Pongtharin Tanthasindhu needs little introduction. One of NomadMania’s nominees for Biggest Traveller 2021, he has now visited 176 UN countries, all on an extremely ‘challenging’ Thai passport. Pong, who is active on Facebook and Instagram, tells us about his adventures today. He is also a huge football fan, by the way, but this is for another interview…
Pongtharin, tell us something about your early life and how your interest in travel developed.
My name is Pongtharin (Pong), and I am originally from Thailand. I left Thailand when I was 13 and lived in India, Canada, and Switzerland. I have traveled with my parents since I was 6 months old, visiting nearby countries like Malaysia, Singapore, and Japan. As I grew a little older (5-6 years old), my parents took me on a month-long road trip around Europe, and that was how my interest in traveling first developed.
Growing up as a football fan, I spent days watching football documentaries and memorizing the flags and the capital names of different countries. In fact, football is one of the reasons why I was drawn to traveling in the first place.
In 2010, I took a year off from school to explore the world. I met a Swedish guy at the bus station in Cape Town during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He told me the story of how he took a bus from Sweden to South Africa, and that was how he inspired me to start my trip around the world.
A few months later, I booked my first trip to Turkey and continued my overland trip to Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Since then, it has been difficult for me to stop thinking about my next trip.
You are from Thailand – how do you believe this has shaped your personality and values?
I was born in Thailand but grew up in Canada as a teenager. Growing up in a multicultural city like Toronto has exposed me to people of different backgrounds and foods, which helped me for my trip, especially in my early travel years.
Being from Thailand has prepared me to understand how the developing world works and has allowed me to adapt better as a traveler, especially when dealing with corrupt officials.
In addition, as a person who enjoys road trips, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to drive in Peru if not for the driving skill that I acquired from Thailand. Likewise, I can easily switch back to how people drive in the developed world without any problem.
Furthermore, as a Thai, I had to put more effort into obtaining visas for many countries. As a result, it made me feel humble and lucky to be one of the few Thais who has traveled to more than 170 countries.
Pong sporting the flag Western Sahara
Do contemporary Thais love to travel a lot? How do your family and friends view your endeavour to visit every country in the world?
Yes, most Thai love to travel but only to mainstream places like Japan, Australia, Europe, or the USA. Very few individuals (at least that I know of) have visited countries like Afghanistan, Chad, or Mali. In fact, many of my family and Thai friends ofter wonder why I spent money to camp in a tent in the Sahara or risk my life traveling in war-torn countries when I could have easily traveled to nicer places like Paris or New York. Luckily they are now more acceptable because they are getting used to it and understand that I probably would not stop traveling.
Generally, Thai people tend to have less risk tolerance than average Westerners. As a result, you would hardly see them traveling to unusual places. In fact, I was full of surprise when I saw a Thai passport at the check-in counter at Tuvalu airport that I had to approach the person who happened to be one of my best travel buddies after.
And once we are still on Thailand – give us a few hidden gems of your country that most foreigners may not know but you absolutely recommend.
I have not been to too many off-the-beaten-path places in Thailand. However, there are a few areas that I would like to visit. Firstly, the three southernmost provinces of Thailand (Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat). A friend of mine went there recently, and she was overwhelmed by the hospitality of people. I simply want to see this area, not because of its bad reputation, but ethically we are different from them.
Secondly would have to be Thailand’s newest province, Bueng Karn. It is popular among the locals but not yet among the international tourists as very few individuals have made it to the Northeastern part of Thailand. Bueng Karn has two places that I would like to see. One is Naka cave, a newly discovered cave with a rocky surface that looks like the scales of a giant snake. Another is three whales rocks, a 75 million-year-old rock formation sticking out of the mountains. It earned its name because, from the proper perspective, it looks like a family of whales.
Lastly, the hill tribes of Northern Thailand for their own unique cultures, traditions, and customs, which are different from the rest of the country.
Now, turning to travel, you are at 176 UN countries and are on your way to becoming the first person from Thailand to visit every country. What motivated you to do this? Do you believe something will change once you achieve the feat and what are your plans after that?
As I mentioned previously in the first question, I met a Swedish guy who took a bus from Sweden to South Africa at the bus station in Cape Town. Inspired by his stories, I then booked my first trip to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and Iran a few months after meeting him.
A few years later, after spending time in various parts of the globe, my goal was to visit 100 countries. Once I reached the goal, I realized that there is so much more to see around the world, and this is just the beginning.
Once I visit every country, my plan is to travel to every territory and then hopefully to every region. In addition, I have also created my own list of underwater expeditions. Basically, I listed 32 places that I would like to dive around the world and so far I have done only 7 of them. This is another list that I would like to accomplish in my lifetime.
With the exception of some major nations like Angola or, surprisingly Nepal, most of your remaining countries are small island nations. Why is this? Do you have a timeline of when you would like to ‘finish’?
I like to do things in a specific way. For instance, I will go to the North Pole only if I get to dive there. The same reason applies to many island nations. For example, I will go to the Marshall Islands only if I qualify to dive in Bikini Atolls, or I will go to Seychelles only if I can make it to Aldabra
As for the Caribbean, it is one of the most accessible places to reach compared to the rest. That’s why I plan to do it at a later date.
That’s why I don’t have an exact timeline of when I would like to finish every country. In fact, I have not visited any new country since January 2020, even though I spent the last 15 months continuously on the road.
Give us a few of your favourites in terms of countries and experiences.
If I have to pick one favorite country for sure, it will have to be Afghanistan. I have been there twice, the first time in 2017 and the second time in 2021. I have visited 14 provinces so far but would definitely like to see all 34 provinces when possible. I had such incredible experiences there, from wandering around Jalalabad, staying at the local homestay in Daykundi, and traveling to Nuristan with a group of my Afghan friends.
The second would have to be a 50 hours boat ride along the Niger River from Timbuktu to Mopti in 2021. I had always wanted to visit Timbuktu ever since my first trip to West Africa in 2012; however, three months before my trip, there was a coup d’etat that led to the Fall of Timbuktu. I had a chance to revisit Mali again in June 2021 to visit both Gao and Timbuktu. Although I made it to Gao, I failed to reach Timbuktu again due to numerous flight cancellations. Because of this, I decided to return to Mali again two months later to visit Timbuktu, this time by boat
Lastly, I abseiled 400 meters down into the hypnotic “lava lake of fire” of the active Marum volcano in 2018 on Ambrym Island in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Add to the fact that I was one of the few people (less than 50) and one of the last people who had done it as a fissure eruption of the flank of the volcano started a series of events that led to the destruction of the lava lake 6 months after I went down.
And tell us a few of your memorable travel stories that have really shaped you.
Surely, this would have to be my first trip to the Middle East on my own as a traveler. In 2010 I spent a month traveling from Istanbul to Syria, Egypt, then Iran. This was my first experience in the Islamic world, and it was completely different than anything I had seen before. I enjoyed my first trip so much that I had to book another trip 2 weeks after returning from Iran.
Another one would have to be my first trip to West Africa. In 2012, two years after traveling, I decided to spend two months overland from Senegal to Nigeria. I was 22 at that time with minimal experience of the continent. I was overwhelmed by West Africa at first but started to like it toward the end of the trip as it has taught me to become a better traveler. Looking backward, this was the first challenging trip for me as many things went wrong during the journey.
You seem really an intrepid overlander. Are you not afraid when you travel alone in difficult places?
If the place is considered too risky, I will hire a guide to come along with me. Otherwise, I prefer to do it on my own.
I prefer to go overland when possible because I like to learn a bit about the country and see how the locals live their daily lives. Sometimes I find the roads more interesting than the actual sight itself. In fact, I already plan to make a road trip to India and the whole African continent.
How do most local people perceive you as an Asian man?
Generally speaking, most people will assume that all Asians are Chinese, so I was called Chinois or Chinito a lot, especially in my early days as a traveler. Nowadays, as more Chinese are traveling, I don’t hear it as much as before.
I remember when I went to Nigeria for the first time in 2012, a motorbike guy was trying to charge twice because he thought I was from China. However, once I explained to him that I was from Thailand, he said he loved my country then dropped the price.
Do you believe more and more people from your part of the world will be aiming to become big travellers in the future?
Yes, I do; in fact, that’s what a group of us are trying to do. We started a travel company that plans to take Thai people to visit off-the-beaten-path places and help them achieve their goal of visiting every country.
Once people realize that it is possible to visit every country in the world with a Thai passport, I am sure more and more people will be interested, especially for the younger generation. However, I believe that most people will try to visit every country instead of every region of the world.
So what are your most recent trips and your travel plans for 2022?
In the latter part of 2021, I visited Niger for the second visit since the Gerewol Festival in 2019. This time I visited The Aïr and Ténéré National Reserve. After that, I went to Colombia to spend a few weeks in the Vaupes department to see the Cabiyari tribe and Jirijimo waterfalls. I also visited Pakistan in late December.
Next are, hopefully, Syria, Sri Lanka (1st visit), and Tibesti in Chad.
Finally our signature question – if you could invite any 4 people to dinner, from any period in history, who would your guests be?
Steve McCurry – his photos, especially the one from Afghanistan, has drawn me to a country in the first place.
Amos Nachoum – an amazing underwater photographer and explorer who has done something that I could only dream of.
Carlos Soria – a mountaineer legendary who has scaled 11 of the 14 highest peaks since turning 60.
Any of the world’s most traveled people – fortunately, I have met and traveled with a few of them already.