Ten countries that will change your life

Overlooking Jodhpur. India is a country you can't wait to leave - and can't wait to get back to.
Overlooking Jodhpur. India is a country you can't wait to leave - and can't wait to get back to. Photo: Huw Jones/Lonely Planet

Some holiday destinations are good for just that: holidays. Getting away from it all. You turn up, have a little look around, drink a few beers, buy a few souvenirs, and go home.

It's nice, but it's not going to rock your world. It's not going to change who you are, or how you look at the world.

And that's fine. But travel can be a lot more than that. If you're looking for a country that will change your life, then these are the places to start.

Laos
Depends where you go really. Head to Vang Vieng for a token day's tubing, and your life will be changed by the fact you now have a new best day of your life. Head to Phonsavan and learn about the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War, and you'll never look at the USA the same way again. To be honest, the whole country is an amazing eye-opener.

Mexico
One thing's become clear through this kerfuffle about the Top Gear presenters slagging off Mexicans: Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May have never been to Mexico. Forget the clichés: it's a country of rich history, fantastic people and great food. That discovery is life-changing enough.

Japan
Wow. So this is how a society works when everything… well, works. The streets are clean because people don't litter. The trains turn up on time because they're well designed and well run. The food is healthy because it's fresh. The locals are friendly and helpful because that's the way they're taught to be. Makes you wonder…

India
It will either change your life for the better or for the worse, but one thing's certain: no one leaves India unchanged. It's beguiling, frustrating, amazing, annoying, and always interesting. All you want to do while you're there is leave. All you want to do once you've left is go back.

South Africa
It might be me over-romanticising things, but there just seems to be something different in the air in southern Africa. The country bleeds history, and the game parks are amazing, but there's something more to it I can't put my finger on. A childhood of Wilbur Smith novels might have something to do with this fascination.

Germany
You want life-changing? Walk around Dachau or Mauthausen, the former Nazi concentration camps. Walk through the Topography of Terror in Berlin. Walk the length of the East Side Gallery. Then have a look around you and think about how the country has transformed itself.  

Brazil
Brazil runs the full gamut: gigantic cities you can't even begin to wrap your head around; deserted beaches that stretch on forever; the joy of a packed football stadium; the violence of a Sao Paulo backstreet. With its huge size and hundreds of cultures and landscapes it feels like a world within a country – always changing, and endlessly interesting.

Uganda
I arrived in Uganda knowing about one thing: Idi Amin. I hadn't even thought about the mountain gorillas. I hadn't considered rafting the Nile. I didn't know about the rolling green hills, or the cows with the hilariously big horns. Add the amazingly welcoming people, and you have a place that will stay with you forever.  

China
Pay a visit to your average Chinese toilet, and you'll say a silent thank-you for every clean crapper you encounter for the rest of your life. But there's much more you'll never forget about China for better reasons: the Great Wall, the great food, the friendly people, the shopping malls the size of Newcastle… Did I mention the food?

Cambodia
South-East Asian people are the nicest in the world. Discuss. The cliché is that you'll be humbled by the locals' generosity. I dunno if that's totally true, but the middle class Aussies whingeing about the flood relief levy would be made to feel embarrassingly petty by a brush with your average Cambodian. Some have almost nothing, but would give almost anything. (Others, unfortunately, may attempt to rob you. At least it keeps you on your toes.)

Which countries have changed your life? (Don't just tell us where, tell us why)

Hope you're enjoying the Backpacker blog – there will be a new one published every Tuesday and Wednesday on the Fairfax Media websites. To contact me with any topic suggestions or personal abuse, visit my website, follow me on Twitter, or email me at bengroundwater@gmail.com.

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