Approximately 26,000 kms, 15 airports and 5 countries. That’s been 2019 by the travel numbers. It still feels a bit surreal considering that those numbers are something that, before this year, would have been completely foreign (no pun intended).
My 2019 travel year kicked off in February 2019 with a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, and from there, there was no looking back. That trip itself felt monumental, spending close to four weeks travelling the country. It would be the inception of a prodigious year of travel to a few highly anticipated destinations across East and South East Asia.
I enjoy retrospectives because they allow you to pause and reflect on where you’ve gone, what you’ve accomplished, and the lessons learnt along the way. This post then, is meant to kill two birds with one stone. It’s a chance for you, the reader, to find out which countries I enjoyed the most while absorbing some of the key lessons that each place left me with. I’d also like to stress that the rankings as I have them here are purely subjective, and that each of these countries might appeal to you differently.
What more can I say about the Philippines that I haven’t already? This was my hideout for a sweltering summer and it surpassed my expectations in every aspect. The natural beauty in this nation of more than 7000 islands is simply jaw-dropping. The pristine beaches and thriving marine life is something to behold. Expect a warm welcome as the people are friendly, and yes, largely fluent in English. El Nido and Coron were the highlights of this trip, while Boracay was more of a footnote. The Philippine islands leave you with a sheer sense of relaxation. Despite its growing popularity as a travel hotspot, there are parts of the country that still feel isolated enough to avoid the throngs of tourists.
The beautiful part of travelling this unspoilt country is that there’s so much more to discover beyond the three major tourist spots I visited. I’m yet to see islands like Cebu, Siargao and explore the rest of Palawan. Here’s hoping we can make that happen come 2020.
Confession time: Japan would probably have been number one on this list if it just hadn’t been so damn expensive. If you’ve got the cash to splash, Japan is your place. Honestly though, Japan is something else. It’s mind-bendingly cool. It’s Uber-efficient. Everything just works. And yet it hasn’t lost any of the old school charm and tradition that makes it so appealing for culture buffs. This trip was made all the more special by watching the Springboks play in the Rugby World Cup. Over a week and a half I got to see Osaka, Tokyo and Kyoto. Choosing a favourite is nigh on impossible because each city has its own distinct identity. Where Osaka is hip, laid-back and easy-going, Tokyo is full-on focused. Compare that to Kyoto, which retains far more traditional influences in the form of its numerous temples and you can see why this East Asian superpower is such a special destination.
Ah, Vietnam. I’ll never forget that feeling of bliss stepping into the 35-degree heat at Noi Bai Airport after tolerating the icy South Korean winter. Vietnam is a country which I will fondly recall for its heady coffee, sketchy street food outlets and dirt cheap beer. Not to mention the fusion of oriental and French influences throughout the country, a reminder that despite the freedoms granted to it, it still bears the pain of a colonial legacy. My experience with locals was nothing short of fantastic. After a sterile and cold winter in South Korea, this trip was exactly what I needed.
HK is something of a ‘first love’ when it comes to Asian travel. My 48-hour jaunt to the semi-autonomous island in June wasn’t my first visit; I’d spent a few days here in 2018, too. And so this time around was more of a consolidatory visit – seeing the things that I’d missed out on the last time. I would still love to visit Hong Kong soon, but with the current situation being so precarious it’ll be a while before I head there again.
At only two hours’ flight from South Korea, I wondered why I hadn’t visited Taiwan sooner. There’s a lot to enjoy about this enigmatic yet fiercely independent stronghold. I was slightly confined to Taipei due to my limited time but the teahouses of Jiufen, the rich history and the abundance of markets make this an especially compelling travel option if you’re based in East/South East Asia.
Bonus destination: South Korea
You really thought I’d leave South Korea off this list? I give this country a lot of flack but truth be told I’ve enjoyed travelling more than ever in 2019. It might not have the allure of other more exotic destinations but it’s a great place to build friendships and immerse yourself in the culture. Of all the things I’ve come to enjoy about South Korea, knocking back somek while grilling mouth-watering samgyeopsal has to be right up there. Just the food culture here in general is something that I’ve grown so fond of.
It certainly isn’t short on sights either, with the stunning autumn colours and coats of snow a sight to behold for this South African native. Spring isn’t too shabby, with the vivid pink cherry blossoms blanketing parts of the country, making for a stunning visual spectacle.
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