Have you ever had the urge to quit your day job, pack your bags, and book a one-way flight to a distant pocket of the globe? It's common daydream fodder for many cubicle dwellers, but for Kien Lam, it became a reality.
After working his way up the corporate ladder in finance, Lam couldn't shrug the feeling something was missing. "I could not comprehend the idea of making a lot of money but not having enough time to see the world," he says. "It's something I could not get out of my system since I left the country for the first time at the age of 19." And just like that, Lam quit his job.
Since then, he's ventured to 50 countries, turning a passion for photography and filmmaking into a profession, and trading his office for the jungle and his morning commute for camel rides across the Sahara. When I first met him, he had just returned from scaling an abandoned Soviet convention centre in rural Bulgaria—nothing out of the ordinary for a nomad who spends more time abroad than in his San Francisco apartment.
Given that the world is now his office, we were curious to find out what's on the bucket list of a perpetual traveler. He's driven a rickshaw across India, exchanged wisdom with the Dalai Lama, and swam with a million jellyfish (more on that later)—if there's anyone who knows about the world's best-kept secrets, it's Lam. Feeling darling? Take a note out of his 173-item bucket list, and start planning a trip to one of these unbelievable destinations.
Mongolia conjures up images of romantic, rugged mountain ranges, wild horses roaming open plains, and embroidered yurts—all things that make the East Asian country truly unique. Ulaanbaatar is the starting place for many travelers looking to explore the country, as well as neighboring Russia and China.
"I've always been drawn by the vastness of this place that was once the center of one of the largest empires in the world," says Lam. "There's the exotic appeal of still being able to witness the nomadic lifestyle of the desert-dwelling people."
At the top of his must-do list is the Mongolia Charity Rally, an epic 9320-mile road trip that starts in Brussels and ends in the Mongolian capital. The adventure spans deserts, mountains, rural towns, and bustling cities, making it the ultimate once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
In the stillness of night, countless hot-air balloons ignite like glowing light bulbs and rise into the air above thousands of ancient pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar, one of Lam's favorite destinations of the 50 countries he's visited. "A great way to explore is to hop on an e-bike and get lost. You're bound to bump into a temple every few minutes, regardless of the direction you take," he says. "An even better way to take in the temples is by hot-air balloon at dawn, arguably the most stunning balloon ride in the world."
If this is the first you've heard of the Southeast Asian country, add it to your bucket list stat. "Bagan is home to over 4000 ancient temples from a bygone era when the kingdom of Burma was one of the richest in all of Asia," explains Lam. "At its peak, there were an estimated 10,000 temples and pagodas dedicated to the deities of Buddhism." However, a recent earthquake destroyed up to 185 pagodas. In other words, this cultural wonder might not last forever—see it now.
There's one attraction in Mexico that every diver has to see, says Lam: MUSA, the Underwater Museum of Art. Located off the coast of Isla Mujeres, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancún, MUSA houses eerie exhibits below the surface—picture 500 life-size sculptures sitting silently on the ocean floor.
"Over time, these sculptures become a part of the sea as corals and algae grow over the concrete. In that sense, these figures are alive," says Lam. "When the waters are a bit murky and the visibility is poor, the atmosphere is frighteningly haunting when the figures just seem to appear out of nowhere."
Photographs of the glistening water and bare mountains of Darwin Island might make this destination look like any other postcard tropical escape, but don't be deceived. "Darwin Island is one of the smallest islands in the Galápagos, but is home to the perhaps the coolest and most diverse diving spot in the world," Lam explains.
While he's yet to strike this destination from his bucket list, he says it's a natural mecca for photographers and nature lovers. "Schools of hammerheads and massive whale sharks are among just a few of the many different pelagic dwellers you'll find here. Plus, the volcanic landscape makes every photograph postcard- and Instagram-worthy, so it's a photographer's and adventurer's dream."
Looking for a vacation that's a little easier to reach than jetting to another continent or diving to the depths of the sea? Set your sights on Marble Canyon, an area with stunning swirling orange rock formations in Arizona. "Many people might have seen pictures of this stunning piece of landscape, but most would have not have had a chance to walk among this spectacular formation, since it only allows 20 visitors a day," says Lam.
When he finally secured access to tread through the otherworldy landscape, it didn't disappoint. "It feels like a place frozen in time and one that you could hardly believe was formed by nature and not some exhibition artist," he explains. Bonus: "The best part is its proximity to so many other natural wonders, like Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Zion National Park."
Its name alone is enough to excite any intrepid traveler, and Lam says the Lost World Caverns are every bit the adventurer's fantasy. "This open cave system in Waitomo, New Zealand, requires a 328-foot descent into a prehistoric world that time had forgotten. Once inside, this underground valley opens up to smaller caves that you’ll have to trek, wade, and swim your way through."
Terrified at the thought of lowering yourself into the dark abyss? Those who brave the journey are rewarded with a truly unique experience. Think winding caves glittering with hundreds of neon glow worms, hidden fossilized whale bones, and one of the coolest abseiling experiences on Earth.
No, this isn't the mastery of Photoshop or a small school of jellyfish swimming in the expanse of the ocean. Nestled in an island in Palau, Micronesia, is a confined lake that contains millions of the orb-like creatures. There's no need to be afraid though.
"Stuck in this lake thousands of years ago when the glaciers melted, these jellyfish feed off the algae in the lake and have lost their no-longer-necessary stingers," Lam explains. "This makes it perfectly safe to swim here and see one of the most surreal sights in all the world." If there's one natural wonder you must experience in your lifetime, it's this. Game?
"It's not the easiest place to get to, but there's something about this uninviting place that calls out to the adventurist and explorer in me," says Lam of Tasiilaq, a small town in southeast Greenland. "I've seen photos of some amazing glacier formations that have hardly been touched by man."
During your trip throughout the country, be sure to add ice climbing and dog sledding to your list. Greenland is known for its ice and snow, so plan your trip accordingly. "What more could you ask for when looking for a bit of solitude and adrenaline at the same time?"