A Year In Review 2019. Sounding like a broken record, it was another busy travel year in 2019 with some amazing experiences. After spending New Year’s Eve in Connecticut with friends, I hopped over to celebrate my birthday in Chicago. After that, I repositioned to Bangkok, my home away from home. I was able to travel to ten new countries in 2019 with a visit to my 140th country, Afghanistan, in November. There were also a fair number of repeats. The UN states there are 193 sovereign nations, meaning I still have 53 still to visit before I complete my quest. Here are the new countries I visited in 2019 in chronological order. Bolded names are new countries.
- Myanmar (Burma)
- Western Sahara
- Cape Verde
- Principality of Sealand
I made mediocre progress in 2019 in terms of collecting new countries. Last year I visited 15 new countries, but this year I was only able to visit 10 new countries. There were 10 repeats. (These numbers are only for UN 193 countries). I also visited two other unique countries, Western Sahara and the Principality of Sealand. I only have two countries left in Asia, Saudi Arabia and Turkmenistan. I have had visa issues with both countries. For KSA, I had the preliminary visa paperwork, but I was unable to find a KSA embassy to process the paperwork. Turkmenistan refused my visa application this year.
- Cape Verde
There were ten repeats as well. As usual I was back in Armenia, I have been here every year since 2003. I revisited London, first time since 1994, and great to see this amazing cosmopolitan capital. I spent ten days exploring Portugal, but technically this was a repeat. As a kid, I had visited Macau when it was a Portuguese colony. So, if you are chasing 193, I had already visited Portugal. And I went back to Myanmar for my fifth time, arguably my favorite country. I had two extended layovers. I broke up my flight from Bangkok to Nouakchott by sleeping over in Istanbul and eating a lot of baklava. I also had an extended visit to Dubai visiting friends for dinner and getting a private tour of Burj Khalifa.
- Myanmar (Burma)
And I am a big fan of visiting unique, non-states. Western Sahara is partially de facto controlled by Morocco and partially by Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. It is a vast expanse and one of these least densely populated areas in the world. No country in the world has recognized either Moroccan or Sahrawi recognition of their control of this land and the UN considers it a non-self-governing territory. I also visited The Principality of Sealand, considered by some to be the smallest country in the world. It is a former WWII military fortification in the North Sea that has been claimed by a British family which declared it sovereign land. Too cool to be true, but it is.
- Western Sahara
- Principality of Sealand
Here is a brief recap of travel 2019 highlights and of course some low points.
Thailand. I arrived back to Bangkok in early January. This is my homebase. And I would return to Bangkok after many of my trips. I returned to the Sak Yant Festival for my 5th time, which is one of my all-time favorite experiences. And for the first time, I attended the water buffalo festival which was very cool experience.
Uganda. Less than two weeks later, I was on an East African adventure. I arrived in Uganda with G Adventures. I am a brand ambassador for G and was fortunate to cross another bucket list item off the list. Yes, trekking with gorillas and chimps. And it was awesome to be so close to our close cousins.
Rwanda. I crossed overland to Rwanda and spent a couple of days here, learning about the tragic history of the genocide.
Democratic Republic of Congo. I crossed overland into DRC. I was a bit hesitant with my visit here due to an Ebola outbreak and civil unrest and violence. But, after some research and being so close, I made the plunge. I had another awesome experience and trekked with gorillas one more time.
Burundi. I was a bit blasé about visiting Burundi. But, I was surprised on the upside after I watched an amazing performance of the Royal Drummers of Burundi. This is a must-see. And also a reminder that travel can still delight you with surprise.
Myanmar. I really love this country, and this was my fifth visit. The people are friendly, warm, and laid back. But is a bit difficult to square the circle … Burma is guilty of the horrific Rohingya genocide. I returned to Bagan, where I had a most memorable Burmese photo experience. I also covered new ground discovering Mindat, meeting the tattooed women for this area.
Mauritania. I returned back to Africa, but this time to the Sahara. Mauritania is a vast country but mostly desert. This country is untouristed. I went on a desert roadtrip exploring some UNESCO towns and riding the Iron Ore Train.
Western Sahara. Not quite a country, but kind of a country. This land is partially claimed by Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic with Morocco controlling the majority. The UN does not recognize Morocco’s control of Western Sahara. I crossed overland from Mauritania and spent a couple of nights in Dakhla, a relaxing town on the Atlantic Ocean.
Morocco. I had a lot of expectations for Morocco, and thankfully the country lived up to them. I visited Marrakech, Fez, Chechfeuen, and Rabat. Each city offered something unique and compelling. I would love to go back to explore even more.
Portugal. I had technically already visited Portugal. As a kid, I had visited Macau, which at that time was a colony of Portugal. This is another country where I had really high expectations. So many people I know had shared positive and glowing reports about Portugal. I spent a bit over a week exploring Porto, renting a car, and then driving to Lisbon.
Cape Verde. I jetted off from Lisbon to Cape Verde for a week of exploring three different islands. This former Portuguese colony is low key offering some natural beauty.
Armenia. I have visited this country every year since 2003. And am already looking forward to next year’s visit. I spent some time in Yerevan, the capital, participating in an art exhibition showcasing some of my photos. I then rented a car to road trip in the northern part of the country.
United Kingdom. I was back in the UK, spending a couple of days acting like a tourist visiting the main tourist sights and catching up with a couple of friends. But the real reason I was here was to visit Sealand.
Principality of Sealand. It is difficult to think of a more unique place than Sealand. I spent the day exploring this country with members of the royal family. A definite travel highlight of the year.
Japan. I had been here twice before, but my first time leaving the confines of Tokyo, Japan. I was able to explore Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyoto among others. A fascinating country, with my visit leaving me with more reasons to return. I traveled here as a G Wanderer with G Adventures.
India. How many favorite countries can you have? Because this is one of my many favorites. I headed to Amritsar for a brief visit to cross two off the bucketlist: The Golden Temple and the Wagah Border crossing ceremony.
Pakistan. There are a lot of negative preconceptions of Pakistan, and most of them are misunderstood. This country offers so much with historical sights, beautiful nature, and hospitable people. Two and half weeks was a good start.
Uzbekistan. Another country long on my list to visit. The history and mystery of the Silk Road. My two-week visit did not disappoint. The magnificence of Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand are not to be duplicated. I also visited the remote and dying Aral Sea.
Afghanistan. I ended my travel year with a two-week visit to Afghanistan. I was a but nervous about my trip but had a safe and secure visit with many friendly locals. Not what you would expect after seeing all the bad news in the media. There is a lot of history and natural beauty in this country. I traveled with Untamed Borders, who specialize in challenging locales.
And using this cool app called App in the Air in conjunction with Tripit and a trusty Excel sheet, I was able to create this flight map of my travels in 2019. My recap in the air –
- 57 flight segments
- 102,011 miles flown
- 240 hours in the air
- 27 different airlines
- Flew on 5 continents
A lot of flights over the year. One of the challenges is I am flying multiple airlines, as you can see I flew 27 different airlines. It is difficult to earn miles or earn any status. I upgraded three times to business class lite. So for instance, Scoot, a discount Asian airline, had a $50 upgrade for a pleasant experience in their business class. Flying twice on SpiceJet, an Indian carrier, I upgraded twice between Delhi and Bangkok for only $100 to their “business class”. I can see why it is $100, one of the worst products that I have seen. The number one airline I flew was Kam Air, an Afghan carrier. I flew them eight times when I visited Afghanistan.
I had two busy months, flying eight segments in February and ten segments in November. March and July were nice and quiet with only two segments each.
I had quite a diverse mix of lodgings in 2019. There were no real highlights for travel in the luxury category. The best was a Hyatt in Amritsar and another Hyatt in Tashkent. Otherwise they ranged from the mediocre to a bit below mediocre. For tents, I camped one night by the Aral Sea, one night was in the desert in Mauritania, and two at a camp in Uganda. And yes, one night sleeping on the Iron Ore Train. It is considered the longest train in the world, where I slept in an empty iron ore carriage. Very cold at night, and hot in the desert sun for my 15 hour ride.
- 152 nights in hotels and Airbnbs – 41.6%
- 96 nights in my apartment in Bangkok – 26.3%
- 58 nights in Boston with my father – 15.9%
- 40 nights in my home in Chicago – 10.9%
- 10 nights sleeping on a plane – 2.7%
- 5 nights at my friends’ houses – 1.4%
- 4 nights in a tent – 1.09%
- 1 night sleeping on the Iron Ore Train – .27%
And for the hotels, I stayed in 73 different hotels.
I always enjoy a good border crossing. I crossed via land from Uganda to Rwanda. I crossed into DRC (and returned) via foot from Rwanda. A taxi drove me from Mauritania to Western Sahara. I took a boat for about 30 minutes from the UK for my visit to the Principality to Sealand. I also walked into Pakistan from India at the Wagah Border, the only open border between this two age-old enemies.
I also have continued my podcast, Counting Countries, where I interview some of the most incredible and prolific travelers in the world. The guests have traveled to every country in the world or are in the progress of completing the goal. It is near difficult to highlight any specific guest since they are all so engaging and inspiring. I have published 81 episodes so far with many more great guests on the way for 2020.
I spend a considerable amount of time producing this show. I have joined Patreon, where you can help partner and support future productions.
I have had the great fortune of producing and being featured in two adventure travel documentaries.
Hit The Road: India was filmed in 2012 and released in 2013 cross iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo, etc. The film met some success as it was licensed by KLM and Virgin Airways, screened at eight film festivals, and was ranked #3 on iTunes UK in the documentary category.
And the hits keep on coming. Epic Channel in India licensed the film to play in India over a several week time period. That is pretty cool. Except the fee we earned was kept by our sales agent in India for his fee.
Our second film, Hit The Road: Cambodia, was released in 2018r across iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo. The HTRC was filmed in 2016 but took some time to be birthed.
I met with James, one of the co-founders of Untamed Borders, this summer in London. UB specializes in destinations like Afghanistan, KSA, Somalia, and Yemen, among others. We have entered into a one-year partnership where I will be marketing their company and UB sent me to Afghanistan.
Another rewarding relationship was with G Adventures. G Adventures was founded in 1990 and today offers over 700 different trips across the globe bringing 200,000 travelers a year. G Adventures has a commitment to sustainability and giving back to the community. I travelled on two trips with G; the first to Uganda/Rwanda and the second to Japan.
I also partnered with Ayim Tours based out of Nukus, Uzbekistan. I had a cool two-day adventure traveling to the Aral Sea and camping by the lake. The Aral Sea was previously the 4th largest lake in the world, it has shrunk by 90% over the last several generations.
Previously, I had explored the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and this year when visiting Japan, I traveled to the Fukushima Disaster Area. This was a long day trip from Tokyo to areas which had been affected by the nuclear disaster. Another sobering reminder of the damage that we can cause to the earth. I partnered with Japan Wonder Travel.
I also worked and partnered with Where Sidewalks End, an innovative travel company, providing experiences in South East Asia. WSE is a leader in responsible travel innovation and takes you off the beaten path, while creating a positive impact on local communities. Ian, the founder, and I explored Myanmar early this year looking to develop new products.
And I have continued my rewarding relationship with Travel Massive, the largest professional travel network with nearly 60,000 members. I am one of the Chapter Leaders in Bangkok and also the Asia Coordinator. If you work in the travel industry, create a profile!
I am expecting and hoping for great travel experiences in 2020. My goal is to travel to 19 new countries. For me, that is an aggressive goal. I am planning a big trip to West Africa, where I will complete that region. I will be exploring PNG and some Pacific islands in May. And a big trip to southern Africa, where I also complete that region.
I am arranging a group trip to the unique island-country of Madagascar. Take a look at this agenda and join me in August!
So to everyone, Happy New Year and keep on counting countries.
And if you want to see some of my best photos … take a look at these links.
And to see my year in reviews for previous years, you can take a look here.
And one more suggestion
If you want to see the minutia of travel … planes, trains, and visas.