12 countries, hundreds of towns and cities and well over 40,000KM covered – 2013 has been quite a year for travel!
(Click here to see our full route and where we have been this year).
But, if we were to do it all again, where would we long to go back to and where would we give a miss? There are so many lists of “Best places to visit” but we like to give some perspective and announce some of the worst things about our travels too.
Seoul, South Korea.
We love Asia, but we also love Europe and western cuisine. Seoul is a party town, has an amazing subway network and is the closest thing to the perfect east-meets-west metropolis in Asia. The one proviso is that Seoul is best in spring and Autumn. The winters are freezing and the summer is unbearably humid! We may not want to live there year round, but for a few months of the year Seoul has the perfect balance for any city loving traveller.
Although it is one of the more expensive capitals in Asia, we found a lot of ways to live their for under $25 per day per person. Plus, did we mention Seoul has the only toilet museum in the world? And if being on the road is making you miss your pets, you can hang out with loads of different animals at the pet cafes.
About 6 hours north west of Beijing by train, The whole city is a building site right now. The Mayor decided, as their main resource, coal, was running out, they needed to focus on tourism to keep the city making money. He proceeded to pull down the entire downtown area and re locate every citizen to the suburbs. He began spending a fortune on converting the whole city centre into a traditional style tourist trap and building one of the biggest city walls in China.
Unfortunately, they have started running out of money and now the centre of town is just a half finished pseudo-historical looking mud pit. Scaffolds everywhere, mud tracks instead of roads filled with massive traffic jams. The only redeeming feature is that one of our favourite attractions in Asia is a 20 cent bus ride outside of the city… more on that later.
Runner up: Beijing, China.
China’s capital is everything that is wrong with cities. And we love cities. We really do. Beijing however is horribly polluted, the worst pollution we’ve ever seen, we didn’t think pollution like that was a real thing until we hit China. Although all Chinese cities are crowded, Beijing’s 20 million population stretch the infrastructure to breaking point even by China standards. We hope to never return.
We eat so much food that we couldn’t come up with a single dish, so here are our top 5 best and worst foods in no particular order!
Xiaolongbao (Shanghai) – ahh soup dumplings! If you have been to China you already might know all about this life changing dumpling, if not….you’re in for a treat! The concept is quite simple: the meat inside the dumpling is mixed with a solid form of the “soup” which slowly melts when the dumplings are steamed thus making the soup dumpling!
These are mouth searingly awesome, and many a traveller and local alike has had to endure the mouth burn from a fresh made xiaolongbao but it’s ohh so worth it! The best ones we had were at “Jia Jia Tang Bao” in Shanghai.
Egg Tarts – No one is entirely sure if these are actually British or Portuguese influenced but either way the people of Hong Kong have taken this tasty lil treat and turned it into a local specialty. They are certainly a must try for anyone visiting Hong Kong, we have tried egg tarts all over Asia and not one can live up to the incredible flavour contained in one little Hong Kong egg tart – eat the best, leave the rest!
Oslob Roast Chicken – A surprise favourite for us! No matter where you go in the Philippines you will see street side vendors slowly roasting their chickens and slabs of pork. The smell is everywhere and certainly gets your mouth watering.
After numerous taste tests during our month in the Philippines our vote goes for the chicken in Oslob! We have no idea what they are doing differently there, maybe it’s got something to do with how quick the chicken turns, or maybe they have super chickens that we don’t know about…either way the tiny blue stall on the main street of Oslob delivered the most succulent, flavourful and juicy roast chicken we have EVER eaten, anywhere, ever ever.
Pork BBQ (Seoul)– Korea is known worldwide for it’s take on BBQ and you can’t walk down the street without finding a Korean BBQ ready and waiting to grill up some pork belly for you. We spent some time trying out a few restaurants all over Korea, including Jeju Islands famous black pork, but our favourite restaurant we found in the heart of Seoul.
This restaurant grilled their meat a bit differently to most of the rest as the grills were slanted at a 30 degree angle so the fat from the meat dripped down into a pan making it “healthier” but here’s the twist! The waiters place your vegetables ( a selection of mung beans, shredded carrot and onion) at the bottom of the tray allowing them to soak up the fat and in turn sort of caramelise. OMG Deliciously Filthy!
Combine that with the best pork in Korea and this is a winner.
Mini Potatoes on a stick (Myanmar) – Found at BBQs all across Myanmar, these lil treats Rocked Our World! Coated with a sort of chilli powder and then barbecued on skewers until perfection we found ourselves devouring these by the plate load! And at a price of about 10 cents per skewer it’s a treat anyone can afford to indulge in!
Cigarette Congee (Hong Kong) – The smokey taste of this dish was not the flavour we were expecting. It turned out that the chef had added a non-traditional ingredient… A cigarette butt! Not surprisingly, we have NOT been back to try congee again, it left a very bad taste in our mouths.
Yak Butter (Mongolia and also parts of Western China). This butter is another milk medley that is made in large batches and then stored for the winter, so the nomadic families have enough supply to last. How do they store it you ask? In a sheep stomach, of course! Yes the butter is packed in, the stomach is sewn up and it’s usually left under a bed or in a cool part of the ger (Mongolian tent). I’m sure you can imagine how it tastes…..and smells.
“Qurut” or “Aaruul” (Mongolia) – A national dish and favourite of many Mongolians but we Hated it! Cheese Biscuit is a snack that is made from a mixture of milks – goat, sheep, horse, yak….milk is milk right? It’s then churned into a cheese like substance that is then left in the sun to dry until it is a rock solid, canine tooth cracking treat that kind of smells like vomit. Blerg!
Smoke Flavoured Bolognese (Mongolia) – One more smoke flavoured disaster! We didn’t find any trace of an actual cigarette this time, but this dish in Moron, Mongolia certainly tasted like it had a whole ashtray dumped in it.
Labia (as part of a sex organ soup) – We find ourselves back in Hong Kong for this strange, sex organ soup. The entire soup actually contained cow penis, testicle and labia, the last being the most offensive to the taste buds of the three.
The texture is like biting into a piece of that plastic gel kids play with, the one that you throw at walls and it sticks. The flavour is like eating a solid block of gelatin, seasoned with cow farts. Even Oliver wouldn’t be asking for more with this one.
We think this is the best lager in Asia. It’s crisp, malty, refreshing and always served ice cold. It’s also available in every major town, as well as plenty of smaller places too and is consistently good. Read more about our top 5 must try Asian beers.
Fermented Mare’s Milk.
The name of the product says it all. Milking horses in order to drink their sour, diarrhea inducing milk is a bad plan from the get go. Fermenting the milk to make it taste even worse but only getting it to about 2% alcohol, so it doesn’t even get you drunk enough that you don’t care about the flavour, makes this our least favourite drink.
If you don’t have a horse but would like to try and synthesise the taste of this unique Mongolia product, here are some simple instructions for creating a similar drink:
Let 3 lemons rot in the sun. Take 1 litre of gone off milk. Combine with one shot of Methanol, or paint stripper. Whisk thoroughly to get rid of the lumps from the sour milk. Consume the whole bowl because it is offensive to the spirits not to finish all of it in one sitting. Proceed to hospital, do not pass go, do not collect 150,000 turghiks.
Yungang Buddha Grottoes, Datong.
As we mentioned above, Datong is our least favourite city of 2013. Fortunately it is partially redeemed by our number one attraction. The Yungang grottoes are an example of Buddhist art, specifically sculpture, that far exceeded our expectations.
For China, finding authentic religious history that was not damaged or destroyed during the cultural revolution can be difficult. The grottoes are over 1,500 years old and still in amazing condition. Restorations are being carried out carefully, rather than the usual un-authentic “re-builds” that China has gained a terrible reputation for.
If you go to one historic site other than the great wall, this should be it.
Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak), Jeju Island, South Korea.
For us, the 7 natural wonders of the world should be things that inspire awe in the common man, not just geologists. Sunrise peak, from the aerial photos online, looks like quite a marvel… Up close, its a hill. It’s dormant and overgrown inside, so when you make the climb up the side, you discover a bowl shaped hill full of plants and trees.
The view of the surrounding towns from the top is actually better than the volcano itself, but those sorts of views could be available from any hill. For the great barrier reef to have lost its place on the 7 wonders list to this place is a tragedy. If you can’t afford the helicopter ride to see it from the air, then this place is not worth the 45 minute climb.
We’ve covered over 40,000KM in the last 12 months, which means quite a few journeys along the way, some more pleasant than others…
What defines an amazing journey? We think, scenery and the people you meet… plus, just a little bit of comfort makes a lot of difference.
Night train to UB
This incredible journey has so many plus points, both general and specific to our trip. So let’s bullet point it:
- Sunset over the Gobi desert is one of the most memorable visuals from our entire 2013. Our crappy photo from a moving train does not do it justice.
- We awoke 8 hours later in wide open grasslands, perfect green with dew and dotted with livestock and the traditional “ger” tents of the Mongolian people.
- The 15 hour, soft sleeper class train cost us only about $20 per person – Bargain! and very comfortable compared to many sleeper trains.
- After 2 months in China, with very few English speakers, arriving on a train full of Mongolians of whom about 50% spoke decent English was great! We made new friends, met some amusing kids and learnt lots about Mongolia with all the local knowledge.
Learn more about getting from the Chinese border to Ulaanbaatar.
Runner up: Gokteik Viaduct, Burma
If our Mongolia train journey was the most scenic, the Gokteik Viaduct, and getting there in the first place, was one of the most memorable. We could try to explain how riding a train that bumps around like a low-rider in detroit over a 90 year old viaduct with a 100 meter plus drop off is an interesting journey… Or we could just show you:
So, a terrible journey must be one of complete utter discomfort, fearing for your life and being surrounded by the stench of fellow humans utterly invading your personal space… oh, and loud karaoke TV and broken air-con can be a problem too.
19 hour night train from Guangzhou to Hangzhou.
The budget travel class in China is known as the “Hard Seat”. The name sums it up somewhat perfectly. What they don’t mention to the first time traveller is that although you may have an allocated seat, a lot of people in the carriage do not. Those people will want to borrow your seat every time you get up. Moreover, when they don’t have a seat they will likely be leaning on you from the crowded aisle.
Aside from the complete disregard of the non-smoking rules, people and baggage filling the carriage and the hardness of the hard seat… forget about getting any sleep at all. You will be knocked into, shouted at or just kept awake by the bright lights all night. If you are lucky the air-con (if there is air-con at all) may just about keep up with the sweaty rable… On this leg of our journey, it did not.
This was the worst train journey of our lives. Pay the extra few dollars for the hard sleeper class, you won’t regret it.
Runner Up: 8 hour jeep to Olgii
Mongolian terrain is not known as the simplest to cross. The lack of roads make for an interesting experience and some of our other bumpy rides in a russian military van were actually a lot of fun. However, when you get crammed into a jeep designed for 5 people, with 9 other people and a baby plus luggage for 8 hours (Should have been 5 hours!) on the same bumpy roads, things end up being a little less fun.
This was the final leg of our 4 day overland trip from central mongolia to the far west. The first part of the story was quite an adventure in itself… More on that later.
Budget airlines tend to all sit in the same sort of ballpark, so we can’t name a “worst”. For the best though, we want to give special mention to Scoot (Based in Singapore) and AirAsia-Zest (The philippines arm of Air Asia).
Scoot is a new airline and all of there planes are clean, modern and with more legroom than other airlines in there price range. Plus, with flights from Gold Coast or Sydney to Singapore for as little as $119AU (about $135US) its probably the best value airline for distance per dollar we’ve ever experienced. Read more about our experience on Scoot.
As for Air Asia Zest, legendary Filipino service combines with the only budget airline we’ve ever used that gives you a full meal and soft drink service for free.
Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia.
We’ve been to some pretty splendid beaches this year, this wasn’t the whitest sand but it was pristine and everything else about it was perfect. The sunsets were stunning every night as the sky filled with orange and then pinks and purples. The water temperature sat perfectly around 28 degrees celsius (year round apparently!), so whether taking a dip during the day or the evening you could swim forever.
The beach is on part of the island with only one small resort, so being pretty much deserted was the norm. An idyllic paradise we’ll never forget, a couple of hours boat ride from Sihanoukville with crystal clear water and only a 10 minute boat ride from some of the best dive sites in Cambodia.
Samyang Beach, Jeju City, South Korea.
Volcanic sand beaches can be interesting but this one had not been cleaned up in sometime. Apart from the dog poo and trash, even though it was a perfect blue sky day, the dark sand makes the sea water look very un-inviting… Not worth the bus ride 🙁
Mode of transport
Horse and carriage, Pyin oo Lwin, Burma.
Unlike other horse carts in Asia, these ones can really make you feel like a royal couple… or at least a royal couple whose country is somewhat in dis-repair. Still, its a romantic old school way of getting around and, like everything else in Burma, it’s cheap!
Chinese Mini-van, Gobi Desert, Mongolia.
We mentioned above that travelling overland in Mongolia is quite a challenge. By far the most unreliable part of our trip was 3 days in a Chinese mini van. Being stranded in the Gobi Desert overnight was certainly not a highlight, nor were the other multiple breakdowns that were shorter lived.
Read the full and insane story of how we made it across Asia’s largest desert alive… just.
Welcome to a world of controversy. In Oslob, Philippines, fisherman have decided to feed Whale Sharks in order to keep them in one area so tourists can swim with them. They don’t mistreat the animals but they have broken their natural migratory nature in order to draw in a lot of money & jobs to their small fishing town.
On the plus side, the photos we got with these gentle giant would never have been possible if we had found them elsewhere. Is it ethical to swim with Whale Sharks? Maybe not but we had a whale of a time… see what we did there?
Cow attack! Myanmar.
“Attack” may be an exaggeration but 5 rabies shots and an operation over the next 2 months is not. Thats what happens when a wild cow in a remote mountain village in Burma’s Shan state decides to bite you on the finger and it swells up like a golf ball.
The lesson learnt is, don’t put your finger in a baby cow’s mouth, even if your guide tells you it will be “really cute”. Travel is a great teacher of life skills, clearly. We learnt so much about Burma that we even wrote a book about it![cf name=Yangon_LS][/cf]
Itaewon Land Jimjilbang, Seoul.
Not only is Seoul our favourite city of 2013, it also had our favourite accommodation. If a private double room at a spa for $30 a night sounds to good to be true, on this occasion, it is not. Read about our bargain stay in Seoul.
Bastau Hotel, Olgii, Mongolia
In actual fact this is the BEST budget hotel in Olgii, that’s why we were staying there! But when it gets to friday night in Olgii, something rather unexpected happens.
On Friday’s, there is a total city wide alcohol ban out of respect for the Muslim population – who, btw, also drink, or some of them do as we went drinking with them a couple of nights previous. However, when Friday comes around, a lot of locals check into the local hotels and have themselves a big old party with all the booze they bought on thursday.
Now, party’s in general are something you get used to in Asian budget accommodation. Mongolians, however, like to throw different sorts of parties from everyone else. These involve, at the Bastau Hotel at least, the locals constructing full on camp fires inside their hotel rooms.
When we complained to reception that the room next to ours was not only on fire but that the smoke was filling our room, we were informed, through the use of hand signals, that this was a quite normal occurrence inside a stone/wooden building and that we should go back to sleep. It’s times like this where resolute Britishness and a pair of earplugs are the only solution to sleep.
Ultimate Experience for 2013!
Thingyan Festival, Myanmar.
Burma’s Buddhist New Year is the standout experience of 2013, if not our entire life. If that is not enough we also visited Songkran, Thailand’s more touristy version of the same celebration, so that we could compare the two.
Suffice to say, Thingyan is definitely the winner!
If getting blasted by a firehose at 2 paces whilst drinking whisky straight from the bottle sounds crazy to you, then get ready to go crazy! Minor injuries, riding around in the back of overloaded pickups with 20 locals and getting soaked by yellow water full of hep A, are all acceptable, some would say compulsory, parts of the real Thingyan experience.
We can’t wait to go back again!
However we look at it, 2013 has been an amazing year. There are always challenges, especially when you visit some of the toughest countries in the world, like Mongolia, and although there are things we could have done differently, we don’t regret a single thing!