In many ways it feels like I’ve been on the road my whole life. Adapting to new environments, grappling with unfamiliar cultures, enjoying amazing foods. Gazing upon stunning sights and struggling with yet another baffling language! Always meeting new people along the way, some of them now lifelong friends. Others, sadly, no longer here.
I was born in Hammersmith, London, but grew up in Old Amersham, a pretty market town in Buckinghamshire. I enjoyed an idyllic upbringing in many ways. We lived next door to my primary school, directly opposite a large park with tennis courts, a football field, a youth club, woods and a stream. Summers were always long, sunny and carefree. My friends and I running around building camps in the woods.
My first big trip abroad was on a family holiday to Orlando, Florida. Disney World… Universal Studios… Water Mania and Clearwater Beach. Lazy, lingering breakfasts at Denny’s and Perkins. I loved the sense of adventure that came from being far from home and all the associated sights, sounds and smells.
We ended up doing the Florida thing three times, also taking in Tampa Bay and South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island. A gentle starting point for my future explorations of The U.S.
I left home aged twelve for four years of boarding school in Anglesey, Wales. You know that unpronounceable town that has the longest train station sign in the world? Yup, it was there.
I was surrounded by kids from all over the planet, some of whom had lived in exotic locations like Singapore and South Africa. Somehow, I instinctively knew that with a bit of patience my own time would come.
In my late teens the family relocated to Scotland for my dad’s new job. This eventually took me all over the country, with spells in Edinburgh, Haddington, Aberlady, Port Seton, Fort William and The Scottish Borders.
There were plenty of other places I got to see too, most memorably during a road trip through The Scottish Highlands that culminated in a hike across Orkney. Just me, a friend and a couple of backpacks.
I was 23 when I left the UK for good. Again it was my father’s work that provided the opportunity and I took it with both hands. Luckily Qatar turned out to be an incredible experience. Based in the capital Doha, I trained to be an English teacher and subsequently landed my first job. Doha also served as the gateway for a weekend trip to Dubai.
When my contract in Qatar finished, I spent a summer working my way around Denmark. Having checked in with a friend who lived outside Kalundborg, my subsequent wanderings took me to Esbjerg, Copenhagen, Roskilde, Odense and Funen Island. Somewhere along the way, I felt something click inside me and I realised that… for better or for worse… I quite enjoyed this travelling lark.
As a qualified TEFL instructor with a year’s experience under my belt, I found myself in the enviable position of being able to handpick my next destination. I wanted something wacky like Qatar, a place I knew little about. A location that most people wouldn’t even think of. In the end Slovakia fit the bill perfectly.
Bratislava itself turned out to be a cold, grey place. But its visual grimness was compensated by bags of charm. Ultimately, it was the people I met and the travelling we did that year that made it such a memorable period. I saw Slovakia virtually inside out, while there were also forays around Austria, The Czech Republic and Poland.
At the end of my contract, I embarked on a brief jaunt around Hungary with a few friends. Together we took in Budapest, Esztergom, Gyor, Veszprém, Lake Balaton and Eger. It seems like yesterday, and yet somehow eighteen years have passed since that wonderful trip.
Having had my fill of Europe for a while, I decided to go travelling around India. This was a truly life-altering couple of months that took in Delhi, Agra and a lengthy tour of Rajasthan before dotting down the southwest coast to Kerala.
I had so many crazy experiences on that trip, from awful hotels, sublime food and a bad-tempered ear cleaner, to a camel desert safari, a James Bond themed city and an intimate elephant sanctuary.
In the summer of 2004 I fell head over heels for a charismatic Belgian girl. I was so smitten I turned down the chance to teach in Italy to go and live in Belgium. Stationed in the gorgeous university town of Leuven, our car crash relationship lasted just a few months and I found myself alone and stranded. ‘‘Come home!’’ cried my despairing mum. But I loved Leuven, so I ended up sticking around for three years.
With its quaint squares, sleepy parks and old-worlde bars, Leuven life was chilled. And it got even better when my new girlfriend S left The Netherlands to join me! Together we made tracks across Belgium, enjoying sojourns to Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Namur, Liege, Mechelen, Diest, Aarschot and The Ardennes. Moreover, there were amazing weekend visits to the French cities of Paris and Lille.
In May 2007 we headed off on what became one of the great holidays of my life. It began with a fantastic week in New York, where I proposed to S on top of The Empire State Building after a romantic dinner at Frankie & Johnnies. From there we went on to Washington DC, Nashville and Memphis. How could I ever forget limousine-cruising through Manhattan and snipers on The White House roof? Or the spirit of Johnny Cash at Nashville’s Studio B and the Elvis crazies at Graceland?
Back in Belgium, professional pressures forced S and I into leaving Leuven for the big smoke of Brussels, a city we never truly cared for. Over the next year we were mostly preoccupied with plans for our wedding. Nevertheless, we did find time for short breaks in Luxembourg City and Venice. Meanwhile, my eventful stag weekend played out just across the German border in the city of Cologne.
I got married in September 2008 in the Belgian town of Rixensart, a picturesque little place built around a wide lake. For our honeymoon it was off to Morocco, hitting Casablanca, Marrakech, the coastal town of Essaouria, as well as some hiking in The Atlas Mountains.
S and I eventually became disillusioned with life in Belgium. Especially when the economic crisis hit her job hard. As a result, we boldly decided to pack up and leave. To enjoy one last big adventure before settling down.
And so unfolded a memorable year in China! Ten months teaching in Beijing, bookended by extensive stretches out on the open road. The living and working part was extremely challenging, with profound cultural differences and a language barrier like nothing I’d experienced before. Add to that the dreadful air quality and unmanageable crowds and Beijing was admittedly a tough gig.
In contrast, the experience of travelling around China was magnificent! Simply wondrous adventures in vibrant cities, ancient villages, sacred mist-shrouded mountains, golden beaches, lush green rice fields and a certain Great Wall.
When we arrived in The Netherlands in the summer of 2010 both S and I were jobless. Furthermore, we had nowhere to live and dwindling savings. To begin with, we stayed with her parents in the southern town of Goirle, just outside the city of Tilburg. Luckily, within a few months we’d both landed jobs in Amsterdam, which we quickly made our home.
It was in the Dutch capital that I scooped a dream job writing and voice presenting movie news. As an added bonus, I got sent off around the world to interview Hollywood stars.
I thought I’d be in The Netherlands for the rest of my life. But after eight years together S and I decided to separate. In the aftermath of the split I realised that staying in Amsterdam wasn’t an option. What the hell was I gonna do? Somewhat fortuitously, the answer came in the form of an attractive job offer.
When I returned to Beijing at the end of 2013 I was under no illusions as to what lay in store. I certainly didn’t go back for the pollution, the teeming multitudes or the infernal spitting. Rather, I was doing it for a new professional challenge. And to put together some sizeable savings. At the same time I was excited about rediscovering the exquisite food and seeing more of China.
While the job definitely had its frustrations, things turned out well enough and I was able to both travel and save. My most memorable trip during this period was a summer journeying around China’s Northeast. I also managed a two week cross-country visit to South Korea.
In April 2015, after sixteen months in Beijing, I felt it was time to move on again. Treating myself to an extended break, I embarked on a two month trip around Thailand, with a couple of weeks in Singapore and Malaysia sandwiched between my Thai visas.
It was a brilliant time for me, and one that marked my longest period yet out on the open road. During this time, I also developed my first blog, Leighton Literature, featuring embryonic versions of the short stories and travel reports you see today on Leighton Travels.
However, what came next was probably the most topsy-turvy period of my life. After a month teaching summer school English in Castro Urdialez, a small coastal town in Northern Spain, I set off on a two-week trip that included stops in San Sebastián, Pamplona, Zaragoza and Barcelona.
Then it was off to London to hang out with my old friend Chris and figure out my next move. For the first time in years I fell back in love with my home city. I explored, blogged and researched my next global adventure. I also recorded an EP of original songs in Chris’ Tooting Bec apartment.
After much deliberation I finally jetted off to Cambodia, stationing myself in the colourful city of Siem Reap. Sadly, the teaching job was a nightmare. While I loved my students, it took just a couple of months for me to realise that I had no desire to stay long term.
Thus I was on the move again, picking off Cambodia’s wonders one by one with stays in Battambang, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Koh Rhong, Kampot and Kep. It was also here that I met Wonderboy, fellow Englishman, travel enthusiast and all round partner in crime.
When I reunited with my family for Christmas 2015, it hit me hard that I was a man who needed stability. Hence, after a three-month stint in the north of Scotland with my sister, I headed off to southern Spain for yet another teaching job.
In many ways Malaga was the perfect place to live! In addition to the great weather and daily access to the beach, the cost of living made me smile and there was a whole new world of untapped travel opportunities to sink my teeth into. I told myself that maybe this was it. That after so many years of bouncing around I’d found somewhere to truly call my own.
I could have made it work if I’d really wanted to. But after a year I began suspecting that this restless soul of mine can never be tamed. I felt dissatisfied at earning 800 Euros a month and longed for more adventure. Having explored a huge chunk of southern Spain, I was in desperate need of financial replenishment. And so the seductive whispers of China began calling me once again. That love-hate relationship that just wouldn’t go away.
In recognition of my hopelessly nomadic lifestyle, I finally took the plunge and simplified my existence as much as I could. I sold my records, books and DVDs. Bid farewell to my lifelong collection of Lonely Planet guides and Q magazines.
I threw out bag after bag of crap I’d been hoarding for far too long and got rid of virtually all my furniture. I scaled down on clothes and succumbed to the modern ways of storing as much stuff as I could electronically. At the end of it all I was left with a dozen boxes. All of which got channeled off back to Scotland with my family for safekeeping.
When I arrived in the Chinese city of Rui’an in April 2017 I was travelling as lightly as I ever had. My entire life consisting of a small suitcase, a backpack and my computer bag. This time I refused to put any pressure on myself about how long I’d stay for. I just decided to relax and see how things panned out. In fact, I ended up staying in Ruian for two years.
This time I was really organised. Just about every pocket of free time I had went towards uncovering more corners of undiscovered China. I went all around Zhejiang Province and Fujian Province, spent a week in Macau and enjoyed unrushed visits to the great cities of Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen and Suzhou.
In between my teaching contracts in Ruian, I disappeared off to lovely Vietnam for a month with nothing but a backpack. I also spent an absolutely magnificent couple of weeks in and around Tokyo, where I came face to face with dancing robots, duelling sumo wrestlers, interplanetary maids, vibrant Ghibli characters, beautiful rare owls and food-serving vampires.
When I finally left China altogether, I embarked on my second visit to South Korea. Firstly, I spent a week in the city of Daegu, catching up with my old travelmate Wonderboy. Then it was onto Jeonju where my brother was working.
At long last it was time to return to the UK, where I spent a blissful eight months catching up with friends and family. Amazingly, this was my first ever period of travel across England and Scotland. Along the way, there were unforgettable visits to Cambridge, Colchester, Liverpool, Lancaster, Carnforth, Morecambe, The Lake District, Oban and Loch Ness.
After such a long period outside Britain, it felt wonderful to reconnect. From the food, football and TV, to the mostly shitty weather and being able to understand people’s silly conversations on the street.
Sometimes the best travel experiences are the ones you didn’t even see coming. Take Serbia, for example. I never thought I’d go and see Belgrade, it simply wasn’t on my radar. But then I met someone… a really special someone. Together we decided that I should go and visit. You know, see if this special thing between us had long term potential.
As fate would have it, my trip to Belgrade in August 2019 turned out to be a life-changing one. Exploring this fascinating city from top to bottom, Sladja and I got to know each other and came to the exciting decision to spend the rest of our lives together.
We began 2020 in Siem Reap, Cambodia. One of the few countries we could both live in without visa complications. We had big plans. In the summer, she was going to finish up her teaching job in China and join me living and travelling around Asia while working online. But of course COVID-19 ruined everything, setting in motion a truly crazy year. A period that I documented in my article 2020: The Highs & Lows of a Nomadic Travel Blogger.
Now it’s 2021 and we find ourselves stabilising back in Belgrade. Working online, I continue to develop Leighton Travels while waiting on a temporary residence permit and eventually a vaccine. To say it’s been one of the most stressful experiences of my life would be an understatement.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t trade in my digital nomad life. Not for all the tea in China. In moments of difficulty I often recall a quote from the exceptional Little Miss Sunshine. Steve Carell and Paul Dano are standing at the end of the pier having escaped that awful beauty pageant.
Dano’s character Dwayne, a socially awkward teen, recognises that life doesn’t have to be about following the herd. That if you want something enough you can break free and follow your own vision. “If I wanna fly I’ll find a way to fly” he says, gazing out to sea. “You do what you love and fuck the rest”.
Leighton – January 2021.
This article serves as a compact overview of my global wanderings. For more details on the places I’ve visited, check out my huge library of Travel Reports.
For a more personalised account of my life adventures, dive into My Short Stories.