In this edition of Celebrity Travel Addicts, we speak with Barbara Weibel, a former real estate agent who now manages Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel. We chat with Barbara about what kick-started her love of travel, daring to follow her own path when it came to travel blogging, living as an expat in Thailand, and much more. Check out her favorite destinations around the world and find out where she’s going next!
How did your passion for travel get started?
It started at a young age, about 11, if I recall. My uncle gave me an old Leica viewfinder camera with really good German ground glass lenses. From then on, I was rarely without that camera. Around the same time, my father was gifted with a subscription to National Geographic Magazine. He refused to throw out a single issue, so they stacked up in our front hall. Each day after school, I would rush home, sit cross-legged on the floor of the hall, and spend hours reading the articles and perusing the photos in those magazines. From that point on, my heart’s desire was to be a travel writer and photographer.
How many days/weeks are you traveling in any given year? What are the types of places you like to visit?
This has changed over the years. Initially, I headed out on a six-month round the world trip in 2007. Upon returning, I split my time between traveling around the U.S. and staying in a rented apartment in Florida for the next 2.5 years. Finally, at the end of 2009 I gave up my apartment and began traveling full-time with no home base. With the exception of one 15-month period, when I returned to the U.S. to care for my father, I traveled full time for the next eight years.
Sometimes I would spend months at a time going from country to country in fairly rapid fashion. Whenever I needed a rest I would stay in one place for a longer period. I’d fallen in love with Thailand during my first visit, some 17 years ago, and found myself being drawn back to it time and again. It soon became my go-to place to rest and recover; I spent progressively more time in Thailand each winter. In the autumn of 2018, I finally decided to settle down permanently in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I am now living. I still travel about five moths per year, but it is wonderful to have a place of my own that I can return to whenever I choose.
As for the types of places I like to visit, they run the gamut. Sometimes I’m drawn to a particular history. A good example of this was my strong desire to visit Vietnam. Growing up during the Vietnam War, I felt the need to confront the history of that war head on. Other times, I’m fascinated by some element of the culture of a place – music, food, festivals, etc. Occasionally, I’m inspired when I read about places in other travel stories or novels. I never really know what is going to strike my fancy and define my future travels.
You run a popular travel blog called Hole in the Donut. Where did the inspiration behind it come from? What makes it stand out among the other travel content out there?
I spent 36 years in soul-sucking jobs, but was too paralyzed by fear to pursue what I truly loved. It took a major illness to make me realize that I needed to stop worrying about money and material possessions and start being true to myself. By the time I finally walked away from corporate life I felt like a donut – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. As I headed off on my first round-the-world trip, I was determined to fill that hole in my donut, so I thought it was an appropriate name for my fledgling blog.
From the beginning, I refused to produce the kind of content that most other bloggers were writing – top ten lists, how-to stories, etc. I was repeatedly told that the literate storytelling I wanted to pursue would never be successful. Experts insisted that I would need to adopt a more formulaic writing style if I wanted to rank well in Google. I’d spent 36 years selling my soul to corporations and I refused to do the same this time around. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve stayed true to my vision and to some degree, the industry has moved in my direction. Top ten lists still get high rankings, but Google now values original, literary writing much more than they did in the early days.
You suffered from a long-term illness before you became a full-time traveler. What advice would you give to people who have health issues and want to travel?
Gosh, I really don’t know how to answer that. Every person is different and every illness is different. However the one piece of advice I’ll give to anyone who has serious health concerns is to make sure you purchase a travel insurance policy that includes medical evacuation in the event of an emergency.
In 2017, you became an expat living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. What makes Chiang Mai such a great travel destination? What do you recommend travelers do there when they visit?
There’s no other place in the world that calls to me like Chiang Mai does. First, I absolutely love the culture. Thai people are gentle, caring, and respectful. A few years ago I began to feel invisible in Western countries. Younger people no longer went out of their way to engage me in conversation (until they found out I’m a travel writer and wanted to know how to do what I do). In Thailand, the older generation is highly respected for their knowledge and talent. I feel valued here. In addition, the food is incredible, prices are extremely affordable, and the weather is great. And as a practicing Buddhist, I love that Thailand is a Buddhist country.
There is SO much to do here. It is said that there are so many temples in Chiang Mai that one could see a different one every day for an entire year. Each temple is different and they are all beautiful. Shoppers will be delighted to know that we have five huge malls and several multiplex cinemas. Huge walking markets every Friday and Saturday night offer live entertainment, scads of food, and literally thousands to vendors selling everything from clothing to traditional Thai handicrafts. We have a Zoo, a Botanical Garden, a Water Park, golf courses, and several museums. Every morning, dozens of markets sell fresh produce; some of those same markets become food courts at night. The universities regularly offer cultural events including art showings, concerts, and dance performances. The vibrant expat community in Chiang Mai has developed clubs for almost every interest: photography, sketching, writing, technology, etc. And that’s just in the city proper. Venture just a short distance out of town and there are hot springs, caves, entire towns devoted to a single handicraft, hiking trails, and much more.
What do you want audiences to gain and learn from your work?
When I began this life of travel, I believed that people everywhere are more similar than different and that there is no need to fear those whom we see as “other.” Thirteen years of travel to more than 100 countries and territories has only strengthened that belief. With every story I write, I try to convey that message. My mantra continues to be that the better we know one another, the less likely we will want to kill one another.
What are the top three destinations you’ve visited?
Well, at least you didn’t ask me to name only one, which is the question I get the most. Frankly, it’s impossible to narrow it down that much. I like different places for different reasons. For instance, I love Thailand and Nepal for their cultures and peoples. However, I also think everyone should visit Machu Picchu in Peru – it is without doubt the most awe-inspiring place I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, in Europe I adore Croatia and Bulgaria, and I was blown away by recent visits to Tibet and Ethiopia. But then there is also New Zealand, which is not only beautiful but has some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I could go on, but I suspect that’s enough.
Give us your ‘Top 5’ list for one of your top 3 destinations. Like a mini-guide or a to-do list of sorts. It can be anything from your favorite hotel, best place to have lunch, best sightseeing, etc.
Nepal should be on every travel wish list. It is a stunning country with lovely people, a large proportion of whom speak English. My top five recommendations for sightseeing in Nepal are as follows:
- Visit all seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley (Kathmandu Durbar Square, Patan Durbar Square, Bhaktapur Durbar Square, Boudhanath Buddhist Stupa, Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple), Pashupatinath Hindu Temple, and Changu Narayan Temple)
- Do a safari in Chitwan National Park
- Visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Shakyamuni Buddha
- Either fly to Lukla and trek to Everest Base Camp to see Mount Everest, or take a flightseeing flight across the face of the world’s highest mountain
- Visit the second most popular tourist destination in Nepal, the city of Pokhara, on the shores of pretty Phewa Lake
How many countries have you visited so far?
To date I’ve visited 98 countries and eight non-sovereign territories
What are your top 3 favorite cuisines?
Thai, Nepali, Lebanese
What is your favorite restaurant in the world? What dish do you recommend there?
The best restaurant I’ve ever been to is Tiesto’s Café Restaurant in Cuenca, Ecuador. “Tiestos” is named for the clay platter was used to make dry roasts of coffee, wheat, beans, barley, or corn in the Andean culture. All the item on the menu are prepared and served in clay pots and plates. I highly recommend the tasting menu, which consists of several courses, beginning with an appetizer tray that will fill you up if you’re not careful. This is followed by scrumptious soup, an entrée of the day, and dessert.
What is your favorite travel movie?
Sorry but I don’t have one.
What is your favorite international airport?
Changi Airport in Singapore.
Which city had the friendliest people?
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Who is your favorite travel companion?
I prefer to travel solo
What is the best way to kill time while traveling?
Lounging around in coffee shops is one of my favorite things to do, especially in a new city, as it always gives me insight into the culture
What is the most exotic place your career has taken you?
Again, you want me to choose one place – LOL. Impossible. How about two? The Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas Island archipelago in French Polynesia
What is your best bit of travel advice for someone who wants to, or is about to, embark on a life of travel?
Try to stay entirely present. If you obsess about the past or worry about the future, you will miss what is right in front of you.
What are 4 things you could never travel without?
I’m afraid this list is largely dictated by what I do for a living: my Macbook, my iPhone, my camera, and a good flashlight.
What is your ultimate dream destination?
See my previous answers.
What is your favorite travel quote?
I don’t have one
Where are you headed next?
I’m off to Europe soon for a Scandinavian tour
After years of working 70-80 hours per week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, a serious illness made Barbara Weibel realize she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. In 2007, at the age of 54, Weibel walked away from her successful career, sold or gave away most of her material possessions, and began traveling around the world in pursuit of her true passions: travel, photography and writing. Initially, her intention was to travel for six-months, but by the time that first trip ended Weibel realized she could never return to a “normal life.” These days she divides her time between traveling around the world and her apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Read stories about her adventures on her blog, Hole In The Donut Cultural Travel.