Meet The Stamp Collectors: Stephen of Monk Bought Lunch

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences. I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations.

Stephen Lioy is the voice behind Monk Bought Lunch. He's based in Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan where he goes on epic hikes as often as possible. A “once in a lifetime” Eurotrip followed by a post-university move to China set the stage for what would eventually become a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The American traveler hails from Louisiana but hasn't lived there since he moved to China in 2008. Since then he's been hopping around Asia and Europe and has explored 55 countries. He recently went to Russia and spent New Year's Eve in the Red Square. He shared amazing images from Moscow and Saint Petersburg under a layer of snow on Instagram.

Is there a novel that has greatly influenced you as a traveler?

Rudyard Kipling's Kim is one that I've read several times and always makes me want to see and do more. It's a story of adventure, resourcefulness, and exploration of what at the time were some of the last great questions marks on the map of Asia. Every single time I read it, I'm fired up once again to get out there and find new places to see and experience and to share with those who aren't so lucky.

What is your favorite travel quote?

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.” - Robert Louis Stevenson

Which country cemented your love for travel?

China, country number 7, was all it took. It's such a splendid place for travelers, diverse in culture and history, with amazing food, friendly people, and world-class tourist sites. But at the same time, it's also a real challenge, organized so differently from home and with such a difficult language to master. So traveling there and doing so effectively feels like a real accomplishment. Moving to China was my first relocation (and only my second big trip, after a college trip to Europe) so it was with some additional joy that my first project as a Lonely Planet writer was actually back in China researching Sichuan province as well.

Which was your favorite country for food?

China and India have to be the top two, both because they're such good cuisine but also quite diverse. So many dishes, ingredients, and cooking styles as you travel across either of these countries mean you can eat 'local food' all the time and never really get worn out on it.

Which was your favorite country for nature?

Kyrgyzstan, absolutely. I've based myself here for about five years because I like it so much and have still not run out of treks to tackle or new areas to explore. The little village of Jyrgalan is a personal favorite, as is the Ak-Suu region around Karakol, but there are so many options for trekking that I could live here the rest of my life and never run out of trips to take.

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

Eritrea. I visited last year for my birthday and it was just such a strange experience. Amazingly friendly people, happy to meet outsiders and more than willing to talk about what life is like; but at the same time, people are always looking over their shoulders to make sure to stay out of the way of the state apparatus. It was an interesting experience for sure, if not always a good one, and as the trip to Africa for me, it was quite a unique experience.

What country are you eager to get back to?

Mongolia. I spent a few weeks there in 2011 and had an amazing trip, but only scratched the surface and spent most of it in what is basically the Lonely Planet trail through the country. I'd love to go back and spend time in the Altai, hang out with these reindeer herders that friends keep telling me about, and maybe stop in some of those great unknowns in-between that I've never heard of travelers going to.

What is your all-time favorite country?

Kyrgyzstan! I'm big on outdoors and hiking, so that's an obvious draw. But the longer I've been based here, the more I've realized how special the people of Kyrgyzstan are. Not just the traditional nomadic heritage but even just the general mindset which is often so outward looking and interested in the world while still being careful to maintain those aspects that make it unique. It's a really special place, and one I encourage lots of people to visit.

Have you had any responsible travel experiences?

There's this village called Jyrgalan in the far east of Kyrgyzstan that I keep going back to. It was founded as a coal mining village in the Soviet period, but the end of the USSR meant the end of major operations of the mine. They've recently reinvented themselves a trekking hub, offering guided day trips to waterfalls and mountain lakes. The village has a perfect community vibe, the surrounding mountains are just spectacular, and it's so easy to just show up and make friends and feel like one of the family.

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?

Honestly, part of it is work these days. I write guidebooks, leads group tours, work as a photographer, and do some consulting in tourism development; all of which require me to be on the move for much of the year. Even when I'm not doing those, though, I usually manage to carve out time for personal travels somewhere new. It's all very addictive, isn't it? That stimulation that comes from landing in a new country and having to figure things out. Even when it doesn't always work out or even when the motivation is ebbing, being somewhere for the first time almost always means novelty and excitement are just outside the door.

What is your top travel tip?

Learn to say please and thank you wherever you are, don't forget to charge the camera batteries, and always say yes to whatever food is pushed towards you.

What countries are on your bucket list?

East Timor, Comoros, and Bhutan are all pretty high up there. Those countries that never quite make it into the headlines are some of my favorites, as they offer such unique experiences and generally receive travelers as a novelty once you've made the effort to get all the way out there. No immediate plans for any of them, yet, but they've all three been on the list for a while so perhaps this will be their year.

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