Updated on September 4, 2016
Updated on September 4, 2016
I have always wanted to do a “travel superlatives” post to honor some of the most defining features of the 60-ish destinations we’ve seen so far. I mean, I don’t know how many times Drew and I have been bored on a bus or walking down some foreign city streets frivolously exchanging our various judgements of the places we’d just seen and how they compare to other places we’ve seen.
For some reason it has always been one of those running conversations that just pops up at random times. Perhaps you and your travel companions have had these little “superlatives” conversations too?
So finally I decided to get these little thoughts into a post. I know some of you may disagree with my judgements and opinions, or some of you might be offended when you find your favorite country slotted into an unfavorable slot, but remember, these are just my opinions. If you don’t like them, you can make your own opinions. Nice how things work out like that.
Where it makes sense, I’ll add little stories or notes. Otherwise, I’ll let the lists speak for themselves.
Perhaps you’ve read Drew’s story of us getting utterly lost on our first day in Asia. I’ll never know if the culture shock of our visit to China 4 years ago was magnified by the fact that we weren’t only visiting Asia for the very first time, but also embarking on long term travel for the very first time.
I can still remember walking through a crowded market where nets full of toads throbbed at my feet and suspiciously canine carcasses hung at eye level. All eyes were on us- it was impossible to ignore.
And just as vividly, I remember realizing with a bit of surprise that there were no solutions other than the ones we thought of ourselves. All of my previous travels had either been with family or with my University. In other words, someone else was in charge. The sun had set and we’d been hopelessly walking around this bizarre foreign city for nearing on 6 hours, attempting to find our friend’s small University.
“Well,” I thought to myself with a peculiar calm, “even if we have to sleep on the sidewalk, at least we’re together.”
The culture shock of India is different to me than the culture shock of China. China offers many bizarre and fascinating sights for which there are essentially zero obvious traces in the Western world. Everything is unfamiliar.
India on the other hand, is a place that, for whatever reason, has made some impressions on the Western world. Just take the food for example. If you eat at an Indian restaurant in the US, it will be fairly similar to what you’ll find in India. Chinese food on the other hand, has been so re-defined and Americanized in the States that, unless you know where to go, it’s unrecognizable from the food you’ll actually find in China.
All this to say, India is shocking not so much because it’s starkly unfamiliar to a Western person, but because it’s just…shocking. There aren’t just crowds, there are shocking crowds. There isn’t just poverty, there’s shocking poverty. Polution, noise, religiosity, volume- everything about India is extreme, and that is shocking.
2. Greece (Zakynthos)
If you go to Zakynthos, I beg you, go to Malanos. Ask for Niko. Tell him that Drew and Carrie, his former couch surfers, say hello. And that we recommend the octopus to everyone.
Ok, let me explain.
It’s not exactly fair to say that China has the worst food, because it has some extremely delicious food. The food we ate in a Chinese home was fabulous. The problem is, a traveler who doesn’t know what to look for can very easily end up eating some pretty seriously strange and gross things. As mentioned, the first time we visited China, we were visiting friends who were teaching there. As a result, we had a much better sense of what to order, and there were plenty of occasions to eat with locals who knew exactly what to order.
Our second time in China however, it was just the two of us in Beijing and we had no idea what to eat. One night we attempted to play it safe and eat chicken skewers, only to find out the little outdoor restaurant wasn’t really serving chicken skewers…it was serving chicken gristle skewers. And another evening, we watched the restaurant scoop our noodles from a pot of thick brown liquid boiling with intestines.
The caveat here is that by far the best snorkeling on Guam is on the Air Force bases. So you need to know someone with access who can take you there.
Everyone knows by now that we absolutely love Bali. Drew has a post that mentions specific recommendations for snorkeling there.
Here we saw black tipped sharks, octopus, and some decent coral.
Here we saw a moray eel.
All of French Polynesia is beautiful, but Moorea is the most scenic. It’s just jaw-dropping beauty all around you.
2. New Zealand
Ever since visiting four years ago I have been dying to go back during their summertime so that I can camp there. We did most of our exploring on the South Island, around the Queenstown area.
Switzerland is scenic not only for the natural beauty of the alps, but also for the quaint little towns that pepper the hillsides. Charming to an absurd degree.
Our safari in Kenya remains one of my all time favorite travel memories. We stayed in the Keekorok Lodge inside the park. There were no fences and we could watch the hippos munching on the lawn at dusk, or hear the lions in the brush behind our cabins.
Honestly, our very own Yellowstone National Park feels a bit like a safari. I love it there.
3. Sri Lanka
Yala National Park is the only place we’ve spotted a leopard.
4. Costa Rica
Carara National Park was a great place to see some critters of the rainforest. Having said that…spotting a tropical bird through the foliage is just not quite the same as spotting a lion or buffalo out on the plains. It probably boils down to personal preference.
It’s English-speaking, the great public transit system makes it even easier to get around than the US, plus everything is close together. Even I, the most impossibly directionally challenged and non-independent adult you’ll ever find, was able to figure out how to get from Derry to Edinburgh without a University chaperone.
2. Hong Kong
As far as Asian travel goes, Hong Kong is as travel-friendly as a place can be. The subway is very user-friendly with clear indications of where you are and where you’re going. Plus, many people speak English.
Thailand is maybe even easier than Hong Kong. The tourist industry has been around for quite awhile now, so transit is well-prepared for English-speaking tourists. But not only that, it’s super cheap. Plus, there is a wide range of accommodations for every kind of traveler. If you want a hostel, it’ll be there and it’ll be dirt cheap. If you want a luxury hotel, it will be there too, and it will also be very cheap.
As you may already know from our previous posts about the Indian Railway System, traveling by train in India is the opposite of tourist-friendly. Unless you want to accidentally book yourself on a high-security train that will arrive with all its doors locked so you can’t possibly get on before it takes off without you, (true story…), you pretty much have to make train reservations ahead of time. Or, take a bus.
The buses are long and grueling, but the trains are extremely difficult to book unless you have an Indian phone number to register on the Indian Railway website or you book ahead of time via a tourist agency. Not our style to book things in advance.
Plus, you WILL get sick. It’s going to happen.
If we had only traveled in Shanghai, Beijing, and Yungshuo, I’m not so sure I’d put China in this slot. But we traveled to some lesser known places as well.
Especially in these lesser known places, China is difficult, in my opinion, purely because of the steep language barrier. Not only does the language use a different set of sounds than we’re used to listening for or making, the written language is also about as different as it could be, and you won’t find English translations just anywhere.
I still can’t believe we somehow bought the correct tickets when we first traveled from Wuhan to JingZhou, because we had absolutely no idea how to pronounce “JingZhou” and absolutely no one at the train station understood English. Even if we had a map, we didn’t know the Chinese spelling of “JingZhou” either. I don’t know what we expected, but we were not at all prepared.
On top of a totally different looking and sounding language, there is also a totally different system of gestures when trying to indicate numbers. China might actually be one of the few places left where it feels like an adventure not knowing the language.
1. Indonesia (outside of Bali)
Don’t get me wrong, Bali is quite cheap, but it’s even cheaper in Jakarta or Yogyakarta. I mean, you can get a delicious meal in Yogyakarta for 26 cents. And even though we’ve never been to Medan, there’s a JW Marriottt there for something like $50.
The food isn’t 26 cents cheap, but it’s a few bucks cheap. And it’s delicious.
I remember being dumb founded by how slowly the meter moved in our taxi in Bucharest. I think we paid barely over a dollar to get from the train station to our hotel.
China is super cheap. Eat for a buck. Taxi for a few bucks. Find a fancy hotel for little more than $20.
Honorable mentions: Myanmar and Ukraine
The thing about Myanmar and Ukraine is that there isn’t much of a tourist infrastructure, so it can be a little touch and go. The food is very cheap in either place, but depending on where you are, you may not find much in terms of cheap accommodations. For instance the first time we went to Kiev, there were basically only expensive luxury hotel options, but it’s not like there was a hostel district, (at least none we knew of). Once we returned for my sister’s adoption, there were a few cheap-ish places my sister heard about through the adoption circles, but an ordinary tourist may not be able to find those options.
Similarly in Myanmar, you may be able to find cheap accommodations in the main hot-spots, but once you veer off that path, you might be stuck.
Now, I have to disclaimer that we’ve not been to Scandinavia yet. The closest we’ve come is Finland (which isn’t actually technically part of Scandinavia.) But all reports are of high prices. And we saw that in Finland, for sure.
Switzerland is ridiculously expensive. Like…$17 for a slice of pizza kind of expensive.
When we were there four years ago, the public transit from the airport downtown was something like $35. And at the time, we thought the food was obscenely expensive.
4. Bora Bora
Everyone knows that Bora Bora is expensive. We’re talking hotels that go for $1,000 a night and not much for local food options- just resort menus with $15-$20 appetizers and >$30 main dishes. Drew’s posted about how to get the hotels covered here, and the not-so-glamorous approach to eating cheap here.
At one local restaurant in Yangon we were seated at a table with two middle-aged men who were just finishing their meal. They showed us how to rinse out our tea-cups with the tea, before pouring a glass for drinking. Then, as our food arrived, they finished up and left. When it came time for us to pay, the waiter informed us that our table-mates had already paid for us. We were floored, and very grateful.
The Masai people we met in Kenya were so friendly. We were amused by their discussing how strange it was that when Americans say “How are you?”, they mean it only as a greeting, and not as an invitation to share in deeper conversation.
Honestly though, every single place we’ve gone, we’ve met extremely friendly people. I don’t know what it is about traveling, but it seems that all over the world, people treat the vulnerability of a traveler with the utmost warmth and welcome. I love it. Everywhere from Mexico to Ukraine or Egypt to Namibia. I have met friendly people absolutely everywhere.
It makes me believe in the good of people.
As always, chime in with your own answers!