Singapore is a haven for those who love to travel, thanks to its close proximity to other Southeast Asian countries, cheap flights on budget airlines, and frequent public holidays. (In fact, some joke that there’s nothing else to do in Singapore but go away as often as possible. Amongst my friends, it was a rare weekend that we’d all be in town, as someone was always off climbing a mountain or trekking in a jungle.)
I visited 25 destinations in eight countries this past year, most of which were possible thanks to having a Singapore base. (The rest are thanks to simple wanderlust, and a couple lucky job breaks.)
So here they are, my travels of 2011: from Asia to America to Australia, with lots of countries and photos in between.
I actually stayed in Singapore for the first month of the new year. I was working hard at my reality tv job, and I channeled what precious remaining free time I had into settling into a new flat, a new relationship, and a new social circle. I honestly didn’t mind staying put for the month — up until that point, I still felt like I was trying to find my place in this new country. In January, I was finally living the life I wanted in Singapore.
February: Bali and Batam, Indonesia
With a few days off for Chinese New Year, almost all the expats left town. Mike and I chose to go to Bali, where we slept next to rice paddies, dined on fresh seafood on the beach, bonded over white water rafting, chased sunrises and sunsets, played with monkeys, walked through verdant rice terraces, and gorged ourselves on Indonesian food — but also enjoyed lots of smoothies, mojitos, and the most expensive meal of our lives.
By the end of February I’d established a solid group of friends — all of whom also had the travel bug. So the seven of us took a weekend trip to the Indonesian island of Batam, 45 minutes away from Singapore by ferry. We spent most of the weekend chatting, drinking, and lounging by the pool. There isn’t much else to do in Batam, but it was an easy weekend getaway.
March: Bintan, Indonesia
March played host to my busiest weeks at work, as the TV show I was working on premiered that month. I wasn’t planning on traveling at all, except I mistakenly thought I needed to do a visa run for my working holiday pass. To keep it simple and cheap, we took a short ferry to Batam’s neighbor, the island of Bintan. This time, instead of a resort, I found a bungalow in the southern side of the island, where we spent a rustic weekend on the beach and off the grid.
April: Taman Negara, Malaysia
Singapore’s historic Tanjong Pagar Railway Station was scheduled to be shut down for good in June 2011, so over Easter weekend the flatmates and I took the opportunity to visit Taman Negara, one of the oldest rainforests in the world. We rode the historic train tracks up through Malaysia, then spent three days hiking through jungle canopies, swimming in the rivers, and taking a night safari through the rainforest — where we watched a man nearly bleed out from the wrist after playing too roughly with a snake.
May: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore
Another public holiday, another excuse to travel. Vesak Day fell on the Tuesday before my birthday, so we took Monday off work and made a four-day weekend out of it. We flew to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon; and as a birthday treat, stayed in the executive suite in a five-star hotel. When we could tear ourselves away from the luxury, we stuffed ourselves silly with pho, got fleeced by two cyclo drivers, learned about “the other side of the story” at the War Remnants Museum, and rode on a phenomenal Saigon After Dark Vespa food tour. We also left the city on day trips to go floating down the Mekong Delta and fired AK-47s at the Cu Chi Tunnels.
In May I also celebrated turning 22 with an unforgettable weekend full of amazing dinners (one cheap Singaporean, one fancy Italian), a visit to Jurong Bird Park to see my favorite animals, and a party that lasted till 6 am (the Brits who run pub quiz even let me have their whole bar on a Saturday night — and made me that banner!) — all of which reminded me how good life was in Singapore.
June: Bali and the Gili Islands, Indonesia
Our biggest regret from our first trip to Bali was not going to the Gili Islands, about two hours east of the island by speedboat. Friends had raved about the perfect beaches, the laid back atmosphere, the isolated tropical bliss. We returned to Bali and headed straight for the largest of the Gilis, Gili Trawangan. Our friends were not exaggerating – the island is paradisiacal. Three days weren’t enough to soak it all in – this is one place we will definitely return.
July: Kuching, Malaysian Borneo; Bangkok, Thailand
In June I’d quit my job and was basking in newfound freedom. When I found roundtrip flights to Kuching, Malaysian Borneo, for only $48 (USD), I couldn’t resist — a few days later, I was on my way on a spontaneous mid-week trip to Borneo. Though this laid-back Malaysian city was never on my list, after watching the sunset on the river, stuffing myself silly with delicious local food like kolo mee and midin, seeing the orangutans, and visiting the quirky Cat Museum, I now cannot recommend Kuching enough.
At the end of the month, Mike had to take an unexpected work trip to Thailand — so I packed my bags and joined him for an unplanned weekend in Bangkok (July was just spontaneous travel month, it seems). In the end I’m glad I went — even though Bangkok wasn’t high on our list, and we probably won’t return, we still made the most of our weekend by finding a night bicycle tour through Bangkok (through which we got to explore the palaces alone at night!), staying at a hotel with 80-story views over Bangkok, and eating as much pad thai and mango sticky rice as possible in three days.
August: Shenzhen, China; Hong Kong; Macau
In August I had the opportunity to work for the International Sports Press Assocation (AIPS) at the 2011 Shenzhen Universiade Games. Similar to the Olympics, except at the university sports level, this unforgettable experience was another step towards achieving my dream career — plus it gave me the chance to experience what it’s like to have the paparazzi meet you at the airport.
After my three weeks in Shenzhen, I had a few days in one of my favorite cities, Hong Kong. I reunited with Mike, met up with some new-found friends from the Universiade, and indulged in marathon dim sum sessions.
I’d been to Hong Kong before, but never its south-western neighbor, Macau. This blog post convinced me it was worth a visit, so I took the ferry for a day-trip to the former Portuguese colony. I loved Macau — much more than I expected. The coexistence of two dissimilar cultures and languages — Chinese and Portuguese — results in a Chinese city with historical European architecture, gorgeous egg tarts, and proves that Macau is a sum of so much more than just its gambling parts.
September: Lazarus Island, Singapore; Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Ao Nang, and Railay, Thailand
Sometimes you can get away from Singapore while still being in Singapore. Some of our lawyer friends rented out a boat for the evening and we took a cruise to Lazarus Island, one of Singapore’s 63 lesser-known islands, where we swam, canoed, and relaxed on the beach — for a little while, anyway. Granted it was a booze cruise, so most of the time was spent on the boat — but what a change of scenery, enjoying a beer while docked outside Marina Bay.
September also saw our most anticipated trip of the year: a week in southern Thailand. Up until this point, all of our trips had been extended weekend holidays. To have a full week for island-hopping made this feel like our first proper vacation.
In seven days, we snorkeled and explored the famous beaches of Koh Phi Phi, volunteered at an animal shelter and put our feet up in Koh Lanta, discovered a new passion for rock climbing in Railay, and reveled in the beautiful beach sunsets of Ao Nang.
October: Hanoi and Halong Bay, Vietnam; Singapore
One item that has always been on my bucket list is to see the world-renowned karsts of Halong Bay. So for my last trip out of Singapore, instead of going to a new country (like Laos or Cambodia) we chose to revisit Vietnam — I had to experience Halong Bay before I left Southeast Asia. Of course, the trip was absolutely worth it — I found a small, quiet cruise that allowed us to relax away from most of the crowds in Halong Bay, and we spent three days kayaking, swimming, hiking, and just sailing oh-so-peacefully through the bay. It is awesome — literally — to be swimming in crystal-clear jade waters, surrounded by these wonders of nature.
After returning from Halong Bay, we had 12 hours to explore Hanoi. Several people I’d talked to were of the opinion that Hanoi has much more to offer than its southern counterpart, Saigon — and I have to say, we now agree. In a short period of time we soaked in as much as we could of the city — the French vibe in the Old Quarter, the Chinese vibe around Hoan Kiem Lake, the quirky Water Puppet show, and the even quirkier Ho Chi Minh Museum. But what really sold us on Hanoi? Pho and bun bo: the best street food we’ve ever tasted.
And then it was time to leave Singapore. What was originally a move-on-the-whim turned into a 15-month stint that was life-changing in so, so many ways. To celebrate my last night, my flatmates and I snuck up to a certain famous pool, along with a bottle of champagne. After lots of horsing around in the water, we popped the champagne and watched the sun set over Singapore. Then Mike took me out for one last taste of my favorite Singaporean meal: pepper crab (black and white) at Long Beach. The night was perfection.
November: Shanghai and Beijing, China; Pennsylvania, USA
I can’t remember a year where I haven’t made at least one trip “home” to China — and 2011 wasn’t going to be the first. I made Mike come along; after all, he can’t be dating me and not see the country of my heritage. Though we only had three days in Beijing, in that period we managed to visit most of the main sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Olympic Park, and of course, hiking on the Great Wall.
Then the love of my life met the other love of my life — Shanghai. I was ecstatic to introduce Mike to so many things that were important to me — my extended family, my old expat friends, my local neighborhood hangouts and favorite foods/restaurants…and on top of that, he got a super dashing suit made at the fabric market. Who doesn’t love a handsome man in a perfectly tailored suit?
After Shanghai I went back to the US for the first time in 18 months. I loved being back during the holiday season, and I filled those two weeks with everything I had missed from home — most of which I hadn’t even realized I’d missed: Wonderful food (both homecooked and not — I visited my favorite sandwich shop four times in one week), my best friends, autumn weather and colors, gorgeous sunsets, the glorious traditions of Thanksgiving (I’d definitely forgotten about the existence of the Macy’s Day Parade), and of course, most importantly, spending time with my family.
December: Perth, Newcastle, and Sydney, Australia
Then I was off again, headed Down Under for the first time. I spent four weeks in Perth: half the time I was working as part of the online team of the Perth2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships, and the other half I spent in typical Aussie summer fashion with my best friend F and his favorite things: beach, barbecue, and beer. F’s family graciously let me crash at their house for the entire month, so I even had the chance to experience Australian Christmas with all of his family and relatives (and a Justin Bieber piñata).
Following Perth, I flew to Australia’s east coast where I met up with my mentor from the Shenzhen Universiade (see: August). She invited me to spend a few days with her family at their beach house in Port Stephens, which I happily accepted. While Perth was exciting, a few peaceful days spent sitting overlooking the ocean (sans internet!) was just what I needed to refresh. As if that weren’t enough, my mentor’s daughter is a pilot, and on my last day she took me on an aerial tour of Newcastle in a Cessna 152. As someone who loves flying, this was the best Christmas present a newly-made friend could give.
My 2011 travels came to a close in Sydney. Mike flew down from Singapore to meet me for New Year’s Eve — also his birthday! — and needless to say, the weekend was incredible: seeing the the iconic Opera House and walking across the Harbour Bridge; visiting our favorite animals at Taronga Zoo; catching up with some of our closest friends from Singapore, who were also in Sydney for the weekend.
New Year’s Eve itself was spectacular beyond words. After an afternoon at Bondi Beach and the Coastal Walk, Mike and I picnicked at the Observatory Hill, witnessed a blowout sunset over the Anzac Bridge, made it back to our hotel in time to watch the fireworks at Darling Harbour, and then were lucky enough to snag a spot in Circular Quay for one of the world’s most famous fireworks shows at midnight.
It was the perfect end to a year of unforgettable travels, and a perfect beginning for the adventures to come in 2012.