Ten travel experiences that will change your life

There are holidays that help you relax and unwind, then there are travel experiences that change your entire outlook on life. Here, some of Traveller's most well-travelled writers name the experiences that changed their lives - and could change yours, too.

Where: Rome

What: Visit the Colosseum

How it will change your life:

I've seen many of the ancient sites of the world: Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Great Wall. But Rome's Colosseum remains the best thing I've ever seen, anywhere.

Almost 2000 years old, it still remains one of the biggest buildings in Rome - my first glimpse of it came from the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, which put its ernomity and place in the city into stark perspective. But seeing it up close, and stepping inside, is another experience entirely - and a humbling one. In this place, emperors that shaped the history of the world came for entertainment, and enjoyed sports as much as we do today (though theirs was much more brutal). Not only does the Colosseum help you realise the extraordinary achievements of the Romans, it leaves you feeling insignificant - your place in the grand history of the world is a tiny blip.

At the same time, no other site in on earth will make you feel as closely connected to the human race's amazing history than the buildings minor details, like the gate numbers at the Colosseum's entry points, just like on modern stadiums, help you realise that your connection to the ancient Romans might not be as distant as you think. - Craig Platt
More: www.coopculture.it/en/

Where: Nepal

The experience: Trekking in the Everest region

How it will change your life: 

It's both a quaint concept, carrying your possessions on your back like an olde-worlde pilgrim, and an activity for the indulged Westerner. But a month trekking in the Everest region of Nepal, engulfed by its mighty peaks at every turn is a reminder of how insignificant one is and, in a world of extraneous baggage, how little one needs.

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Starting from Jiri, to Lukla then onto Namche Bazaar for a few days of acclimatisation, it's far from easy. Hours are spent in silence, the altitude a test of mental and physical strength. But the only way is up and nimble porters heading in the other direction caution "slowly, slowly" as they pass. Just grit your teeth and get to that next tree or rock or bridge.

It's a well-trodden route and yet it's pure relief when arriving at a village ravenous and tired, the mountain people, the most resilient of all, provide hot food and a bed where sleep in the thin air brings on strange dreams. 

I'm the last one in our rag tag group of people we've met along way to make it to our highest point, Gokyo Ri at just over 5300 metres after nearly a month of living by the "mind over matter" mantra. I made it.  - Jane Reddy

More: welcomenepal.com

Where: Kenya

The experience: Safari on the Masai Mara

How it will change your life:

We have become so accustomed to hiding away the unpalatable truths of what it means to exist within "the circle of life" that visiting a dairy farm can, for certain people, be a confronting experience. Those people should not visit the Masai Mara. For everybody else, getting up close and personal with the wildest animals in Africa is a humbling, exhilarating encounter.

Given that many of the best accommodations are tent camps scattered across the landscape, a normal night's sleep involves the sound of lions attacking a zebra. This is a place where the corpse of a springbok is something you actually want to see, because it brings vultures and hyenas and countless other tiny creatures gathering around. "Everything gets eaten here," a Masai guide might tell you, which is absolutely true. Darwinism – survival of the fittest – is a daily event on the plains, illustrated in unforgettable tableaus of life and death. Few places in the world show a food chain in such broad strokes, something you can understand in a single drive. Going on safari means more than getting photographs of elephants and hippos: it means enhancing your understanding of how nature works, in all its grizzly detail. - Lance Richardson

More: www.magicalkenya.com/

Where: Poland

The experience: Visiting former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz

How it will change your life:

For a 20-year-old backpacker, Auschwitz was the moment that a booze-soaked Interrailing trip around Europe became about something much bigger than the next beer stein.

Horror isn't a strong enough word to describe the emotions that reach a confused crescendo while walking around the most notorious of the Nazi death camps. The walls are lined with photographs of the victims, the sheer weight of black and white portraits indicating the scale of the mass butchery. Cabinets are full of items taken from those about to be industrially processed. One is full of spectacles, another full of human hair.

The surprisingly meticulous documentation of what happened in the small Polish town of Oswiecim during the Second World War means the barrage of stomach-churning information is relentless. The pain on the faces of the tour guides, who have the grim job of taking people through the camp every day, is visible.

The tours of Auschwitz offer as both a warning from the past and a lesson to look out for those warnings. It is history at its most chillingly brutal - and a sledgehammer to force even the most shamefully uninterested visitor to take an interest in how the past affects the present. - David Whitley

More: en.auschwitz.org/m/

Where: The ocean

What: Swim with something big

How it will change your life:

Snorkelling over coral reefs and seeing the wonderful colours of tropical fish is all well and good, but there's nothing quite like the first time you enter the water with some as big - or bigger - than you are.

Whether it's whale sharks off Ningaloo Reef, sea lions off Kangaroo Island, manta rays in Hawaii or great whites in South Africa, there's nothing quite like that first pang of surprise, and yes, fear, when you first see a huge shape moving in the water near you.

You'll never feel quite so vulnerable and out of your element (literally). It's a reminder that, while humans may be the dominant species on land, when it comes to the ocean, we're completely inadequate and insignificant. Once you overcome the initial shock of seeing such large creatures around you, you can adjust and enjoy the majesty and grace of these animals. You'll come away with a new appreciation for the beauty of life beneath the waves - and why it needs to be protected. - Craig Platt

More: www.tourkangarooisland.com.auwww.westernaustralia.comsouthafrica.netgohawaii.com

Where: India

The experience: Take an overnight train

How it will change your life:

Your life hasn't been lived in all its glory until you've taken an overnight train in India, until you've battled your way through a crowded Indian train station, until you've fought your way up a platform, until you've struggled to figure out where you're supposed to be boarding, and then taken a step up into that train carriage and a step into another world.

This isn't just a train, you realise, but a microcosm of sub-continental life, a city all of its own, a moving metropolis buzzing with people and food, and conversation. There'll be a guy selling coffee roaming the corridors: "Coffeecoffeecoffee, coffeecoffeecoffee." He'll be there all night, followed closely by an ever-changing and endless trail of local merchants selling their hot, tasty wares to the passengers who crowd around. You'll eat, you'll talk, you'll stare.

You'll see life differently after a night on an Indian train. Personal space will take on a whole new meaning once you've seen passengers squish up on their plastic-covered benches to allow room for others. Generosity will seem much more rewarding after the Indian family next to you insists you share their food. Sanitation will seem that little more important after you've tried the facilities. A night train ride in India is many things – but boring isn't one of them. - Ben Groundwater

More: indianrail.gov.in

Where: South Korea and beyond

The experience: Finding yourself in a truly foreign culture

How it will change your life:

One of the great joys of travel is connecting with a local without a tour guide babying you through the conversation.There are those little milestones – the first time you buy water, order a meal, score a date in a foreign language.

I thought I was pretty slick: I could fumble French, shout Spanish, read Russian. My mime skills were excellent, the vocabulary list in my travel guides well-studied. But my global communication skills foundered, profoundly, in South Korea.

I'm sitting in an empty café in Seoul. According to the photos around us, it sells noodles. I would like noodles. Every time I suggest a noodle dish, the waitress shakes her head. So I point. She shakes. Point. Shake. Point. Shake. I give up, I find a vending machine. (Later, I learn I was sitting in a closed restaurant.)

Having the complete inability to communicate is a humbling experience. It is a reminder that the world is a far bigger place than just you and your orbit. - Belinda Jackson

More: english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto

Where: The Middle East

The experience: See life beyond the newsreels

How it will change your life: They do things big in the Middle East: the Great Pyramid of Gizas, Iran's Persepolis, the Sahara desert and the Empty Quarter, to name a few. Steer clear if you like orderly queues, traffic lights and 10pm bedtimes.

The standard backdrop for the Middle East in news bulletins is of tanks, screaming masses and men in epaulettes. The reality on the ground – save a few war zones – is about traffic jams, happily shouting friends and men in epaulettes (what's not to love about a good uniform?).

Men and women live in different spheres, pork and booze are largely off the menu and if you're foreign, you're rich. Yes, there are camels and shisha (tobacco water pipes) and you will see belly dancers. Yet there are also chic beach resorts, the sneaky late-night bars and saucy cabarets, the deep and abiding love of football (that's soccer). And while headscarves can polarise a nation, from Iran to Oman, the passion for fashion is alive and kicking, with the same obsession for black.

Let go: travelling in the Middle East requires sinking deep into a rich, cultural morass. Deep down, you'll realise, we all just want the good life. - Belinda Jackson.

Where: The outback of NSW and Queensland

The experience: Driving into the heart of Australia

How it will change your life:

There are few greater ways to know you're alive than negotiating the vast stretches of road in the Australian outback. They challenge you – they're often unmade, washed away but always, always just …  so …  long. They diminish you – get out of the car in the middle of nowhere and simply stand still and silent in the vastness. You'll soon know your place in the universe. And they require you to rely on others – you must phone ahead so the folks in the next town will know if you're overdue and need help. And even the most independent may need to,  at some point, accept help out there: a life lesson in the kindness of strangers.

But moreover, those roads introduce you to the heart of Australia and often, its Indigenous people living in a way that challenges your preconceptions. The outback widens your understanding of what it is to be Australian. 

Try outback NSW from Broken Hill up to Tibooburra, the dingo fence and Sturt National Park, then down to the Menindee Lakes. Or head to Mount Isa and out to Boulia for camel races and on to Birdsville to see the Simpson Desert in all its red glory. - Julietta Jameson

More: tourism.australia.comvisitnsw.comdiscoverqueensland.com.au.

Where: Overseas, anywhere

The experience: Live in a foreign country

How it will change your life:

Never again will you see the world in the same way – never will it be viewed through a prism of Australia as its core. The globe opens up once you've lived in a foreign country, once you've experienced another culture's way of working, way of eating, way of drinking, way of living. Everything looks different.  

Maybe you'll be forced to learn a new language. Maybe you'll be forced to work your way through a barrage of local bureaucracy. Certainly, you'll be forced to embrace a foreign way of life that will clash with many of the things you think you've always known. Whether it's the classic "Aussie abroad" stint in the UK, or doing aid work in Africa, or teaching English in Central America, or living large in Dubai, or doing any number of jobs in any number of countries, the change in your life remains the same.

Spend time living in a foreign country and you'll have new friends, new obsessions, new opinions, new ideas, new loves, new hates, and a new outlook on the world at large. Everyone should do it. - Ben Groundwater

More: Smartraveller.gov.au

What travel experiences have changed your life? Post your comments below.

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