Humans of the World – meet Jonny Duncan of Backpackingman

“I’m in Taipei at the moment. Wanna meet for coffee?” the message from the mysterious Backpackingman read. 

Through the magic of social media, I recently connected with a travel blogging man who’s been on the road for almost 20 years, nearly half his life. I’ve met a lot of interesting travel bloggers in the past few months, but only in cyberspace. This would be my first real live blogger meeting, so I jumped at the chance to hang out with Jonny (Backpackingman) on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Taipei. One thing we agreed on immediately, coffee shops are our favorite hang-outs. He had spent a few weeks in the Dongmen area of Taipei and showed me his “perfect spot” – Yaboo.

Jonny’s friend Jessica joined us too. She grew up in Taiwan and is also a world-traveler, having spent a few years backpacking solo around South America and Europe. So the three of us hung out in this comfortable, quirky Taipei coffee shop, sipping the delicious coffee and swapping travel tales.

A self-described “Adventure Addict”, Jonny grew up all over the world and ventured out on his first solo Backpackingman trip to Egypt in 1997 when he was just 20 years old. After that, he saw no reason to go back to “normal” and began a life on the road. He lives simply and travels light, with just a 30-liter backpack, and takes with him the philosophy that “the less you have, the less you have to worry about”. (How very Buddhist of him…)


I had tons of questions for Backpackingman and went on to pick his brain for hours…


A few years ago, I lived as a nomad for a few months and found it kind of exhausting. After almost 20 years on the road, what keeps you going?

I guess what keeps me going is I’ve never been comfortable staying still in one place. I get the urge to want to see new places and have experiences that I wouldn’t find just staying in the same area. Sure I get tired especially when traveling fast for a few months, but then I just stop when I find somewhere I really like and hang out for a few weeks/months until fully recharged and the wanderlust kicks back in.”

climbing-sand-dune-mongolia-gobi
Resting. Climbing sand dunes in Gobi Desert. Mongolia.

What lessons have you learned in your years on the road as Backpackingman? Has travel changed you?

“I grew up traveling because of my father’s work and so as an adult it just feels like a natural balance to continue that. Travel opens your mind to new things. You meet so many people and different cultures you realize how interconnected we all are. If you stay in just one place you may not understand or appreciate how diverse and yet so similar everyone is.”

What kind of work did your father do? And are your parents supportive of the lifestyle you’ve chosen?

 “My father was in the British military so would be posted around a lot. I actually grew up in Germany (was born in Berlin), Australia, Gibraltar, and England. They’re happy as long as I’m happy! Mum naturally gets nervous sometimes when I get myself into some dodgier situations but they’re so used to it by now.”

ice-caving-in-svalbard-arctic-winter
Ice Caving in Svalbard – Arctic Circle.

What are your top 3 favorite places you’ve been (I know picking just one is too hard!)?

I hate this question!”

Haha! Yeah, I have a hard time with this question too…

“There are no real top 3 after around 80 countries visited. Because I spent 10 months in Indonesia in total it’s one of my favorite places for some offbeat adventures, such as the central highlands of Papua.

Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia in general also have some of my favorite travel adventures. I also love Japan. Polite people, delicious food, beautiful culture, and countryside. But not a super adventurous place. Different countries for different things. I have some least favorite cities though! Dushanbe in Tajikistan being one. But that’s partially due to being arrested by the foreign police and forced into staying there for a while when there’s almost nothing to do there!”

tribes-central-papuan-highlands
Tribes of the central Papuan highlands.

Do you have a favorite travel moment? Anything that stands out in your memory, other than being thrown in a Tajikistani prison?

“There are so many brilliant travel moments I couldn’t even begin to start to break them down into favorites. Especially after 19 years traveling there are just way too many. I’ll just throw in my very first few weeks at the beginning of my travels because I may as well start from the beginning if thinking about this kind of thing. I ended up working as a film extra in Cairo. Was a fun time!”

It seems everyone these days has a “Bucket List”. What is on the top of your bucket list?

“I guess Antartica. The one continent I haven’t been to and I love remote places.”

I like going remote too. What’s the most remote place you’ve ever been to?

“The most remote place, out of many, would have to be the Papuan Highlands. Hiking up into the mountains and staying with tribes in small villages in the middle of nowhere was a mind blowing experience. As far from the modern world as possible.”

wakhan-valley-tajikistan-afghanistan
Wakhan Valley. Tajikistan – Afghanistan.

For those who are not world travelers like you, what would be your top travel tip?

Don’t think too much into things, just go for it. You could plan and plan and buy things for the trip but ultimately just chuck your passport in your pocket with a credit card and smartphone, book a cheap flight somewhere you may want to go and just go.”

sikkim-himalayas
Sikkim, India. High in the Himalayas.

One of my favorite things about traveling is the chance to meet fascinating people, whether it’s generous local people living in poverty or other travelers who open my eyes to possibilities. Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met?

“Too many people with so many different life experiences. I could say one has the craziest stories but then another will have the most interesting thoughts on life, but then there are so many just within those categories. I’m really bad at narrowing things down!”

I try to live my life to avoid any future regrets, so I’m wondering – do you have any regrets?

The only real regret I have is regarding relationships. Romantic meetings on the road and spending a few weeks/months traveling with someone only to go separate directions in the end. I’ve wondered what may have been. It’s really hard having a relationship when you’re always on the road.”

And one final question – do you ever think you’ll “settle down”? You’ve been on the road for almost half your life? 

“I could see myself semi-settling, of which I have been sort of doing recently. So although I have no real home, if I find somewhere I like I have started to slow down and stay longer. In the past year, for example, I have spent around 5 months hanging out in Kiev in Ukraine. Then I get itchy feet and need to travel again!”

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Flying a microlight over Victoria Falls.

To read more about Jonny’s adventures or live vicariously through him, please check out his blog at Backpackingman.com.

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

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