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.