Thomas Büchler
 

Brest Fortress, Belarus

Thomas, tell us something about your childhood and how your love for travel developed.

I travelled very little as a child. My first trip was by bicycle to Italy when I was 16 years old, it was at the other side of the lake but Italy was completely unknown to me. After that there was inter-railing in Europe, with Scandinavia the first time I experienced many countries in one trip. And so the desire to see more and more began. I travelled with a schoolmate and he started to count the countries, so we had kind of a competition. I studied law in Geneva and then moved to the Philippines in 1980 when I was just 22 years old.

Did the Philippines change you?

I lived for more than 30 years in the Philippines and have been married twice to Filipinas. I had an export company dealing with fashion jewellery and the reasons I succeeded were because I was Swiss. I mean, in terms of being organised to deal with shipments, pay attention to quality etc. But when you live in a place, it inevitably changes you a lot, so you start to adopt local traits. I certainly like ‘la dolce vita’ and a more relaxed pace, which is what the Philippines are known for. It’s more fun in thePhilippines has recently become their tourism slogan.

Boston, USA

What are your aims when you travel?

The World Heritage Sites are a good angle to approach a new country or one I have been to and they make me get to know the culture and the natural highlights of the place very well. Since they are not located in the same part of the country, you really need to travel, it’s sometimes not easy. I remember one site in Tanzania, the Kilwa Kisiwani ruins. It took us the whole day to get there, the bus broke down, it was a real adventure being with the locals. The ruins are on an island way off the beaten track. When we finally arrived and had all this beauty and we were the only foreigners there, there is sense of fulfilment you have achieved something, seeing all this untouched magnificence.

Washington DC with my wife Vanessa

Last October you visited your final UN country, Namibia. What remains after that?

I am sure I will still be travelling, and I am on the road again now! On the one hand, I want to visit WHS sites and on the other TBT regions of countries where I have really enjoyed travelling in the past. I might not go to remote stones and rocky islands that give points, this is not part of the plan. The new TBT Series is a great way to get ideas for more things to do as well, so the limit is really the sky.

Have you ever had a negative experience while travelling?

I was once held up with a kitchen knife in Cuba in the 1980s. They wanted my watch which was a Rolex copy, at 2am in the morning; somebody woke up in the neighbourhood and called the police, the thieves fled. They actually cut my thumbs and the police took me to the hospital. I don’t think Cuba is like that – it was just bad luck. I displayed my watch and it was my mistake, I was at the beginning of travelling, inexperienced, it was in 1982, … and in hospital they gave me a tetanus injection. Then I was moved to the police headquarters, I was in my underwear and the police lady interrogated me with photo of Castro above. And then I brought the police back to the house where they had got the knife… the perpetrators were finally caught and sentenced to some years in prison…

On another occasion, I was caught with a copy of an Afghan rifle that I bought in Kabul , it happened at Urgench airport in Uzbekistan. The Uzbek authorities prevented me from leaving the country – it took me a week, and I went to trial, a real court-case with 100 people around. I had even forgotten that I had this revolver in the luggage, as it was a souvenir gun that did not really function any more. For Uzbekistan when you have an undeclared weapon it is a crime. I think the rifle must now be in the museum in Tashkent, I couldn’t take it with me…it’s was a beautiful piece, inlaid with ebony wood and pieces of mother of pearl shells.
 

Namibian Consulate in Geneva

Moving to your role as chief verification consultant for us - verification exists because of you - why were you so adamant at having this on The Best Travelled, negotiating this in its early stages with its founder?

Frankly, I was "dreaming" about verification quite some time before TBT was "born", when I realized that some highly ranked members of existing travel clubs were obviously exaggerating their claims of visited places.  Take for instance the Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean. Entry to this archipelago is prohibited for tourists, and an invitation of the Indian navy is required. And yet 68 individuals are claiming on Most Traveled People to have been there, just 8 of them Indian nationals who perhaps have easier access. Geographical mistakes or coincidental cheating? Same with Kwajalein island in the Republic of the Marshall islands. Unless a guest or working for the US army, you won't be able to leave even the aircraft. In my case, US soldiers boarded the plane with German shepherds sniffing for bombs, we were not even allowed to leave the seats! Since TBT does not recognize airport transits as a legitimate visit to a country or region, we had to delete Kwajalein in almost all cases where travellers wrongly claimed that they have visited this territory.

Another motivation to initiate a verification process was the fact that a countryman of mine, well known and generally respected in the travel community, had also exaggerated his tally by adding UN countries where he has just been to the border, not officially entering. Now if you consider how difficult it is to arrange certain visas, both time consuming and costly, I find it rather ridiculous that for instance posing at the "Welcome to the DR Congo" signboard, or illegally crossing from Namibia to Angola on the Okavango river, should count as a legitimate visit. We don't want to encourage illegal border crossing, that's the other point. On that point also MTP agrees with us, the difference is that they are not checking their members, and neither does TCC, so TBT has become the very first and only travel website to seriously introduce a verification process for both the 193 UN countries, as well as the 1281 regions we have listed on the website. As of today, we have successfully verified and given the corresponding badges to 85 members on the UN country level and to 27 members for passing the territory test. Verification becomes compulsory for UN countries after 500 points, and for territories/regions after 600 points on the TBT ranking..

Namibia, my last UN country

As the chief verifier of more than 80 travellers so far, what have been some difficulties and what some triumphs of this?

It was a bit like rolling a snowball from scratch, difficult to form and roll it at the beginning, but after a while, people started to understand and generally cooperated well. And the snowball almost turned out to be a verification avalanche!  Of course what I ask for is some kind of proof, and not everyone keeps passports and tickets or makes a selfie in front of the Eiffel tower! So the difficulties are mainly to find a valid evidence, especially for journeys dating back long time ago. But I am quite open minded. I accepted for instance the claim of an Austrian mountain climber to have visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, going up to Mt Ngaliema (formerly Mt Stanley) from Uganda in the Rwenzori mountains, based on photos and maps, and the fact that there is no border control up there at an altitude of 5119 meters. And yes, every successful verification is a triumph for me and I guess for the entire TBT family.

Some people refuse to register or are scared off because of verification. Don't you think that puts the site in a weaker position?

Not at all, quite the opposite I believe. The overwhelming majority of top travellers and highly ranked members now understand very well the need for some kind of verification system.

Extreme travellers have all spent thousands of hours in their lives preparing and experiencing exciting journeys around the globe, to the most difficult and far-flung destinations on this planet! So they also find time to dig into boxes and cartons long forgotten in the attic, and finding adequate proof, even checking out diaries that have turned yellowish with the years. The verification process can be great fun, and I am always listening to even the most difficult scenario. But we still have some top members not verified yet. This is mainly because they are new to TBT or they have a hard time to prove their journeys happening more than 50 years ago. A Swedish doctor went to Equatorial Guinea when it was still called Guinea Española, and there was an internal discussion if this is a valid visit or not. Personally for me it was not. I made it standard policy to visit each UN country after independence at least once; in my generation that is especially valid for ex-Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Republics. But TBT has later on decided to accept those visits if there is sufficient proof. I also double-checked a Swiss visa stamped into a Finnish passport from the 1950's. Those were the good old times when even Nordic countries needed a visa to visit Helvetia!  Sometimes I have to make a field trip. Last December,  I paid a visit to famous bicyclist Heinz Stücke (currently 1st ranked on TBT) who lives in Westphalia, Germany. Heinz has been not only to all 193 countries, but to an amazing 1105 TBT regions with his own bike, travelling over a period of more than 51 years, about 660,000 km in total. He must be the greatest traveller of us all: what others did with the help of turbo engines, Heinz did it with his own muscles. In China he was beaten up by drunks, and several times he was robbed along the highways. To finance his trip, he sold colour brochures about his incredible journey in countries like Japan where it was selling like hot cakes. His excellent cooperation with TBT also shows that age (Heinz is 77) is not really a valid excuse to 'escape' the verification process. TBT might have lost a few members due to verification,  but that's peanuts compared to the increase of members in recent months, part of them high-profile travellers like Andre Brugiroux (80, author, best travelled French man) who I met in Paris last month, people  who have never joined a travel blog before.

Bukit Lawang Sumatra Orangutans

What about those who have failed and have been deleted or deleted themselves? Are they not real travellers in your opinion?

I would not go that far. It's just that they did not agree with us or could not provide the necessary proof. In a competitive travel club you have members looking at traveling from different angles and with different budgets. TBT has highly ranked members who sleep in public parks or in train stations, have seldom seen a hotel from inside except in countries where it is mandatory like North Korea, and also hitchhiking is on their daily program. Low budget, but tons of time. On the other side of the spectrum, we have people taking luxury cruises, driving a Rolls Royce to Siberia and other far-flung destinations. Some are business people with very little time, so they travel to the Congo not because they are interested in the Mountain gorillas or the culture and music scene there, but they simply want to tick off the country and stay as little as possible. Are they still the real travellers? It brings us to the definition of a traveller, and I still believe they are a part of this group, and should be respected for what they did, each journey into the unknown is an achievement in its own. Even if you are just a simple visitor. That's what we call a minimal visit, a few hours or a day. But they have to accept rules and guidelines of the travel club they join, and not count a visit to the transit hall in New Delhi as a proper visit to India. It could easily be regarded as an insult to an amazing country, full of history and culture. I have been to India 7 times, and am always ready to travel to this fascinating place again.

And what is your personal benefit from all this verification?

The time invested into the whole verification process is enormous; an average 60 regions test can take a week or longer, if the sort of proof I get is not acceptable. But this is all honorary, and I am not on the payroll of the CIA or the KGB! But I enjoy very much the close relationship I build up with what I call the "elite of world travellers"; people  from different parts of the world who have lots of wonderful stories to share, some of them can even be used for verification.

A few times I was invited: by Lambros in beautiful Athens with the Acropolis as a background, or in New York with my good friend Valentin as the perfect host. I also enjoyed a city tour in Chicago with Don Parrish at the steering wheel, that was fun.

St. Barts

You are married to Vanessa who holds a Philippines passport. How hard is it travelling together?

It’s difficult to organise visas in general, and for her passport it’s one step more to collect visas. It depends where I go, but sometimes we travel together and she likes travelling as well. She has even been to some difficult places with me – Libya for example, where we made it just in time before it became entirely impossible to visit safely, when we left the civil war broke out, and our guide was very sad knowing that we would probably be his last guests for a long time to come. My wife also likes to stay with her family in the Philippines occasionally, especially since we moved back to Switzerland two years ago. So we make a compromise with the technicalities, sometimes travelling together, sometimes not.

And finally, if you could invite any four people to dinner, who would they be?

Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung and Lenin. I am fascinated by people who have moved their country forward. Mao and Ho Chi Minh did a lot for their countries – people forget that China and Vietnam were very poor countries before them, people had no food,  no education, and there was no infrastructure. They did a lot for the communes, agriculture, industrialisation etc. Without Mao, no matter the negative sides of his rule, China would not be what it is today, it got its reputation and self respect back, and it would be fun to sit on the same table with these 4 gentlemen (I have seen them all in their mausoleums!) sipping some Russian vodka and Chinese rice wine. Of course, I would try to organize a Baltika beer for me!
 

With Heinz Stücke during their 'verification' meeting in Heinz' German home.

The photographs accompanying this interview are from Thomas' private collection.

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