A Year In Review 2020. I would never have anticipated writing a year in review like I am now. Every year I enjoy writing this overview, but this year was a bit disappointing. I have been incredibly fortunate with my health and that of my family in contrast to many across the world who have suffered healthwise or financially. And by serendipity, I was extremely fortunate to have spent most of my year in 2020 in Thailand. While I spent the end of March, April and May mostly quarantined in my apartment in Bangkok, since June Thailand has been open and mostly Covid free. This has allowed me the opportunity to safely live and explore within Thailand for the last half of the year. The only catch, Thailand has been virtually shut to inbound flights and visitors. So if I leave, it would be extremely difficult for me to re-enter.
I spent the New Year welcoming 2020 for the first time in Thailand at a friend’s house party in Jomtien Beach. Before Covid ran rampant, I was able to visit two new countries out of my six-country road trip in West Africa. In 2019, I had planned out a robust travel schedule of 19 new countries. Covid robbed me of these highly anticipated travel experiences. So I ended 2020, with 142 countries visited out of my goal of 193 UN recognized countries. Here are the new countries I visited in 2020 in chronological order. Bolded names are new countries.
- United States
To reemphasize, it was really frustrating that virtually all of my planned trips had to be canceled. This is a list of new countries which would have brought me to October of 2020. As you might imagine, I was planning at least one more country in 2020 to round up to an even 20 new countries. These countries were grouped into three groups: a West African group, a Pacific group, and a southern African group. Here is a list of the new countries I visited, and all of the trips that had to be canceled. Canceled countries are in bold.
- Sierra Leone
- Papua New Guinea
- Solomon Islands
- Marshall Islands
- Comoros Islands
Despite my goal of traveling to every country in the world, there are always some repeats. Before Covid, I had revisited four countries. I had at least three canceled repeat trips as well. I was planning on attending a conference in Bagan, Myanmar, one of my favorite places in the world. And sadly, I planned my 18th annual trip to Armenia. I have been every year since 2003 and was heartbroken to miss my visit in 2020.
- South Africa
Here is a brief recap of travel 2020 highlights and of course some low points.
Brunei. South East Asia is such an easy and affordable region to visit. There are great discount airlines and overall a particularly good tourist infrastructure. I had first visited Brunei in 2004 on an epic 11-month trip around the world. So, it was great to visit 11 years after my initial trip and was fortunate enough to watch Brunei’s National Day (well at least the practice run).
Germany. I was back in Berlin for my second time to attend ITB and the Travel Massive Forum. ITB is the world’s largest travel conference and was canceled shortly before its commencement due to Covid. As I flew to Berlin, leaders of the Travel Massive Forum were exposed to Covid and was also canceled. I had been tasked to moderate one of the sessions at the Travel Massive Forum. There were still thousands of travel professionals in Berlin due to the late timing of the cancelation, so I was able to network and catch up with old friends. One of the highlights of the week was co-hosting the Travel Massive networking event.
Senegal. I traveled to Senegal from Germany attempting to “outrun” Covid and start my six country roadtrip. There were only a handful of Covid cases when I arrived. I met my two friends, Craig and Phil, and my friend and driver, Marlon. We traveled the northern part of Senegal for eight days hitting the highlights like the Djoud National Bird Sanctuary.
Gambia. This is a sliver of a country, Gambia, which is ringed by Senegal and centered around the River Gambie. We entered via ferry on March 15th. We had a team dinner on our first evening on the beach. We had read the Covid tea leaves the last several days and realized that borders had begun closing. We decided to cancel our trip so as not to get stuck in West Africa. I took to Skyscanner, and fortunately there was a direct flight out of Banjul to Istanbul with a connection to Bangkok. I arrived in Bangkok on March 17th. My timing was somewhat prescient since Thailand closed its borders on March 25th to all foreigners.
Thailand. There is also a silver lining. And while many of my trips were canceled, I had the opportunity to explore more of Thailand during the second half of the year.
Wat Samphran. My first trip was an afternoon road trip in late May to this unique temple, Wat Samphran. I had occasionally seen photos of this temple but had never made it a visit a priority. It was well worth the hour driver to visit this dragon temple.
Koh Kood. This is an underdeveloped island near the large island, Koh Chang, which is near the Cambodian border. This trip was a great opportunity to visit the beach and relax in June.
Koh Mak. Near Koh Kood is Koh Mak, a small island and also undeveloped. This trip was also spent on the beach and renting a motorbike to explore the island.
Grand Palace. Without traffic I can reach the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s most revered landmark, in 30 minutes. I have been here several times, but the experience can be somewhat unpleasant with the overflowing crowds. My visit in late June, found me to be only one of a handful of visitors on an early morning weekday. I felt like I had the temple to myself.
Sukhothai. UNESCO World Heritage Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns. For such a rich historical country, there are only five UNESCO sites and this is one of them. Sukhothai is one the early kingdoms of Thailand and dates back to the 13th century.
Kamphaeng Phet. An hour to the south of Sukhothai is Kamphaeng Phet one of the associated towns.
Si Satchanalai. And about an hour north is Si Satchanalai, another of the associated towns.
Koh Tao. In early August I took my first flight since March to the Thai islands of Koh Tao and Samui in the Gul of Thailand. This was my first visit to Koh Tao, which included a fun snorkel boat trip and driving around the island on a motorbike.
Koh Samui. Just a ferry ride away is Koh Samui, Thailand’s third largest island. I stayed in a hotel room with a plunge pool for about $80. A great couple of days relaxing on the beach. I lived here for two months back in 2009 so always nice to be back for a visit.
Buriram. This region is located in the eastern part of Thailand next to Cambodia. This is another area of Thailand that was once part of the Khmer Empire. Buriram is located in Isan, the populous and poor region of Thailand, is an agricultural region. Isan in not a popular place to visit since it garners only 3% of the tourism dollar in Thailand. I went to visit the Khmer temple, Phanom Rung, which twice a year the sunrise lines up perfectly with the 15 doors. While it is a beautiful, well preserved temple, this experience was a bit overrated.
King Power Mahanakhon. I procrastinated a visit to Bangkok’s almost tallest building King Power Mahannakhon. But in September I made my way for a sunset visit. The building is 314 meters and has 79 floors offering a 360-degree view of Bangkok’s sprawl.
Koh Kood and Koh Mak. I was back for a visit to my two favorite Thai islands. It was driven by a reservation at Soneva Kiri, an incredibly luxurious resort. Typically, this will set you back easily over $1000 plus a night. Due to Covid, I was able to stay two nights for $1000, still not cheap at all, but nonetheless delivered on a great experience. I also returned to nearby Koh Mak and stayed at the same hotel as my previous stay, which was a bit more economical at $40.
Phuket. I have been to Phuket numerous times, and even stayed here for four months. But my calendar never synced with attending the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. While many attending this festival will maintain a vegan diet, this is the last thing you will remember about this event. Over nine days across numerous shrines on the island, I witnessed numerous processions with many people practicing body mutilation. This is a must-see event.
Lopburi. Another festival I have wanted to attend for some time is the Lopburi Monkey Festival. As you might have deduced is about monkeys. Several thousand monkeys make their home in Lopburi, a couple of hours of north of Bangkok. Once a year, the town’s monkeys are honored with an all you can eat buffet. This was a fun day.
Nan. Nan is located in the northern part of Thailand close to the Laos border. Nan region is set up in the mountains, meaning for Thailand you will get some cooler temperatures. While maybe a non-touristed area for foreigners, this region is not a secret to the Thais who head up here for mist covered sunrises.
Udon Thani. My last trip of the year in December was back to Isan. My mission was to visit the Red Lotus Sea. From December to February, the lake is covered by thousands of blooming lotus flowers in the early morning. I stayed on the hotel on the shore of the lake and boarded a small boat at 6:00 am for a tour of the lake.
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 2020. My recap in the air –
- 22 flight segments
- 41,441 miles flown
- 94 hours in the air
- 7 different airlines
- 9 different airplanes
- Flew in 10 different countries
- Flew on 4 different continents
A quiet year for flying compared to 2019. In 2019, I flew 57 flight segments compared to 22 segments in 2020. You will note I had no flight from May through July. While I desperately missed international travel, it was nice having a break from flying and the stress and discomfort.
My highlight for flying was my AirAsia pass. AirAsia is a giant discount airline in South East Asia. In July, AirAsia marketed their all you can fly pass for 3000 Thai Baht or about $100. This allowed me unlimited flights for nearly six months within Thailand. While horrific for the airline industry, flying has never been more pleasurable. All of my flights since August have been in Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport. Checking in has never been so easy, with curb through security averaging around ten minutes.
Through my American Express Platinum credit card I receive the Priority Pass, which allows me access to over 1,000 airport lounges. I visited 17 lounges throughout the year, with several visits to the Miracle Lounge in Don Mueang eating their delicious Ka Pow Gai, highly recommended.
While I always enjoy compiling my annual statistics there is one stat not to be excited about: my carbon footprint. In 2020, my carbon footprint according to Tripit (on the app, but irritatingly not displayed on their website) is 124 CO2. I chose to work with Gold Standard who was recommended by Tripit and highlighted in an article in NYT. I plopped down $1000 to support two wind farms, one in Indonesia and one in India. Two favorite countries of mine to visit. While $1000 does not cover all of my output, it covers a good chunk of it.
Just as my flight count was greatly reduced in 2019 so was my hotel stays in 2020. I can not recall the last time I was so homebound.
I had two highlights in the hotel category. I mentioned earlier staying at the Soneva Kiri. This entailed a massive private villa set on a hill with my own private pool. Soneva is one of the most luxurious hotels in Thailand and it did not disappoint. One of the unique highlights was all you can eat homemade ice cream and chocolates. Would love to stay here again.
I also really enjoyed my stay at the Intercontinental in Phuket. This was a newer hotel with very well appointed and comfortable rooms. It was a great place to chill and relax on the beach in front of the hotel. Highly recommended.
And for lowlights, I would like to rebuke the Michelberger hotel in Berlin. Upon checkout the hotel staff attempted to charge me for 5 breakfasts at 16 Euro each. The staff was incredibly rude and unprofessional and adamant about charging me. The challenge was the clerk when I checked in told me breakfast was included. Despite me relaying this fact, the staff was intent on charging me. Thankfully, I found the online confirmation which stated that breakfast was included. I reached out the manager (Jannick) twice, and never head back from him. As you might guess, avoid this hotel.
The infamous 16 Euro breakfast.
Here is the breakdown for 2020
- 300 nights in my apartment and condo (after mid-October) in Bangkok – 82.1%
- 57 nights in hotels and Airbnbs – 15.6%
- 5 nights in Boston with my father – 1.3%
- 3 nights sleeping on a plane – .8%
- 0 nights in my home in Chicago – 0%
And for the hotels, I stayed in 26 different ones.
I always enjoy a good overland border crossing. Sadly, this year there was only one crossing: Senegal/Gambia. I was in Senegal, just north of the Gambian border. We began hearing rumors that the border was closed (due to Covid). Regardless, we were intent on making it to Gambia and we left early in the morning. After a two hour wait for the ferry, we made it to Gambia before nightfall.
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. But I would like to point out Joss Stone. Joss is a Grammy award winning singer who has also traveled to every country in the world. After over a year of checking in with her, Covid provided her with some free time to sit down with me. I published my 93rd episode in 2020 with many more great guests on the way for 2021.
I spend a considerable amount of time producing this show. I have recently joined Patreon, where you can help partner and support future productions and get extra content.
I have had a YouTube channel for years but have never made this a focus. Until this year. After many months of storyboarding and research, I published my first real video: How Many Countries Are There In The World? Take a look and tell me what you think?
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 this year across iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo. The HTRC was filmed in 2016 but took some time to be birthed.
Hit The Road: India in January, 2020 was recognized at the Destination Film Forum in the Filmmakers Category – Public Choice. This was a great event and a great way to start the year.
OK, this is not 2020 news, but I have published three books over the years. You can check them out on Amazon.
And, also thanks to Covid, I finally sat down to work on my 4th book which will be out some time in 2021. I have attended the Wai Kru Sak Yant Festival 7 times in Thailand, documenting this amazing event. This book will share nearly 200 photos from over the years.
And besides travelling to ever country in the world, I am creating a list of at least one book for every country. This is an ongoing project with more books being added in 2020.
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. During Covid, we transitioned to virtual events. I hosted and moderated a number of events this year for the community. I also continued hosting the Travel Massive podcast. And I was one of the contributors to Travel Massive’s Top Travel Podcast List.
I am expecting and hoping for great travel experiences in 2021. But I really have no idea of what will happen. At some point, I want to hit the road and start traveling again internationally, but I have no concrete plans and will need to reevaluate as the situation hopefully improves, in terms of both safety and ease.
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.
Photos From Chernobyl
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Enjoyed reading your annual review, Gaz. You got to do a lot of stuff. It’s a shame you weren’t meant to visit PNG and Salone just yet, as I was really looking forward to your reports, but Thailand has so much to offer and the other countries you visited are pretty exciting too.
Love your flexible approach to travel, like spending USD 500 for a hotel one day, then USD 40 the next day. Glad to see you started carbon-offsetting. Ellie and I will definitely pick that up again once we start travelling internationally.
I didn’t quite remember that you are starring in two films. Checked out the trailers, looks fun. I might ask Ellie for budget approval when she’s having a generous day. Joss Stone is very cool.
A lot of missed trips this year for me, and so many others. But as I have said, I am really fortunate waiting it out in Thailand. I have got to see a lot. I thought I needed to step up in the carbon offsets since I believe in global warming and recognize it as a threat. Joss Stone was really quite charming. Down to earth.
Great year-end summary, Ric. All things considered, you still had some great travel experiences, especially within Thailand, and you accomplished a lot professionally too. You continue to be an inspiration for all of us with big travel aspirations.
Thanks so much Justin. Yes, all things considered a very good year. Lets hope for a better 2021!
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