Travelling the world with locked-in syndrome

Our next guest post is written by Mia Austin, a 29-year-old from Chester with an inspiring story. When Mia was 21 she suffered a severe stroke which paralysed her from the neck down (aka ‘locked-in syndrome’) and she’s only able to communicate through a computer that registers her eye movements.

A passionate traveller, Mia didn’t want to let her situation stop her from experiencing the world and everything in it, and has launched a campaign for travellers with disabilities, to show them you can do anything if you put your mind to it. With help from STA Travel, she went on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia; read on for her top tips as well as her travel story.

My first flight was from Manchester to Doha; Doha was amazing, it even had a wheelchair-adapted buggy to help us get from arrivals to departures, and the staff were lovely. From Doha we flew to Hanoi, and for the first time I actually got transport when we were in Hanoi rather than booking it beforehand. I wasn’t sure how this would work out as I’d never done it before, but it worked very well and transport wasn’t an issue at all. There was a gang of us, so we either got a huge mini bus or two smaller taxis to fit my wheelchair in (as it doesn’t fold).

Our first hotel, ‘Rise Dragon Estate Hotel’ was great, the people were very helpful and we were right in the heart of it, so we were able to experience Hanoi first-hand. We went for a spa on our first night, which was amazing, and suitable for me to get into. Nothing was too much trouble for the staff.

The next day we travelled to Halong Bay and stayed in ‘Tuan Cha holiday villas’. To reach these we went in a little golf buggy; I was given the option of staying in a ground-floor room at the hotel, but instead decided to use the golf buggy to experience the villas. It was worth it and the views were incredible! We were able to phone the hotel staff whenever we wanted and they were there to help; we had an amazing time in the pool.

We booked an excursion on Halong Bay and it was breathtaking, but unfortunately I couldn’t take part in the kayaks. This didn’t dampen our day though as the captain found a gorgeous spot where we could see everything, enjoy the scenery and sunbathe.

Our next flight was to Da Nang – this was only a short flight, and apart from them not being able to find my chair after the flight for a short time… everything was great. When I’m away, I get my friends and carers to help me into the seat as this works a lot better for me, rather than my past experiences where airport staff have taken over and I’ve been dropped. So best to find a way that suits you.

In Da Nang we stayed at ‘Aria Hotel’, and this was the hardest hotel due to a large set of stairs to get into the hotel itself, and the smallest lift I’ve ever seen, where my chair only just fit, but even here we made it work… my carer Lorraine just had to sit on my knee in the lift!

For the next three nights we stayed at a hostel, which was so relaxed and welcoming, and where we met so many travellers all with their own stories. Next up was Hoi An, which was incredible, and one of my favourite places… seeing all the lanterns on the water at night time, all lit up. We also found the most amazing beach while staying here, I honestly could have just lived there.

From there we took two flights to Cambodia – they were only short, but it took time to get me on the planes and the security for the last flight was difficult, due to the language barrier and having to explain that I needed my chair with me when they wanted to take me out of it to check it. It was hard to explain I couldn’t just sit anywhere, but in the end we managed to make them understand, and the chair was checked with me in it… phew!

Cambodia was hotter than Vietnam (nearly 40 degrees!) we stayed at the ‘Villa Samnang’, where they had arranged a ground-floor room by the pool for me, which was perfect as I was able to use the pool too!

We used tuk tuks while we were there – I went in one with some of our group, and my chair went in another with the rest of the group. This was best way to get around, it was so cheap and easy: you could pay them daily and use them whenever you needed, and they were really nice people… helping me in, and helping lift my chair in too.

We visited the killing fields, which was incredibly sad and shocking to hear everything that had gone on in Cambodia’s history. We spent our last four nights at the ‘Iroha Gardens’ where I caught up with a family friend and her children who live in Cambodia, so she was able to show us the sights; we visited shops, Russian Markets, night clubs… I experienced it all! We even went to my friend’s school, where I gave a talk on my travelling, and everything I had overcome and my determination to keep seeing the world.

Iroha was gorgeous – my favourite hotel by far! A lovely pool with attentive staff… they even helped arrange my sisters birthday party while we there, nothing was too much trouble.

I did everything I could on this holiday, embraced it all and any problems we came across we found ways to work around it. The flights were the main problem which is why I am campaigning to allow wheelchairs on planes, so I don’t have to sit for hours uncomfortable in an unsuitable seat. But this still won’t stop me travelling it’s my life and I won’t ever stop exploring.

My top tips if you’re thinking of embarking on a similar journey:

  • Make sure you phone ahead to ask for ground floor room or if hotel has a lift.
  • Also phone the airport to make them aware you are coming that way it’s easier at check ins.
  • Make sure all paperwork is together and at hand if needed and make sure you use google translate while away as this helps a lot to get exactly what you need if there is a language barrier.
  • The holiday was great, it included 7 flights. Some were more straight-forward than others, depending on the aircraft and the airport staff. Also be aware that your seat is as close to the exit/entrance as possible, otherwise you may have a way to go to get off the plane.

If you want to read more about Mia’s story, she wrote a book which was released last year titled ‘In the Blink of an Eye’, and she also has a charity called Mountains for Mia, where she has uploaded more of her videos and photos from her trip.

If you’re inspired by Mia’s story, living with a disability, and have a passion for travelling the world, we would love to help you plan your trip. Just get in touch via our contact page, or pop into a store for a chat with one of our Travel Experts.