Saturday, March 8, 2014

Around the World in 307 Days – World Recap

This post has been in the works for a very long time.  It’s hard to trace back the true origins of my love for travel.  The first trip I remember is going to Disney World when I was eight years old.  I got my first passport when I was twelve before visiting Bermuda and I got to Europe when I was sixteen.  However, I would have to say that I truly fell in love with travel while taking a summer course in Italy after my freshman year of college.  That was the first trip that I vividly remember and the first time I got really excited about visiting all of the wonders that this world has to offer.  Of course, at this point I still had no inclination whatsoever that my early twenties would be spent globetrotting.  That thought never even entered my mind until I woke up one morning on my buddy’s couch after a night of fairly heavy drinking.  I had just graduated from college, but I was without a job and I really didn’t have any plan or direction.  I struck up a conversation with one of my friend’s housemates who I didn’t know and found out that he had recently spent a year teaching English in South Korea.  Apparently the only qualifications he needed for the job were a bachelor’s degree and a passport from an English-speaking country.  Check and check.  Could it really be that easy to become a teacher on the other side of the world?  He also claimed that he had managed to save up enough money in Korea to backpack around Southeast Asia after he finished teaching.  I had to look into this.

So I went home and immediately googled “Teaching in Korea”, which produced a surprisingly large number of results.  It turned out he was telling the truth.  There were jobs all over the country that paid well and required nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in any discipline.  Now my mind started to run wild.  I could live in another country and save up enough money to travel Southeast Asia!?  Sounds awesome, but why stop there?  There were so many amazing places to visit.  I spent the next few weeks doing near endless research on travel destinations and thus my plan to travel the world came to be.  It’s undergone some minor changes along the way, but overall it has remained remarkably similar to my original vision.  Since that day I have spent two years living in South Korea and traveled to thirty-four other countries on five continents.  The journey has taken me to some of the world’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries, its tallest mountain, masterpieces of ancient architecture, parties with tens of thousands of people and scenery more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.  Now of course it hasn’t been all cupcakes and butterflies.  I have also gotten food poisoning, fought with altitude sickness, possibly gotten malaria, broken my laptop, electrocuted myself, been hopelessly lost for hours at a time, and had the opportunity to sleep alongside bats and tarantulas.  There were ups and downs, but luckily the positive parts of my trip far outweighed the negative.  I feel extremely blessed to have had this opportunity.

So without further ado, let’s get to the rankings…

Top 50 Wonders I've Visited

1.       Nepalese Himalayas (Annapurna, Everest, Kathmandu Valley) - Nepal

2.       Great Wall – Northern China

3.       Machu Picchu – Central Peru

4.       Patagonia (Torres del Paine, Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno) – Southern Argentina and Chile

5.       Grand Canyon – Southwestern USA

6.       Rome / Vatican City (Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica) - Italy

7.       Istanbul (Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace) – Western Turkey

8.       Angkor (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prom) – Northern Cambodia

9.       Taj Mahal – Agra, India

10.   Mount Bromo - Java, Indonesia

11.   Fiordlands National Park - Southern New Zealand

12.   Ajanta and Ellora Caves – Western India

13.   Shwedagon Paya – Yangon, Myanmar

14.   Amazon Rain Forest – Multiple Countries

15.   Galapagos Islands – Ecuador

16.   Great Barrier Reef – Eastern Australia

17.   New York (Manhattan Skyline, Metropolitan Museum) – Northeastern USA

18.   Paris (Eiffel Tower, The Louvre) – Northern France

19.   Potala Palace – Lhasa, China

20.   Easter Island – Chile

21.   Beijing (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven) – Northeastern China

22.   Venice (Canals, St. Mark’s Basilica) – Northeastern Italy

23.   Iguazu Falls – Argentina and Brazil

24.   Athens (Acropolis) – Southern Greece

25.   Chichen Itza – Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

26.   Li River – Guilin to Yangshuo, China

27.   Uluru – Central Australia

28.   Hong Kong – Southeastern China

29.   Bagan – Central Myanmar

30.   Kyoto (Golden Pavilion, Fushimi Inari) – Central Japan

31.   Neuschwanstein Castle – Southeastern Germany

32.   Komodo National Park – Central Indonesia

33.   Terracotta Army – Near Xi’an, China

34.   Rio de Janeiro (Cristo Redentor, Carnaval) – Eastern Brazil

35.   Niagara Falls – USA and Canada

36.   Dubai (Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab) – UAE

37.   Sydney (Opera House) – Southeastern Australia

38.   Delphi – Central Greece

39.   Meteora – Central Greece

40.   London (British Museum, Big Ben) – Southern England

41.   Prague (Old Town, Castle) – Central Czech Republic

42.   Bali – Central Indonesia

43.   Washington D.C. (National Mall) – Eastern USA

44.   Stonehenge – Southern England

45.   Mount Fuji – Near Tokyo, Japan

46.   Bangkok (Emerald Buddha Temple) – Central Thailand

47.   Itsukushima – Near Hiroshima, Japan

48.   Full Moon Party – Koh Pha Ngan, Thailand

49.   Banaue Rice Terraces – Northern Luzon, Philippines

50.   Nazca Lines – Southeastern Peru

Top 50 Wonders Still to See

1.       Great Pyramid of Giza – Northern Egypt
2.       Space
3.       Antarctic Cruise – Antarctica
4.       Serengeti / Ngorongoro Crater – Tanzania
5.       Aurora Borealis – Multiple Countries
6.       Polar Ice Cap and the North Pole
7.       Victoria Falls – Zimbabwe and Zambia
8.       Norway’s Fjords (Naeroyfjord, Preikestolen) – Western Norway
9.       Canaima National Park (Angel Falls, Roraima) – Venezuela
10.   Borobudur – Java, Indonesia
11.   Petra – Jordan
12.   Olympics – Multiple Countries
13.   Iceland (Fjadrargljufur, Hornbjarg, Thrihnukagigur)
14.   Jerusalem – Israel
15.   Mecca – Saudi Arabia
16.   Karnak – Egypt
17.   Hawaii – Southwest of the USA
18.   Loire Valley – Central France
19.   Midnight Sun – Multiple Countries
20.   Salar de Uyuni – Bolivia
21.   Cappadocia – Turkey
22.   Jammu and Kashmir – Northern India
23.   Jiuzhaigou – Central China
24.   Swiss Alps (Matterhorn) – Southern Switzerland
25.   Abu Simbel – Egypt
26.   Banff National Park – Southwestern Canada
27.   San Fermin (Running of the Bulls) – Pamplona, Spain
28.   Danxia Landform – China
29.   Khajuraho – Central India
30.   Zhangjiajie – Eastern China
31.   Holi – India
32.   Mont St-Michel - Normandy, France
33.   Yosemite National Park – Western USA
34.   Longmen Grottoes – Northern China
35.   Kilimanjaro – Tanzania
36.   Barcelona (Sagrada Familia, Montserrat) – Catalonia, Spain
37.   Sahara Desert – Northern Africa
38.   Navajo Reserve (Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley) – Southwestern USA
39.   Saint Petersburg (Hermitage Museum) – Western Russia
40.   Socotra – Yemen
41.   Teotihuacan – Central Mexico
42.   La Tomatina – Bunol, Spain
43.   Basalt Columns (Giants Causeway, Fingal’s Cave) – Ireland and Scotland
44.   Leshan Giant Buddha – Leshan, China
45.   Catatumbo Lightning – Northern Venezuela
46.   Valley of the Kings – Egypt
47.   Tikal – Guatemala
48.   Yellowstone National Park – Northwestern USA
49.   Alhambra – Granada, Spain
50.   Polynesian Islands – Pacific Ocean

Top 40 Countdown   
**Note – I’m only evaluating these countries based on the places that I’ve visited.  So naturally, countries that I’ve spent more time in will tend to be higher than those where I didn’t get to see many places.

1.       Japan – I can’t say enough good things about Japan.  I have visited this amazing country four times and I would go back again in a heartbeat.  The transportation is the best in the world, the cities are immaculate, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more polite local population.  It also doesn’t hurt that the country is filled with ancient temples, beautiful landscapes, and some of the largest population centers in the world.  The only downside to traveling in Japan is the price tag, but even this has gotten more reasonable in recent years as the yen has gotten weaker against the dollar.
2.       Italy – Overall, I’m not a particularly big fan of Europe, but Italy is an absolutely fantastic travel destination.  The name alone brings to mind a place with the best food in the world, the best ruins on the continent, and a beautiful coastline.  Destinations like Rome and Venice are nothing short of mesmerizing.  The simple fact is that Italy is a must-visit for tourists in Europe.
3.       Indonesia – This archipelago packs all of the sights of Southeast Asia into one country.  Want to see exotic animals like orangutans and komodo dragons?  How about bizarrely beautiful volcanoes?  Or maybe diving is more of your thing.  From wildlife to partying to temples, you can find a spot in Indonesia that does it as good as or better than pretty much anywhere else in the world.  A downside to travel in Indonesia is the infrastructure, which ranks among the worst in the world, but I think the benefits of travel in this country easily make up for the headaches and hassles.
4.       New Zealand – If lakes and mountains are your thing, New Zealand is an absolute must-see.  There’s a reason they decided to film the Lord of the Rings movies in this breathtakingly beautiful country.  I took a road trip from Auckland to Queenstown and I couldn’t help but think that practically the entire country should be designated as a national park (a good portion of it is). 
5.       United States of America – In my mind the USA is home to more natural wonders than any other country in the world.  Another huge plus is that due to the size of the country the wonders are extremely varied.  Alaska, Hawaii, California, the Southwest, and the Rockies all offer incredible landscapes.  The big downside to travel in the States is the fact that it is virtually impossible to travel extensively by public transportation.
6.       Australia – The Land Down Under offers up some of my favorite spots in the world.  The Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, and Sydney Harbour are all very worthy of world wonder status.  However, in order to see the whole country you better be prepared to take mindnumbingly long overland rides or dish out a hefty amount of cash for flights. 
7.       China – My recap of China was titled The Best of Travel and the Worst of Travel, which I feel accurately sums up this beast.  China has the best sights in the world.  It ranks pretty evenly with the United States in terms of natural scenery and then throws in the modern marvels of Shanghai and Hong Kong along with ancient wonders like the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army to catapult itself into its own category of fantastic sightseeing.  However, there is a very dark side to travel in China.  The country is crazily crowded, disgustingly dirty, and home to the worst domestic tourists in the world.  Whatever you do, do not travel in China during one of their holidays unless you fancy being surrounded by hoards of people pushing, spitting, shitting, burping, and doing a host of other things that are pretty much universally considered rude and disgusting.
8.       Chile – This long and slender strip of land in western South America is home to some amazing sights and has the highest standard of living on the continent.  Torres del Paine National Park was my favorite spot in South America (it even beat out Machu Picchu!) and Easter Island was possibly my favorite island that I’ve ever visited.
9.       Germany – The sights in Germany are good, but not quite up to the level of other countries in the top ten.  However, the vast number of these good sights is why I felt Germany deserved this ranking.  I feel pretty confident that a tourist could go to any small town in the country and have an enjoyable vacation.
10.   Myanmar (Burma) – Oh, Burma… The country that captured my heart after destroying my stomach.  I look back on my two weeks here very fondly, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t ready to leave.  Bagan, Shwedagon Paya, the Golden Rock, and Inle Lake were all some of my favorite spots in Southeast Asia, but before you go make sure you are ready to deal with lots and lots of headaches.  I presume the situation is getting better as the country is opening up to the outside world, but when I went there was not a single ATM in the country, very little tourism, and the worst infrastructure I have found anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Nepal).
11.   Greece
12.   India
13.   Ecuador
14.   Cambodia
15.   Nepal
16.   Peru
17.   England
18.   Turkey
19.   Thailand
20.   Brazil
21.   Argentina
22.   Austria
23.   Vatican City
24.   Canada
25.   United Arab Emirates
26.   France
27.   Czech Republic
28.   South Korea
29.   Mexico
30.   Bolivia
31.   Malaysia
32.   Uruguay
33.   Philippines
34.   Romania
35.   Taiwan
36.   The Netherlands
37.   Singapore
38.   Vietnam
39.   Hungary
40.   Bulgaria

Top Ten Countries I Still Want to Visit

1.       Egypt
2.       Tanzania
3.       Norway
4.       Russia
5.       Spain
6.       Israel
7.       Iceland
8.       Jordan
9.       Colombia
10.   North Korea

But alas, all good things must come to an end.  It is time for me to leave my backpacking days behind.  I never intended to do this forever and now that my original plan has been completed it seems to be an appropriate time to start the next chapter in my life.  I would like to thank my friends and family for their support (especially my mother because I know this time has been difficult for her).  I would also like to give a special shout out to my grandfather, from whom I received inheritance money that helped to make this dream a reality.