Ever thought that your dream of travelling across half the world is physically impossible and ridiculously expensive? Well, Petrina Thong will change your mind! This Malaysian girl undertook an extraordinary 18,000km journey from Stockholm, Sweden to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with just RM800 (S$260) last year! Spending approximately a year on the road, Petrina travelled through a whopping 22 countries – Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Malaysia – and hitchhiked on over 400 cars!
“Bosnia – Spending the night hidden behind some tree right next to the highway.”
Recently, we sat down with Petrina for a discussion about her legendary adventure, and here are some things that we learnt:
1. She had very little experience hitchhiking before her journey
“Iran – my first time ever hiking through snowy mountains.”
Before her trip of epic proportions, Petrina had only hitchhiked once in Thailand! And even then, it was a very brief experience where she travelled 40km with another female backpacker. “I think I just wanted to experience new things,” she says. This fearless attitude has enabled her to make the trip all the way back to Malaysia.
“India – At this point, I was feeling overwhelmed and in disbelief that I actually made it across Europe to Asia by land.”
What inspired her to travel across 22 countries? Petrina feels that the main motivating factors were her fascination for people who were surviving penniless, and her desire to travel without being restricted financially.
“I hate the fact that our lives are dedicated so much to money,” she states with a frown. “We work so hard just to get so much money, but why work so hard if you can’t spend any of it?”
Petrina also admits that she feels restless and uninspired if she stays in Malaysia (her homeland) for too long. In order to make her long sojourn from Sweden affordable, she turned to hitchhiking!
2. Food and lodgings were not difficult to find when she was hitchhiking
“Bosnia – To keep myself sane from the lack of English conversations, I write letters to friends.”
Petrina tells us that the main challenge to hitchhiking isn’t looking for food or finding a place to spend the night.
“I can sleep anywhere and find [food] anywhere,” she asserts. “Mentally it gets tiring because…I constantly have to be [around] people. I always have to rely on someone for transportation – I always have to be in someone’s car and sleeping someone’s house if they take me in.”
Having to always be friendly and enthusiastic can be extremely tiring, especially when Petrina and her host do not speak the same language. “I speak English, and they speak their own language, and they still want to talk to me. I keep having to go ‘oh yeah yeah’ and smile,” she says. “So it did get very, very tiring to [always] be around people.”
3. Most of her journey was unplanned
“Italy – stumbled upon Bracciano Lake and ended up camping here for 2 nights because it was serene and beautiful.”
Travelling across part of Europe and half of Asia is already not easy, but imagine doing it without any planning! Petrina admits that her decisions made for most of the journey were spontaneous, with her laying out plans to couchsurf during the initial stages. That all changed when she met other hitchhikers or travellers who travelled without a plan at all.
“I wonder how that was possible,” She recounted. “I wanted to challenge myself a bit and travel without a plan at all. That all started when I was in Montenegro, where I would put up my thumb and get on a car. Only after I got off the car would I start looking around and wonder what to do next.” Petrina would continue to randomly wander into places for the rest of her epic trip back to Malaysia.
“Rome – Realising that I really have minimal interests in checking out tourist spots because I get bored after 10 minutes.”
And not planning isn’t a bad choice after all! “It’s the kind of thing that you cannot imagine how things will work out, but once you are there, it’s not as scary as you would think,” she laughs.
4. It was easier to hitchhike in Asia
“Pakistan – Nadia, my lovely host in Lahore who was so very kind and a whole of fun.”
Hitchhiking in Asia was much easier for Petrina than in Europe! She posits that the lower standard of living in the Asian countries that she passed through made the locals more open and hospitable. The people in those countries would often give her food when she had none, and offer her a room to stay in their houses. In contrast, the people in Scandinavia, who enjoyed better living standards, were not as friendly to hitchhikers. “I had to wait for 5 to 6 hours for a car to stop,” she recalls. “Whereas in Turkey, or India, it was always less than 30 or even 15 minutes before a car stops.”
5. Iran was the most hospitable country in her journey
“Iran – I majorly craved for some alone time. So I went camping in the Varzaneh Desert by myself for 3 days.”
Iran ranks as Petrina’s most hospitable country that she has hitchhiked in! Her impression of the Middle Eastern country was of extremely helpful and friendly locals, contrary to popular opinion.
“The taxi drivers [in Teheran, Iran’s capital] will give me a ride for free. I was not even asking for one – they would just see me walking, and they’ll stop and beckon me to come into their cars!” she exclaimed. “I would tell them I had no money, and they would still let me take a ride. Even when I took the city trains, the train conductor would just give me a free ticket and let me go.” Petrina posits that the Iranians are not used to seeing a lone female traveller, and would go all out to help her.
6. She is unchanged from her journey
“Croatia – Stumbled upon some strange things in the lake.”
Surprisingly, Petrina feels that she has barely changed from her 18,000km hitchhiking experience. She has merely become more appreciative of life, and trusts that things will just work out in the end for her.
“Iran/Pakistan border – being escorted by army men across the Balochistan terrorist zone.”
She has, however, learnt to be more shameless, something that took her three months on the road to master, and requires constant travelling to sustain.
“In Bosnia I got dropped off in the middle of nowhere, and it hit me: I didn’t know where I was and didn’t speak the local language. But I was not afraid. And it was such a nice feeling to be completely free and not be scared.” she says. “But once I stopped for a long time and lose the momentum, I get the fear and shyness again.”
7. She wishes she was more firm in her interactions during her journey
“Malmo – Sweden and her crazily enjoyable people will always have a very special place in my heart.”
In her travels, Petrina encountered numerous men that made brazen advances towards her, and wished that she would be more firm towards them.
“Random guys will approach me sometimes, and behave nicely towards me or buy me food. I don’t want to come off as rude, and I will talk to them. However, it does end up with them getting the wrong idea, and they will move in for a kiss or grab my body,” she explains. “I find it very hard to be rude to them, but that is something that I need to work on. If I feel discomfort and know that [the person] is dodgy, I should tell him to go away.”
8. Hitchhiking is safe for solo female travellers
“Lithuania – A handsome lad and a funny old man in a teepee as we camped in the mountains.”
Solo female travellers be assured, you can hitchhike safely! Petrina states that hitchhiking is easier for female travellers, as almost any driver would stop for them. This is especially so for Asian females, who are especially seen as unthreatening.
“A lot of people who stopped for me admitted that it was their first time allowing a hitchhiker into their car. They would usually not stop for anybody, but when they saw me, they figured I needed protection,” she says. “For the drivers who ask for sex, they generally don’t do anything physically to you. Even when they try to touch you, you can shout at them to stop the car, and they will.”
“Budapest – One of the very few times I bumped into other hitchhikers along the way.”
Petrina still stresses that female travellers should be cautious, and trust their instincts. “If you feel that there is danger, just get out of the car even if you are in the middle of nowhere. There will always be another car that you can get into,” she advises.
Petrina’s Parting Words: Just travel whenever you feel like it
“Thailand – Pretty surreal to finally see the road sign leading to Malaysia.”
With her frequent laughs and chirpy musings, Petrina did make her epic trip sound like a breeze! However, we knew better – behind the cheery exterior lies a wisdom gleaned from many months on the road. It was difficult not to feel awestruck by how far this bubbly girl has travelled.
And she did leave us with some inspiring life advice: “If you feel like travelling, or have a longing to go somewhere, I would say just do it. The older you get, the more commitments you are going to get, and there is not an easier time in your future to do things that are seemingly ridiculous. So, if you can do it now, I say: just do it. I always think about my deathbed, and the things that I would regret doing or not doing before I die. And I know things like [the hitchhiking journey] would be the things that I would regret not doing.”