Sole Sister Spotlight: Wander 2 Nowhere with Noel

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau3

I met so many wonderful, amazing, inspiring and passionate people at the recent Asian Women's Empowerment conference in Kuala Lumpur. The best part was that they were not all women. One exceptional guy I met was Noel Lau of When I first met him, he seemed reserved and shy. But when I heard what he had to say during the Travel Talk panel, I realized: this guy is badass! I couldn't help but chat with him and interview him for Sole Sisters Spotlight! I'm pretty sure us girls can learn a think or 2 from this hardcore traveler:

When did you start a travel lifestyle? What inspired you to take that big leap?

I left Malaysia in 2004 when I was 30 years old. I had a budding corporate career as a trainer for a 5 star international hotel but I wasn’t happy. I felt like a robot just going through routine day in and day out. I was looking for more. I was looking for freedom. And it was then that I was reading Paulo Coelho’s book ‘The Alchemist’. The message I got from it was “when you follow your destiny, the universe conspires to help you.” Another quote that inspired me to travel was “life is not measured by the amount of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away”. Ever since I was a kid, I had dreamed about traveling the world so I decided to quit my job, to sell of everything and leave. I’ve never looked back since. And indeed the universe has helped me through all these 10 years of life on the road.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau1

How does your family see your travel lifestyle? Are they always supportive or do they sometimes show concern?

I am the black sheep of the family. Whenever I call home they would ask when am I coming home. And when I am home, they would ask when am I going to settle down. It’s not easy for them to understand or accept what I do, especially for an Asian family. We are conditioned to land a secured job, save for the future, strive for success, etc. I’ve talked to my family a few times about it but I know it’s difficult for them to comprehend, so I am not forcing the issue as long as they respect my decision.

Like all parents, mine are constantly worried about me, my safety, my future, etc. Once, I was in the wilderness of Patagonia and didn’t realize that it was Chinese New Year and didn’t call home. My mother couldn’t sleep for few nights. And when I finally called home I was chastised by my father. My parents never directly support my lifestyle, but they have never pressured me to stop. And for that I am extremely grateful.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau4

Do you think you'll ever put down that backpack and settle down somewhere?

This is a tough question to answer. After being on the road for almost a decade, I do feel the need to find a base; a place where I can go back to rest, recuperate and to prepare for the next adventure. I have enjoyed the freedom of not having a home, the freedom to call any and every place ‘home’, but there were times where I felt exhausted to start all over each time I settle in a new place for a period of time. It can be hard to make friends (as real friendships require time and effort), and even harder to say goodbye to them when I leave. So having a base is ideal. But I can never stop traveling ;)

Has there ever been a place that you have gotten close to calling "home"?

Yes. I lived in Madrid, Spain for almost 3 years and I felt very much at home there. I had a group of close friends and I loved the Spanish way of life. But I wasn’t ready to settle down and the call of adventure was too strong to resist. So I packed up my backpack and went to South America.

What are some major risks you've had to undergo in order to keep moving?

When I moved to Spain, I had about 70 euros in my bank account. I had no job and I didn’t know anyone in the city. It was quite unnerving. But I was determined to make it work. I was lucky I met someone who let me crash on his couch (that was before couchsurfing) and I had no problem finding a job. I was almost robbed a few times and actually gotten robbed twice in Colombia. But in none was my life ever in danger. I had also lived in 2 countries illegally. I knew the risk involved when I made the decision and was prepared to be deported if I was caught. It made for a juicy story to tell friends and grandchildren (if I ever have some). But I was very lucky and was never caught. I did have to bribe an immigration officer to give me an exit stamp though.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau9

Who is the most memorable person you have met on your travels?

I’ve met many incredible people in my travels that have inspired me, encouraged me and shaped me to be who I am today. Many of them have become close friends and I hold them dearly in my heart. One particular person I’ll always remember is someone I met when I was just starting my travel. He is also called Noel. We are a few years apart but we had so much in common that talking to him felt like a communion of 2 parts of a same soul, like soul brothers. When I left Malaysia I was on a journey of self discovery. I wanted to shred the baggage of societal expectations and conditioning. I wanted to find out who I really was, not who society told me to be. Talking to Noel made me realized that I wasn’t crazy, there were people out there like me too, and I wasn’t alone. He encouraged me, challenged me and helped me to open my mind. I saw him as someone who had found himself and I aspired to be that. And after almost a decade since our first encounter, I can say that I am happy with who I am.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau6

Have you ever had a holyshit-I'm-gonna-die moment while traveling?

Hell yeah! It was when I was robbed at knife point by a gang member in a comuna/favela (shanty town) in Colombia. I had gone there for a friend’s birthday party and stayed the night, since it wasn’t safe to leave the area after sun down. So the next day while most of my friends were nursing their hangover, I decided to go home by myself. The metro station was about 400 meters away and it was morning so I wasn’t worry. Just as I was about to reach the station, a tough-looking guy came up to me, took out a switchblade and then proceeded to do a body search on me. I was really scared at that moment. There were people passing by and some even looked out from their windows. I asked for help but no one batted an eye lid. After what seemed like eternity, he put away the switchblade and let me go. He didn’t even take my money or my cell phone. I was relieved but shaken. Later I found out from my friend that because of gang related territorial fight; gang members were suspicious when they see new faces in their neighborhood.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau7

How do manage to keep traveling? Is there any special work that allows you to fund your trips?

I find work along the way. Whenever my saving runs low or I like a place enough to stay for a period of time, I would look for job and work for a few months, or even a few years. I started doing temporary jobs in cafes and restaurants, and then I started to teach English when I lived in Spain. And when Chinese became popular I also taught Chinese. I’ve work in hostels, sometimes in exchange for free stay. I’ve also done translation and interpretation jobs. Now I am slowly getting into writing.

A friend and I have started a small group tour. Our trips aim to bridge the gap between independent travel and group travel. This means a small group and no tour buses and boring lectures. We will be using public transports and eating where the locals eat. Our pace of travel will be slower allowing us to gain a deeper understanding of the place and culture. On top of that, we have years of independent travel experience and will be sharing some of our tricks of the trade with you. Come join us

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau5

Are there any funny, unique jobs you've done while abroad? 

When I was traveling in South America I met many young people, who wanted to travel but didn’t have money, so they made bracelets and necklaces, performed in the streets and did whatever they could to make money. I was very intrigued by their lives. They really live their life without a safety net: they eat what they earn for that day. They don’t make a lot of money so they travel slowly, usually staying in a place a month or so to make enough money to get to the next town. I was attracted by how they really live in the present. So when I met some of these young people in Cartagena, Colombia I decided to be one of them. I didn’t know how to make any handicrafts, the only thing I could do was make origami and write names in Chinese. So I bought some colored paper and pen and started my life as a vagabond. In the afternoon I would set up my ‘stall’ outside the university and many students were intrigued by what I did. I wrote their names in Chinese and made bookmarks, and I made complicated origami of stars, cubes, etc. for sell. I even gave some origami lessons to a few interested students. In the evening I would set up at the touristy areas. It was fun and exciting.

It was also a lesson on humanity. There was camaraderie among the artists, on days when someone didn't make a sale, those who did would buy him/her a meal. Or when police came to chase us away, we would help each other pack so their stuff would not be confiscated. We helped and looked out for each other. I was also subject to look of disdain on a daily basis from the well-to-do locals and tourists. When I greeted them they would look down on me with an expression of indifference, and sometimes, of disgust. It taught me humility and I learned that generosity is giving no matter how little you have. It was one of the most enriching experiences I've had.

What kind of skills or know how would you consider necessary for someone who is thinking of long term travel?

I benefited a lot from my language skill, I could speak a few languages when I started traveling and I could pick a language up quite easily. This has helped me a lot to meet people and have a more in depth experience of the places I visit. When you speak to the locals in their language you shrink the divide and create a connection. Traveling is not just about seeing sights and having a great time, the essence of traveling is about connection; your connections with the place and the people. Being able to speak the local language will also help you to find job much more easily.

Sole Sister Spotlight: Noel Lau10

What's one piece of advice you can give to someone who's traveling with no plans of coming back?

I think the most important thing about long term travel is to be flexible and open. Things sometimes don’t go according to plan but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have great experience. Some of my most memorable experiences came from some spontaneous decision. For example, when I went to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago (St. James’ way) I still had 4 months left on my UK’s working holiday visa. But when I finished the pilgrimage I felt that I wanted to live in Spain, so I decided to stay. And I never regretted it as I totally enjoyed my 3 years living in Spain.

And always ALWAYS live in the present!

Noel Lau was born and raised in a small town in East Malaysia (on the Borneo Island). He grew up in quite a traditionally Asian family. Eschewing family expectation he left a thriving corporate career behind and started his wandering life. Noel travels slowly, prefer to take time to know a country through its culture and people rather than just a temporary visitor. 10 years and more than 50 countries later, he continues to carry his backpack, treading through beaten and unbeaten path in the name of experiencing the amazing feeling that only travel could bring: being alive. Noel blogs about his travel at

Want more? Read other features on Sole Sister Spotlight.

Do you know of travelers who conquer the world one country at a time? We would love to interview them for Sole Sister Spotlight. Please send us an email at solesisters (dot) weare(at)gmail(dot)com. We look forward to your suggestions!

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Sole Sister Lois

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3 sole trails

  1. What a great inspiration this guy is!

  2. I'm happy we have met him in KL Yolanda! Such a remarkable traveler!

  3. Cool interview! I was one of those lucky ones to run into Noel by chance back in 2005...and we've been friends ever since!


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