Ah, Christmas. I love this time of year; people are friendlier than normal (aside from the family in-fighting and inevitable parking lot stand-offs), and I can drink egg nog from a moose cup. Then there’s the Christmas movies, from Christmas Vacation to Elf, A Christmas Story, Love Actually, Scrooged, and Die Hard, I watch them all, every year. Most importantly, it’s a time to get together with friends and family, to give thanks for the opportunity to be in the same place at the same time and reflect on the past year.
So let’s do the same thing here on the blog. As this is the first year for Voyages & Vistas, I’d like to give thanks to you, my faithful readers, for being here! Thanks for reading my thoughts, commenting on my experiences, and checking out my photos. I love sharing these things with you, so as long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing. (Who am I kidding? I’ll write whether you read or not, but it’s way more fun having you here.)
2015 offered a heap of great travel experiences, and with that in mind, here are 8 I am especially thankful for this year (in no particular order):
1/ Exploring Northern Thailand
I’ve been to Thailand a half dozen times and before this year had never explored Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or the Golden Triangle. Everyone raves about northern Thailand, so I always felt like an outsider when people would wax poetic about the awesomeness of the north.
This year I spent a week there – not nearly enough time – and enjoyed it immensely. I loved Chiang Mai’s laid-back vibe, a welcome counterpart to the frenetic energy of Ho Chi Minh City, where I spent the week prior. Chiang Mai has cooler weather than southern Thailand, the people are friendly, things are cheaper than Bangkok, and the traffic is manageable.
Buddha statue at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai
I also loved Chiang Rai and the White Temple, as well as the Golden Triangle at the borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. This was a good introduction to the region, and I can’t wait to visit again. On future trips I would love to spend more time in the north, using Chiang Mai as a base and exploring Pai, more of Chiang Rai, and venture into Laos.
2/ Trying Weird Food at the Ningxia Night Market in Taipei
I use the word “weird” with affection – of course the food offered at the street markets of Taipei isn’t weird to the locals, but to me it was definitely a unique experience. I loved the Ningxia Night Market, but when I landed in Taipei I was tired, hungry, and had no one to guide me through the myriad exotic food options on offer. Simply put, I didn’t know what anything was. I’m sure people who know me would say that being confused is not an uncommon state for me, but when it comes to finding food on the road I usually have no trouble at all. So this was a bit unusual, and I enjoyed the challenge.
Various types of squid on sticks, seafood, stinky tofu (they literally call it “stinky tofu”), duck heads…all of this was new to me and I had no idea what I was ordering.
I would ask people for help in my rudimentary Mandarin, which would almost always elicit a response I had no chance of understanding, so that wasn’t much help. Or I would ask in English and occasionally get an answer that made sense, so I did manage to sort things out but it was work.
It was a culinary adventure that felt like the epitome of travel – new foods and experiences in a place where I didn’t know anyone, didn’t speak the language well enough, and was taking a chance with each bite I took. I loved it.
3/ Wandering Through the Gorge at Watkins Glen
I traveled to Watkins Glen, New York, with Angela and my wonderful in-laws Paul and Ann. It’s a gorgeous place, full of countless waterfalls (okay, they’re not countless – there are 19 in the main gorge area).
One morning I woke up just before 6 am and decided to traverse into the gorge on my own, as the sun was coming up. The trails were empty, and it was pure magic to have this spellbinding place to myself.
A few hours later it would be overrun with tourists and hikers, but for an hour or so the trails, falls, and trees were mine. It was perfect, and one of my favourite travel memories from 2015.
4/ Tackling Saigon Traffic
I hate being intimidated by things, so I wanted to meet the ridiculously insane traffic of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) head on, so to speak. Bombing around the city on the back of a bike with my guide Thiet was the perfect tonic to help me feel grounded. The sheer volume of traffic is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered anywhere else in North America, Europe, or Asia. It was a rush to be in the middle of it.
With my guide, Thiet. XO Tours does an incredible job, keeping travelers alive in the middle of the chaos!
Could I drive there on my own now, after getting the lay of the land? Not a chance, and the world is a better place for it, but it did help my confidence in crossing the street.
5/ Expanding My Photography Skills and Portfolio
Like so many other travel writers I love to shoot. I am always armed with my Canon, ready to capture whatever might transpire on the road. As a result of travel I’ve improved my portraits, low light, sports, concert, and special event shooting. I’ve also worked hard on my processing skills and getting the right shot at the right moment.
Low light and night photography was one area I wanted to improve this year – this is Toronto’s Gooderham (flatiron) building as golden hour was slipping into night
Another low light challenge was shooting for Canadian rock icon Lawrence Gowan, performing here with Styx in the Muskoka region of Northern Ontario:
I also really wanted to work on portraits in 2015. Capturing people in the right way is a skill I really admire in other photographers, and it’s certainly something I will continue to improve.
One of my favourite portraits from this year, at Baan Tong Luang, near Chiang Mai
I was given countless other opportunities to shoot for charities, friends, other travelers, and family members. Without travel I never would have been given the chance or circumstances to challenge my skills – so I am extremely grateful.
6/ Taking in TBEX Asia and Reuniting with Bangkok
It was great to connect with other writers and compare notes from the road at TBEX Asia, the convention for travel bloggers and industry pros. It’s nice to feel like you’re part of a community and realize you are in the same boat as everyone else.
At the opening ceremonies of TBEX Asia ’15 in Bangkok
It made my job feel a lot less solitary, and my photo of a Buddha statue among the ruins in Ayutthaya even won a contest put on by Context Travel, so I’ll be looking forward to taking part in a Context Travel experience in 2016!
I also loved reuniting with Bangkok, one of my favourite cities in the world. There’s something about Khrung Thep that feels familiar to me; it’s my home away from home in SE Asia, and I can’t wait to return. There’s an energy there that envelopes you, a base level of action and potential that confront you at every turn. It’s not the cleanest city on the planet, but it’s safe, fun, and the people are amazing. There’s always something to keep you occupied – if you’re bored in Bangkok, the problem is you.
While there I stayed in my favourite hotel, the Majestic Grande. They treat me like royalty there, and it will always be first on my list when I’m in town.
7/ Hitting the Road in Search of Ontario Craft Beer
One of the blog’s first posts talked about exploring Southern Ontario’s craft beer experiences. It was part one of a series, with additional posts still to come. This means I have yet another excuse to go in search of the best beer Ontario has to offer.
Louis at Trafalgar Brewery was a great host
Of course, I would probably go on this search with or without the blog, but covering it for Voyages & Vistas gives me a legitimate reason to slake my thirst for quality beer. You know – for research.
On a more serious note, I’ve come to realize that travel – and the blog, specfically in this case – opens up opportunities to explore interests and experiences in a more mindful, detailed way than I might otherwise. Which brings us (I love a good segue) to my final thing to be thankful for in 2015 as it relates to travel…
8/ Launching the Blog!
As this is the first year for Voyages & Vistas, this is certainly one of the things I am most thankful for! After years of travel without logging it anywhere, I now have this opportunity to share it with the world. I love writing and photography, being a smartass in general, and talking about travel. I also like meeting others who are into travel, and who get the ways in which travel enriches life, speaks to the soul, and pushes your boundaries. I am not sure yet where my travels will bring me in 2016 – Paris, Las Vegas, Vietnam, and Cambodia are currently on the ever-growing list – but wherever I go I will always be thankful for the opportunity to be there.
So thanks for hanging out here, and I wish you all the best during Christmas and the holiday season! Whatever you celebrate, I hope you have a good one. This is being published on Festivus, so I better go limber up for the Feats of Strength…
What travel experiences are you thankful for this year? Comment below!