Syazwani Baumgartner is a Malaysian woman that has visited 108 countries at the time of this article. Here are some of her favourites.
I grew up in Malaysia and left to do my undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the UK in 2005.
I made friends with a Japanese guy who stayed in the same dorm room as I did in a hostel in Tallinn, Estonia during the Easter holidays of 2007.
He was telling me about his extensive travels which prompted me to ask him how many countries he had been to. He answered 63.
I was shocked. Back then, I had never met anyone who had travelled as much as he did. I must have only visited around 20 countries at this point.
Within days, I found myself making the goal to visit 100 countries before 30.
Seven years later, at the age of 28, pregnant with my first child, I stepped foot onto Kuwait, my 100th country. I was alone, it was Ramadhan, and the temperature was 48 Celsius.
I am now 34 and travelling with three kids in tow. My country count has increased very slowly – stuck at 108 since summer 2018, which means only eight new countries in the last six years.
But we still travel a lot, just not to new countries.
My eldest child is now five years old. He visited his 30th country and 6th continent at the age of 3.
In his first year, we were flying somewhere every six weeks. He has also been to London at least ten times.
How many countries have you been to?
What are three of your favourite countries and why?
My three favourite countries are completely biased but for excellent reasons.
Switzerland (my current home) for its beautiful mountains and lakes which allows for endless gorgeous hikes. It helps that there is also an abundance of some of the best chocolate and cheese in the world.
Malaysia (where I was born and grew up) has arguably some of the best food in the world and the warmest and kindest people. There is so much to see, do and experience thanks to its mixed ethnicities of the population and the mixture of city, rainforest, islands, etc.
Japan (I did my Masters in Japanese Studies) for the food, technology, people, culture and the incredible experiences I had there. I stayed with a Japanese family and learnt to speak Japanese with my Japanese mom – both of us holding a dictionary, trying our best to communicate with one another.
What are three of your favourite cities, and why?
London is my home away from home. I spent a lot of time in London whilst studying in the UK. We go at least twice a year mostly to see friends, watch a musical and have some great meals.
Ichan Kala, the inner city of Khiva where only pedestrians are allowed, is such a charming little place. The old town which retains more than 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses made me feel like I had travelled back in time to when it was a bustling city on the ancient Silk Road.
I would go back to Cartagena in a heartbeat to sip that delicious limonada de coco, soak in the laidback vibe, watch the sunset by the sea, get lost amongst the city’s colourful buildings, take a walk at the park and spot the sloths and iguanas on the trees and have a gorgeous meal at Restaurant Alma after a swim in a rooftop pool.
What are three of your favourite hotels, and why?
Whitepod in Switzerland
Who doesn’t love sledging from your room to breakfast where hot chocolate awaits?
This is my children’s favourite place in the world.
Second is Leukerbad, the largest thermal spa resort in the Alps.
Wisana Redang in Malaysia
The white sandy beach and clear blue water would make you think you’re in the Maldives, Seychelles or Barbados.
But within a few strokes, swimming away from the beach, you will see turtles and more turtles.
Redang Island is a heaven for turtles.
Wisana Redang has only ten rooms. It is not luxurious but also not expensive. Yet, the seclusion and being able to see turtles, seconds from the beach, makes it a top hotel for me. I cannot wait to return.
Casale di Citrignano near Ostuni in Italy
This property we just stayed at in September was just so wonderful. It has been beautifully restored. The private pool is gorgeous. We never wanted to leave.
What are three of your most memorable meals and why?
There are too many. I still clearly remember that guava crème brulee after that amazing seared tuna in Grenada in the Caribbean. The caramelized onion bread and that slice of Earl Grey cream flan at the Ledbury in London. My first Kobe beef in Megu in NYC and first ootoro somewhere in Japan. The time I cried when I tasted the most amazing passion fruit sorbet at Alain Ducasse in London. That tagine we had in a Moroccan stranger’s home after six hours failing to hitchhike out of Paris. Or how about that some we had in Uzbekistan after I had to make myself understood using basic Russian and lots of gestures trying to order what the people next to our table were eating.
But let me share 3 memorable meals I’ve had:
Somewhere in Shibuya, Japan.
There are only 2 tables in this restaurant run by a husband and wife who used to be very famous – they had their own TV show and more. All you had to do was tell them what you cannot eat and they will prepare the best meal you have ever had.
The food arrives, one after another. We were eating for surely 4 hours.
I’ve been told that it costs 500usd per head. I’ve been lucky to eat there on three separate occasions. I never had to pay for my meal. 😊
As with any Michelin starred restaurant, you get an amuse bouche from the kitchen when you arrive. Kadeau, however, took this to another level. We had TEN different little amuse bouche plates of food. Each bite had at least five different exotic ingredients.
I looked at my watch. We had been sitting and eating these little treats from the kitchen for one whole hour, and we had yet to order anything!
Everything was amazing. The food was incredibly delicious. The staff were some of the best we’ve dealt with.
Somewhere in Istanbul, Turkey.
We were staying with a friend from University. Her dad was someone high up at a local TV station. After taking us around the sets of the TV station, we were whisked to a restaurant which had pictures of famous people who had dined there, all around its walls.
Chatting away while waiting for food to arrive, suddenly it seemed that the whole restaurant’s gaze was planted on a tray that was wheeled out of the kitchen. It was a little white mountain on fire. Everyone was looking at it, and we wondered at which table it would stop at.
Lo and behold, it stopped at ours.
A waiter took what looked like a mini fire extinguisher to stop the fire. Then another waiter took what seemed like a hammer and started hammering on that white mountain which we later realised was salt. Inside was a chicken and when it was cut, we saw the rice that had been cooked in it.
Needless to say, it was mouth-wateringly delicious.
What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?
I quickly realised that to achieve my goal of visiting 100 countries before 30, I had to travel solo. I booked myself onto an overland trip in Africa, where I slept in a tent every day for a month and found myself immersed in a group of people from all walks of life – some whom I would have never met had it not been for this trip.
It wasn’t easy. I felt alone despite being constantly surrounded by people and experiencing amazing things every day.
One day in Zanzibar, whilst everyone else went for a booze cruise, I stayed behind on my own and had a walk to the nearby village. I struck a conversation with an old man who was sat under a tree.
When finding out that I am a Muslim, he asked me to recite some verses from the Quran. Another boy from the village joined us, and he invited me to visit his village.
I soon found myself in the homes of the locals. I had my hair braided by his mother’s friend visiting from the mainland, I watched his grandmother weave a mat, I spoke to his aunt’s friend who was visiting from the UK while his aunt was kneading bread, I watched some teenage boys practice judo, I said hello to his father who was playing a local board game with some other men, and I sat under a coconut tree, together with a class of school children who were singing Islamic hymns.
I felt so close to God. Despite being and feeling alone on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I felt loved and at peace.
I was fortunate enough to be the 13th person in 2017 to visit Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenland. Known as the most remote inhabited community in the western hemisphere with only 373 inhabitants, Ittoqqortoormiit is located above the Arctic circle at the mouth of the largest fjord system in the world.
Everything I experienced here was just incredible: landing on ice in the middle of nowhere, the helicopter flight that took us to the village, visiting Greenland’s warmest hot springs of 62 Celsius which contained polar bear skulls in them and seeing polar bear fur hanging outside peoples’ homes, hearing our guide’s story of seeing 100 narwhals whilst having breakfast one summer morning and a polar bear looking into his kitchen window one winter afternoon, seeing the northern lights for the first time from my bedroom window, driving a snowmobile on fresh yet rough sea ice with giant icebergs looming in the distance, tasting musk ox, worrying about getting frostbites and most of all, witnessing the most incredible sunset in my life as I endured a two-hour snowmobile journey back to the airport with merciless headwind whilst it was -25 Celsius outside.
We had just dealt with the difficult situation of a taxi driver trying to con us after having agreed on a fixed price for the journey from the airport to the hotel. After a short rest, we asked the hotel staff if they could recommend a good Korean restaurant as I wanted to have Korean for dinner (Kazakhstan has a huge Korean population).
They told us to go to a restaurant called Manam. I asked how we could get there. Someone from the hotel then took us to the bus station and explained to the driver that we were trying to get to Manam Restaurant.
We soon realised that the driver had no idea where the restaurant was. Every single person on the bus was on the lookout for this elusive restaurant for us. Every new person that came onto the bus was asked if they knew where Manam restaurant was, but no one did.
After almost half an hour, in the middle of nowhere in the outskirts of Almaty, I told my husband that we should call it quits. We decided to stop at the next stop, cross the street and head back to the city.
But suddenly, someone shouted MANAM! And the whole bus shouted Hooray of some sort and I swear to God there was a Mexican wave going on in the entire bus.
The bus driver stopped the bus. We couldn’t believe we finally made it to this restaurant. I couldn’t read anything on the menu as it was in Cyrillic, but I mentioned some Korean food words I knew, and we had the most amazing meal.
What are three of your best travel tips?
Have a plan but also not have a plan.
I always research the places I visit beforehand. I know some things I must do or places I must-see, but the rest, I leave it to chance. It could depend on what someone we met along the way recommends, for instance.
Now more than ever, it is also about what our kids are capable of doing based on our demanding travel schedule. We walked an average of 9km a day this summer in Tuscany when it was boiling hot after some big hikes in the Dolomites. Just imagine us doing this with kids who are five, four and two.
Don’t be afraid to travel with small children.
Our first child had flown to London, Amsterdam, Washington DC and Tokyo all before he was six months old. Our second child’s first flight was from Zurich to Auckland at the age of 3.5 months.
We flew to Toronto, Mexico, Colombia and Panama when our third child was 2.5 months old. Since covid, we have been doing more day and weekend trips, lots of long drives for hikes in the Swiss Alps.
Interview: November 2020.