on board a ship heading to Antarctica. None of those experiences would have been easily attained without a group or guide, yet were still quite off the beaten track. Granted, befriending locals in a destination and being invited back to their village may not have been possible as a group, having the flexible schedule to stay longer or leave sooner depending on my connection with a destination has also played a factor on my excursions.

Ian Ord - Cruising in Antarctica
Cruising off the beaten track in Antarctica with some good friends

To choose what is best I believe comes both from your destination, and your confidence levels, as well as your knowledge needed to do so. If you can captain a ship to Antarctica solo, good on ya! I’m a bit envious! But you’ll have a lot of homework to do as well.

Since you like off the beaten track travel, I can assume you’ve been to some some quite exotic places. Where is the most remote place you’ve ever been? What was it like?

As I was just mentioning, Antarctica would of course come first to mind. Barren of human population, and inhabited almost solely by birds, seals and whales, it’s truly as remote as they come. However, the Serengeti was quite isolated, as were many of the Galapagos Islands. Each were incredible as you are just thrust into nature in such a way there is no turning back. It’s you and the elements. It’s those destinations which make me feel like a true explorer – what those centuries or even millennia ago must have experienced, first setting foot on a land devoid of human terraforming. I love it. It’s like a state of meditation that one can only achieve by being there.

Ian Ord at Annapurna-Base-Camp
Ian at Annapurna-Base-Camp, Nepal

Do you keep a country tally? If so, how many countries have you been to? Give us a short list of your faves and why you think they’re worth tacking on the bucket list.

I’m a bit of a slow traveller, to be honest. Although I’ve been on the road for over half my life, I like to stick around in a country to really get to know or at least feel the culture on a more intimate level. I like to connect with the people. It’s the best way of getting off the beaten track in my opinion. Who better to tell you where the local gems are hidden than someone who has lived there most of their life?

The boring reality for others, when I’m asked this question, is that I don’t like to keep a fave list. I really try to appreciate every country I visit for the differences found within. Some certainly take longer than others for that reason, as it may take longer to find a connection, but I think it’s possible everywhere I go. A few places I’ve been that I didn’t feel I had enough of  a connection with yet and would love to go back include Indonesia, Brazil, Guatemala, Tanzania, Australia and Spain – Antarctica is a give-in. How’s that? I was able to be fair to all the continents in that answer! hahaha I think I chose them first as there were some good connections made, yet I only scraped the surface of the more off the beaten track areas of each.

Ian and Erin jump shot in Japan
Ian and his friend Erin jumping for joy at temples in Japan

Well, as all travel-lovers know, the world is a big place and new destinations are always popping up on the wish list. Where do you dream of going that you haven’t explored yet?

Ohhhhh boy. That’s a big question. There’s SO MANY PLACES!! I think what I see as being possible in the next year or two would be Myanmar, which has become a very hot destination in Asia with it’s loosening borders. I’d also like to explore Columbia, another one on the rise. Iran has developed a very keen interest for me as well. Micronesia has been a dream since I was in college, so let’s put that one on for good measure. These are all fascinating places which have been relatively off the beaten track for tourists for a long time! I have a feeling they’re all FULL of incredible treasures, both geographically, culturally and historically, all waiting to be discovered.

Ritual is a tool used by humans to understand experiences, and to transition from the supernatural to the mundane. In the spirit of closing the interview with a little ritual, tell us about yours. Do you do anything special to begin or end a trip? To prepare? To process?

I like to prepare my trip first by choosing a destination (of course). Sometimes that’s harder than it seems, other times it just comes naturally. However, once I’ve chosen it, I just commit myself to it and buy the flight. That way it’s set in stone, and will be highly unlikely that I’ll have a change of plan. I tend to actually ignore it up until about a few days before I go somewhere. Often I’m either too busy, or I’m just focusing on enjoying where I am – something that’s very important for a happy life. Then about a day before my flight, I lay a couple things out on the bed. It’s simple now that I’ve done it too many times to count. Even simpler since I took on the carry-on-only challenge last year, and still use it as often as possible to this day. I usually pack my bags a few hours before leaving for the airport – and on the way out double check “wallet, passport, keys”. Everything else can be replaced or bypassed upon arrival. If you want to get technical, I suppose even those can be replaced too, but they’re the important ones that just keep things easy. I think the adrenaline of going somewhere new usually kicks in after the security gate at the check-in, if not as late as when sitting on the plane itself. “There’s no turning back now”. Then the excitement of adventure kicks in.

Ian Ord - Bako National Park in Borneo
Bako National Park in Borneo

Processing my trip happens throughout. Trying to focus on slow travel gives you a lot more time to absorb what’s happening. I also have really wild dreams when I travel – a good sign that my brain’s trying to make sense of everything. I usually have a bit of decompression after a trip somewhere to try to understand everything I just experienced, though life keeps moving forward, and rather than focusing on what just happened, I have to remind myself of staying focused on what continues to happen. Life!

Travel is just a highlight of life, and if made your priority, can continue to be one over and over again. The hardest step to take is that first one. Committing to yourself. Once you write it down “This year, I will travel to xxxxx” it is no longer a dream, but a goal. Go on… Try it!

Many thanks to Ian Ord for sharing his stories and inspiration for off the beaten track travel! Don’t forget to follow this blog, and if you ever need any tips on some of the spots mentioned, he’s got a wealth of info at his finger’tips’ for you!

Tune in next time when we interview our next off the beaten track world explorer, and sign up for email or RSS notifications so you don’t miss any of the excitement! 

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