Solo Traveler Spotlight: Thomas Dong

June 14, 2018

A couple of fellow travelers and me were waiting for the bus to pick us up from the lobby of our hostel in Siam Reap, Cambodia, when we met Tom. He was coming from Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city, where he volunteered as an English teacher. Even though we spoke for like 30 minutes, we instantly clicked. He not only enjoys traveling solo, but also likes to help and get to know the communities he is visiting. Kudos, Tom! 

Thomas Dong Name: Tom

Nationality: Canadian, but my parents are from Vietnam

Country of Residence: I live in Toronto, Canada 

Occupation: I worked in retail management, and now I’m focusing more on my non-profit.

How many countries have you been to? 
I have been to 16 countries since 2010.

Why do you travel alone? Don’t you have friends? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
I travel alone because no one should stop you from being somewhere or doing something. Only you can do that.

Aren’t you afraid to travel alone?
No, but that is different and relative among different individuals.

How do you finance your trips?
I finance my own trips with money saved.

What is the most common misconception about solo travelers you have ever heard?                                                                    
Where I am from there isn’t a misconception about solo travelers. However, if I had to pick one it would be that travelers are rich. People ask me all the time how I finance my trips. I believe if one budgets appropriately they can go places.

Digital nomad or occasional solo traveler? Why?                     
Digital Nomad because it is a perfect way of utilizing time and making money while you travel.

Angor Wat, Cambodia

Angor Wat, Cambodia

Did solo traveling change you? How?
Of course, solo traveling changed me. I think one can find out more about oneself doing things alone rather than doing things with people. Traveling alone helped me explore things I am contempt with and helped me discover new things that I enjoy.

Tell me the crazies / funniest thing that has ever happened to you while traveling solo? 
I had left Gili Trawangan island in Indonesia to go to Lombok for a couple of days. While traveling I met another solo traveler and we both shared a cab to our destination. As we got to the hostel, she realized that she had forgotten her bag in the cab with all her valuables inside: passport, wallet, money, iPad, GoPro, you name it. The chances of getting it back were practically non-existent. After a couple of hours of searching for a solution and panicking we had to go back to the port where we came from. Miraculously, we found the driver who returned the bag to us. At that time there was a half moon party happening on Gili Trawangan and the hostel owner had invited us on their boat. We were hesitant because we had just left there. But in the end we decided to hop on. He was buying us drinks all night and we partied to a band covering songs from The Kooks and the Killers. It was amazing. The whole experience made me realize how a negative event can quickly turn into a memorable night.

Somewhere in a village in Northern Thailand.
You meet a lot of cool fellow travelers in Southeast Asia. But, I kid you not, the best human beings I met were the students in the places I’ve taught. I don’t remember all their names, but I remember the look they all had when they saw a new teacher coming to teach them English. You’ll never see a happier student in the world. This one smile doesn’t do any justice to the hundreds of smiles that crossed my path. But as this little girl lights up your screen, you’ll get a small taste of the hundreds of smiles that lightened up my day when I was there.

If you could be transported to one day / place in time, what would it be and why?
My trip to Cambodia in February 2018. The reason I would return to that place and time is because then I met some of my former students who helped me set up a new library for a school with donated books I collected in Canada. And also Cambodia is an amazing country. 

Tell me more about your volunteering experience.
After I graduated university, I decided to teach ESL (English as a second language) in a private school in South Korea for a year. When I completed my contract, I decided to travel around Southeast Asia for about half a year. That’s what most people do after they teach in Asia: they travel. However, for me just traveling and sightseeing wasn’t enough. I felt a great desire to help and give back to the community. So a huge part of my travels was connecting with students and non-government organizations. I found the schools through Workaway and other volunteers. I taught ESL at all of the places I volunteered at. There were some places that needed help with gardening and I would help with that as well. It was a rewarding experience. As I volunteered in private schools in Korea as well as in public schools in countries in Southeast Asia, I saw a huge difference in happiness, school supplies, attitude, and eagerness. In short, poorer students are a lot happier and willing to learn. Being Vietnamese brought up in North America, it was rewarding to give back to a place that is like a second home to me with people I can relate with. It inspired me to start a non-profit organization centered on helping students that could benefit from school materials from North America. I was fortunate enough to have all that time and freedom in Southeast Asia.

You have an unlimited travel budget. Give me your itinerary.
Well, that’s easy. All over the world. I’ll start in the west and make my way east.

Fill in the blank: the world would be a much better place without ________ .

Give me your one paragraph obituary, a long time down the road.
Tom wasn’t always the way he was. But whoever he was, he was a product of where he is from: Toronto. Being raised by Vietnamese refugees equipped him with a unique life that enabled him to see the world a bit differently. His love for history, politics and education fueled his desire to live several lives in different places. He claimed nothing that he did was extraordinary, or that he wasn’t unique in any way. Just that he was a kid from the city trying to do the right thing.

If you could give one piece of advice to first time solo travelers, what would it be?
Stay away from curry. That was actually the best piece of advice someone gave me. They said, “It’s gonna come out the same way it came in.” I stayed away from curry and most soups. And because of that my stomach and intestines treated me very well throughout my journey.


1 comment

  1. Comment by Thomas Nguyen Dong

    Thomas Nguyen Dong Reply June 15, 2018 at 12:21 am

    This was great!

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