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Trips gone wrong: Funny, scary and bizarre travel experiences, by the EL team


Every holiday can’t be paradise on earth. Here our staff share tales of travel that went painfully awry – some with happy endings and some without.

Lost in Trans-portation
It was a Friday evening four days before Christmas, and the roads to Hong Kong airport were chaotic. My husband and I, along with our six-month-old son, were excited about our trip home to Melbourne. We made it to the check-in counter on time, and my husband handed over the passports to the airline rep. After a few minutes, the woman said, “Sir, your passport is not here.” He replied that he had passed it over to her with the others. She said, “I’m sorry, but it isn’t here”.

Even though I never carry his passport, we started going through everything we had – my handbag, nappy bags and all of our suitcases. With no luck, we phoned our part-time helper to look for the passport at home, but to no avail. My husband was unable to board, so I trudged off to the plane loaded to the hilt.

Distraught, my husband went home (with a short stop at ParkNshop to pick up a six-pack) and turned the house upside down. No luck. The next day he organised a new passport and booked a flight for the day before Christmas.

Just before he left, he received an unexpected call from the airline – “We are very happy and sorry to inform you that we found your passport.” It turned out that the airline rep had dropped it behind the counter! Needless to say, when we returned to Hong Kong the following week, we were greeted with beautiful flowers and lots of apologies!

Karen Thomas, Australia

Beware of Kyoto Back Alleys 
On the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, I rattled off tidbits of guidebook info to my husband and in-laws. “Crime is unbelievably low in Kyoto, and the people are astoundingly polite.” I relayed every morsel of positive intel that I’d gathered in the previous months to psyche us up for our visit to Japan’s cultural capital.

Arriving after nightfall, half of our group headed straight for bed. My mother-in-law and I wanted to grab dinner out, so, feeling perfectly safe, we left our ryokan, made a left turn down a side street and were promptly greeted by a skeevy, sweaty, urine-stained old man who was… let’s say, giving us a free full-frontal show. A real performance, if you know what I mean.

They say there is a time in every woman’s life when this happens. This was mine. As an assertive female, I always thought I would pass this test with flying colours. Take back the control, they say! No problem. Instead, I cowered, completely shaken, and stumbled away. Contrast that with my mother-in-law, a gentle, delicate, doe-eyed woman who stood unfazed. Did I mention she’s from Brooklyn?

We ran back into the ryokan (I sprinted, she sauntered) to find my husband on a business call. In his socks, as is the custom in Japan, he was in the middle of an emergency at work, i.e. not a great time to interrupt. Seconds passed, then minutes. He finally hung up, and we told him what happened.

I come from a long line of cowboy types, Marlboro-style men, who believe that defending a woman’s honour is in their very blood. My husband is an intellect, a lawyer, a man whose career is built upon avoiding risk. How would he respond? Surely with a big hug and a rush order for a warm pot of tea.

Instead, he bolted through the door. I followed, with my mother-in-law’s wailings (“Nooooo!”) fading fast in the background. Over the next hour, my husband ran through the Kyoto streets like a rabid dog, seething, snarling: “Nobody, nobody, messes with my mother and my wife!”

An hour and a half later, we finally spotted him. The man was so old that he has no option to run. Instead, he slowly plodded down the road while my husband delivered a 15-minute tongue-lashing that would have made Christian Bale blush. We frantically yelled out for the police, but the locals were too baffled by the shoeless foreigners trailing the deranged local to care.

We eyed a police station down the road, which meant we’d have to leave our target to slink down a back alley. Inside, the language barrier was again a problem. We were forced to demonstrate the crime using graphic hand gestures and headshots snapped during the slow-speed chase. Finally, they handed us paper and pencil and asked us to draw it out. My husband complied. They took one look at the sketch, eyes wide in complete understanding, and stormed out en masse to find the culprit.

Dying to see the sketch? Check out the drawing that illustrated the dastardly deed on Monica’s blog at blog.expatliving.sg

Monica Pitrelli, US

A Turkey of a Car

Four of us – my wife and I and two of our brothers, Ferg and Ben – were backpacking around Europe when we hired a car in Istanbul for a one-week driving tour of Turkey. In a regrettable moment of frugality, we chose not a reputable international company but a back-alley operator called DodgyMotors.com (or something like that). After we had scrawled our signatures on a coffee-stained contract written only in Turkish, the shifty-looking company representative pressed a rusted key into Ferg’s palm and slipped away into the shadows.

When I pulled the passenger door shut, the glove compartment dropped open and the rear-view mirror fell to the floor. When Ferg turned the key in the ignition, the fuel-warning light bathed the interior in a rosy glow (we’d been promised a full tank).

Resigned to our fate, we reversed out of the alley and onto a set of railway tracks, where we promptly broke down – with a train approaching. A Hollywood scene ensued, with Ferg frantically turning the key, and the empty engine chugging away listlessly and in vain. (Ironically, we’d just checked out of a place called Hotel Petrol.)

We escaped – somehow – only for the car to break down again, two days later, in a town called Arslan (“Arse Land”, we dubbed it), whose only redeeming feature was its plethora of auto repair shops. There we stood for six hours, in the bitter cold, beside a pile of tractor tyres and some drums of sump oil. A greasy calendar of semi-naked girls on the wall of the garage reminded me it was 14 February. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I said to my wife with a smile, but I can’t say that the look she shot back was particularly romantic.

Shamus Sillar, Australia

To Greece – and Straight Back

The good thing about any bad travel experience is that it gives you a juicy tale to tell at dinner parties. Some years ago, Roy and I flew from Heathrow to Athens, he to spend the week visiting clients and I to do a spot of sightseeing. After that, we’d disport ourselves on the island of Skiathos for a week.

South Africans had never before needed visas for Greece, but, unbeknownst to me, that country had just joined the Schengen group of countries, and now I did need one. After two hours of grovelling, it became clear that the immigration bureaucrats were over-paid; even attempts at bribery and corruption failed – no way would they let me buy a visa on arrival. A bloated bureaucracy is partly why Greece is in the poo right now.

So I had to buy a rack-rate ticket on the next day’s flight back to London. Until then, I would rot in the airport jail, miserably trying to sleep on a rock-hard row of three plastic seats. And Roy? After fetching me a horiatiki sandwich, my loving husband went off to his five-star hotel.                

At 5am, to my terror, the door was unlocked and two raucously protesting Russian working girls were pushed in, scantily dressed and none-too-sober; like me, they were being forcibly deported. A couple of hours later, a guard escorted me to my plane – I was the last to board – and stood on the tarmac to see me off the premises, as it were.

Poorer and wiser, and this time with a visa, I arrived back in Athens just in time for our flight to Skiathos.

Verne Maree, South Africa

This Vegetable Has a Spinal Column  

When you’re travelling on the cheap, it’s inevitable that things are going to take a little bit longer. So when the beau and I decided to take the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (third-class, naturally – no true backpacker roughs it on the road), we were prepared for the long haul.

Or were we? Armed with two bottles of water and a good sense of humour, we were game for the 12-hour train trip.

We were impressed to find lunch served with a hot beverage; given the liquid’s disposition towards dishwater, we’re not sure whether it was tea or coffee. The container presented a piece of – eggplant? It was khaki in colour with a slimy grey circumference of… something. “It’s a vegetable,” I announced, proud of my diagnosis. Undeterred, I plunged in, shovelling lumps of rice with chunks of supposed-aubergine until caught off-guard mid-mastication by something solid.

I stopped abruptly and extracted from between my teeth: part of a spinal column. The slimy grey film suddenly seemed to swim in its polystyrene tank: an imaginary barbel in glutinous gravy.

I didn’t feel adventurous anymore.

Thankfully, the 12-hour slog came to its ticket-purported end. “How far are we from Chiang Mai?” asked the beau. The conductor grunted and pointed at the station board outside. We consulted the map and gulped. Halfway?

It had to be a mistake – a comedy of communication error, that’s all.

Seven hours later…

The bottle of Sang Som whisky was emptying fast. Having run out of water, we were drinking it neat, nursing the plastic cups with a prayer for an alcohol-induced coma.

A total of 20 hours later, we arrived, somewhat inebriated and mutually exhausted, having lost the previous day’s joviality. But we made it, with an exercise in patience.

I guess in the same way that life is less about the destination, sometimes travel really is more about the journey.

Alex Westcott, South Africa

First Whiskey, Then Water

I was trekking in northern Nicaragua with five friends, and we were using a map that – because of the unrest – hadn’t been updated for years. We’d had a hard night of fierce winds and were desperate to head down to a nearby river to collect water and have a wash. Unfortunately, when we got down to the valley we discovered the river had dried up.

Though exhausted, we had to keep going, so we decided to head for a military post we could see at the top of the next peak. It took us about five hours to reach it; when we finally got there the guards were in total shock. It’s not every day that two Nicaraguan military men on a lonely outpost are suddenly surrounded by five bedraggled Caucasians giving manic hand gestures and shouting “agua”!

After herding us into a group by waving their machine guns, one of them eventually took pity on us and offered us a drink… a sip of whisky! We all felt obliged to take a sip (a machine gun resting against the door will do that). Bizarrely, after we’d all tasted it, they let us free and pointed us in the direction of their water tap – I guess we passed the whisky test!

Kate Mallord, UK

Do you have any travel tales where things didn’t work out as planned? We’d love to hear them. Send your stories to editorial@expatliving.sg.