If there ever was a travel year on steroids for me, it was 2016. Making the most out of my stationing in Shanghai, I went to 7 new countries and made several trips to new cities in countries I’ve been to before. It goes without saying that it was a bit difficult to pick the best 10 experiences and I can only hope I’ll be as lucky in 2017.
1. Snorkeling in Thailand
My new year started with an omen for the travel year to come: 2016 literally rang in as we boarded a plane from New York to Bangkok. 10, 9, 8, 7 as we stepped on the plane… and by the time I got to my seat, it was 2016.
I liked Bangkok a lot (the food!) but probably the best experience in Thailand was a day at sea kayaking and snorkeling, as it is for many other people, too. Though I was contemplating whether my favorite seafood restaurant in Ao Nang might have been even more memorable…
2. Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
I finally made it to Angkor Wat and it was majestic and beautiful and mind-boggling and so very full of tourists. Even at sunrise. And even still, there is no way I could leave it out of the top 10.
3. Halong Bay, Vietnam
Another big tourist attraction I was at last able to visit. Being so famous, it too was very touristy with plenty of buses hurling people from Hanoi (3-4 hour ride) making mandatory and annoying shopping stops and then loading the people to countless boats to cruise the bay. And yet, like Angkor Wat, it was worth it as the scenery was so beautiful and the bay big enough for all the boats. Though the buzzing atmosphere in Hanoi, the egg coffees and an awesome street food tour fought for the spot on the list.
4. Herbal Lao Sauna in Luang Prabang, Laos
Laos charmed me with its laid-back nature and not too touristy atmosphere and quickly became my favorite of the far Eastern countries. One could easily spend a week or two in the beautiful, chill town, full of monasteries, monks and great food. And then I found out that Laos has a vibrant sauna culture and things got even better. I had a lovely sauna at a location maintained by the Red Cross. Men and women had their own sauna rooms filled with herbal steam (a mixture of more than 10 herbs) but the chill rooms were co-ed. It was a pleasant surprise, too, that this was a very local thing: I was the only foreigner.
5. Hiking in the Seoraksan National Park in South Korea
Based on a few recommendations, I head out from Seoul to Seoraksan National Park for some nature and hiking. It didn’t disappoint: the beautiful views will be imprinted in my mind for a long time and my smog-filled Shanghai lungs thanked me. My calves, however, were hurting for days after climbing to one of the peaks.
6. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in Xingjian, China
I love the off-the-beaten-path and Xingjian in western China is one of the least touristy places I went to in 2016. It’s the Uyghur autonomous region, which has witnessed some unrest in the recent years, but I saw nothing of the like. Instead I visited one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to: The Bezelik Thousand Buddha Caves outside Turpan, in a desert area below sea level. The small 10-13th century caves are decorated with countless little Buddhas at the time before Uyghurs’ Islamization. The valley where they are is so peaceful and beautiful my guide grew impatient because I didn’t want to leave.
7. Road Tripping in Iran and Meeting the Nomads
2016 was the year one of my long term dreams came true: I visited Iran for the first time. It’s really difficult to pick one experience from the fab 16 days in Persia, but probably the most memorable was a road trip with new Iranian friends and stopping to visit nomads, who had never met a foreigner before me. The attention was overwhelming, humbling and flattering, and one of the highlights of the travel year.
8. Sauna (or “Banya”) in Moscow
I’m a self-appointed bathhouse traveler and of course when in Moscow, I sought out a Russian banya to compare with the Finnish one. The famous Sanduny didn’t disappoint. The fancy surroundings in a 19th century building were quite different from the usual Finnish ones, but knowing that Pushkin’s wife used to regularly bathe there made it appropriate. There were cold water pools and wooden tubs to cool off and a beautiful dressing room which also served as a restaurant with surprisingly attentive waitresses. Would love to go back with girlfriends and have a brunch and beers between saunas. The only odd (and annoying) thing was that every now and then an older, heavy set Russian woman came to yell at us in the sauna. Someone kindly translated and it seems she was getting us to leave to air and/or cool off the sauna! Unheard of in Finland. Unheard of.
9. An Ayuervedic Detox and Yoga Retreat in Bali
I realize this is a self-indulgent – even if healthy – and privileged way to spend a week in beautiful rain forest surroundings but I also enjoyed every minute of it having never done anything like it before. I didn’t even mind the 6AM wake up call for yoga or the no-coffee policy. Well, maybe the latter a bit, but it was all worth it. Feeling grateful I was able to attend and for how relaxed and centered I felt for a long time after.
10. Borobudur and Prabmanan Temples, Indonesia
At the tail end of 2016 I was able to make another long term dream come true: visit Indonesia and especially its main island, Java. I headed to the old cultural capital of Yogyakarta in central Java, which is still said to be the country’s soul while the capital Jakarta is its commercial center. The 9th century Buddhist and Hindu temples, just about 30 km from each other are astonishing and not only for showing the peaceful co-existence of the religions on the island, due to a marriage between the royal families. Love conquers all?