Ammon Watkins has cumulatively spent over 10 years independently travelling the world, preferring to do things his own way. He has visited over 160 countries while crossing Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas overland. He mostly came by it unintentionally when a gap year turned into a 7-year odyssey. He now works as an air traffic controller back home in Canada and no, despite what many people believe, it doesn’t come with any travel perks.
What are three of your favourite countries, and why?
There isn’t anything I didn’t love about the country in my 2 visits there so far. The contrast and harmony between all elements there is fascinating and one we can all learn from. To have some of the world’s largest cities and such a high population density while also being one of the safest, politest and most efficiently run countries is quite an accomplishment. The Japanese attention to detail and their appreciation of nature, gardens and tradition adds such a rich depth overall and ensures there will be so much more to discover with each visit. No other country has made me ever feel so backwards in my own culture. I am also not a foodie in any way but Japanese is probably my favourite cuisine.
Being from a relatively young country/region of the world, I am drawn to countries with a lot of history and archaeological sites. It took me a few failed attempts before I finally got a visa to visit Iran independently but it was worth every effort. From the moment I crossed the border until the time I left, I met the friendliest and most helpful people in the world. It is full of world-class attractions with almost no tourists at all. It made such a good first impression I scrapped my other plans for that trip and extended my time there instead. I hope to revisit again someday.
This is more of a personal one for me. I have spent longer here and visited more times than most other countries so far. It is unfortunate that Manila generally makes such a bad first impression on visitors and I’ve had my share of hardships in the country too but the people more than make up for it. Filipinos are very welcoming, helpful and fun and I’ve made many lifelong friends after my time there. I found it to be one of the easiest places to couchsurf, and the diving is excellent. There are so many islands to explore and getting off the beaten track out into the countryside is not difficult and full of rewarding gems. Filipinos are also very passionate about their country and I’ve found it really easy to connect with them all over the world, including here at home.
Honourable mentions: Nepal, Spain, Oman, Mongolia, Ethiopia.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
I did the Everest Base Camp trek with my mom and sisters early on in my travels. The trek itself is beautiful and Nepal is a wonderful country. Struggling up that last hill in the dark at such a high altitude, fighting against your own lungs in freezing temperatures is not something to take lightly. Sitting at the top of the viewpoint and finally seeing the sunrise over Mt. Everest and revealing the incredible 360-degree view around you is just as breathtaking and gives a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
Divemaster Koh Tao
I’d been on the road for a few years and was feeling a little burnt out and directionless when I arrived in Koh Tao, Thailand for what I’d intended to be a couple of days of diving. I ended up convincing myself to take a chance and do the Divemaster course there. The extracurricular activities in Koh Tao are not really my scene but what followed was a great couple of months spent in and on the water and making some great friends and memories in the process. This was a real personal challenge for me as I had been terrified and nearly given up on my Open Water course in Dahab, Egypt a few years before. To not only overcome this fear but take it to a higher level really exemplifies the concept of personal growth through travel for me.
My first trip overseas was a 2 week holiday to the UK with my grandmother when I was 18. Up to that point I had only ever been on family camping road trips around Canada and the US and to a child, they might as well be identical from a cultural standpoint. Travel wasn’t something I really considered of much interest beyond family holidays to that point. I was honestly naive enough at the time to think the UK was going to be more or less the same.
We spent a week in London and a week on a bus tour looping up to Scotland and through Wales and by such humble beginnings, an obsessive traveller was created. I was so culture shocked by that initial ride in from Heathrow that I realized that the rest of the world must be even more different and interesting and I simply had to know. It was still many years and trips later before I really started to consider visiting every country as a realistic goal but I can still very vividly remember that moment of wonder on the tube.
What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?
Rejected by Equatorial Guinea
In 2012 I went to Chad for a month to help a friend with a project. My plan after was to revisit Cameroon, see a few new places and make quick hops across the border into both the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea. The first went as planned but when I turned up at the Kye-Ossi border to Eq. Guinea they wanted nothing to do with me. Theoretically, I should have been able to enter without a visa on a US passport but no amount of explaining, cajoling or pleading could get me in. I did all I could right up to the top official of the border post without success and gave up before getting arrested. I was told to go back to Douala and fly in instead.
A few days later I flew out of Douala to Ethiopia and although the flight landed in Malabo, I had been unable to change my ticket to include a stopover and had the frustrating experience of being forced to sit on the plane and stare out the window, once again so close. I still haven’t attempted to go back. Maybe it will end up being my final country.
Robbed in Morocco
I was with my family in Fez during Ramadan. We had been told a few times to be very careful at sunset because thieves would strike when the streets would be otherwise empty. Unfortunately, the place we were staying at locked us out during the day and nobody would open it up until after their meal in the evening.
We were basically forced to be outdoors at that time and had been relaxing in a park and in a classic case of nobody being sure who was responsible for looking out for what, a very fast street kid and his cohorts managed to snatch one of our cameras and a few other less notable items. It was a rookie mistake on our part and they were a very experienced group so we had no chance.
The most frustrating part was that I had planned to backup all the photos later that night so ended up losing a significant portion of our pictures from the north of the country. I’m very fortunate that this has been the only real theft from me in all the years I’ve travelled.
Future destruction of former visits
I think it is absolutely heartbreaking to visit a country, have great experiences, meet wonderful people, go home and a few years later watch it get destroyed on the news. Whether it is by war, natural disaster, mismanagement, etc it is terrible to see when you have a personal connection with the place. Syria and Yemen were fantastic countries to visit before their wars. Venezuela continues to deteriorate and at least in that instance I know some of my friends there have made it out. On a smaller scale, watching or hearing ignorant viewpoints on various people or places by the media, neighbours or colleagues is annoying. Trying to enlighten them is usually an exercise in frustration but we still have to try.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Nothing is more important when travelling. Things won’t always go as planned. Things won’t be as efficient or logical as at home. Issues can often resolve themselves with a little time. I never paid a bribe crossing a border in Africa though I was asked many times. Waiting patiently was the key and 90% of the time took less than 15 minutes. Tourists are seen as being in a hurry and are charged accordingly. Slowing down has saved me a lot. Patience also means taking time to get to know a place. Meeting locals takes time. At a loss for what to do for the day, I have often just sat in a local square and let the world come to me. Locals will approach and I’ve had many great days and interactions that have started by just sitting and waiting for things to happen.
Travel independently as much as you can. I might travel with others at times but I am prepared to do it alone if others can’t make it. Travel is meant to be a personal experience. You’ll have the flexibility to change plans and interact much more with locals if you aren’t on a tour or with a group of friends. It’s not as scary as you might think.
Obscure border crossings
I have done most of my travels overland and I love to plan routes that cross borders at random tiny outposts where you have a chance at being the first tourist to cross in a long, long time, if ever. The look on the faces of the border staff is often priceless when you turn up and there won’t be any scammers preying on ignorant visitors. Transport might be an issue but I’ve been dropped off, walked across a border and been helped by the guards themselves in arranging onward transport or hitchhiking further. It’s a good way to turn an overlooked and relatively mundane process into something more memorable.
Do you have any favourite hotels or restaurants?
I think staying with locals is more memorable than hotels and this would always be my preference as long as I had enough time to be a respectful guest and not feel like I was just taking advantage. I’m not a foodie at all but Joe’s Beerhouse in Windhoek was memorable for its wide variety of delicious game meats. I also wish I knew the name of the little hole-in-the-wall place in Sapporo that served the best miso ramen ever. I still crave it.
Do you have any favourite cities?
I’m not a big city person generally but a few stand out including Rome, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Edinburgh and Kuala Lumpur.
What are some of the worst places you’ve stayed?
Having spent years as an extreme budget traveller there are way too many contenders. Generally, I can handle truly awful conditions but the one thing I can’t handle is bedbugs. With that in mind, the worst might automatically be a hostel in Tangiers. We had just flown into Morocco, it was very late and we asked a taxi to take us to a hostel. Exhausted we checked in, jumped in beds and fell asleep only to be woken shortly after being eaten alive by bedbugs. I slept on the cold concrete floor after spending an hour trying to pull out all the bugs now hidden in my sleep clothes. The next morning we told the staff about the bugs to which they responded that they knew and that was why the hostel was scheduled for indefinite closure that day so they could exterminate the place!
If you can only choose one:
Favourite airline: Any that gets me there safely.
Favourite airport: Vancouver
Favourite island: Iceland
Favourite people: Filipinos
Favourite small town: Waterton Park, Alberta
Favourite travel website: worldheritagesite.org