Mei Lai Swan Travel with Jane

Mei Lai Swan QnA: Women Who Go Their Own Way

18 March 2017

It’s impossible to define this woman – doula, yoga teacher, chanteuse, community builder; all of the above apply. Add to the list ‘adventurer’ and ‘globetrotter’ and you get a marvellously inspiring person to gain travel (and life) advice from.

Mei Lai is a passionate doula and co-founder of Birth for HumanKIND, a Melbourne based NGO offering free birth support and education to women and their families who are experiencing social and economic disadvantage. She is also a devoted practitioner of yoga for over 13 years, and of meditation and eastern philosophies for 17 years.

Tell us a little about you…where are you from, what are you passionate about, what do you do for work and play

A I’m from Melbourne, Australia. I’m a non-profit founder, doula, yoga teacher, musician, community development/social worker and global traveller. I’m wildly passionate about truth, kindness, social justice, creativity and adventure. My main rule in life is to do what I love – so the boundaries of work and play are blurred, and life is one beautiful adventure of creation and discovery.

Why do you travel?

A I’ve travelled alone and extensively since I was a teenager. I love adventure, new cultures, and having my eyes, mind and my heart opened wide. It’s been the greatest gift in my life for understanding humanity and our incredible diversity, for developing curiosity and compassion, and it’s the thing that spurred me to study international development and get into the work that I love so much.

Is travel a big part of your job, or do you make time for it outside of your career?

A I’ve managed to work out how to make travel a big part of my job (well, my various jobs!) because I love it so much, but I still travel for the simple joy of adventure as well. I have most recently just left Melbourne for an extended period of travel, teaching yoga all around the world, working on a new non-profit organisation, and doing my own training and practice

Mei Lai Swan Doula Week

How is travel different for women?

A Many cultures around the world still find it unusual for women to be travelling on their own, so it can attract attention, curiosity and sometimes unfortunately some hassle. I’ve learnt to become pretty street-smart and do think that it pays to be more careful as a woman travelling alone. But I’ve also found travelling alone as a woman an amazing way to meet interesting and like-minded people, and it definitely adds to the sense of adventure that I love!

What do you think of our gender pay gap discount?

A It’s awesome! It’s a sad reality that women are still paid less than men, and so many women are still apprehensive about travelling – especially alone. So I definitely hope it supports and encourages more women to get out in the world and have their minds and hearts opened wide through the incredible gift of travel.

What’s your go-to travel hack?

A I’m still a bit old-fashioned when it comes to travel (I started travelling before I had an email address), so I don’t really have one… but I do have a big online community, so word of mouth is often my way.

Got any gear you can’t travel without?

A My Opinel folding knife. I can’t count the different number of things I’ve used it for. I’ve also had it for 10 years and it’s still sharp!

What are the top 3 destinations left on your bucket list?

A Only 3…? I’m planning to spend the rest of my life travelling to as many beautiful and fascinating places as I feel called to. The list is endless, it changes moment to moment, and I always end up exactly where I needed to be and often where I didn’t plan!

Where would you go back to?

A Haiti. I think it is the most colourful, devastating, rich, and fascinating place I’ve been. After travelling to so many places, it was incredible to arrive in Haiti in 2013 and almost have that sweet and precious feeling of being a ‘new’ traveller again.

What do you do to stay healthy when you travel?

A Eat as clean food and water as I can find; and I usually travel with herbs such as wormwood and andrographus complexes for general immunity and parasites.

How do you stay safe when you’re travelling?

A I’ve learnt over time to take fewer risks when travelling alone. I made a few stupid decisions when I was younger, from a sense of adventure and from stubbornness (“why can’t women do what men do and have all the same opportunities?”), and had some close calls – though fortunately never got myself into serious trouble. It’s good to get advice from people who have been before, and maybe check some travel websites for general recommendations and precautions. If you’re travelling somewhere that’s known not to be super safe, my personal preference now is to not travel alone. For me now it’s safety first, even if it’s not quite as exciting all the time.

What’s the best way to experience a destination like a local?

A Be daring, go out and meet people. Airbnb is great for that these days, and back in the day I had lots of fantastic experiences through Couchsurfing and similar. It’s also great to put out the word through social media and friend networks – we’re such travellers these days, it’s usually easy to be put in touch with a local through a mutual friend.

What’s your favourite word in another language?

A I lived in Thailand for a year when I was 20 and fell in love with the word ‘kao jai’, which means “to understand”… but the direct translation is “to enter the heart”. Real understanding.

How has travel changed in your lifetime and how will it change over the next 25 years?

A When I first started travelling there was no email and no social media – I stayed in touch with family and friends via fax and phone. So this for me has been the biggest change, it’s so easy to stay in touch and share adventures! But it also means there’s little opportunity these to really feel alone and out of your depth, which I learnt so much from when I was younger travelling alone. And of course the whole world has become so much more ‘global’, and many locations that were challenging or remote are now fairly ‘international’ travel destinations and easy to navigate. I can’t even begin to image how travel will change over the next 25 years, but I’m still hoping that teletransportation will become a reality in my lifetime. Less plane travel!

When and where are you next travelling?

A I left Melbourne in early February and in that time have been in the Philippines and India, and I’m currently in Bali. From here I head to Sweden in a couple of weeks to teach yoga and visit an incredible doula program similar to Birth for HumanKIND, followed by a pilgrimage in Southern France and a retreat in Portugal… the list goes on from there!


Birth for HumanKIND is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit organisation of volunteer doulas who provide quality support, education, and care for women in vulnerable, at-risk or otherwise disadvantaged circumstances during pregnancy, birth and after the baby comes. The only program of its kind in Victoria – Birth for HumanKIND gives women experiencing financial hardship and social disadvantage access to free pregnancy, birth and early parenting support through its doula support program. Over the past few months, demand has completely overwhelmed their capacity and they need to recruit and train more volunteer doulas.

Donate now to Birth for HumanKIND’s  World Doula Week campaign (March 20-31) and be part of their work building happier, healthier families, communities and future generations.

“Real travel would be to see the world, for even an instant, with another’s eyes” – Robyn Davidson, Tracks

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