Best of Travel: 2012

'Tis the season when the world looks back on their previous twelve months. News stations will reflect on the most captivating stories of 2012 and radio stations across the globe will no doubt play their most popular 100 songs of the year (Gangnam Style??). Well, I figured that since this is a travel blog, I too would reflect upon and share our favorite travel moments and places of 2012.

2012 was a busy travel season for us. This year we actually had two travel seasons. The first began in January and lasted until the end of April, and fired-up again in mid-November and will end at the end of April 2013. In the past year we visited a total of 9 countries. Some were quick pass-throughs and others demanded a little more of our attention. Here is where we spent our time: Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Korea, Holland, and now, Sri Lanka. Many of these destinations I have been to before but we needed to return to because Hyo Jin had never seen them. A lot had changed in the 10 years since I was last in some of those places (especially in Myanmar and Laos) and in other ways, much of it was just as I remembered (Thailand). One thing is for sure though, they all yielded some unforgettable travel experiences.

So then, let's get to it! This is our “Top Ten” Travel Moments of 2012…

1. Bagan, Myanmar (Burma).

One of the places I had been to before, but a lot had changed in Myanmar since 2002- especially in the department of tourism. Ten years ago I was one of a few people who entered this politically unstable country, and today there are thousands coming and going every month and on package vacations too. But Bagan is still a place where you can wander off the beaten track and find your own piece of something special. The views from up on top of some temples is like nowhere else in the world, as are the sunrises and sunsets.

Sunrise over Bagan

2. Zhangjiajie, Hunan, China.

Incredible. Unbelievable. Stunning. For anyone who appreciates nature and enjoys hiking, then add Zhangjiajie to your list. The geological features of this National Park are seriously out of this world, and maybe that's why director James Cameron got his inspiration for “Avatar” from these “floating mountains”.

Incredible Landscapes of Zhangjiajie

3. The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia.

Again, not my first time, but it almost felt like it. Each time I was there I had a one-week pass to explore the temples and each time I used every minute of it. There is always something new to discover here and you just can't get bored of the things you've seen before either. It makes a person wonder why we can't build anything that impressive anymore.

Faces of the Bayon, Angkor Thom

4. Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan, China.

We thought we've seen the best rice terraces in the world after traveling through the northern Philippines and areas of Indonesia. Nope! While those other terraces are beautiful and amazing, they don't hold a torch next to those around Yuanyang.

Yuanyang Sunrise

5. Exploring Around Yangshuo, Guangxi, China.

We weren't too impressed with the town of Yangshuo, but once we got away from the hordes of tourists, a whole new world unfolded. The karst landscapes around this region of Guangxi are jaw-dropping gorgeous. Rent a bicycle and get out to a place where no cars or boats go- there are plenty of these places around, and they will be all yours.

6. Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China.

Even though we were there at the worst possible time (early spring) when some of the many waterfalls were still dry, we were blown away by the colors of the lakes and the natural beauty of the whole National Park. It seemed at times almost artificial, but in a land like China, it's the furthest thing from artificiality as you can get. A perfect place to enjoy the fresh air.

Technicolor Lakes of Jiuzhaigou

7. Songkran Festival, Bangkok, Thailand.

This is a moment not a place, but at least it's a moment that lasts 4-5 days. It's the Thai New Year celebrations, and while the same holiday is celebrated in other countries of Southeast Asia as well, no one can thrown a party like the Thais! Prepared to get very wet, very dirty, and have the most fun of your life. This was my 3rd Songkran and can't wait til my next.

The Wet and Crazy Songkran Festival

8. Mrauk U, Myanmar.

Off the beaten track as far as Burma goes and well worth the plane trip and boat ride it takes to get there. If you're into Buddha statues and temple ruins then this is the place for you. You really get the feeling like you're all alone at times while wandering around these ancient temples- because you are.

Mrauk U at Sunrise

9. Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

It's not every day that you can see leopards, especially on the same day you see about a hundred other species of animals too. The landscapes in this national park are as diverse as its wildlife, and even if you don't see one of the nearly extinct cats, you will surely end your day with a mammoth smile on your face.

10. The Ancient Cities, Sri Lanka.

It's a bit of a cop-out I know, as there are actually for ancient complexes involved here; Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla. They are all great in their own way, but the artistry of Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, and the rock fortress of Sigiriya are mind-blowingly beautiful. I might even say that it was worth the $25 and $30 entrance fees.

Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa

OK, 10 is not enough, and really, these are in no particular order (that would be too difficult). I think I need to at least give honorable mentions to five more amazing moments of 2012 on the not-so-lonesome road.

1. Tiger Leaping Gorge Trek, Yunnan, China.

Mountainous, windy, and rugged, this climb is not for the faint of heart. But the views from the top (and the bottom) are your reward for this two-day trek.

Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge

2. Driving Around the Netherlands.

Yeah it's not everyday you can see a leopard, but it's also not everyday that you can take a road trip through your father's homeland with your father! Add to that one mother, and the opportunity to meet family that you've never met before, and you get one pretty awesome trip. And yes, lots of windmills, clogs, and cheese too!

Windmills at Kinderdijk

3. Plain of Jars, Laos.

What a weird place, but in between the jar sites there is plenty of beauty… and lots of unexploded ordinance (UXOs) too! Jars are cool.

Plain of Jars

4. Ancient City of Fenghuang, Hunan, China.

Call it touristy, cheesy, kitschy, sure, but enough of the old survives to make it a bonified ancient city and one of China's more fun towns to walk around. At night, Fenghuang gets all lit up and really reveals her true colors.

5. Crypt Lake Hike, Alberta, Canada.

This one comes from my home province. I've always wanted to do this hike and this year it came to fruition. It involves, ropes, ladders, and passing through a cave… need I say more? Good times for any mountain junkie.

The High Road to Crypt Lake

Our travel season will spill over into 2013 in just a couple of days. We will spend New Years still in Sri Lanka but fly into India one week later. There we will spend 3 months before spending our last month in Nepal. The next few months will surely deliver some more “best of” moments in travel to kickstart our list for 2013. Stay tuned!