Helen Started Her First Blog Differentville On a Taipei Toilet With The Goal Of Highlighting The Best Weird Travel Destinations Around The World
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In this post, we are featuring Helen, a journalist, author, and blogger from Sydney.
23rd May | 11 min read

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    At GAFFL, we love to publish inspiring travel stories from adventurers around the world. You can connect with adventurers from 170+ countries on GAFFL, meet up, and explore destinations together. In this post, we are featuring Helen, a journalist, author, and blogger from Sydney. She loves strange stuff and Japan and combines the two with her two travel blogs Differentville,and Japlanease.  

    You can also find them both on Instagram – at Differentville. and Japlanease.

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    Why I Started Traveling

    At first, it was an escape from a life I hated. I was living in London, in a noisy flat with cockroaches, and I would book holidays, mostly to the US, to give me something fun to look forward to. 

    Eventually, I decided enough was enough and I left the UK and moved to New Zealand. Once I was happy with my day-to-day life I got to appreciate traveling for the fun of seeing somewhere new and exciting for its own merits rather than an escape.

    I then fell in love with South East Asia, the noise, the franticness, that feeling of standing on the edge of a road wondering how the heck you’re going to get to the other side when there are 700 mopeds (and sometimes a cow) coming towards you. At this point, I also ended up becoming a dark tourist– before that really had a name – and I realized I liked exploring more unusual sights over more mainstream ones. 

    It still took me quite a while to start blogging about it though and the fact that I don’t have any pictures from the weirdest thing I’ve done – watching a Cabbage Patch Doll being ‘born’ from under a cabbage at the Cabbage Patch Doll factory - is one of my biggest regrets!

    I Take Three Big Trips Per Year

    I still have a full-time job as a journalist and author so I can’t travel full time but I tend to take at least three big trips a year – two for a month at a time and then another two week one.

    I’m very much a city traveler as I like noise and bustle. I’m happier wandering around a market full of fruit I don’t recognize or a maze of backstreets rather than ticking off big-ticket items. I love finding things other people don’t know about. I still haven’t seen most of the temples in Kyoto, but I have visited the street full of mini-monsters there!

    How I Choose Where To Travel Next

    Usually weather! I hate the cold so trips are primarily dictated by where it isn't cold and raining at the time of year I want to travel.

    Then it's whatever makes me clap my hands with glee because I’ve found something strange there.

    I had a ‘big’ birthday a little while back and was going to go to Agra as I’ve loved India in the past and really want to see the Taj Mahal. It seemed like a ‘big birthday’ kind of trip, but something was stopping me from booking it. – and then I remembered there was an entire village of cats and a village full of abandoned UFO-shaped houses in Taiwan and that they do massages with meat cleavers. I booked the trip to Taipei and Kaohsiung the next day.

    Now that I have finally started my Japan blog I’ll be spending a lot of time there over the next year or two. I’ve been eight times already, but I haven’t really done all the obvious touristy stuff so I need to go and do everything that most people do on their first Japanese trip on my ninth! 

    Preparation involves a lot of time pouring over google maps and looking at image searches. The very small things I like to cover aren’t listed in obvious places.  I can take 8 weeks of nightly work to plan a two-week trip as I have to know I’ve tried to find everything– yet I pretty much always find something else when I get there.

    I’m now also learning Japanese so I can dig around even more on my next trip.

    How I Pack For My Trips

    Back-what? I’m not a backpacker by any means. I love hotels with fluffy pillows and wheels on a suitcase too much. But I do pack very light.

    I literally buy all my clothes with two things in mind. Does it fit and is it a lightweight fabric that won’t crease. Ditto trainers. Fit and weight.

    Travel toiletries are my specialist subject though! The best product I’ve ever found is an antiperspirant called Perspirex. It’s a tiny bottle but you only need to apply it every four or five days – and it’s impenetrable.

    And, when I was traveling from the UK, I always used Bimuno Travelaid. They fortify the levels of bacteria in your gut. I once ate literally off the same plate as my boyfriend in Morocco - and he got sick and I didn’t. He started taking them after that. I can’t get them in Australia though.

    Some Of My Favorite Memories Meeting People Abroad 

    I got invited to an S&M Club in Osaka once if that counts!

    We’d gone to a karaoke bar and chatted to some people who were working in Japan teaching English. After a while, one of them tells me she’s performing her first piece of suspension art (where people are hung by hooks through their skin) at a club the next night and would like to go. Sadly, I didn’t think my capsule wardrobe of non-crease dresses and trainers quite lent itself to a night at a fetish club so I had to decline - but it’s still one of my favorite stories.

    Another amazing experience happened in Tokyo (see, all the cool things happen in Japan). I had been on a food tour and it was during Golden Week (the one time you’re not supposed to travel to Japan) and so our guide had the rest of the day free. Once the official tour ended, he offered to take me, and the other couple on the tour, to see a few other fun things.

    We were walking through Ginza, a quite posh district, and we saw a Matsuri – a festival – one element of which is a parade carrying shrines down the street – next thing I know, the guide has spoken to someone and the really tall guy from the group is being pushed under the float. As I’m laughing at him, I realize they’re coming back for me. So, we ended up carrying the float for a few blocks through the streets of Ginza – it was an incredible honor. But those shrines are really heavy! 

    Why I Started My Blogs

    I say that Differentville started on a Taipei toilet.

    I wrote an article for my day job on what you would do if you weren’t afraid. And my answer was ‘I’d give up the day job, go to the toilet restaurant in Taipei and then start a travel blog on weird travel.’ A few months later, I got the chance to go to Taipei for work, ate out of the toilet-shaped bowls - and the rest is history. 

    It’s evolved a bit from that idea but Differentville’s mission is to find the fun and unusual things to do in popular destinations I always say that you’ll never travel to a country to see something you’d find on Differentville, but they’ll be the ones you tell everyone about when you get back.

    Japan was kind of the mothership for the blog as there’s so many fun and unusual things there - but there was so much Japanese content I couldn’t include on Differentville. 

    People also have an image that Japan is expensive and really hard to travel within and so, I started Japlanease for those wanting to travel to Japan but who are a bit confused or intimidated, to try and make it all easier.

    Challenges I’ve Faced While Traveling Solo

    I tend to pick the destinations I choose to travel to solo for their safety which reduces the risks of issues. Some might find that constraining but so far my solo trips have included Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, and LA so, I don’t feel I’ve missed out.

    The main thing I suppose is I don’t always go to all the bars I want to visit as a solo female. When I do have a bar I want to feature on the blog, I tend to go early in the day or evening so I don’t get hassled. If I want a long night out, I’ll book a bar tour with other travelers.

    And I always wear sunglasses when walking during the day which limits eye contact. That stops a lot of unwanted attention. 

    Some Of My Craziest Travel Experiences 

    The scariest thing I’ve ever done was drink on a helipad in Kuala Lumpur. I’m scared of heights. To get to the bar you have to climb up a set of stairs outside the building. I thought I was going to throw up!  I really wasn’t sure how I was going to get down (I once got stuck up Wat Arun in Bangkok because I froze) but I got talking to some sailors in the bar (as you do) who told me to hold the handrail and just look at my hand. As I don’t live on a helipad in Kuala Lumpur it obviously worked.

    Other than that I think the most incredible places I’ve been including that village of abandoned UFO-houses just outside Taipei – all the people literally all just upped and left and no-one knows why; Okunoshima – aka bunny island in Japan, where you can literally play with rabbits all day is also like nowhere else on earth - and sleeping in an underground hotel in Coober Pedy, South Australia was pretty strange. I’ve never been anywhere so dark.

    How I Manage My Travel Costs

    I have a budget – but I wouldn’t say I was a budget traveler. One reason I love Bangkok so much is that I can book an enormous suite for the price of a tiny hotel room in London so I definitely spend most of my cash on my hotel.

    I normally economize on food – I love eating in hawker centers in Asia. They’re super cheap, I can try a few things at once and, if I am traveling solo, they give me something to look at while I eat.

    In Japan, at least one meal a day is normally a 7-11 sandwich; partly because they’re cheap, partly because they’re massively addictive. That saves quite a bit!

    Countries I’ve Traveled To So Far

    A quick count says I’ve been to 55 countries – and I’ve lived in three. I have so many places I want to go back to – South Korea is high up on my list there.

    I tend to have cities or towns I’d like to visit rather than countries – Pripyat (and Chernobyl), the Scarecrow Village in Japan, and Agra in India are among the top – but I can’t believe I haven’t yet got to Laos.

    How I Manage Work & Travel

    Being self-employed means I can’t switch off totally but I don’t travel with a laptop, just a tablet, so I can’t physically take on any work when I’m away.

    The advice I give everyone that goes self-employed is to have more than one email address. I have one address that I give to clients – and another one that everyone else gets. When I’m away, the client one is checked 2-3 times a day. The other gets looked at once a week (if that). It means I don’t get sucked into anything unimportant but things that do need to be dealt with are easy to spot.

    The biggest challenge is taking around 12 weeks ‘unpaid’ holiday a year as if I don’t work, I don’t get paid but I figure it’s worth it.

    How I Think GAFFL Can Help Solo Travelers

    It’s a great idea to have a place people can find someone to chat to when traveling. Because I don’t stay in hostels, it’s not that easy. I’ve met up with other bloggers on trips, but normally I just book a food or bar tour to ensure I at least chat to someone while I’m away.

    Some Things I Wish I Had Known When I First Started Traveling

    Bit serious, but traveling can’t solve your problems, it just takes your mind off them until you get back. The best thing I ever did was leave that flat and move to New Zealand. I’m now based in Sydney and during the pandemic, we weren’t able to leave Australia for two years – and, other than not seeing my parents, I didn’t care because I love this place. There’s so much here to see. I don’t know what I’d have done if I was still in the UK during that experience. 

    Following on from that don’t ignore what’s on your doorstep. As travelers, we tend to focus on flitting to the next country, but you often don’t realize there can be amazing things closer to home.

    During the pandemic, we went on holiday to Newcastle, NSW – a town 90 minutes drive from our house. It was fantastic – there's an old tin shack settlement there surrounded by sand dunes that just has to be seen to be believed. I’d never have done that normally, I’d have hopped on a plane for the weekend. 

    Less seriously - always take one more pair of shoes than you think you need because blisters suck.

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