I’m only in Vietnam for a few more days before I head back to Chicago by way of Hong Kong. My trip is coming to a close, so I think it’s time I start looking back on the superlatives of the trip, as well as starting to look towards future adventures and the future of the blog (spoiler alert: provided all goes according to plan, Africa). First up: the highlights! Don’t worry, I’ll be doing lowlights soon.
Soaking up city life in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of the coolest cities I’ve EVER been to. It has the efficiency and modernity of a European city, the intoxicating culture of a Chinese one, and the urban grit that makes all of the world’s best cities (London, Berlin, Istanbul) stand out. The food is delicious, it’s beautiful, and there’s a lot to see and do. I could easily see settling down here someday (yes, even I want to settle down…eventually). Being in Hong Kong during the historic pro-democracy protests was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to watch history in the making. Although it was hyped up on the news as being dangerous, it was actually very peaceful and wonderful to see people coming together to fight for democracy against a country famed for its anti-democratic views. Although no one wanted to talk about 1989, it was certainly in the back of everyone’s minds, and the bravery and passion of the protesters was inspiring.
Eating my way through Malaysia and Singapore
Speaking of great food, Singapore and Malaysia blew me away. Indian, Straits Chinese, and Malay cuisine come together to create some of the best food I’ve ever had. Penang Laksa. Wantan Mee. Rojak. Banana leaf curry. All of these delectable dishes I wish I could get at home but I won’t be able to do so so I’m glad I got to enjoy them while I could. An added bonus? Malaysia and Singapore have very clean street vendors so I didn’t have to worry about getting sick.
Volcano trekking in Java
I don’t love hiking, but seeing volcanos in Java blew me away. Hiking through and above the cloud line to see the steam vents and craters were unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been. My clothes were covered in ash for weeks after the hike but the views are incomparable. I’ve been to volcanos elsewhere, but the ones in Java are far more dramatic.
SCUBA diving in the Gilis
I really love diving although it’s not something I get to do very often. I’ve dived in the Caribbean before, but the Gili Islands were the first place in Asia I’ve been able to dive. The fish and coral seemed extra vibrant and colorful here, and although the strong currents made it a bit more of a challenging dive, seeing the watery world under the Gili Islands was an eye-popping experience. No pictures of the diving itself, so here’s a beach in Gili T.
Watching sunset from a pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar
In order to get a great view of the sun setting over the pagoda-filled plain of Bagan, I had to climb to the top (in bare feet, as is required of visiting a holy shrine) of a 1200-year-old pagoda. As the sun sank below the horizon, turning the pagodas in front of me shades of dusty pink and violet, I sat there thinking, “How is this my life? How is my life the kind of life where I watch the sunset on top of an ancient pagoda in Myanmar and I’m not totally freaking out about it?” I often feel very lucky while traveling, but this moment really drove home how fortunate I am.
Experiencing Myanmar before the tourists took over
Myanmar was nothing short of magical. The dearth of tourists and relative lack of infrastructure when compared with its Southeast Asian neighbors made it feel like a more authentic and adventurous destination. I particularly loved talking to locals about politics and how life has been changing rapidly for them. Wandering around stores was another highlight–there were no western brands anywhere! Although I am happy life has been improving for them, I am sure the tourist experience there will be dramatically different in just a few years. I’m very glad I made it there on this trip. An added bonus: My trip overlapped with Obama’s! People in Yangon were really excited to have him visiting the country. It seemed like many people saw the US as well as Obama as symbols of democracy and freedom, which is a nice change from the way people view us elsewhere.
Enjoying the nightlife and perfect beach in Boracay
From the Boracay Pub Crawl to the million mango daiquiris I drank on the perfect beach, there was no shortage of fun to be had in Boracay. Unlike other Southeast Asian party hotspots, Boracay has a large number of Filipino and other Asian tourists, so it’s a much more diverse group of partiers than, say, Kuta or Ko Phi Phi. While it’s very popular with backpackers, the crowd is slightly older (mid-late 20s – early 30s) than elsewhere, where it seems like most of the party-goers just graduated from high school and are getting drunk for the first time (“Woooooooo! Red Bull and vodka buckets!” ummmm okay no thanks). The fact that the beaches here are completely perfect is the icing on the cake. I’m calling it now–Boracay is my favorite party spot in Asia.
Island hopping in El Nido
The two days I spent island hopping were perfect. The weather was fantastic, the hidden beaches and lagoons were stunning, and relaxing on the boat was the perfect way to spend the day. The landscape here was unreal, with dramatic karst islands and sublime swimming coves. I’ve been to other places with dramatic karst landscapes, like Ha Long Bay, but the sheer amount of activities on offer in El Nido (Sunbathing! Swimming! Snorkeling!) in conjunction with the relatively low amount of tourists made this my favorite spot to explore surreal, Jurassic Park-style landscapes and deserted beaches.
Loving Saigon even more the second time
I loved Saigon when I first went to Southeast Asia in 2012. I visited Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia on that trip, and Vietnam stood out to me as the place I’d most like to return to. Everywhere I visited in Vietnam was fascinating, but Saigon had a grit and excitement about it that made me think “hey, I could totally live here.” Before coming back, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t like the city as much as I did before. But nope–I loved it even more this time! Maybe I’ll get to call this crazy city home someday.
All of the amazing people I’ve met
One of my favorite parts of traveling alone is the fact that I’m actually often not alone (although sometimes I am, and that’s pretty nice too). As a solo traveler, it’s so easy to meet people from all over the world at hostels, on the beach, at historical sights, on trains, buses, restaurants…you name it. I always jump at the chance to hear about life and politics in other countries and hearing views on my own from foreigners. It’s not always so serious though–I had fantastic, silly, fun times with totally awesome people from around the world, including a multicultural line dance in chef hats! Making travel friendships is one of my favorite parts of traveling, and I met so many fantastic people on this trip. I feel so fortunate to have been able to share it with so many wonderful people, who I hope to see somewhere else in the future.
I can’t believe everything is ending! My trip was so fantastic