Last week I celebrated two years on the road. It wasn’t a big celebration – I’d had that with friends a few nights earlier – but as Lauren and I ate smoked fish and polished off a bottle of wine, we unsurprisingly got to talking about the most memorable aspects of our travels.
“What are your three favourite cities?” one of us would ask, and then we’d both have to come up with an answer. “How about your favourite meals? Guesthouses? Sunsets?”
I was as surprised by the differences between our choices as the similarities, and we ended up playing that game for hours. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the wine, of course.
Since I figured that perhaps Lauren might not be the only person interested in those answers, I decided to write down as many as I could remember here as well.
Warning: You might want to sit down and grab a glass of wine of your own before we start. This isn’t exactly the shortest post I’ve ever written.
And away we go…
Cities To Visit
It’s almost impossible to narrow down a list of my favourite cities to visit to just three, and my answers will likely change depending on how I’m feeling on any given day. With that in mind, here’s today’s list:
- I’ve had a thing for New York City since long before I first went there in 2006, and that hasn’t changed ever since. While I couldn’t afford to live there any time soon, it’s somewhere I’d really like to spend a couple of months at some point. The energy, diversity and outright fun of life in this metropolis grabs me every time I visit.
- Everyone had told me I’d love Istanbul, and within an hour I knew they were right. It helped that I arrived in time to celebrate the end of Ramadan with the rest of the city, but I doubt it would have mattered what time of year I got there. It’s one of those places where you can feel the history around every corner, and despite the tensions and struggles, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world.
- Saigon scared the hell out of me when I first visited – I’d never been to Southeast Asia before and it was a trial by fire. I remember it taking me ten minutes to cross the street every time I tried, the monsoon season was in full swing and I barely knew what to do with chopsticks. Now, however? I love it. The insane traffic, the crowded pavements, the seething mass of humanity and the food. Oh dear god, the food.
Cities to live in
I have different criteria for somewhere to spend several months compared with somewhere to visit, revolving more around culture, food and general ‘liveability’ than tourist attractions or cheap hostels.
- I’ve been to Portland for a conference three times now, and decided that just spending a few days there wasn’t going to be enough. This year I chose to stay for a month instead, and it was a great choice. The city had some of the best summer weather on record, I was living in a wonderful neighbourhood, and I found myself wanting to buy a bicycle, grow facial hair and start putting a bird on everything. Oh, and eating myself into a coma every single day – Portland’s incredible food scene was the biggest surprise of all.
- There’s no way I couldn’t mention Chiang Mai, really. I’ve spent more time in this northern Thai city than anywhere else in the last two years, and every time I arrive and glimpse the moat for the first time, I get that warm, cozy feeling of home. From fruit smoothies at the night markets to coffee in air-conditioned cafes, zipping around on a scooter and hunting out the best khao soi, life in this town is never far from my thoughts.
- I spent less than a week in Ljubljana, barely time to form an opinion – yet that didn’t stop me doing so. The Slovenian capital is a charming little city, small enough to walk around yet full of life during the long warm summer days that I was there. The university means plenty of cheap cafes and live music to choose from, and I could have explored the architecture and history for months. Hopefully one day I’ll get the opportunity to.
I didn’t grow up living near a sandy beach, and seem to have spent the rest of my life trying to make up for lost time. Of all of the stretches of coastline that I’ve spent time on in the last two years, these are three of the best.
- It’s amazing how good Otres is, considering how close it is to the rest of Sihanoukville. I wasn’t expecting much, yet ended up extending my stay from three days to nearly three weeks. Clean white sand, crystal clear waters and a low key vibe make this the best mainland beach I’ve ever set foot on.
- Hoi An’s main beach of Cua Dai also surprised me this time around. I remembered it as being full of sun loungers and persistent vendors, but for whatever reason, this year it wasn’t like that at all. A vast stretch of empty beach, with a few rows of umbrellas providing welcome relief from the heat and no touts to be found. The shallow ocean was more like a bathtub, and it was almost impossible to tear myself away.
- Playa de la Concha is easily the best city beach I’ve ever seen. About three minutes from my hostel in San Sebastian, it was full of locals and tourists alike enjoying the calm sea and early summer weather. As if there wasn’t already enough to like about that place…
Sunrises and Sunsets
It’s fair to say that I see a lot more sunsets than sunrises, but either way I always enjoy the transformation from day to night and back again.
- My accommodation in Phu Lang Ka had little in the way of creature comforts – the only thing lumpier than the mattresses was the rice porridge for breakfast. Luckily the early-morning sunrise more than made up for all of that.
- One of the little delights of Sayulita is sitting on the beach with a cold beer and watching the sun go down over the nearby hills.
- Koh Chang was the Thai island where Bob Marley never died, but somehow that seemed appropriate each night as I sat in a bar and watched that huge orange ball drop into the ocean to the strains of his greatest hits.
With over 2000 meals to choose from, it’s ridiculous to try to find the three best – I can’t even remember most of them! Still, there are a few that stand out…
- As with so many great restaurants in SE Asia, a little place near the river in My Tho looked like nothing from the outside. The owner spoke no English, our Vietnamese was terrible and somehow we accidentally ended up with three plates of banh xeo. I’d never eaten it before that day… but I ate it many, many times thereafter.
- On the same road trip, I went to grab a quick breakfast of pho from a place near the market in Bac Lieu. Other than being served in a metal bowl it seemed no different to any of the hundred similar meals before it – until I had the first mouthful. I still dream about it to this day.
- And then there was the meal that I simply refer to as “Brasov pork“. It wasn’t even something I ordered – rather, a free starter of crispy fried pork and onions that turned up out of the blue when we sat down at Sergiana restaurant. One mouthful made me want to eat it for every meal thereafter. Including breakfast. Especially breakfast.
I’ve no great love for commercial flights, but sometimes they’re a necessary evil. Some of them are much better than others, though…
- Obviously I have to mention the very first plane I took on this trip, my flight from Melbourne to Phuket two years ago. To be fair, the flight itself was nothing special – a worn-out 737 with bad food and no entertainment, on an airline that was soon to go out of business. What that flight represented, however, made it one of the best I’ve ever taken.
- My flight from Auckland to Los Angeles with Air New Zealand in June stands out as one of the better long-haul flights I’ve had in recent years. I got a bulkhead seat at checkin for an extra $30 NZD, and every seat had a USB connection. With a fully-charged phone, room to stretch out and nap and surprisingly good food, I was a happy little flier for the entire 12+ hour journey.
- I’m also going to include a flight that I never took. Due to a delayed connection, my trip from Kuala Lumpur to Gold Coast with Air Asia took off without me, leaving me stranded in the dire surroundings of the KL low cost terminal. Air Asia is a budget airline and despite it being their fault, I didn’t expect much when it came to making things right. Instead, they booked me on the next flight, put me up in a hotel for the night and arranged transfers there and back, all without cost or complaint. There’s a reason why I always fly them if I can.
Hostels and guesthouses
I don’t even want to know how many different beds I’ve slept in over the last two years, but it’s a lot. Many of them blend into each other – another lukewarm shower, another set of off-white walls – but the good ones stay in the memory.
- New Zealand has plenty of decent budget accommodation, but there was one place that stood out above all others during my time there this year. Haka Lodge in Queenstown got pretty much everything right, and very little wrong, when it came to a great hostel experience. I’d stay there again in a heartbeat.
- It’s a little way out of town, but Atilla’s Getaway in Selcuk was worth the effort to get to. I planned to be there for two nights and stayed for close to a week… and then went back for another several days towards the end of my time in Turkey. It had a pool, great homecooked meals and friendly owners, and seemed to mostly attract a fun, chilled-out crowd of travellers. So great.
- Speaking of pools, VT Poolside Hostel in Veliko Tarnovo was one of the best hostels I’ve ever been to. Brand new, I could still smell the wood and varnish when I walked in. There was a huge commercial-style kitchen, a great pool area and the owner bought great bread and cheese every morning for breakfast. I’m worried it might have closed down, though, since I can’t find it anywhere online any more – and that would be a truly sad loss.
Hotels and apartments
Of course, hostels and guesthouses aren’t the only places I’ve stayed. It’s often as cheap to rent an apartment as get a private room in a hostel, and in SE Asia a good hotel can still run less than fifty bucks when it’s time for a splurge.
- Rikitikitavi was definitely a step above typical guesthouse fare in Kampot, both in price and quality. I would never have stayed there if Lauren hadn’t been incapacitated from a nasty fall the day before and needing somewhere to recuperate, but I’m very glad that I did. If the swanky rooms weren’t reason enough to spend a couple of nights, happy hour at the upstairs bar overlooking the river definitely was.
- Just in case I hadn’t already fallen for Ljubljana because of the cobbled streets and glorious architecture, Sweethome Apartment sealed the deal. Cozy, modern and with a living room bathed in natural light, it was the perfect base to explore the city from. If I could ever drag myself away from the coffee machine, that is…
- I’ll admit, I got very lucky with my apartment rental in Portland. The Tiny House was well-priced by Portland standards, in a fantastic neighbourhood, and with some serious personality. I was incredibly sad to leave.
Growing up in New Zealand, it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to natural attractions. Still, at various points over the last two years I’ve been dumbfounded at just how incredibly beautiful our planet can be despite our best efforts to screw it up.
- After several days exploring the other national parks in the area, Yellowstone was going to have to be something special to justify all the hype. And, of course, it was. It was the diversity that got me as much as the raw beauty, with barren moonscapes only a few yards from lush, tranquil lakes and rivers, bear and bison roaming freely all the while.
- There’s a good reason why the Tongariro Crossing is called the best one day hike in New Zealand. I was blessed with perfect summer weather on the day I visited, and it made this alpine trek over active volcanoes one of the standout highlights of my time back in my home country earlier this year.
- Pamukkale is a strange sort of place, brilliant white rock terraces in stark contrast to the barren Turkish countryside that surrounds them. Even with busloads of eastern European tourists clambering for the perfect glamour photos, it was still a magical spot to spend a few hours.
Festivals and celebrations
One of the best things about travel is the chance to be a part of festivals and celebrations that are completely at odds with anything you’d see back home. I’ve been lucky enough to experience several of these in the last two years, each one memorable for very different reasons.
- I’d been wanting to make it to the Yi Peng lantern release at Mae Jo ever since I first heard about it, and late last year I finally got there. It was just as magical as I’d hoped, thousands of lanterns slowly drifting into the night sky a sight I doubt I’ll ever forget.
- Six months earlier and a few miles back down the road in Chiang Mai, I experienced a celebration of a very different kind. To usher in the New Year, Thais and foreigners alike take part in the water-filled Songkran festival each April. Once a subdued affair, Songkran is now a crazy multi-day water fight. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun in my life.
- As I mentioned earlier, arriving in Istanbul at the end of Ramadan made me fall for the city even faster than I already would have. Eid al-Fitr is a time of togetherness, feasting and family, and even as an outsider sitting in the square outside the Blue Mosque, I truly felt part of a shared happiness.
I’ve loved so many of the places that I’ve visited in the last couple of years, but it’s a much smaller proportion where that feeling has been entirely unexpected. With the vast amount of information available online these days, it’s rare for a new place to truly surprise me. Some of them, though, definitely still do.
- Sarajevo, for instance, was a total shock. Coming off a miserable overnight train ride, to a city most known in modern times for war and deprivation, I didn’t expect much from it. I left two days later deeply regretting that I couldn’t stay longer, Sarajevo’s history, culture and people intertwined in a beautifully gritty, captivating mix.
- Having done no research as usual, all I knew about Montreal was that people spoke French and it got extremely cold in winter. Within 24 hours of arriving I’d already extended my stay, the great food and bohemian European vibe a complete and very welcome surprise.
- Visiting Koh Yao Noi was a random decision. I was looking for somewhere to get away from my laptop for a while and this little-known spot seemed to fit the bill. I ended up absolutely loving both my guesthouse and the island, its quiet, tourist-free charm so unexpected in Southern Thailand that I had to go back again for another ten days earlier this year.
“What’s your favourite country?” is the question I’m probably asked the most, and usually I’ll demur, giving a non-answer. It depends. Even narrowing it down to just three favourites in the last two years is ambitious, and I doubt I’d give the same answers if you asked me again next week. Still, for now, these are it.
- Cambodia affected me greatly when I first visited in 2010, and it’s still a firm favourite now. Travelling in this impoverished, beautiful country isn’t always easy but bears rich rewards, and it’s easy to get away from the crowds even in the most touristed spots in Siem Reap and along the coast. With a favourable visa situation as well, it’s somewhere I could see myself basing for much longer in the future.
- Bulgaria felt like it was going to be just somewhere to transit through en-route to Turkey, but despite being exhausted from several weeks of travel it ended up an unexpected delight. Any country with cheap beer and great cheese is probably somewhere I’ll like, and once you throw in friendly people, a rich history and some glorious scenery, it’s a done deal.
- If Sarajevo surprised me as a city, Bosnia also did as a country. While the physical and emotional scars of recent war will take many more years to heal, there was still a hopeful acceptance amongst the locals I spoke with. The diversity that caused such conflict is also what makes Bosnia so fascinating for visitors, and I left both conflicted and amazed by this nation, its people, food, architecture and history.
I don’t exactly hide my love for coffee – hell, it’s right up there in the tagline at the top of the page. I’ve had far too much of my favourite caffeinated beverage over the last two years, but here are three particular examples that I’d happily go back for tomorrow.
- Ristr8to Coffee in Chiang Mai is hardly a secret – popular with locals and visitors alike, it’s often hard to find a seat during the tourist high season. The coffee menu extends over several pages, catering to every pretentious whim, but it’s as much about the latte art as the drink itself. The barista will even recreate a photo in the foam for you if you ask him nicely.
- A few minutes from my apartment in Fitzroy, I used to visit Atomica Cafe in Melbourne regularly for brunch when I lived there, and long thought that it had some of the best coffee I’d ever tasted. I wasn’t sure if I’d overhyped the place in my imagination, though, so I had to go back when I was back in town earlier this year. Turns out, I hadn’t.
- Pretty much any coffee shop in Vietnam could make my list, but I’ll go with a random little cafe on the side of the road in the Mekong Delta. We’d been on the road for a couple of hours, bouncing through the potholes on a quiet back route, when we spotted some plastic tables on the side of the road. Rousing the owner of said chairs from her slumber, she soon whipped up a few small cups of condensed milk-based perfection. The resulting caffeine buzz was almost enough to keep me going until lunchtime. Almost.
Perhaps it’s because I spend so much time reliant on public transport these days, but for me there’s always something special about a road trip. I’ve done quite a few now, and while hitting the blacktop is always a great idea, these are three of my favourites.
- I’d never been on a scooter trip of more than a couple of days before, so spending a little over a week riding through Northern Thailand was always going to be an adventure. As it turned out, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had while travelling – incredible scenery, delicious food, crazy adventures and barely another tourist to be seen. If you ever get the opportunity to do something similar yourself, grab it with both hands and refuse to let go.
- I’d just finished a conference in Colorado, and had another one to go to a couple of weeks later in Oregon. Obviously, then, it was road trip time! The drive with a friend from Denver to Seattle was full of highlights, from the wide open plains of Wyoming and Montana to the granite peaks of Grand Teton and steaming geysers of Yellowstone. We covered a lot of ground in those 11 days, and it was totally worth the effort.
- It almost feels like cheating to include my homeland of New Zealand, but I guess any road trip that takes two months is worth mentioning. More importantly, it gave me the chance to reconnect with the country I grew up in, removing the jaded local’s view and seeing what so many others do in this little slice of paradise at the bottom of the world.
So I guess it’s fair to say that it’s been a remarkable last 737 days on the road. While it’s easy to always focus on what is coming next, it’s important, I think, to also take a little time to remember and appreciate where I’ve been and what I’ve done so far.
Here’s hoping the next two years will be equally memorable.
I have a feeling they will be.