I hope everyone had an incredible holiday-- around here, there were heaps of sweets baked, much time spent with my family, and numerous incredible meals enjoyed (both out and in). It's been fantastic and overwhelming, and only now is my mind starting to clear from all of it. And, it being New Year's Eve, the perfect time to look back over the past year as I start to plan the next.
Even though we squeezed in LA, northern New Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta in the last month, 2008 was really about one place-- Asia. We spent one half resident in Bangkok, one half living as itinerants, and en route visited some incredible places. Below are a few of the many locales we inhabited this past year that most deeply impressed me.
8. Trang Province, Thailand, October to November
It's hard for me not to look back at Trang with mixed feelings. The work I was doing was stressful, we had to spend an average of 4 to 5 hours a day on boats and buses getting around, we got trapped in several monsoonal showers (including once on a longtail boat-- not recommended) and I spent most of my time there feeling exhausted. But looking back at it from a comfortable distance (and in a drier locale), I'm able to appreciate what a spectacular chain of islands it is, and how lucky I am to have gotten to spend a week travelling among them. My favorites were was Ko Sukorn, with its pastoral rice fields and villages; Ko Libong, which had a subdued desert island appeal; and Ko Lao Liang, the isolated rock where we slept in tents, kayaked and snorkeled, and enjoyed fantastic seafood meals.
7. Mekong Delta, Vietnam, October
The year 2007 was centered around the Mekong, as Bordeaux and I traveled by slowboat, bus, and ferry along the route from Northern Thailand through Laos and Cambodia to Vietnam. We were missing one major part, however: the delta. So when work pointed us toward Phu Quoc island in southern Vietnam, I made sure we'd be getting to see the delta as well. The best night of our trip was in Ben Tre, where we sampled delicious Elephant Fish spring rolls, enjoyed a lazy afternoon drinking drip coffee, and cruised under palm-arches in a tiny canal. The glimpse I got of the rest of the area-- pastel colored houses, knotted waterways, and decadent Cao Dai temples, had me promising I'd return.
6. Kep, Cambodia, April
It came down to a choice between Kep and Sihanoukville, and I think we chose wisely. It wasn't the waves that drew us to this seaside Cambodian town, it was a meal-- pepper crab. Thankfully, the dish-- freshly caught crab covered in an oily curry powder sauce, exploding with the bite of green Kampot peppercorns-- justified the trip from Phnom Penh. The incredible atmosphere didn't hurt either-- we slept outdoors in a four-poster bed, that looked down from its balcony perch over lush tropical forest, ruined modernist villas, and the distant sea.
5. Central Vietnam, September
The cities of Hue, Danang, and Hoi An are often used to break up the long trip between Hanoi and Saigon, but the region is a deserving destination in its own right. It's certainly one of the best places to see traditional Vietnamese architecture-- like the ornate ruins of Hue's citadel, and the lanes of traders' houses in Hoi An. And while we didn't have too much luck with the regional cuisine, despite it being so widely touted, we did stumble across a few incredible dishes-- like grilled pork and starfruit wrapped in rice paper, avocado shakes, and crispy banh khoai pancakes.
4. Khao Sok, Thailand, May
I don't know if there are many places in the world that can compete with Khao Sok-- a tangled jungle inhabited by tapirs, sunbears, and tigers, stretched along a spine of limestone karsts. The highlight of our visit was a night on the emerald green Cheow Lan reservoir, a flooded forest where we slept on a floating bamboo hut. We were taken on guided boat trips to see otters and hornbills, but the real highlight was spending hours kayaking under the shade of the forest, as gibbons and langurs looked down at us with curiosity.
3. Penang, Malaysia, October
Penang was more necessity than vacation-- we had to do a visa run-- but it was without question one of my favorite places we visited in Asia. The city of Georgetown is gorgeous, the people were friendly, and the multicultural cuisine -- Indian banana leaf curries, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Nonya desserts-- was spectacular. Our visit came toward the end of our time in Asia, when we were starting to feel worn out, but in Penang I felt (temporarly) revived, with my curiosity renewed. Next time we return to Asia, Malaysia is at the top of my list for places to visit.
2. Hanoi, Vietnam, March
Bangkok will always have a place in my heart, but it's got serious competition from Hanoi. The city's sense of style is bipolar, with European avenues, Chinese temples, and Socialist monuments all battling it out, but it gives the city a unique energy and feel. We enjoyed some of the best coffee we'd had in all of Asia, and sampled some of the best street food-- like greasy binh my trung heaped with fresh cilantro. If I were to move back to Asia-- I'm sorry BKK-- it would likely be to Hanoi.
1. Taiwan, June to August
Was Taiwan my favorite place in Asia? Well, no-- but it was definitely the most surprising. I went there for work, for Bordeaux, and I went with low expectations-- which were quickly blown away. Taiwan has a gorgeous natural landscape of dramatic rocky shores, towering peaks (including the highest in East Asia), and verdant bamboo forests. It also has some of the most fascinating urban spaces I've visited in Asia, from the glamorous monuments of Taipei, to the intellectual museums and teashops of Taichung, to the hip nightmarkets of Kaoshuing. The food was incredible, and nearly every day involved sampling a new treat, like fiery gongbau chicken, peppery scallion pancakes, and creamy coffin bread. Really, I don't know why more people don't visit Taiwan-- but I'm sure I will again in the future.