Over the past year, Heather and I have been very blessed to have some amazing experiences.
We’ve made great friends while living in Japan, reconnected with great friends when we returned to the States, and done a lot of traveling in between.
While most people think you must be rich to travel as much as we do, they couldn’t be more wrong.
The truth is that when we travel, we often do it for cheaper than if we stayed home.
Most of our big savings comes from not paying for airline tickets through the use of frequent flyer miles.
If you’d like to learn more about how you too can travel anywhere in the world for the cost of 2 tanks of gas, check out The Ultimate Guide to Frequent Flyer Miles.
Here are our top 10 most memorable experiences in 2012, in chronological order:
1. Bondi Beach and Sydney Harbor
It’s hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that we were celebrating New Year’s on Bondi Beach with our friends and exploring the spectacular Sydney waterfront the few days afterwards.
What was so awesome about Sydney?
Ha, what wasn’t awesome!
From wandering around Circular Quay, taking the ferry over to Manley, and climbing around on the coastal walkway from Bondi to Coogee to simply laying on the beach and enjoying the rays, everything about Sydney was great.
If there is a more fun and clean city, I’d like to find it!
2. Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef
Was it expensive? Yes.
Was it worth it? Heck yes!
Not only was it the first time scuba diving for both Heather and I, but to do so on the Great Barrier Reef was amazing. It’s like being in your own 3-D, IMAX version of Finding Nemo.
Special highlights included Heather knocking out my air valve “accidentally” (riiiight) and getting so close to a sea turtle that I could actually touch its shell.
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend getting your scuba certificate in Australia because of the prohibitive cost (you’re much better heading to Thailand and spending literally 1/10th the amount), as a one-off experience, you can’t beat the Great Barrier Reef.
3. Indulging in the wonder that is Angkor Wat
I can say with extreme confidence that Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the hands-down coolest historical site I’ve ever been to.
Not only are the grounds massive, but it hasn’t been completely overrun by tourists (yet).
They allow you to wander all around the grounds with very little roped off, meaning you can actually explore and climb around on the buildings, unlike most historical sites nowadays (I’m looking at you, Chichen Itza).
The entire complex is an immense playground for adults and Angkor Wat is definitely a must-see for any traveler (just make sure you get there at sunrise and beat the crowds in to the main temple).
For a full break-down of our trip to Cambodia, full of delicious pictures, check out my Top 10 Things to Do in Siem Reap.
4. Motor-scootering around Koh Phagnan, Thailand
Memorable can be open to interpretation, and in this case, it fits in to two compartments.
For almost the entire day we had absolutely stunning weather, and scootering around the entire island of Koh Phagnan was sublime.
Up and down massively steep mountains and around tight turns, riding down jungle roads past home-made zip line courses made out of clothesline (thanks, but no thanks…I’ll keep my $5 and my life), and stopping at some of the world’s most beautiful beaches for respites.
Memorable in it’s own right.
But what makes this a memory that will be imprinted in our brains forever was the ending.
We were almost finished our day of scootering and looking for an ice cream shop we had been told about.
After making a u-turn in the road, I heard a few shrieks behind me followed by a silence.
I looked back and saw that Heather had gone off the side of the road, down a ditch, and was lying in the brush off of the road. A truck of 3 locals also saw it and stopped.
I pulled Heather from the brush and she was bleeding pretty heavily from a cut on her neck and below her eye.
I assumed she had cut herself on the glass beer bottles that littered the side of the road, which would have been bad enough, until…
I saw the locals pointing in the weeds.
I thought they were urging me to be careful of poison ivy or something silly like that.
When I looked closer, I saw that there was two strands of barbed wire (who the heck knows why) and that Heather had just missed catching her jugular and/or eye by less than a quarter of an inch each on the barbed wire.
The thought shook me up pretty bad, but we had to get her to a hospital to stop the bleeding.
Being the trooper that she is, she quickly threw a band-aid on, hopped on the bike and roared off before I could even say anything, blood trailing off her as she sped off.
Luckily, she even remembered that we had passed a hospital earlier in the day and that it was only about a 10 minute scooter ride away (she was much more calm and collected than I was at this point, as I was a bundle of nerves).
The hospital itself was a pretty amazing experience, with geckos were running up and down the walls while simultaneously being one of the most sterile places I have ever seen.
They wouldn’t even let me in to the room because I was “dirty”.
$30, no anesthesia, and 6 stitches later, we were on our way, and Heather had herself a nice little scar as a keepsake!
5. Hiroshima, Japan with my parents and sister
Being Americans and heading to a site that 57 years ago was one of home to one of the most tragic events in human history, none of us knew what to expect, from locals or from ourselves.
But man, was it powerful.
Seeing the A-bomb dome that first night, lit up and preserved with brand new high rises around it, was something that is very hard to put in to words.
Just as amazing was the feeling that we received from the Japanese people themselves. There is no anger, no resentment, no animosity.
Just a hope for peace that permeates everything about the city, from eternal flame to the 1,000 cranes exhibit to the museum, which greets visitors with a plaque that reads (paraphrasing)
“No one person or country is to blame for the events. It took a lot of countries and a lot of fighting to get to this point. Let this place serve as a reminder of why it should never happen again and why we should strive for peace.”
Reading that, I couldn’t help but wonder….would my reaction, or the reaction of my country, be the same?
Truly an amazing and illuminating place for anyone to visit.
6. Getting denied entry on to a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Indonesia because “my passport was too full.”
Heather and I showed up at the airport at 4:30 pm after having spent 24 hours in Singapore.
When we attempted to check in for our flight, I was told I needed a full blank page in my passport because when I arrived in Indonesia, I’d have to purchase an Indonesian visa.
I already knew this, and showed the lady that back page of my passport.
Unfortunately, the back page of the passport reads “Amendments and Endorsements” and not “Visas”, which was a major problem for the workers of Singapore Airlines.
They informed me that I’d be denied entry when I arrived in Indonesia because I didn’t have a valid page available.
I pleaded with them to let me on the plane, telling them I’d take the risk (knowing full well that a $20 in Indonesia could solve any problem that might arise), but they wouldn’t budge, going as far as literally blocking my path to security.
What happened next was a whole comedy of errors.
I spent the entire next morning trying to find my way to the US Embassy, getting there just in time to have extra passport pages added.
Of course, this process of stapling pages in a small little blue book costs $86 and more importantly, was supposed to take 2 days!
I had to beg the foreign service officer to please allow me to pick it up later that day, something they agreed upon, but not with a smile.
Then, I had to try to get a new plane ticket.
I’ll spare you all the mundane details, but it took 6 hours on the phone with USAirways and Singapore Airlines, an hour long train ride to Singapore Airlines headquarters, some raised voices, 2 taxi rides between the US Embassy and the airline’s headquarters, some more raised voices, a refusal to issue us a new ticket, some begging and pleading, and then finally, a slipped $150 to the Singapore Airlines manager before we got on the plane.
Of course, when we finally landed in Indonesia, an airport security guard approached me, totally unsolicited, and told me that for $20 I could skip the 45 minute line for visas and that he’d stamp my passport right then and there.
Needless to say, he wasn’t too picky about whether that page said “Visas” or not.
Darn you, Singapore Airlines!
7. A Night Spent Wandering Aimlessly Around the Back Streets of Legian and Seminyak in Indonesia
While everything in Indonesia was really awesome, including the amazing breakfast buffet at The Haven (I’ve never experienced as divine a taste as the French toast), the most memorable experience was one that, like most travel experiences, started out pretty innocuously.
Heather and I had no plans for the night so we decided to start wandering around some of the smaller streets between the beach and the main drag (Jalan Legian/Jalan Raya Seminyak depending on how far north you are).
At some point during the walk we decided it would be much better supplemented with a Bintang or three, which were procured throughout our journey either through local food stands or local policeman sitting around playing cards.
The Bintang only proved to further my already curious nature, which lead to some pretty funny talks with the street-side vendors selling home-made Viagara.
It also led us to follow a friendly local to a pretty remote location, where, instead of being put in danger, we were introduced to some of the world’s most amazing chicken satay ever, cooked by a non-English speaking octogenarian over a rusted coal oven on wheels that was easily as old as he was.
I’ve never spent a better $1.
The oddity of this night is one that will be burned in my brain forever, and the fact that there is absolutely no way to ever replicate it (I can’t even begin to tell you what roads we were on) is a major reason for that.
Man, I love traveling!
8. The Camel Safari in Jaisamer
Before our trip to Rajasthan, the northwest region of India, we knew that the camel safari would be a highlight of the trip. We just didn’t know the reason why.
When we arrived in Jaisamer, the most northwestern city in India and only 30 minutes away from the Pakistan border, we were told that it hadn’t rained in this desert city in over 3 months.
There was nary a cloud in the sky.
After having the camel driver wrap one of Heather’s scarves around my head in a turban, we set off.
Shortly thereafter, the wind started to pick up, which should have been a nice bit of foreshadowing. However, we continued to push deeper in to the desert.
The scenery was absolutely stunning.
As the wind started whipping more and more and the sand swirling, we stopped our camels and took shelter behind a brush bush.
We were told we were waiting for a break in the weather before continuing.
The break would never come.
After waiting out the wind for about a half hour, the rain begin. Within a minute, the rain become absolute deluge.
The heavens opened up and was POURING rain down upon us.
We hopped back on the camels and the leisurely, slow pace we had previously ridden at was forgotten.
The drivers had the camels RUNNING, which, if you’ve never had the “pleasure” of experiencing it, isn’t the most comfortable ride!
We were now booking it through the desert, riding directly in to a sandstorm while simultaneously being drenched with rain.
We made it back to the “village” (a collection of about 5 half-finished homes) in about 20 minutes, absolutely soaked and completely covered in sand.
6 months later, I’m still finding sand in parts of my body I never knew existed!
9. A Cup of Tea on the Rooftop in Udaipur, India
India was aggravating.
India was stressful.
India was shocking.
India was a much harder travel experience than any we had ever had.
But sitting up there, on the roof of the Tiger Hotel, looking out at the Lake Palace in Udaipur on a brilliantly sunny afternoon and sipping our tea, Heather and I felt completely at peace.
All the frustrations of our last few weeks melted away and all the amazing memories that we had made came flooding back to us.
Nothing bothered us at that moment.
Not the logistics of how we were going to go to Udaipur to Philadelphia (4 flights, 8 trains and numerous tuk tuks and taxis through 5 countries and over 100+ hours of straight traveling).
Not the anger and animosity we had towards certain things we didn’t quite understand in India.
Not even the cow poop I had stepped in moment earlier.
The only thing that mattered was that at that moment, one of our last in India, we were sipping some of the best tea imaginable with a view of some of the most impressive monuments this world has to offer.
When I think back to our trip to India, that moment sticks out in my mind as a perfect metaphor for the entire trip.
When you’re able to remove yourself from your own mind and rise above your preconceptions of what is right and wrong about India and just enjoy it, it is a truly magical place.
10. Being Home with Family for the Holidays
Heather and I have been able to do A LOT of traveling over the last 2 years and are very fortunate to be able to do so.
I won’t ask anyone to spill a tear over the fact that that we’ve spent the past two Christmases in Thailand and Australia.
However, nothing, and I mean nothing, can compare to getting to be around friends and family during the holiday season.
For the first time in three years we were home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was amazing.
In reality, it was much more subdued than Thanksgivings and Christmases of past (I blame this on friends and family members getting older, having kids, and generally “growing up), but it didn’t even matter.
Just getting to be at home and participate in all the familiar traditions, like decorating the tree or fighting for a parking spot at the mall, was plenty for us.
While the experiences of traveling are ones to be relished and cherished, one of the best parts of traveling is coming home.
Never has this sentiment struck more true for me than this December, when after 3 years, we were finally able to celebrate Christmas with the ones we truly love the most!
Now, it’s your turn! What were some of your favorite memories of 2012? Please share below in the comments!
PS- I’m in San Fran for the first time ever and am looking for suggestions from the wonderful EPoP community on what to see, where to eat, and what wine to drink. Shoot me any and all suggestions via Twitter, Facebook, or by commenting below. Thanks!