Tomorrow it’s New Year’s Eve. Twelve months ago I had dinner and drinks at a bar in Melbourne, watched some fireworks, got drunk with good friends and went home. This year I’ll be doing exactly the same thing. It’s almost like nothing has changed – except for the minor detail of leaving a soul-destroying job and backpacking round the world for six months in the meantime.
Here are some of the highlights of the best year of my life.
Tough call, this. If I had to choose a city, it’d probably be Amsterdam. I’d been there twice before, but this time I totally fell in love with the place because of its wonderful vibe, gorgeous canals, funky people and bicycle-friendly layout. I’d love to go back and spend six months there over summer sometime soon.
If I had to choose a country, however, it would undoubtedly be Laos. So much more chilled out and serene than any of the countries it shares borders with, Laos was where my mental pictures of South East Asia became reality. Orange robed monks, unspoiled landscapes and the friendliest people I’ve ever met. If you go nowhere else in South East Asia, go there.
And for sheer awesomeness, the week on a yacht sailing around the Greek Islands with my sister and a group of friends just can’t be beat.
I’m choosing not to count the time on a yacht in either Thailand or Greece – the views were amazing but it’s kind of cheating. So on that basis, it’d have to be Phau’s Guesthouse, on Don Det in the 4000 islands region of Southern Laos. Gorgeous vistas out over the Mekong River on one side, vibrant green rice paddies and paddocks on the other. Oh, and it also happened to be the cheapest place I stayed the entire year. $2.50 a night for those views? Yeah, I’ll accept that…
Another easy choice – Clark International Airport in Manilla, the Philippines. After a gruelling 2.30am flight from Kuala Lumpur I had a few hours to kill here en-route to the awesomeness of Palawan. Being moved on for no reason from the one quiet area in the entire terminal while trying to catch a few minutes sleep was painful enough, but the attempted confiscation of my duty free vodka (that I’d bought in that airport … while in transit … to a domestic flight) left me less than thrilled.
The successful confiscation of my travel umbrella (that I’d taken through a dozen other airports) on the way back two weeks later, however, really did manage to piss me off. “It can be used as a weapon”. “Yeah mate, so can my hands and you haven’t tried to take those off me … yet”. The food options were terrible, the airport wi-fi never worked and the coffee shop which was the only other place offering wireless internet required a minimum spend much higher than the price of a cup of coffee to give me the password. And you wonder why I prefer taking the train.
This one’s easy. The overnight journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An in Vietnam was undoubtedly the least enjoyable of several unenjoyable bus rides in Asia. Wedged into the middle seat of five at the rear of the ironically named ‘sleeper’ bus with no space to stretch my legs out, the broken air-conditioning meant that I was covered in sweat within minutes and totally dehydrated after a couple of hours. I wasn’t bored, mind you – counting how many times the guy beside me could cough his lungs out gave me plenty of excitement during those 14 hours of hell. Never have I been more thrilled to get off a bus and find a room with air conditioning and a cold drink. Of course Hoi An had no power that particular day……
There’s a lot of things that could fall into this category, but as my mum reads this blog I’ll stick with food options. The worst tasting meals were usually when I made the stupid mistake of occasionally thinking that I really needed a hamburger or something else Western while in Asia. It’s never the right choice. The grossest thing, however, had to be at a night market in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The fried crickets I could totally handle – I was eating them by the fist-full in the end. The silkworm larvae, however? Now they were just downright disgusting.
Speaking of trains, I did the dumbest of many dumb things on this trip at the main train station in Brussels. Transiting from a regional train to the one that would take me to Paris, I glanced at my ticket and thought that I had an hour and twenty minutes to kill. Time to put my feet up and enjoy a quiet coffee. As I neared the end of the cup, I looked a little more closely at my ticket. Ahh right, it’s not an hour and twenty minutes after all. It’s twenty minutes. Oh. Crap. I grabbed my bag and bolted for the platform, conveniently located right at the other end of the station. The train was still there … but the doors were closed. No matter how frantically I pushed the button, they wouldn’t open. Bye bye train. Bye bye 88 god damn Euros to get another ticket. Lesson learned.
So many options. Soooooo many options. Let’s go with getting smashed at a backpacker bar in Hue, Vietnam, during the World Cup, grabbing a ball hanging above the door on the way out about 1am, and playing an extremely loud game of 5-on-5 football on the street outside, Vietnam vs The Rest of the World. Everyone loved it and we soon built up quite a crowd. The cop on a motorbike that turned up after twenty minutes, though, didn’t seem quite so amused. We talked our way out of being arrested and hightailed it outta there, and I then have vague memories of another bar … and another bar … and then a club … and dancing with Scandinavians. It’s like a game of join-the-dots. With most of the dots missing.
Another tough call – there weren’t many places in SE Asia that I didn’t share with a few six and eight legged friends. For sheer number, though, I think that a little guesthouse in Coron has to take the cake. I should have realised that the scenic views of the ocean at high tide would give way to mudflats at low tide, and being on stilts above them perhaps wasn’t the best place to be. From mosquitos to cockroaches, ants to god knows what, I felt like Dr Dolittle that night. At least the resident geckos took care of most of the smaller ones by morning, I guess.
Another easy one. From waking up at 7am in Phuket, Thailand, to finally getting to bed around 3am – two days and several time zones later – very drunk in Valencia, Spain, that 53 hour day will live on for a long time in my memory. I blame Abbey.
There wasn’t exactly a shortage of them, but I think the award has to go to the awesome cliche-combo I walked past in Bangkok one day. A drunk Western backpacker  wearing fisherman pants  arguing loudly with a tuk-tuk driver over 20 baht  just off Khao San Road . If she was heading off for banana pancakes for breakfast, it would have sealed the deal.
For me, undoubtedly Phuket. I’d heard so many people talk about the island in reasonably positive terms, but compared to elsewhere in SE Asia it just seemed dirty, seedy as hell and absolutely full of touts trying to scam people travelling through – or at least dramatically rip them off. Even the Phi Phi islands didn’t do much for me – the landscape and views are as stunning as they ever were, but the noise, crowds and pollution were rapidly destroying the place in my eyes … and that was during the rainy months. I’d hate to see it right now, in the height of peak season. It’s a real shame, but I’ll save both my rant and bullshit cliches about how great it would have been twenty years ago for another day.
The ‘travel’ shirt that I bought in a fit of madness the week before I left. I knew it’d make me look like an even bigger dork than usual, and that as a result I’d never wear it. Strangely enough, it did make me look like a bigger dork than usual, I didn’t wear it, and after a few weeks it got left behind with a note saying ‘free to anyone that wants this’. If you happen to be wearing an ugly brown quick-dry shirt that you found in a guesthouse in Cambodia … you’re welcome. No, really.
My passport, on a Vietnamese bus. What. An. Idiot. Thank god I got it back, after a pretty crazy adventure and a knight in shining flip-flops, but it could easily have ruined the first few weeks of my trip after only a couple of days. I was super-paranoid about that little blue book for the next several months. Surprise surprise…
And with that recap, an absolutely incredible 2010 draws to a close. See you again in 2011. Other than a trip to Portland (for the World Domination Summit) and Vancouver (for TBEX 11) in June, I’ve no idea what next year is going to hold. There’s one thing I do know, however – it’s gonna be awesome!