Celebrity Travel Addicts: Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food

In this edition of Celebrity Travel Addicts, we speak with my friend Joel Bruner, a food enthusiast who has made a name for himself as both a travel vlogger and as one of the essential team members at Migrationology and Eating Thai Food. I spoke with Joel about the importance of travel in his life, why food is a great catalyst for uniting people, why he considers himself lucky to call Thailand his home base, and much more. Check out his favorite destinations around the globe and find out what’s next for him!

How did your passion for travel get started?

My parents moved from the US to Africa a few years before I was born, so I grew up moving to a different country every few years. It took at least a few moves before I realized that this wasn’t a ‘normal’ way for most people to act, but to me this was just our life.  Learning to love reading as well, it wasn’t a big jump to start wanting more adventure for myself as well – and thanks to my parents, I was already (somewhat) ready to start!

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food in Yangon, Myanmar after moving to South East Asia in 2010.

What does travel mean to you? Why do you feel it’s important?

I think travel can help us understand ourselves just as much as it helps us experience life with others, and its just a very quick way to force ones’ self to do this learning when we physically move ourselves completely out of anything that we’ve known before. I think ‘travel’ is all about being as in-the-moment as possible while you’re ‘out,’ and then reflecting upon and learning from the travel whenever you’re ‘back home,’ (and I also think that those who do travel/can travel have the obligation to share/teach others from the little bit they’ve learned from these gifts of experience as well!)

Where does your love of food come from? When did you first realize that trying different cuisines was a passion of yours?

I love learning, and learning while eating just seems to be the best way. I love how easily the shared experience of ‘needing to eat food’ can lead to new friendships, it’s almost like a Free Pass to have a small look into another culture, and all you have to do is be ready to appreciate something new and unknown (and edible!).

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food meeting a fan in an airport in Suriname in 2019

You’ve been on many food adventures around the world, both solo and with your good friend Mark Wiens. What would you say is the most surprising or most eye-opening food experience you’ve had while traveling?

The single edible item I love the most is any type of warm drink, and so the more I travel, the more I appreciate how EVERY human can relate to the feeling of their own special or favorite warm drink in hand. After each new trip, it’s just so special to think back on all these times that I’ve been able to sit/stand side by side with (that) person, in (their) home, and enjoy a cup of (warm drink) with them.

What are some of your favorite ways food has allowed you to connect with others while traveling? Why is food such a great catalyst for making connections with others?  

Google translate is an amazing bit of software, but I doubt it will ever come close to the magical and instant connection you can have with someone who doesn’t speak your language, doesn’t know a thing about you, but sees your honest and genuine reaction when you enjoy the first bites/sips of their country’s local food, and immediately welcomes you into (whatever adventure comes next)… its always a blessing experiencing this moment, and it will never, ever get old.

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food staring down the spiciest plate of food he’s ever eaten in Thailand in 2016–complete with over 60 chilies!

You guys have two food-related sites, Migrationology.com and EatingThaiFood.com. Can you please tell us a bit about each site and what makes them unique?

I have to say first off that Mark has put tons of work into Migrationology, and I have just been helping more recently (for about 3 years now, and I have written almost 200 articles, but Mark is past 1,000 articles – inspiring!) This blog is unique in that it is one of the few blogs out there I see that’s only trying to encourage, equip, and prepare the reader to go and do a similar/same type of thing (if they wish) for themselves. There are no hidden parts, nothing left out for personal gain or exclusivity, and we just want to motivate anyone out there with the simple truth that these experiences can be had by anyone – we are just fortunate enough to be doing them today, and on rare occasion, doing them first. Migrationology currently contains in-depth articles and information, and many free travel guides, on over 50 countries. Very importantly, thanks to Mark’s success on YouTube, the site does not need much in the way of advertising, and has much less of the clutter of some pages which are more full of links, ads…

Eating Thai Food! Different than Migrationology, this site focuses purely on Thailand. We still keep the same focus on food and people, as we are pretty sure that food is the most easy and comfortable way to get a true local experience while having next to nothing else as far as prior knowledge/experience, but this site has much more (near-expert?) detail as well. While Migrationology can only explain our own experience traveling (as tourists, and not experts), Eating Thai Food is (hopefully) a complete list of everything you will need (language tips, including Thai script, and exact ways to order) you will need to eat (or make! with recipes at home) food that a local Thai person would also enjoy. Info on how to find the restaurants in Thailand, choosing places that even a Thai person would love to visit and take their friends as well, these are all key parts of the website, and I’m lucky to have a part in bringing authentic Thai food to the world through this website as well.

In addition to traveling with Mark, you also document your own food adventures on your YouTube channel. Can you please tell us about it?

To try and keep this answer short, instead of visiting 1000 places a single time each, or a single perfect place 1000 times, I guess I would choose to visit 100 different places, ten times each in my life 🙂 I always find myself wanting to return to the places I’ve been, and see what all those new friends have been getting up to in the meantime!

I am SO lucky to call Thailand my home base (its been 11 years now on my own), and its been an honor lately to now be making videos of my experiences in Thailand as well (just 1 year now on YouTube) – I am just barely reaching the level I would consider needed to call ones’ self a ‘local’ (only on Thailand, nothing else), and its been awesome, and a wonderful journey, and I’m so grateful even now.  I have been to all 77 of Thailand’s provinces, most of them many times each, and have been lucky to learn intricate details of Thai life, society, language, and even the geography incredibly well (I have cycled over 90,000km in Thailand as well, I prefer to use a bicycle to get around, even multi-day trips, which is its own source of fun as well, and this is what I make videos of for YouTube!).  So using Thailand as an example, I guess I want to just show and motivate everyone to find out for themselves how the world holds a truly endless amount of things worth getting SUPER excited for, whether the scale is overseas, or just a trip outside your own front door… and all you need to start is to be willing to get up and go.

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food on his favorite trip with Mark Wiens: their first trip to Pakistan in 2018

How many days/weeks do you travel in any given year? What types of places do you like to visit?

I keep an annual tally (as a sort of competition with my dad 🙂 ), and last year I slept in my own bed for just 106 nights out of 365 (the year 2019). I love feeling ‘far from home,’ but I do not like to move around too quickly. I love the chance to spend 4 or 5 nights in each city (instead of just 1 or 2, which can be super tiring after even just a few weeks!), and after about 2 months of constant travel, I find that experiences start to run together. For me its no longer worth it if I can’t separate my own memories from one another, and therefore 2 is usually enough time to head home, rest (digest all the photos and write a bunch of blog posts 🙂 ), and rebuild some energy stores to go back and do it all again.

What do you want audiences to gain and learn from your work?

That we have absolutely nothing to fear from the unknown, and that the world is made of 99.99% (or more) of people who pretty much all want the same thing as we do – to be loved, to sleep peacefully at night, and to find joy in ‘the little things’ waking up each day. The ‘unknown’ people out there are just as curious as you are, just as potentially friendly as you are, and learning just a bit more about anything ‘unknown’ can only make you enjoy your own experience in this world all the more.

What are the top three destinations you’ve visited?

Instead of being specific, I will just say that I have found China, India, and Brazil, to be incredible on so many levels. Each of these 3 countries is like its own world, just endlessly full of possible experiences that are, in their own ways, completely unique.  In these 3 countries (which for me was 5 combined months’ worth of visits between them), I rarely ever found myself saying “oh, this is just like ____,” and instead it was almost always, “Wow. Now that is just unlike anything I’ve seen before.”

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food using his favorite mode of transportation on a road in Thailand, where he has traveled more than 90,000 km by bicycle

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, the best place to have lunch, the best sightseeing, etc.

Because I am working on an article for Belem, Northern Brazil today, this beautiful place is on my mind. Wake up with a walk in the historic district (full of Portuguese-style architecture), and have an espresso of local coffee beans from Para (or even more famous, neighbouring province Minas Gerais).  Sip your coffee, or take it to go, and enjoy a morning walk next to the massive and peaceful Tocantins River.  Continue on to the Ver-o-Peso fresh market (next to the historic district) and watch vendors unload crazily beautiful exotic fruit and fish from their boats. Feel the Samba music (which is surely playing from at least one of the vendor’s lively stalls), and maybe pick up a few dance moves as well (Brazilians love dancing as much as anywhere in the whole world). 

Walk into the market itself, and if you recognize any pictures of the fruits from the fresh tables outside, then try them in an Amazon jungle fruit smoothie (I learned at least two dozen new fruits in just this 1 morning myself…). Last but not least, as its probably time for your first lunch by now, move on to the cooked food section of the market and try at least one portion of Manicoba (cassava greens, and usually includes strips of dried meat jerky), a bowl of incredibly sour and gorgeously aromatic Tacaca (sour from fermented manioc paste, and heavy with local chili peppers), and a third plate of Vatapa (a thick, creamy paste made with Brazil nuts, and dende red palm oil) – eat all of them with white rice, and call it a successful morning. (*and if you’re too full to have all 3 plates in a row, within walking distance is a free and amazing botanical garden, full of thousands of wild birds, take a stroll there and come back for a 2nd lunch at your leisure 🙂

How many countries have you visited so far?

I think 36 (and I don’t think its fair to count a place if its less than 24 hours…).

What are your top 3 favorite cuisines?

Very difficult… 🙂 ha! Thai, Chinese, and Thai/Chinese.

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food enjoying a meal after “cycling for food” in Thailand in 2018

What is your favorite restaurant in the world? What dish do you recommend there?

“Raan Boi-Sien” on Attawimol Soi 6, near Victory Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. One of those places with love in every dish, you might eat here every night for a year and never be bored. Have a dish of firm tofu fried with bean curd and chives, a ‘red-fire’ plate of Thai morning glory with tons of garlic, and an omelette of thai sweet basil and red onions. Cover each bite of white rice with a spoonful of chilis and fish sauce from small porcelain bowls on every table, and enjoy paying around 3$ a person no matter how many people join, no matter how much food you order (sort of kidding, but our bill always ended up being about 100 baht a person 🙂 amazing, and this was our ‘local dinner spot’ for the first year we lived in Thailand (2009), and I think its still there today…)

What is your favorite travel movie?

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (exactly the type of travel story you always want to listen to someone else tell, and never yourself).

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food enjoying his current favorite activity, bicycling through the mountains of northern Thailand in December of 2019

What is your favorite international airport?

Awesome question! Heathrow (London, England), not for convenience, but for the incredible mix of people 24 hours a day!  As a kid it just held a lot of fun memories… but ok, now that I don’t mind a more relaxed travel experience, the Shanghai airport is wonderfully quiet for being such a massive airport – very cool to experience.

Which city had the friendliest people?

I thought about this answer as much as any in this entire list – Phrae, a city in Northern Thailand, its just beyond belief how many smiles from strangers you can get in one day here…

Who is your favorite travel companion?

It’s hard to top any trip with anyone besides Mark Wiens, and I’m always excited for whichever one is coming next!

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food with some young cyclists in northeast Thailand in 2020.

What is the best way to kill time while traveling?

If I’m with people, then I’ll always try to talk, and if I’m alone, then I will come up with lists in my head. Maybe something like, “My top 10 favorite condiments” – something like that could take hours!

What is the most exotic place your career has taken you?

The Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan (you’ll either be struck speechless, or find yourself writing poems and songs immediately…).

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food exploring the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan in 2018.

What is your best bit of travel advice for someone who wants to, or is about to, embark on a life of travel?

It’s a wonderful thing how all of our experiences are going to be different (even standing side-by-side, two people notice different things about anything), and so I think that if you truly understand just two basic things (basic, but often overlooked facts of human existence!), you’ll be in a place of gratitude, and hopefully good humor, and somewhere on the right track to begin life-long travel.

First of all, none of us humans really know anything about anything at all (but we are all trying our hardest to make it seem like we do!), enjoy this whenever possible, and listen more than you speak. The second would be that at pretty much all times, everyone you could ever meet has much more in common with you than they don’t, so look for the fun in this, and enjoy the road before you.

What are 4 things you could never travel without?

My knife (for cutting fruit), a pen and paper (for learning new languages), and a waterproof bag (for the pen, the paper, and the passport, because a wet passport can literally change your life (probably not for the better, not that day anyways…).

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food holding a large durian fruit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2016.

What is your ultimate dream destination?

In a small but super-decked out adventure van, a 2-month trip to Alaska.

What is your favorite travel quote?

From Into the Wild, “Happiness is only real when shared.” (Alex wrote this while he was dying, alone in Alaska, in someone else’s old adventure van).

Where do you hope to go next after the pandemic is over?

I’ve had my first real taste of China, and I’m hooked – I can’t wait to go back!

Bio

Joel Bruner of Migrationology and Eating Thai Food at the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2019.

Hi everyone! I hope you’re smiling, and that your thoughts are full of at least one thing to be grateful for today!  My name is Joel, and if I had a superpower, I would wish to live (almost) for forever, because I would absolutely love to meet each and every person on the entire planet earth. I would love to have the time to chat, and then to give (you) all a high-five, and a hug as well.  I write for these 2 blogs on behalf of Mark Wiens (migrationology.com, and www.eatingthaifood.com), and my own YouTube channel can be found by searching my name – Joel Bruner.  Of all the social media platforms, I like the format of IG the most, and if you like IG as well, you can find me there @kru_joel. Ok, that’s all, have a great day everyone!  Do good where you can, and spread love even when it hurts, and you will always, always find yourself in a better place for it!

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