Phil Marcus is an avid traveller with a special niche – a fascinating YouTube channel which indexes the best videos available per country, thereby providing an incredibly researched, high-quality resource for travellers. Phil enthusiastically recounts some of his travel experiences for us today.
Tiebele, Burkina Faso
Phil, tell us something about your early life and how your love for travel developed.
When I was a small child, I was never able to sit still and loved to learn new things outside of the classroom. So, I guess I was destined to be a traveler!
Growing up in Miami we never took international flights, but my family would go on an annual cruise to the Caribbean. My father’s client was the cruise director for one of the top companies and we went for free – the only catch was that we stayed in tiny crew rooms, with no windows and barely any space for a family of four.
I didn’t care, in fact, it taught me from an early age that where you sleep isn’t as important as the experiences you get. I loved hearing the different accents of the Caribbean people, tasting unique foods, and just getting out of my comfort zone whether it was sliding down a waterfall or snorkeling in the pristine waters. Though I didn’t try it as a kid, I can trace my love of SCUBA back to snorkeling in the Caribbean, and now I’ve logged 300+ dives all over the world.
As I got older, my grandparents became avid road trippers and would hit the road every summer in their powder blue Lincoln Continental. When I was eleven, my cousin and I joined them on an epic two-month trip to 30 U.S. states. I loved the excitement of being in a new place every other day, seeing what the hotels would look like, and experiencing new things for the first time. Looking back, for me traveling is like being a kid again!
On that trip we had a grand plan to see a game at every major league baseball park along the way, but unfortunately that summer there was a strike and all the games were canceled. It was certainly a bummer, but we still were able to take some stadium tours.
More importantly, that experience taught me that in travel, things don’t always go as planned – you’ve gotta roll with the punches and keep a positive attitude because, hey, you’re still traveling! Another great lesson ingrained in me at a young age.
After college and before grad school I was fortunate to take a six-week European backpacking trip with five friends. During this trip I was really able to put my lessons learned to the test as we slept on floors and SO many things went wrong. I learned to appreciate the times when things didn’t go our way because they always made for the best stories.
In total we traveled to seven countries so at that point I had reached maybe 10 total countries. It never crossed mind that visiting every country was possible, nor was it a goal of mine, especially since once I returned to the U.S., I hit the grad school books and then started and grew several online companies. One in particular was successful and allowed me to buy an apartment in SF which appreciated over the years.
Eventually start-up life burned me out so after my last company, I decided to rent my apartment for six months and travel. That was ten years ago and I really haven’t stopped traveling since! I learned quickly that by staying relatively cheaply, and traveling to developing countries (my favorite anyway) I’m able travel with the rent I collect.
So, yeah, staying in that crew cabin REALLY taught me a valuable lesson!
You’ve been to 3/4 of the world’s countries – which ones stand out and why?
Well, my favorite place in the world is a continent but not a country… Antarctica! It’s funny because when people ask me why I like certain places, the ones that stand out do so because of a combination of the people, food, culture, sights and nature.
Antarctica really only has one from that list, but the nature is so spectacular that it trumps everything. I love the very real feeling of literally being at the end of the earth – how the skies look so different from anywhere else, the sunsets appear like the world is on fire, and the wildlife, especially the penguins, are not afraid of humans.
Then there’s the camaraderie of being on a small vessel with other like-minded adventurers. I’m a photographer and enjoyed taking a photo-centric trip where people collaborated and helped each other to get and process the best shots. While at sea we many times had group slideshows and it was enlightening to see how others interpreted the same scene completely differently.
I’m very much looking forward to returning to Antarctica and next time, I plan to SCUBA dive under the ice!
And which ones disappointed you, and why?
I’m an optimist and can find the good in most everything. Sure, there may be aspects of certain countries that may not be as appealing as in others, but that’s part of the excitement of exploring – taking the good with the bad.
I’ve never had such a bad experience that would make me “disappointed” with an entire country or lead me to say I had a bad time overall. Honestly, it’s almost impossible for me when people ask “What’s the worst country you’ve been to”, because any place new is exciting for me!
So give us a couple of travel stories that really made a difference to you.
My first time volunteering was as a photo documentarian the slums of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the classroom with kids as well as following around hospice workers as they visited terminally ill patients in their huts.
There was one lady who, despite her HIV+ condition, was in such good spirits and so happy to see us. She had two small children, the youngest was around 3 months, but looked much younger because it was severely malnourished. The mother had been getting some formula donated from a local NGO, but it was not enough so she had been rationing it by feeding the baby only a small portion of what was needed each day.
So, the other two volunteers and I pitched in to buy a three-month supply of formula for the baby and it made all the difference in the world. A couple months later I received a picture of her and she was thriving!
Since then, I try to volunteer whenever I’m on the road for an extended period of time, and when I’m home (at least pre-pandemic) I tutor underprivileged kids once a week.
Another impactful experience was visiting my first of many Muslim countries and interacting with, by far, the most hospitable people in the world. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited into people’s homes for home cooked meals or been refused payment for day-to-day goods or services. Plus, for the most part, I feel safer in Muslim countries than I do back at home.
I know how many of these countries are portrayed in the media so I make it a point tell everyone who hasn’t visited a Muslim country, that they SHOULD!
Volunteering in Ethiopia
What is your weirdest travel experience?
I’ve had ridiculously good luck (knock on wood) and during the past ten years haven’t lost or had anything of value stolen while traveling. However, after 14 months of traveling in Asia, when I was making the long journey home from West Papua to Jakarta to Tokyo to San Francisco, I had quite the scare.
On the flight from West Papua to Jakarta I was sitting in the last row, engrossed in a book and waiting patiently for everyone to de-plane. When it was my turn to leave, I opened the overhead compartment and my bag with my passport and all my camera equipment was gone!
At this point there were no other passengers on the plane so I walked up and down the aisle, searching, but it was nowhere to be found. I approached the flight attendant and she told me to go down the stairs and talk with a guy in a pick-up truck.
I now had two choices (1) run after the passengers and try to find my bag on my own, or (2) trust the guy in the pick-up truck who spoke no English.
I decided to trust the guy and he quickly drove me to the back entrance of the baggage claim, where we arrived before the luggage and other passengers. A couple of minutes later the passengers started to arrive and the two of us cased the joint. Soon, a man walked in with my bag, I called my guy over and we stopped him.
He didn’t speak any English and tried to play dumb like it was a mistake, but handed my bag over without any questions. Then the Jakarta airport police came and wanted to know if I’d like to press charges. I said “no” because that would have taken too much time and I just wanted to get to my hotel, sleep and go home the next day. I did, however, request a photo of the perpetrator, who obliged
You have a unique You-tube presence. Tell us a bit about your project and the videos you have collected.
I’ve always used YouTube for travel research, but find that, while many videos are super useful, the majority are not and you can waste a ton of time on bad videos. I also love playing travel agent when my friends are planning a trip.
Enter “Phil’s Guide to the World”…
When the pandemic hit and I found myself with free time on my hands, I decided to curate a library of the highest quality videos from the best YouTubers for every country and U.S. state.
Each country’s playlist contains all different types of videos: cinematic 4K drone shots, top ten lists, cost and safety tips, kid-friendly ideas, action/adventure sports, wildlife, shopping, nightlife, the list goes on. In total I’ve selected over 10,000 videos for the entire world!
Playlists for every country are on my channel now, and often I host a country-specific video where I spotlight clips for some of the best places to visit. I also show footage from my experience in that country.
Best videos from top YouTubers for every country in the world!
So, what is the aim with the project?
To not only save people time researching places they are traveling to, but also to introduce them to places they may not have even considered visiting. Ultimately, I’d like the channel to be the go-to places for travel research and entertainment.
Will the videos be expanded, or do you consider the project finalised, for now?
Far from finalised! I’ve tried to cover all the major spots in each country, but I’m only one person and new and better videos are being uploaded every day.
I encourage NomadMania members to submit videos they’d like to see on the channel. Please send an email with suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org, DM me on Instagram @philsguide or just leave a comment on any of my YouTube Videos.
I hear you travel with a Muppet. Which one and why?
Before embarking on my first six-month adventure, my friend suggested that I bring his small paper-mache owl (which had real feathers on it) to use as a photo subject in front of the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, etc. The poor guy was too fragile and definitely wouldn’t have lasted through six months of travel, but my friend said he didn’t care – he just wanted to see whatever photos I could take.
So that was my plan, but when I was locking the door on my storage room, about to head to the airport, I saw a familiar face staring back at me…. Beaker!
Beaker was a gift from my sister ten years earlier, and had never left my house. He’s got a really funny face and his orange hair really pops on photos so I thought it would be fun to use him instead of the owl.
What I didn’t expect was the reaction he would get from locals – or that he’d end up being the perfect ice-breaker, my ticket to bridging the gap between cultures.
People from all over the world inevitably want photos with him. And though they may not know him from “The Muppet Show”, they are curious, and from these interactions, I’ve been invited to a wedding in Seoul, a funeral in Indonesia and dinner with locals in Japan!
Beaker also allows me to capture wonderfully candid photos with people, and more importantly, he makes them smile.
Beaker in Japan
Do you feel that all the social media aspects of travel add or detract from the authentic travel experience?
That’s a really good question. I say “to each his own”, as long as it doesn’t affect the enjoyment of others. For example, while I wouldn’t personally record an entire cultural show because I’d rather be in the moment and watch with my eyes and not on a screen, it doesn’t bother me when others do it.
I’m certainly guilty of taking lots of short videos with locals for my YouTube channel, and most of time people are excited to be on camera, but I err on the side of caution and don’t record when it might be intrusive. I guess that’s where you draw the line… be inclusive and not intrusive!
Young locals in Karakol, Tajikistan
How has covid influenced your travels? Have you travelled at all during this time and what are your plans for the rest of 2021?
In mid-March 2020 I was in Gambia, a month into a six-month African adventure to 15 countries. Once border closings were imminent, I decided to pull the plug on West Africa, fly to Istanbul and ponder whether or not to return home to San Francisco.
With my San Francisco apartment rented, and COVID cases in the U.S. worse than in Turkey, I decided to stay in Kas, Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, a spectacularly beautiful place I’ve always wanted to return to. I thought I would only be there for a few weeks, but I ended up staying locked down in paradise for six months! During this time, I created “Phil’s Guide to the World” and starting making videos of my own.
Then a couple friends and I took a month-long road trip through Eastern Turkey & the Black Sea coast. From there I flew solo to Zagreb, rented a car for 4 months and drove all throughout the Italian Dolomites, Switzerland and Croatia.
I stayed in AirBnb’s, cooked my own food and had my own transportation so I felt pretty safe from the COVID winter. And though I missed the human interaction I normally get traveling, the bright side was that many times I had entire UNESCO sites (like the Roman Colosseum in Pula, Croatia) to myself – so surreal!
After a long winter, I went to Egypt, where I spent 6 weeks in Dahab, on the Red Sea coast of the Sinai Peninsula. With warm weather and outdoor restaurants, I was so excited to eat out again and have more human connections. Plus, the SCUBA was unreal!
I stayed in Egypt until I knew I wouldn’t have to wait to get vaccinated at home, and in May, 15 months after leaving the U.S., I finally returned for the vaccination and have really enjoyed being able to safely see friends and family again!
While I’m thrilled to sleep in the comfort of my own bed, I’m sure I’ll get my normal 4-5 month itch to hit the road again. So, I imagine that near the end of the year, I’ll be back in Africa to finish what I started.
Lockdown in Kas, Turkey
And finally, if you could invite any four people from any period of human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Neil Armstrong: There was a time when I wondered what I would do once I reached all 193 U.N. countries, but then I realized… SPACE! And who better to pick the brain of than the man himself.
Sir Ernest Shackleton: Did I mention that my favorite place in the world is the Antarctic region? I visited during the 100th anniversary of Shackleton’s epic land crossing of South Georgia Island and would love to hear all about it.
Anthony Bourdain: Was there or will there ever be another traveler as cool as this man? He had a way of transporting us into his adventures with just the right choice of words. I would drink with him and listen to his stories all night long!
Prince: I shouldn’t need a reason to break bread with Prince, but I’d be very curious to hear stories about traveling the world as an international Rockstar!