In 2014 we celebrated our third year of adventures in Asia. Three years of living, traveling and working in a part of the world that we have fallen in love with the more we get to know it. This year we worked for four months, unexpectedly traveled for seven months, and spent the end of the year in California with our families and friends.
Here’s a look back at our highlights from 2014.
We started off our year living and working in Shanghai, where we’d been since September of 2013. We lived in the Xuhui district and were loving our big city lifestyle. Stevo got into the stand-up comedy scene at Kung Fu Comedy, getting up on stage 4-5 times per week at shows and open mics. I had a great group of girlfriends who I spent a lot of time with trying out great restaurants, going to jazz clubs, and getting our dance on at ladies nights. Stevo and I were also doing a lot of yoga at a fantastic studio just two metro stops from our house.
We had a two week break from work in February for the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival. We were ready to leave chilly Shanghai winter behind and breath some clean air. We visited our sophisticated Scandinavian friends who live in Singapore, and squeezed in a few days in Malaysia as well.
Though our trip was short we packed in the fun, sampling delicious food and culture in the ethnically diverse neighborhoods, enjoying the beautiful botanical gardens, and relaxing on the beaches on Sentosa island. We also went to Laneway Festival, an Australian music festival featuring James Blake, Haim, Savages, Chvrches, and many other great bands.
After six days in the Lion City we made our way north to Melaka, Malaysia, a charming city with a long and fascinating history, and giant river lizards! Then we spent a few days in Kuala Lumpur visiting the Islamic Arts Museum, exploring China town, and getting our fill of delicious Malaysian cuisine.
A huge highlight of our year was Stevo ramping up his comedy career in Asia. Through contacts he made throughout our travels he got to do stand-up in every single country we visited, and he even got paid for a few gigs! Getting to watch comedy in so many different countries provided such interesting insight into various local issues, like race, class, religion, and language.
We flew back into Shanghai on Chinese New Year night with a view out the airplane window of thousands of fireworks going off below us, like bombs exploding in a war zone. It was an incredible sight to see! Reentering the cold, polluted concrete jungle of Shanghai was such a contrast to the lush greens and tropical heat of South East Asia, and we began to wonder what we were doing mentally exhausting ourselves in a work environment we didn’t enjoy. We were elementary school teachers in the International Department of a boarding school on the outskirts of the city, and it was not at all what we had hoped for when we took the job. There’s more to it than that, and you can read more about that rough period here.
We ended up leaving our jobs, and though not at all ideal, it was a decision we still look back on as the right thing to do for us at that time. We bought cheap flights to Thailand. Within four days we packed our travel backpacks, sold and donated everything that wouldn’t fit, threw an impromptu goodbye party, and got on a plane.
On the way to Thailand we had a layover in Cambodia. When we arrived in Phnom Penh we looked at each other and both had the same thought. “Let’s see if we can just stay here.” It turned out to be no problem. A couple of days later we were on Otres Beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
We spent three weeks on Otres Beach and one week on Koh Rong Samloen, a gorgeous island you should absolutely check out sooner than later. That month was pure paradise, swimming in the ocean, exploring the city and countryside by motorbike, stand up paddle boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, doing yoga, watching amazing lightning storms (it was rainy season), eating fresh seafood and making new friends. Stevo also got PADI SCUBA certified through Coral Garden Dive Resort on Koh Rong Samloem. We spent more time together than we had the whole time we lived in Shanghai, and reconnecting was one of the best parts about being on the road again.
Next we headed out to the countryside in Kampong Speu province to volunteer as teachers at Assistance to Poor Children’s Agency (APCA), a Cambodian run orphanage where I’ve volunteered since 2009, and Stevo and I have volunteered at together since 2012.
Our friend Chorrvy, the accountant at APCA, was also getting married while we were there, and she asked us to be in her wedding. It was an absolute highlight of our trip to experience a Cambodian wedding in the countryside, be a part of the ceremonies and rituals, as well as changing outfits five times throughout the day!
After leaving APCA we headed north to Siem Reap where we explored the temples of Angkor.
Next we crossed overland into Thailand. When we got into Bangkok we ate at our favorite fried chicken restaurant in the world, perused the weekend market, and stuffed our faces with street food.
We took a train up north to enjoy the slower pace of life in Chiang Mai, though we didn’t do much resting. We visited temples, explored the city and mountains by motorbike, wandered the markets, took a cooking class, and had a two-hour, not very relaxing Thai massage.
We spent a few days in Sukhothai, one of the former Thai capitals full of gorgeous old ruins and huge Buddha statues. The ancient city also boasted some phenomenal street food.
The day before we flew to Myanmar we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We made it special and splashed out on a gorgeous room in a resort in Bangkok, and stuffed ourselves silly ordering endless dishes of amazing Thai cuisine.
Myanmar, aka Burma, was everything I’d ever dreamed of and more. We spent 28 days, the maximum our visas allowed, and it just wasn’t enough! Some of my favorite experiences were visiting with a 90 year old nun at a monastery in Hsipaw, riding over the Gokteik viaduct by train, a three day trek to Inle Lake, wine tasting at Inle Lake, meeting the Mustache Brothers and their family in Mandalay, visiting with Fern at the Shan Palace in Hsipaw, motorbiking around Hpa-an and attending a funeral/cremation service, getting blessed by the 94-year old monk who conceived the biggest reclining Buddha statue in the world, seeing the temples of Bagan at sunrise, being invited to dinner by a group of over 100 pilgrims, and surfing at Settse beach.
Every person we met in Myanmar had a story to tell, mainly of government oppression, themselves or family members spending time in prison for government perceived dissent, but more of triumph and hard work, believing that they can and will create a better Burma for the future. The people we met were by far the best part about the country, and I can’t say enough good things about our time there.
Finding that it was significantly cheaper to fly through Malaysia than directly from Myanmar to India, we decided to do a quick trip back to Kuala Lumpur. We couchsurfed with an Iranian couple who are both working on their PHDs at Malaysian universities. They brought us around town to their favorite spots and took us to the Batu Caves where we got to see a Ganesh festival ceremony and got attacked by crazy monkeys. We watched the gorgeous evening light show together at the Petronas towers, and we explored little India and China town together. They were the most hospitable and fun people to hang out with and we had an instant connection with them. One of the best parts about traveling is getting to know people from different backgrounds and cultures, not only in the country we’re in, but from around the world.
India was the longest stretch of our journey. With ten weeks ahead of us there was lots we wanted to do, and even more we didn’t know we wanted to do. We started off our time there in Bangalore where my sister was living. One of the most special parts of our time there was getting to meet her boyfriend and his family who live in Pune. We had the privilege of staying in their home for over a week and celebrating the Ganesh Festival with them. Different areas in India place more importance on different Hindu gods, and in Maharashtra where Pune is, Ganesh is their most important god, so it was the place to be for the Ganpati festival.
Once again, it was the people we met along the way who made our trip so excellent. We couchsurfed twice in Mumbai, with a newlywed couple who were in an arranged marriage, and with two young men who work in the film and fashion industry. We even met strangers along the way who invited us into their homes for tea, meals, or even to stay with them. We happily obliged, which made for some of our best experiences on the trip!
We spent a couple of weeks making our way down the coast from Malvan, a small fishing village, through northern and southern Goa. Continuing down the west coast we spent a couple of days in Gokarna, one of the seven important pilgrimage centers in India. I fell in love with the town’s eclectic mix of people, stunning beaches, and variety of temples on every corner.
We met up with my sister and her boyfriend again in northern Kerala at their friend’s gorgeous farm house where we enjoyed the tranquility of life outside the cities, ate delectable home cooked meals, and took long walks searching for the family’s pregnant cow who always seemed to go missing during feeding time.
After Kerala we made a trip to Mysore to see the breathtaking Mysore Palace and get almost scammed by some tricky natural oil salesmen. Then we took an overnight train to Hampi, another site with ancient ruins and spectacular boulders. I’m learning I have a thing for ancient ruins.
In the end we did move on to Rajasthan, and were so happy we did! India is such a diverse country, and Rajasthan was vastly different from everywhere else we’d been. With towering centuries old forts, architecturally magnificent havelis, desert landscapes, and a cuisine unique to anywhere else, we quickly fell in love.
We spent three weeks traveling between cities in Rajasthan by bus and train. We started off in Udaipur, staying in one of the most beautiful family run guest houses we’ve been in to date. Then we went to Jaisalmer where we stayed inside the Jaisalmer Fort, one of the only remaining “living forts” in the world. People have been living inside the fort for hundreds of years, and there are families who have lived in the same haveli going back 18+ generations.
Another reason we wanted to visit Jaisalmer was to go on a camel safari. We opted for a two day, one night trip, which turned out to be the perfect amount for us. Camel riding is tough on the rear! It was an unforgettable experience.
We gave our buns a few days to rest in Jodhpur, home to an imposingly large fort on a mesa, still privately owned by the king there. We also went to the blue city of Bundi where there is an unrestored fort overrun by monkeys, said to be the inspiration for Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
One of my favorite parts of our trip was the eight days we spent in Pushkar during the annual Camel Fair. Pushkar is another holy city in India and the Camel Fair coincided with an annual Hindu pilgrimage. Tens of thousands of people from all over India descended upon the city to pray at the lake and Brahma temple, and to attend the fair. Our time there was a sensational blur of color, smells, food, people and livestock unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.
At the end of our trip we spent a couple of days in Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then made our way to Delhi where we stayed in the Muslim quarter and ate three consecutive meals at Karim’s. I’m drooling just thinking about their food.
We had a wedding to attend and family we wanted to catch up with back in our home state, California. In mid November we flew to Los Angeles. Within the same week we visited the Taj I went to a bachelorette party and learned to pole dance. Sometimes life is funny that way…
It was so wonderful to spend the holidays with our families and friends. We got to share Thanksgiving and Christmas with them, which we hadn’t done in four years. We had a packed house for Christmas with relatives coming in from out of state, our friend from China who lives in LA now came down, and my sister’s boyfriend flew in from India, and his sister and three more Indian friends joined us as well. The best part about Christmas was when my sister and her boyfriend simultaneously proposed to one another in front of everyone. They both had made rings for one another, and it wasn’t even planned!
On New Years Eve Stevo and I made dinner together and spent the night reflecting on what a wild year it was. It turned out nothing like we’d planned, leaving our jobs in China early and tacking on an additional three months of travel we hadn’t budgeted for, plus spending the holidays with our families and friends in America for the first time in four years. Figuring things out together, the highs and the lows, was what made it so awesome. We can’t wait for what’s in store in 2015!
What were your highlights of 2014? Did your year turn out as planned?