Who says the best travel is about comfort? This thought springs to mind when I recall stepping into a boxing ring in Bangkok to face a champion in my first-ever bout.

I’d been visiting the city for two decades, and every time I’ve visited, it seems to get bigger while still feeling familiar. My last trip will be the one I remember most, purely because I saw a side of the city that few see. Instead of seeing temples, eating street food, I took to the ring – where I discovered that, in Thailand, Muay Thai is more than a sport. It’s a way of life.

Bangkok was just the beginning of a series of adventures I was sent on to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of Star Alliance. In a partnership with National Geographic and the Wall Street Journal, we shot five short films to inspire people to get under the surface in travel and to connect with different cultures. I can definitely say that this has been one of the most memorable projects I’ve been a part of in my travel career. I hope the films aren’t just fun to watch, but encourage people to escape their comfort zone when they’re travelling.

As a travel journalist, it can be a challenge to find experiences that truly surprise me. My job for the past 20 years has given me the privilege of exploring the world’s most stunning places, experiencing fascinating cultures, rituals and people. But I think the whole point of travel is to really push yourself, and make the effort to get under the skin of a place and its culture. There are always ways to connect, so long as there are people to connect with.

Making these films got me to do things I have never done before – and, to be honest, never really considered doing. To keep my reactions genuine, Star Alliance kept my tasks secret until I needed to know. As you’ll see in Stockholm, I had to face one of my biggest fears, heights. (This is something I regret telling the team during their planning of the series!) It turns out that the simplest of the challenges was the one I was most uneasy about. But it’s not good TV for the viewers if I’m breezing through it all, so keeping things exciting was key.

When I travel, I like to look to the history of a place to understand its present. So when we went to New Mexico, I experienced the Native American culture first hand and found the culture to be so passionate and reverent. Having the opportunity to go into a Native American community and spend a day with a family was equal parts emotional and incredible. I was asked to drum with them at the Gathering of Nations, their biggest event in the calendar. I was even given the Indian name, ‘Squashed Fingers,’ I think you might be able to guess what event led to that. Culturally, it was one of the best days of travel I’ve ever had.

My experiences in the Arctic and Georgia (the country, not the State) could not have been any more different culturally, but still granted me an amazing glimpse into peoples lives. In the films, you’ll see that the crew and I were invited into the homes of the people we met. We didn’t just meet these people - we stayed and ate with them, giving us a privileged and personal glimpse into their daily lives.

My time spent with the Inuits, for example, will forever change the way I see communities up north. Their unique way of living may be under threat due to a number of factors, but their spirit and culture is still very much alive. In Ushguli, Georgia, I found that their primary mode of transport is by horse; something I hadn’t expected to find in a European country.

Everyone’s sense of adventure is different. For some people it might be jumping out of a plane or swimming with sharks, and for my mother it might just be driving to Kansas City without hotel reservations. But I think the key to getting the most out of a travel experience is to really push yourself out of your normal experiences. I didn’t think I’d spend 2017 high-fiving Inuits driving by on a snowmobile, or travelling to one of the most remote and highest villages in Europe to race horses.

If fellow travellers were to take any advice from my trip around the world with Star Alliance – I’d say that it’s not about how far you go – but how willing you are to go beyond what you’ve done before.

To check out the videos and to find out more go to staralliance.com/en/culturalexperiences

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