In this month's Talking Travel series, we chat to long-term TP member and travel guru Mike Riley aka vegasmike6. In Mike's profile, he describes himself as an ex casino dealer who now travels to Asia every winter and likes to hit the beach, go diving and hit golf balls when in Pattaya. When doing the interview, Mike mentioned he edited his profile. When he joined TP in '05, he wasn't sure he wanted his real name out there... "I chose Mike Lake for simplicity. As all of us on the internet know, it is not always smart to have your real identity out there for the world to see. I now realise Travellerspoint is a safe place to be and decided to update my profile. I was just too lazy to change it until now. Doing this made me rethink that decision and I have now used my real name: Mike Riley."
You've reach the exclusive status of Travel Guru on TP – how does one get there?!
I just started out trying to help members with advice on Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I have been in all three many times by the time I found TP in '05. I keep a daily journal when I travel and had a lot of info stored in those notebooks. I could offer advice to those new to Asia: where to stay, eat, what to see/avoid, what buses, trains, ferries, etc. I think members rated my advice as helpful and you were moved up by positive feedback. I then signed up as a 'travel helper' for the US and started getting PMs asking for help with their US trip. By then I realised I liked posting on TP and started posting advice most days. Next was posting my travel photos from my Asia trips. I have been taking travel photos since the '70s, so I started scanning old photos of previous trips and putting them into folders. I picked the ones I thought were worth posting and added them to my TP gallery. Soon I had over 1,000 photos. This is when I noticed I had become a 'travel guru'. I sent Gretchen (Isadora) a PM and asked how I made guru status. She told me that TP had a formula that counted up your posts, positive feedback, photos in your gallery, blog entries, etc. and they decided who was worthy of the guru label. There were a limited number of gurus in '05 and TP had to drop one member in order to move another member up. That has changed. Adding to the 'wiki travel guide' can move a member upwards very quickly. I saw one member who was labeled guru with less than 100 posts. That was impossible a few years ago. Now there are many more gurus than back in '05. Of course the guys that started TP decide, but if you have too many 'travel gurus', I think it takes away the cachet of being a member of an elite group. My two cents.
You travel to Asia every winter – where's your favourite place to date?
I first went to Thailand in 1990. My uncle was stationed in U-tapao, Thailand during the Vietnam War and raved about it. He went over to Pattaya for the clear water and beaches, but the beautiful Thai ladies is what he kept talking about. He married a Thai women and brought her to the US. He kept telling me that if I ever got the chance to visit Thailand, go for it. Finally in 1990 I had some money and enough time to visit. I looked for a cheap airfare and found Jupiter Courier. They flew LAX-SIN for very cheap rates back in the '90s, usually under $400 return. My first trip to SEA I got lucky and met another courier named David. He was doing the same thing I was: bouncing around SEA with a pretty thin wallet. We took the overnight bus up through Malaysia and hit Thailand, trying to see as much as we could while spending as few baht as possible. We hit the Krabi area, Phuket, Koh Samui and loved the combination of beautiful beaches, low prices and pretty women. David became a lifelong friend and ended up living and working in Singapore. That was perfect for me. Jupiter Courier flew LAX-SIN and would let you stay for a month. I would stay with David for a few days before taking the bus through Malaysia to Thailand.
My uncle had visited Pattaya in the '60s when it was an R & R spot for American servicemen getting away from the Vietnam War. Of course Pattaya had changed tremendously by 1990 but it still catered to single guys. After hitting the south islands, I went to over to Pattaya. Pattaya was almost all bars, go go joints, adult shows, massage parlors, street walkers, etc. With great nightlife, decent beach and cheap prices, I stayed longer than I planned. I met some guys from the UK and the US that showed me where to stay, eat, rent motorbikes, etc. We became friends that first trip and I now had guys to help me every time I hit Pattaya. This started my annual trips to Asia. I would contact Jupiter and try to book a courier seat to SIN. Once I had a flight, I would email my Pattaya friend Roger. He would reserve a room for me in the same hotel they were staying at then, Sutus Court. Sutus rented by the day, week, or month. Some guys had been there for years when I started staying there. I would fly into SIN, stay with David a few days and head for Thailand on the bus. This was years before Air Asia and the bus was the best option. This was years before Sutus had a website as well. Jeff, one of my US friends helped me start a small motorbike rental business in Pattaya in the late '90s. It basically allowed me to stay in SEA without spending any of my own money for a few years. Then the Thai authorities found out about it and that took care of my moto business!
In the mid '90s, all of us started to go over to Cambodia to renew our visas. Phnom Penh was really wild back in the mid '90s. The streets were almost pitch black because of power failures. If you went out at night, there would be a pool of light where a generator was running and the rest of the street was dark. Police set up check points and had to be bribed in order to pass. Our motodops would know the best routes and would dodge the police whenever possible. It was very dicey to move around back then, but it was fun. Very different than Pattaya. Gordon was one of my UK friends from Pattaya, but he moved to PP around 1997. Roger, Jeff, Bruce and I now had a friend in PP to visit ever time we went for a visa run. All of us would hit Martini's Bar in PP most nights when we were on visa runs. Since many of the cute Martini girls were from Vietnam, I decided to visit Vietnam in 2000. I met Ann Soldner on my first bus ride to HCMC and we are still friends. I also met a Vietnam girl that became my GF for a few years. That did not work out, but I did return to Vietnam several times because of her, so I now count that as a positive thing. I now had friends in SIN, Pattaya, PP and Sihanoukville and when Gordon relocated to the beach. Add my GF in Vietnam, and it was just plain fun to hit SEA every winter. From about 1996 to 2003 I was spending most of every winter in SEA. Great memories and many good friends to this day.
I would have to say that Thailand is my fave country, but I love Vietnam as well. I will visit both again and decide which one I want to spend my remaining years.
"Go while you still can" is listed on your profile – what advice do you have for the first-time travel jitters?
When you are past 60, you realise that there are only so many years left to accomplish your travel goals. I don't think older travellers should keep putting off their travel plans or their 'bucket list' either. Illness, injuries, financial setbacks can and do change our plans. "Go while you still can!"
My advice to first time travellers: decide where you want to go and do your research. There is now just heaps of information on every country at your fingertips. Of course TP can get them headed in the right direction. We have 'travel helpers', the 'wiki travel guides' plus asking questions on our forums. Another valuable resource for a jittery first time traveler is our 'travel companions' forum. With a little luck, they will be able to hook up with another TP member and not have to go it alone. Even if they travel to their destination alone, there is still a very good chance of meeting someone that is doing roughly the same route. Just be friendly and willing to alter your plans if you meet someone that they would like to travel with. I have travelled alone and with friends and it is just more fun to have another person along to share the experience.
You live in Vegas – what's the real Vegas like behind the neons?
I was born and raised in Las Vegas. Millions of visitors a year think of it as an adult playground, but to me it is home. Of course Las Vegas is one of the premier vacation destinations in the world, but it also a regular city to most of its residents. The vast majority of Las Vegans do not go out to the Strip very often and live their lives the same as if the lived in any other US city. We have the best of both worlds IMO. Las Vegas is a regular city if that is what you want. But we also have world class hotels, casinos and entertainment available 24 hours a day. I am lucky that I am retired from the casinos and can take advantage of the bargains available to local residents. Many shows offer free or reduced prices to locals. Because of this advantage, I have seen almost all the shows in Vegas that I wanted to see. I have been to 49 of our states and Las Vegas has advantages that few cities can match. I consider myself lucky to have been born and raised in Vegas.
My next travel goal is an around the world adventure. I should of done this years ago, but for a variety of reasons, I just did not get it done. I think I will purchase one of those tickets that allow you a year to go around the world. Now that I have joined couchsurfing, I can stay in Europe much longer than I originally planned. From Europe I will head for the Middle East, then India, back to SEA to visit my friends. After Asia, perhaps New Zealand and Australia. Then back to the USA.
Check out these recent interviews in the Talking Travel series: