If you read my previous two posts on my 1) top 10 countries; 2) top 10 cities, you might have a guess as to what are my favorite experiences. In contrast to those previous two posts, this post was fairly easy to put together. Obviously people may have different experiences even if they did the same activities because a lot depends on things outside your control (e.g., wheather, tour guide, group members, etc.). However, I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to have a bad time during any one of these outings.
Top 10 experiences
On my first trip to Thailand in 2011, I regret to say that I rode an elephant. While the company I used did not use any whips or hooks to control the elephant, I saw many other companies have hooks in the ears of the elephants to direct their path and the riders would severely whip the elephants to make them go. This time around I thought I could repent a little bit by attending an elephant sanctuary where instead of riding the elephants, we would spend the day pampering, bathing, and feeding the elephants. While manual labor may not sound as fun as relaxing on the back of an elephant, it was incredibly satisfying and fun being so close to the animals. In our elephant group we had two baby elephants that were so much fun to watch and play with.
On top of our time with the elephants, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal with the volunteers at the elephant sanctuary where we got a history of the elephants at the sanctuary and some more information about the treatment of elephants in Thailand. Apparently, many of the elephants in Thailand come from defunct circuses around Asia. If you are tempted to ride an elephant in Asia, I strongly encourage you to consider the alternative of a similar elephant sanctuary. We visited the happy elephant home sanctuary and we highly recommend.
As I mentioned in my Egypt post, we were a little hesitant to go to Egypt. However, anytime you have a chance to see one of the original wonders of the world, I think you should go for. Before our trip I was one of the people who might look at pictures of the pyramids and say "it doesn't look that special, it's just a bunch of big triangles." Maybe it's because I'm pushing 40 but historical ruins really excite me. Looking at the pyramids in person, you can really appreciate just how old the stones are that make up the pyramids. The Giza pyramid complex includes 3 pyramids: the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza. All were built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt. The pyramids seem to leap out of the desert and their size and scale is pretty impressive. We had heard stories of vendors harassing tourists and pick pocketers at the pyramids, but the complex was pretty empty and we had a great tour guide that kept the vendors at bay. Luckily it wasn't too hot the day we visited so we took our time exploring the complex but I can imagine some days the heat can be unbearable. Egypt and the pyramids were one of those places that we wish we spent more time in but even in the short amount of time we had, the pyramids deftly made their mark.
Much like the pyramids, we were a little hesitant to travel to Jordan to see Petra. However, the well-deserved fame of Petra was too much to resist. Petra isn't the easiest place to get to but is well worth the trip. I actually thought Petra was only the Treasury portion shown in Indiana Jones but I was pleasantly surprised that there was much more to see. The one downside is that there isn't much shade and even in the winter the temperatures can get pretty high. The buildings and carvings though are pretty spectacular and even though we took tons of pictures, they don't do the city justice. On certain days, you can see Petra at night. Unfortunately, we were in pennypinching mode and didn't spend the extra money to experience this. I think it's a great way to avoid the heat and crowds during the day and I'm sure seen the treasury by candlelight would have been spectacular. If you go to Petra, be prepared for the heat and lots of walking but if you really can't walk, there are always some locals offering doggy rights for price. If you only have a day to spend at Petra, I recommend going early and seeing the treasury through the el Siq entrance and taking the Al Madras trail to get a birds eye view of the Treasury.
When we first decided on visiting Indonesia, I pictured relaxing on the beaches of Bali and sleeping in. Little did I know that 4 AM wake-up calls would be the norm. Even though sunrises happen every day, with the right backdrop they can be pretty special. Indonesian backdrops were special enough to warrant the number seven spot on my list. The sunrise at the Borobudur temple comes as the sun peeks and said over the mountains in the east and the silhouettes of the statues of the temple at sunrise make for some pretty amazing pictures and views. We did catch some bad luck when trying to catch another famous sunrise of Indonesia, Mount Bromo. Unfortunately the clouds and fog stayed around too long and we didn't get to see the sunrise but we still got to see some great views of the mountain and surrounding volcanoes. My favorite sunrise didn't have much of a view at all but our sunrise at the Sukamade turtle sanctuary was extremely memorable. The workers gave us a bucket of 20 or so adorable baby sea turtles that had hatched the night before and it was our job to release them on the beach for their journey to the ocean. Luckily there were no birds around to scoop up the turtles and they all eventually made it into the ocean. Once we got to Bali, we did get to sleep in a little bit more and when we got up we were treated to some of the best coffee I've had along with some delicious organic breakfast from nearby cafés/yoga retreats.
After already visiting much of Asia, we had seen countless temples that they all seem to mix together. I can’t say the 2000+ temples themselves were anything more spectacular than what we had previously seen but they did provide a fantastic background for the Bagan hot air balloon launches. The balloons went up a little after sunrise and sadly we did not budget for another hot air balloon ride. Bagan also has plenty of electric bikes and scooters for rent which makes traveling to the temples little more fun. The morning balloon launch was very memorable but even more memorable were the people of me Myanmar. They win the award for the country with the nicest people.
Miyajima Island is one of the famous Three Scenic Views of Japan. Not only is the island physically beautiful, but it has beauty on the inside as well. The main inhabitants are hundreds and hundreds of Sika deer. These deer are not afraid of people and will gladly eat any pieces of paper or food they can find in your pockets. I remember sitting next to a couple of deer watching the sun go down behind the Itsukushima Shrine. It was a beautiful end after a long day of hiking and traveling.
One of the main reasons we weren’t so sad at missing the balloon ride in Bagan was that we already had an amazing hot air balloon experience in Turkey. Our trip to Cappadocia didn’t get off on the right foot as it was a lot colder than we thought it would be and we arrived just in time for the first snowfall of the year. It was actually hard putting this experience at number four on my list because seen the sunrise over the horizon open the balloon was truly breathtaking. After sunrise, the pilot took us lower among the beautifully snowcapped rock chimneys of Cappadocia. I couldn’t believe just how many other hot air balloons were up in the air with us as we explore the valley. I can’t be sure if there were more balloons in Bagan or Cappadocia but the balloons were definitely closer to each other in Cappadocia. If you really can’t stand heights or spring the money for a hot air balloon ride, there are plenty of good viewing spots in the city to enjoy the balloon launch and may be some hot coffee as well.
Before I went to Cambodia I thought that Angkor Wat was a small town/temple similar to Machu Picchu in Peru. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Angkor Wat is just a small piece of the entire Angkor region. While Angkor Wat is probably the most famous temple in the region (and for good reason), it actually wasn’t my favorite spot. I really loved the Ta Prohm temple which had a gigantic tree sprouting out from the ruins. I definitely recommend getting a driver as the temples are pretty far away from each other and the heat would make walking or biking pretty unbearable. I would also say you need at least three days to explore the complex and surrounding area.
I can’t say I’m the biggest hiker in the world. I don’t have my own hiking gear let alone a good pair of hiking boots but I do enjoy walking along some beautiful scenery. I had tangentially heard that Norway was a beautiful country but I had no idea just how gorgeous the fjords of Norway really are. The hikes we went on pretty tough at times but you don’t need any serious hiking gear to reach the end and making it all the way to the end of each of these hikes is definitely worth the view. In our first hike to pulpit rock, much of the path was above the clouds so we didn’t actually see the fjords below but the clouds were beautiful in themselves and I’m glad we get to experience them on the hike. We took probably the most Instagram-worthy picture in Norway at the Kjeragbolten hike outside of Stavanger. Even still, the pictures don’t do the view justice. If you’re in Norway, embrace the sweat and tackle these hikes.
our biggest splurge for the year long vacation was our 26 day safari trip around southern Africa. Part 2 and Part 3 of the safari here. Luckily, it was well worth it as a grabbed the number one spot on my list of top experiences. We actually ended up having two near-death experiences with wild animals during our trip, but it wasn’t with typical African predators like lions or Jaguars. One was with an Oryx that had wandered into our campsite and Diem wanted to get close to it for picture. Little did we know, that the Oryx are some of the more dangerous animals to tourists in Africa as their horns are extremely sharp and can gore a human easily. The second was on a safari tour at Kruger National Park in a Jeep when an elephant charged our truck. It wasn’t quite as close as this video but it was pretty close. Even still, getting so close to the animals and sleeping in a tent every night under the stars, was truly a memorable experience.
While your budget and timeframe may not allow you to do all these experiences, these are good jumping off points when deciding where to go and what did you for your next vacation. Please let me know if you have any thoughts regarding my list and thanks for reading!