21 Travel Secrets From Globetrotter Debbie Lim

This one should be read over a leisurely cup of coffee.

Paris girl Debbie Lim enjoys food, language and culture from all around the world. A translator and aspiring copywriter, she has a strange attraction to volcanoes and ruins, filling in the blanks and picturing what life was like when such places were in their heyday. The depth and breadth of her travel experiences blew us away!

Travel with Debbie Lim

1.Most stunning view of natural beauty you’ve ever seen:

As a lifelong city girl, I wasn’t always comfortable with travel in nature and used to feel vulnerable whenever I strayed too far from concrete structures. But the Eden-esque island of Langkawi, Malaysia, snapped me out of it for good. On the first morning at my B&B, I opened the window to find low-lying clouds against the lush backdrop of the rainforest, with free-roaming species of birds, frogs, butterflies and lizards I’d never seen before. Every day of my stay I saw more reasons to appreciate nature: the fertile mangrove, the limpid waters of Datai Bay, Telaga Temurun waterfall and a cave overrun by the cutest, fuzziest bats! To add to the charm, two of my favourite films were shot in Langkawi – Anna and the King, and Don (the one with Shah Rukh Khan).

Travel with Debbie Lim
Brown eagles amid low-lying clouds

2.  You’ve got a free ticket to anywhere in the world. Where would you go?

An epic ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which stretches from Moscow at one end to Vladivostok or Beijing at the other, spanning eight time zones and at least 144 hours of travel time if you don’t get off at any of the stops. I’d love to see and feel how cold it can really get in these parts, and watch the landscape change as the hours flit by.

3.Your most memorable airline experience

Towards the end of a flight to Palermo, a hilarious (to me) one-sided altercation erupted when a middle-aged man in a suit abruptly reclined his seat all the way, to the annoyance of the passenger behind him, who promptly yelled and punched the seat. Without a word, the guy in front turned backwards, widened his eyes to their popping limit and made repeated throat-slitting/choking gestures to the guy behind (think Sicilian Mafia style). The guy behind leapt out of his seat, ran to a stewardess and asked to change seats, saying he feared for his life. In the meantime, the guy in front continued taunting the guy behind (he didn’t get a different seat) with various wordless gestures until we landed.

Travel with Debbie Lim
Inside one of the craters of Mount Etna
Travel with Debbie Lim
Telaga Temurun falls

4.One unforgettable meal you experienced on a journey

Smelly Thursday, February 20, 2020

It was our third evening in the quiet neighbourhood of Pangrati, Athens. Every restaurant – sparsely occupied the previous days – suddenly had no tables available. And exceptionally high mountains of meat and smoking grills were planted in front of them!
After being turned away from several places, I asked a random guy what was up. He shrugged “It’s Tsiknopempti.” Literally “Smelly Thursday,” the last day observant Greek Orthodox Christians are allowed to eat meat before fasting for Lent. We eventually found a table at Trigono, a tiny kafeneio (traditional coffee shop), sans meat slabs or smoking grill.

A stack of menus arrived, with the dishes of the day printed only in Greek!
Now, I can read Greek, but nothing more advanced than Tourist Greek. Out of curiosity, I gave it a shot and attempted to decipher that menu for the fam. To my utter delight, it made perfect sense line after line! So the meal became memorable, not so much for what we consumed (awesome, by the way) but for what could have been – untasted food and cocktails due to unread, yet understood, words.

Travel with Debbie Lim
Inside Trigono, which occupies a triangular corner as its name implies
Travel with Debbie Lim

5. A hair-raising moment from your travels

When I missed the last bus from Mumbai airport to the Fort area, I felt so defeated that when a tout sidled up asking if I needed a cab, my gut conferred very briefly with my head before I said sure, bhai. What I didn’t count on was him getting into the front passenger seat when the cab arrived. Alarm bells rang, as any travel guide – and common sense – will tell lone travellers to never, ever put themselves in a situation of being outnumbered, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt.

Probably five minutes into the ride, the driver stopped at a junction and the tout turned to me with a gruff “Give me your money!” I felt the blood drain from my face, blaming myself for walking right into a stick-up despite all the red flags.

All I could muster was a “Why? We had a deal!” while running through my options. As he repeatedly demanded cash and pointed at my bag, I held it tighter. I was about to tell him not to hurt me when… wait, where or what was his weapon? Was this even a stick-up?

When they both started giving me exasperated looks, I finally noticed that neither guy spoke much English. Both were simply trying to tell me to pay the tout, who was getting down.
One simple sentence almost stopped my heart that day, but in what I call “हिंदsight” – the wisdom, hindsight and understanding I acquired only in India. My gut was right after all.

6.One place you’ll probably never go back to

Bali. Despite the beauty of its scenery and architecture, I was turned off by touts. They got, in my face everywhere I turned and then the frequent bait-and-switch when it came to prices.

7.A smart travel trick or tip you’ve learned as an avid traveller

Sticky tape and a safety pin have helped me jugaad my way out of countless situations. Tape always comes in handy, and customs never confiscates a safety pin, which cuts through tape as effectively as a pair of scissors.

8.One travel mistake you’ll never make again

Travelling with people you don’t know well enough!

9. One country that surprised you in the most amazing way—and why

Poland. I didn’t do my homework before leaving as my sole reason for heading that way was to finally meet someone I had been online friends with for four years.

My pre-departure idea of Poland was year-round bitter cold, too many consonants and pale food, but I was proven wrong on two counts. There was a heat wave when I landed. The food was pretty diverse, but good luck telling a cab driver to take you to Grzybowska Street, where my relatively unknown hotel was!

What amazed me was the kindness of strangers despite the language barrier, and the staying power of the Jarmark (St Dominic’s Fair) in Gdansk, a fair that has been held every year from mid-July to mid-August since 1260! I also managed to see the Baltic Sea for the first time and Sopot pier, the longest wooden pier in Europe. As for the soul sister, we went on to meet again in Paris and her home city of Hyderabad, and who knows where else next!

Old Town, Warsaw
Travel with Debbie Lim
The Jarmark in Gdansk

10.The most adventurous thing you ever did on your travels

Agreeing to go to Krabi by land from Singapore one New Year’s Eve without a return ticket. The whole journey took a total of 33 hours of travel and involved:

  1. a cab from home to the train station,
  2. an 8-hour train ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur,
  3. a sleeper train to Hat Yai,
  4. a coach to central Krabi (nowhere close to the beach),
  5. a ride on the back of a pickup truck to Ao Nang and finally,
  6. a tuk-tuk to the seafront hotels.

All that time on the road only to be severely underwhelmed, the earliest way out being a terrifying night bus to Bangkok four days later along unlit rural roads!

11.The first three things you do in a new city

Buy a bunch of local snacks and drinks, pick up some postcards and then crash for a nap as soon as I check in to recharge.

12.The longest—or most wonderful— road trip you’ve ever taken

San Jose to Napa Valley with an old friend, his wife, kids and mom. Before arriving in San Jose, I hadn’t seen this friend in 14 years. So, it was my first time meeting his kids, and then his mom the day we went to Napa Valley. I am a great fan of The Godfather films, so when I learned that Francis Ford Coppola had his own vineyard, obviously I had to pay it a visit, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, as he apparently spends a lot of time at the winery. Alas, I did not see him the day we went there. But we managed to squeeze in a wine-tasting package before moving on to several other vineyards. Sadly, many sections of Napa Valley were hit by multiple wildfires over the years so some of the places we managed to visit no longer exist.

The desk used in The Godfather, where Vito
Corleone held meetings with his consigliere

13.A unique place where you loved shopping

Tough call but I’ll say Sarojini Nagar in Delhi definitely hit the spot. I wasn’t looking for anything specific, but walked away with saffron and seasonings from Suhana, several 100-rupee pants that saved my trip and an shocking amount of namkeen from Jawaharmal!

14. One coffee shop or restaurant which you loved

Hands down, Supanniga Eating Room in Bangkok. Practically every page of the menu had something I wanted. But since I was there with my then seven-year-old, there was only so much I could order. The creativity of the dishes did not compromise their authenticity (they claim to use grandmothers’ recipes from Trat and Khon Kaen), and the mere memory of an appetiser as classic as their son-in-law eggs makes my mouth water. However, the real star of the meal was the fiery crabmeat and roe red curry. Look out for their Thai tea panna cotta as well!

Betel leaf tempura, bitter gourd soup, crabmeat curry and lemongrass martini

15.A fun secret from your current city that mostly locals would know

Behind a nondescript door on a street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, tucked away at the end of the courtyard, is the Armenian cultural Centre, which has a secret cash-only restaurant that looks like a dining room in someone’s home. It has a short menu of hearty home-style dishes, most certainly made by grannies.

16. A chance encounter you’ll never forget

Way back in 2006, I was engrossed in Bombay: Maximum City by Suketu Mehta on the metro in Lille. The young man seated next to me tapped me on the arm and excitedly pointed at my book and at himself in quick succession to say that he was from Maharashtra! I learned that Anubandh was in France as a student at the campus near my office, and we enjoyed many books by the same authors.

Fortunately, we exchanged e-mail addresses before we parted ways because over the years, both of us moved several times but kept in touch by e-mail and Facebook. Through him, I got to know a lovely Bindhu in Bangalore a few years later, who also read many of the same books, one of which fed the dream of meeting up at Leopold’s in Mumbai someday… When I told her that I was finally visiting India this year, she put me in touch with an Amartya in Hyderabad (where I met both of them), who shared all the best places to buy even more books in Mumbai! So thanks to one book that led to a chance encounter.

17. The most interesting thing you’ve brought back from your travels

A colourful collection of shisa figurines from Okinawa, where my sister now lives. Shisa are derived from Chinese guardian lions, and come in pairs – the one on the right with its mouth open and the one on the left with its mouth closed. According to Okinawan mythology, the one with the open mouth wards off evil spirits (or breathes in prosperity, according to my sis), and the one with the closed mouth keeps the good spirits and/or fortune in.

Assorted shisa figurines

18.One local traditional dish you’d recommend to visitors

A decent bowl of French onion soup, made with nothing but the simplest ingredients . Onions cooked over a slow fire until just shy of burning, simmered in a flavourful broth with soupçons of thyme and garlic, then topped with the previous day’s leftover bread. A generous layer of broiled shredded gruyere. It’s harder to find than one would assume. The one I swear by is not for the faint of heart. It and can be slowly savoured at Le Falstaff near Montparnasse, one of my usual haunts.

19.A book or a movie that inspires you to travel

There is one city that I never tire of reading or watching films about – Bombay. Rohinton Mistry conjured up the sights, smells and rituals of Parsi life through all his books. Shantaram described in vivid detail the inner workings of the jhopadpatti, Arthur Road Jail and the laid-back atmosphere of Leopold’s. Bombay Maximum City led me aboard the crush of local trains and the underbelly of the city, among thousands of other mental snapshots I had of the megacity from countless films and books before I set foot there and knew my first visit would be the first of who knows how many.

Travel book inspiration

20.Your favourite way to indulge in some armchair travel

Chatting with friends and family who live abroad and learning about their way of life through the eyes of immigrants.


21.And then there was this one time…

In Aegina with my partner and younger son. I convinced them one day to travel to Palaiachora, literally “old town” in Greek. In my hasty pre-holiday research, I saw that it was one of the island’s attractions but didn’t actually see pictures of it. I was puzzled when the taxi driver asked us if we wanted him to wait around to drive us back. I eyed him suspiciously before declining and he didn’t insist. His question suddenly made sense when he dropped us off under a rusty sign that said “Palaiachora” at a deserted clearing and sped off. If I had looked at photos during my research, I would have noticed that Palaiachora was the former capital of Aegina until it was abandoned in 1826! Since we were in the middle of nowhere, and the only way was up, we braved weeds and prickly thistles for more than an hour, encountering only two other humans along the way. We made our way back down and staggered to a nearby church where, fortunately, someone was waiting for a taxi and was happy to share his with us!

View of the Saronic Gulf from atop Palaiachora
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