Asia in Review

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I again want to thank everyone for reading and I wanted to post a quick recap of my time in Asia before I take a break for the holidays. If you’re new, welcome! I’ve just come back from a four-month stint in Asia as part of year-long trip abroad and you can get caught up here in five minutes. I’m experimenting with a new image layout, so if it’s acting up or taking forever to load the page or anything, please let me know. You should be able to click on any of the collages to pull up a fullscreen, slideshow display.

After a quick introduction, I started my trip in Tokyo, a spellbindingly huge city I couldn’t quite figure out. What I only realized in retrospect, after traveling through Asia, is that Japan’s very closed society and authenticity is exactly what makes it worth visiting. As a country, they really don’t give a crap about tourism or catering to an English-speaking crowd and after seeing tourism ruin so much of Asia, I appreciate this intense dedication to preserving the Japanese culture and not making any attempt to anglicize it or make it somehow easier to digest for foreigners.

Next was Kyoto, Japan’s second city and a charming antidote to the enormity of Tokyo. Nara, my third stop, wasn’t particularly memorable, but my final destination in Japan, Hiroshima, proved surprising. In the West, this is a city whose name comes with a lot of emotional baggage, but Hiroshima is a vibrant, thriving place and their somber observance of the atomic bomb disaster, combined with their heartfelt dedication to being a symbol of peace, means they spend more time looking forward than back.

After Japan came Seoul, the wacky Korean capital where I discovered just how amazing the food scene is and what a cool, culturally rich city is hidden underneath all the tech and omnipresent gadgetry.

My first stop in China was Shanghai, which wins the award for biggest come-from-behind victory. I really was not wild about the city the first 24 hours I was there, but the more I saw, the more I loved it and now at the end of my time in Asia, I can say it was one of my favorite stops on the whole trip.

I continued my time in China in Xi’an, a city that is otherwise unremarkable save for the (in)famous Terracotta Army that sits just outside the city. After visiting the site, I talked in circles and eventually convinced myself that I don’t think the Army is entirely real.

Guilin was next. Tucked away in the southern part of China near the Vietnam border, Guilin is famous for its limestone karst formations along the Li and a trip on a bamboo raft down the river is absolutely a bucket list item.

My last stop in China was Hong Kong, which essentially turned out to be London with a touch of Chinese influence here and there. Hong Kong is a stunning city with a lot to do and I really enjoyed my week there, but it lacked a certain X-factor that made a place like Shanghai more special.

After so much time in the eastern part of Asia, I made the jump over to India. First I explored Rajasthan, hitting the usual spots in Delhi, Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaipur. Of all the countries I visited, India most closely lined up with my expectations before I arrived. It’s colorful, it’s so alive, it’s a mess, but it’s a completely entrancing and beautiful country.

The other thing I’ll say about India is they talk a big game when it comes to the things they produce—cashmere products, embroidery, jewelry, food, etc.—and now having seen this kind of thing all over Asia, I feel confident saying that no one else on the continent makes more beautiful or high-quality items than the Indians.

No trip to India would be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal in Agra, and I wrapped up my time in India with a visit to the holy city of Varanasi. Situated along the banks of the Ganges, it is sacred spot for both Buddhists and Hindus.

My next stop set the benchmark for natural beauty in Asia. Bhutan is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and the tiny, secluded country in the Himalayas truly feels like one of the last untouched corners of the earth.

After Bhutan, I was likely going to be disappointed by anything, and indeed I didn’t fall in love with my next stop. Everyone loves Thailand, from American college students to Asian tourists, but I just didn’t get it. What history there is in Bangkok is overwhelmed by the sex and sleaze, while the north of Thailand, though beautiful, left something to be desired. The beaches in the south are as beautiful as everyone says, but at that point, Thailand had lost me.

I said this in my Bangkok post, but I’ll reiterate it here. Everyone raves about Thailand because it’s so cheap, but you get what you pay for, which is part of what frustrated me. Because tourism has been such a big industry in Thailand for so long, it’s incredibly difficult to escape it. If you want to get away from everyone else, you really have to pay for it, which is fine, but at that point it’s no cheaper than any other nice vacation in Asia.

Myanmar was my next stop, a place that proved surprising at every turn. The capital, Yangon, is both fairly modern and a complete throwback, as seen in the BMW dealership outside of town and the telegraph office in the middle of downtown. Inle Lake and Bagan are the older, less developed parts of Myanmar and while I was blown away by both, I was equally stunned by how many Americans I saw in what I incorrectly assumed was still an off-the-radar destination.

I spent a week in Bali lounging on the beach before heading to Vietnam, beginning in the south and traveling north to Hanoi. Vietnam was a mixed bag. Saigon is an extremely modern city, while Hanoi has stronger ties to the country’s French colonial past, but the scars from the war are far from healed. While Vietnamese frustration with the war is completely understandable, the proliferation of government propaganda was a little annoying.

Though not the capital, Luang Prabang is the tourism center of Laos, a country that bears many similarities to its Southeast Asian neighbors, but has until recently remained more closed off from the West than much of Asia, though they were on the receiving end of intense American bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. Buddhism here is an even more prominent part of everyday life than in other countries in this part of the world and while tourism has helped bolster the Laotian economy, this is still a country with a long way to go, though its natural beauty is first-rate.

Six weeks after I arrived in Bangkok, I ended my time in Southeast Asia in Cambodia. Siem Reap is dominated by Angkor Wat, which blew me away even after seeing countless Hindu and Buddhist temples all over Asia. Though Siem Reap is relatively affluent, Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia, and the devastation of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge can still be seen in stark relief just outside the city.

My last stop in Asia was Singapore, a place I just couldn’t manage to like. It’s amazing to see what the Singaporeans have done in the last half century (2015 is its 50th birthday as an independent nation) and while I have a lot of respect for the way they have become an economic powerhouse in such a short period of time, I had trouble seeing anything beneath the city’s glitzy surface.

Finally, before coming home, I made a stop halfway across the Pacific in Hawaii. After so much time and seeing so many incredible things in Asia, I didn’t’ expect Hawaii to stack up, but did it ever. The 50th state is truly something magical, and I now totally understand why people from the mainland go through all the trouble of getting there.

The stats:

  • Days on the road: 116
  • Number of countries: 12 + 1 U.S. state
  • Number of cities/towns (places I stayed at least one night): 38
  • Number of flights: 40
  • Miles flown: 35,690
  • Miles walked: 744
  • Miles driven (as in, I was driving): 632

So, that’s that! I can’t thank you enough for reading and I hope you’ll continue to follow my trip into next year, as my year of traveling is far from over. I appreciate your readership and have been really touched by your kind feedback along the way. I’ll be back at it immediately after the New Year when I head to Argentina and Chile, before making the jump over to Australia. You can see my upcoming itinerary here. Thank you again and happy holidays!

See you in 2016,

Abbey

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