Imagine a chance to travel all over the world with your best bud and share a million dollars—if you can handle the obstacles that true adventure travel throws at you. Well that’s The Amazing Race, which pits teams of two against each other as they race around the globe for the pot of gold at the finish line. With the premiere of season 15 at 8 pm EST on CBS, we wondered, what does it mean to win the race? ADVENTURE caught up with season three winner Zach Behr in New York. Behr, now a supervising producer on MTV’s Made, explains what you do when you win half a million dollars, the importance of experiencing local color, and the simple pleasure of eating Vietnamese chicken satay from a street cart.
So you won The Amazing Race and split a million dollars with your partner, Florinka Pesenti, a friend from your days at Vassar College. What'd you do with the money?
I took a chunk of it with my then girlfriend, now wife, and went to Costa Rica for ten days and traveled around.
How was it?
In all honesty it was the worst-planned trip I've ever taken. I thought, hey, I just came into all this money, I should hire a really high end travel agent to plan this trip for us. They're the experts, they'll know where to send us. Until that point, everywhere I traveled I just used Lonely Planet guide books, done the research myself, or even just gone to the place and figured it out once I was there. But they sent us to these sterile, stuffy hotels, with very little exposure to the local culture. It was pretty disappointing.
What else did you do with the money? Did you go on any other trips?
Bought some new computers and an iPod, which at the time was the latest technology. But I put the money away, invested it, saved it, and over the last several years, we've taken some great trips. We went to Colombia for about ten days, spent time in Cartagena on the coast, went north west of Cartagena to a house on the beach. And then we went on our honeymoon a couple years later, still with some of The Amazing Race money. We went to Thailand, Tokyo, Kyoto and Japan. In Thailand we were in Bangkok, Railay Beach and then Phuket for a couple days.
Do you have any advice on finding the best beaches in Thailand?
Phuket isn't as beautiful as the other places. It's a nice beach, but it's a little more touristy and it's a kind of beach you can get anywhere. Where as in Railay, which is near an island called Ko Phi Phi where they shot The Beach, they had all these limestone cliffs jutting out of the water.
While on the show, you went all over the place. You were in Florida, Mexico, Scotland, Portugal, Spain, Morocoo, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hawaii, and Seattle. What was your favorite place?
I think my favorite place was Vietnam. It just felt like a totally new and different experience than anything I had ever seen or felt before. The amount of people in the streets, the views, the terrain, the cityscapes, it’s like nothing in the States, like nothing in South America. Teeming with people and bikes and just friendly people. Really friendly. I also love the Vietnamese food. The best food I had on The Amazing Race was a chicken satay I got for $0.50 on the train in between Saigon and Hanoi or something. There was just nothing, But they had these carts come to the train with fresh noodles and little chicken skewers. I’d love to go back.
But you’ve never been back?
Closest I got was Thailand on the honeymoon. That’s the problem with the race, especially for someone like me who really enjoys going to less developed countries and places that are unlike home. On The Amazing Race, you don’t really have a chance to soak it up, enjoy it, spend time with local people. You’re racing through. It’s kind of a big tease.
What are some travel tips you picked up?
You don’t have to know the language of the country you’re going to but you need to know a few words. Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, the bare minimum. But if you learn a few other phrases like, “That’s cool,” or “Tasty,” or just a few kinda slang things. Or “right on,” and just throw those into a conversation or a sign language conversation with a local that’s going to put a smile on their face and put you in a better light. All of a sudden they’re gonna have a lot more respect for tourists. It opens up a lot of doors.
Any recommendations for how to get selected for the show?
Something about your team has to be super special. Got to have a great gimmick, and be a super personality. You got to have an attitude. You got to be rambunctious. You got to be talkative and ultra confident. You can’t just say you like to travel. —Laura Buckley
Photographs, from top, courtesy of CBS; Zach Behr