With the opening of Asia from Covid lock-down in the last half of 2022 we knew 2023 would be our opportunity to spend quality time exploring the region. We spent 7 months there, then another 2.5 months in Europe before heading back to North America on a transatlantic cruise staying a couple of weeks in Calgary to visit with friends and family before ending the year in the Palm Springs, California area where we began our travels back in February.
We had many memorable moments during our travels, with these lists highlighting the things that really stood out for us in the 20 countries we visited.
Top 5 Favourite Locations for 2023
One of the thoughts behind all the travelling we did this year was to see as much as possible to decide where we’d like to go in the future for longer stays, and we accomplished that! Out of the 44 places we stayed, and many others we visited, here are our top five locations from our travels in Asia and Europe in 2023 (click the name to view our write-up on that location):
- Tokyo (especially the Shinjuku and Shibuya areas, but pretty much anywhere in Japan) – We loved Japan! In some ways it’s very exotic and so different from other places we’ve experienced, yet in other ways is very familiar, and in many ways we thought it was the best we’ve ever visited. The people are so friendly and bend over backwards to be of assistance when they see you may need help. We even had a bus driver in the middle of driving his route get on his external loudspeaker to give us instructions when we were stopped on a sidewalk and he thought we were looking for a local attraction. If there’s anything that could make life easier, especially in the design of everyday items, the Japanese have thought of it and implemented it decades ago. Their metro is also amazing – if a train is even 1 minute delayed they will apologize and offer excuse notes for your boss to explain why you arrived at your job late. Too bad the prices are about the same as North America, otherwise we’d probably spend a lot more time there, but we WILL be back!!!
- Chiang Mai, Thailand – Of all the SE Asia countries we’ve visited we like Thailand the best. The vibe and energy of the country suits us well, and Thai food has always been one of our favourite cuisines. In fact my new favourite restaurant meal anywhere in the world is the Massaman Curry from a Chiang Mai restaurant (see the Eating Experiences below). Thailand has been a tourist destination for decades now, so their infrastructure is better than some other countries in the region, but the price is still quite a bit less than North America. Other than the humidity which our Canadian bodies have a hard time adjusting to, Thailand checks most of our boxes for a long term visit, especially Chiang Mai in northern Thailand – just don’t visit in the spring during burning season.
- Stockholm, Sweden – We felt very much at home in Stockholm and liked its vibe. The city is interesting to walk around, and you can be cost-effective by staying in one of the surrounding communities and easily take a train into the city using their great metro system.
- Hoi An, Vietnam – Vietnam is our favourite SE Asia country after Thailand, and it’s a close second. It’s a bit grittier than Thailand since it’s still a communist country, and only started building the tourism infrastructure in recent decades, but they are very welcoming to North Americans (if you’re American don’t worry about any stigma from the Vietnamese – you will be welcomed). We also really like the food there, especially the Bhan Mi’s and various street foods like grilled chicken and pork (just make sure to eat at busy places to ensure you’re getting fresh meat). While we enjoyed our time in Hanoi and Da Nang, we preferred Hoi An which is a much smaller community but still has lots of history and interesting streets to roam around. It’s probably not somewhere you can really spend a lot of time, but for a week or two it’s a nice place to chill and take in the atmosphere. Oh, and there is also an area to the east of the main town that’s on the South China Sea with a great beach and higher-end hotels, so it also has that for you if you’re looking for a resort-type trip.
- Luang Prabang, Laos – Laos is one of the late-comers to the Asia tourist world, but the people are very receptive, and the country is truly beautiful. We stayed five nights in Luang Prabang which is not very big and there isn’t a lot to entertain you for more than a week or two, but it is charming.
- Honorable mention goes to Tallin, Estonia at the northern tip of the Baltic states. Tallin is a great town to walk around with interesting history, and would be a good option for longer stays.
Top 5 Trip Experiences
These are the top places we visited that were truly unique and blew us away:
- Kuang Si Waterfall in Laos near Luang Prabanag – make sure to bring your swimsuit as the pools below the main falls make for an amazing swim, and as a bonus the small fish in the pools will exfoliate your feet (Laos post with details).
- Mekong River slow boat – Rather than fly, we took a slow boat from Luang Prabang to Chiang Khong (Thailand). It’s a two day journey meandering up the Mekong, with an overnight stay in a hotel in Pakbeng. If you’re travelling between northern Thailand and Luang Prabang in Laos we highly recommend this experience (Laos post with details).
- Fushimi Inari Taisha contains thousands of vermillion coloured torii (gates) wending their way up through the forest of Mt. Inari on the outskirts of Kyoto, Japan. Even though it is quite a large tourist attraction you can easily find sections with no tourists if you walk up to the higher parts of the shrine (Kyoto post with details).
- The island of Borneo is home to a number of wild primates, including Proboscis monkeys and Orangutans. We saw several during our stays in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching (Borneo post with details).
- Bali has some great diving, including the USAT Liberty wreck which is often listed as one of the top 5 wreck dives in the world. The Liberty was a transport ship torpedoed in 1942 by the Japanese during WWII, grounded on a beach in Bali before it sunk, then pushed off the beach in 1963 by the force of the tremors following a nearby volcano eruption where it sunk in about 90′ of water. Quite a history!!! Our dive master made a great video of the dive that you can view below (Bali post with details).
- Honorable mention: The Sticky Waterfall in Nam Phu Chet Si National Park north of Chiang Mai, Thailand was formed by water from a nearby natural spring that’s full of calcium carbonate, which over the years as it flowed over the limestone rocks has left behind a high-traction residue that’s easy to climb (Chiang Mai post with details).
- 2nd Honorable mention: Bangkok is home to the world’s first Muay Thai stadium, Rajadamnern Stadium, built in 1945, and competing there is a highlight in any fighters career. Attending a tournament was a highlight for us as well, not just for the competition, but also watching the local fans reactions and the betting that is constant during the event (Bangkok post with details).
Top 5 Eating Experiences
We’re not foodies, and often make our own meals, but every once in a while we come across an exceptional meal that makes for a memorable experience.
- Thai is one of our favourite styles of cooking, especially the curries, and after extensive research we determined Massaman Curry, and in particular the one served at Pakorn’s Kitchen in Chang Mai, Thailand is now our new favourite restaurant meal ANYWHERE!
- Laksa in Kuching, Malaysia on the island of Borneo has a distinct flavour, and the family-run Choon Hui Cafe on Ban Hock road may just serve the best version. Theirs is a closely guarded recipe that has been handed down through the generations and when Anthony Bourdain sampled it, he dubbed it the “breakfast of the gods.” His word for the broth was complex and I can’t think of a better descriptor.
- Bánh mì or Bánh my (bun mee) in Vietnam literally translates to bread and typically refers to a baguette style sandwich. It’s very simple, but a great quick meal that be grabbed pretty much anywhere in Vietnam. The bánh mì from Bánh Mì Phượng, a small shop in Hoi An that’s been made famous by Anthony Bourdain was the best we tried, specifically because of the delicious baguette they produce. Honorable mention in Hoi An goes to the White Rose dumplings from the White Rose Restaurant, which serves the dumplings in their own restaurant but also supplies them to almost every other restaurants in town.
- Shabu Shabu in Tokyo – We love fondue, and this is a Japanese version of that. It was delicious, but the main experience here was learning how to cook using the broth and oil the Japanese way. We ate at Nabezo in Shinjuku but there are a lot of Shabu Shabu restaurants in Tokyo that will help tourists learn how to do it, and even though our waiter didn’t know English he was great at teaching us, making “swish swish” sound effects as he showed us how to cook the thin slices of meat in the liquids. Honorable mention goes to the Bento lunch at Tatsumiya in Uji where we had an amazing sushi meal – so many different flavours and textures, presented to us by a wonderful hostess.
- Gelaaati Di Marco in Barcelona, Spain was outstanding! I think this was the creamiest, richest, most flavourful gelato we’ve ever had, and we’ve sampled at lot!
Top 5 Accommodation Views
Good views definitely go hand-in-hand with higher accommodation prices, and although we normally look for good deals and lean towards the lower end of the price-scale (while still trying to find comfortable accommodations) sometimes we’ll push the budget a bit if the view is something special (links to accommodations below):
I don’t have a top 5 for this category since most airports are pretty generic and it’s just the age that determines the amenities, but the one airport that stands out from the crowd is …
- Singapore’s Changi airport – In addition to having great areas for relaxed seating that are better than any airport we’ve visited (on both the land and air sides), Changi has the Rain Vortex. It’s an amazing water feature surrounded by lush gardens. Outside the garden area it’s ringed by a high-end shopping mall and restaurants. The Rain Vortex isn’t on the air-side, so you do need to visit it before checking into your flight or after your flight arrives, although there is an air-side monorail that travels slowly through the Rain Vortex complex, so you can get a glimpse of it if you’re just there on a layover between flights and don’t want to go through security again. It’s such a great attraction that tourists who aren’t flying in or out of the airport will come to the airport to sightsee, dine, and shop. It not just us who think it’s a great airport as pretty much every list you’ll find of the best airports in the world has this one at #1. Our Singapore post with details.
What’s Up For 2024? We’re currently staying with relatives in the Palm Springs area in California where we had Christmas, with our sons flying down from Calgary to join us for a few days. From here we travel to Cambodia for the month of February, heading to Vietnam and Thailand for March and April, respectively, and then a 26-day cruise from Singapore to Greece through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Make sure to subscribe here or follow us on Facebook or Instagram to come along!
Favourite Photos From 2023: You can view all my favourite photos from the year on my Howard’s Favourite Photos From 2023 blog post, but here’s a handful of them: