There’s no easy answer….
One of the biggest questions I always get asked is, “Richard where was your favorite country to travel to?” This is honestly such a hard question because I tend to be slightly more ratchet than most people, but at the same time I try to have balanced traveling experiences in terms of cultural immersions, sightseeing, partying, and being an overall tourist. So I’m going to take the cop out answer and break my answer into some categories that I think most travelers would understand.
*As a side note some of these countries will be duplicate winners, and I may update this list every year as I visit more places ;)*
Best Cultural Immersions
So this category is definitely one of my most subjective mainly because my cultural immersion was heavily dependent on the people I traveled with and how long I was able to stay in the countries.
Myanmar (Fall 2015)
I only staying in Myanmar for a few days but it was an incredible experience because of how un touristy it was. I visited in Fall of 2015, which was just after a turbulent time in Myanmar’s history. For a time tourists weren’t even able to go into Myanmar, or formerly known as Burma, which was why when we got there, there were practically no tourists. Of course this poses some logistical problems. For example not many people picked up english so getting around was fairly difficult. It was essentially a lot of pointing at our phones of pictures of where we wanted to go and hoping the taxi driver understood us. For example at night time we asked a taxi driver to take us to a bar or club. Naturally he had no idea what we wanted so we simplified it to, “WE WANT TO DRINK.” He finally understood us and gave us a price and took us to…… some type of model show. If you’re confused, trust me we were super confused but we still had a fun time and once again it was a place where we were the only foreigners which made it a really different experience than I was used to. Still to this day one of the most amazing sites for me was going to one of Yangon’s ancient temples the Shwedagon Pagoda. It was just mind blowingly beautiful. Blue skies, golden pagodas reaching the heavens, and we were in the cultural clothing of the Myanmar people to visit.
France (Winter 2015)
So my buddy Andrew and I stayed in France (just Paris unfortunately) for about a week and it was a really cool experience for me. Of course the touristy sights were wonderful like the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre, but what made it amazing was how easy it was to take part in some of the culture. Sitting in a coffee shop across the Notre Dame enjoying a cup of coffee with some of the most amazing Escargot lathered in butter was awesome. One memory I won’t forget is Andrew and I sharing a baguette and a bottle of wine underneath the Eiffel Tower as it had a whole light show going on. It was an incredible experience and I definitely want to spend more time there if I get a chance. (Don’t tell anyone, but my backup plan if I ever get laid off is to go to Paris and learn french cooking for a year).
Denmark (Summer 2016)
Denmark has to be one of my top choices because I stayed with my Danish friend Nathan who I lived with in Singapore. For me Denmark kept opening my eyes to how progressive a country could be. Whether it be in technology, politics, and most importantly focusing on individual happiness. For example on the technology/ environmental front it was incredible how many electric cars are in the country and how much they support them through free charging stations in most parking lots and subsidies. I to this day have never seen as many bikes in an area as I did in Copenhagen. One thing I was even more shocked at was guess how much 4g data costs to the Danish people. Or let’s put it this way, how much 4G data do you think you could get for ~$12……. You might be thinking like 500 MBs which is fair and that’s probably how much you can get in the states. GUESS WHAT, IT WAS 32 GIGS AAHHHH THAT’S INSANE. This number might even have gone up in the year I haven’t been there. Additionally one of the best parts was sitting down with Nathan’s family for dinners and just discussing life. Full disclosure Nathan’s family are immigrants in Denmark and my sample size is limited to just his family, but it was incredible hearing their story of living in Denmark and learning what it means to be Danish. The recurring theme kept focusing on happiness over everything else which amazed me. Growing up in the US, we often put happiness down the list of priorities to focus on superficial things like grades and money. However sitting with Nathans Family and hearing about how they try to live their live to the fullest without worrying about the small things really changed my views on the world.
Amazing Party Scenes
So because I have a full time job I’d rather like to keep, so I won’t go into any real stories. However I can describe the best parts of the party scene to give you a sense of what it’s all about.
Korea (Summer 2017)
These Koreans are insane (I’m Korean so I can say this, chill fam). Like throughout my years of traveling and school I’ve always thought of myself as a seasoned partier. However they take it to another level. Let’s talk about drinks. A bottle of soju there goes for ……. $1.50. The flavored sojus are like candy and its 13% alcohol, while the more traditional regular soju is 20%. A very unscientific way to compare this is that beer is around 5%. In that tiny bottle of soju for $1.50 your looking at the same alcohol content of 4 beers. If you do some googling its very debated how much it is actually but generally people say 4-7 drinks are in one bottle of soju. Given this you can tell how wild Korean parties must be and I was impressed. Generally I’m the guy who wants to stay in the club the longest and I lament the fact clubs in the US close at 2AM. When we were in Korea, one of my good Korean home boys Dy took us out and we clubbed till 5am. No big deal, I’ve done that before in my time in Asia…. the thing that shocked me was the fact as we were leaving the club, PEOPLE WERE TRYING TO GET IN. THIS WAS 5AM. LIKE DON’T YALL NEED TO SLEEP OR SOMETHING? It was nuts. Apparently in Korea there are after clubs that open form 3AM – 7AM. That really challenged my self worth as a partier.
Spain (Summer 2016)
Ahh Spain. I had dreamed of Spain ever since taking High School Spanish classes and I was not disappointed. The food, culture, partying it was all amazing. One thing that stuck with me was the nightlife in Spain and not necessarily “partying”. The Spanish summer nights started at 1AM. You read that right. You know in the states we party from 11-2ish and then call it a night. For the spaniards the parties didn’t truly start until 1AM and ended at 6AM. The craziest part about all this, it’s not just for young people. I remember at 2AM we were walking around looking for late night snacks and I saw full families enter a churro shop to get some deserts. This family had 2 kids in strollers and they couldn’t care less. Imagine if you brought your kid out to the bars. People would shame you and you would probably get arrested or something. Seeing this solidified to me a little bit of what it meant to be Spanish and just taking things easy.
Thailand (Fall 2015)
So my experience of partying in Thailand was absolutely wild. I’ll never forget landing in Bangkok and not having a place to stay, so we did what all silly groups of college guys would do. We googled top party streets of Bangkok and found a place called Khao San Road. We went straight to Khao San Road and with all our bags went looking for a hostel to sleep in. Overall it was just a wild 3 days of partying with my boys in Bangkok. One touristy thing you should know is that the bars there sell large cocktails served in tiny plastic buckets. These buckets were super cheap split amongst 3 people and they were super strong. So like most things cheap and strong, it was great.
Beautiful Views of Nature
Rwanda (Summer 2016, 2017)
The land of 1000 hills. Once again another absolutely incredible country in terms of the historical context as well as natural beauty. Rwanda I often compare to being the Singapore of Africa. It’s a tiny country that is heavily invested in technology and pushing societal well being with things like banning plastic bags. One of their nicknames is the land of 1000 hills and as a result literally anywhere you look there is a scenic view because of the hills. One of my favorite memories was motorbiking to a local’s wedding and sitting on the backseat racing along the hillside surrounded by beautiful views was amazing.
You should also definitely check out their national parks. I’ve been to Akagera twice now which is one of their National Safaris. The scenery is just amazing and being able to go up close and personal to all of these animals in their natural habitat was something out of the discovery channel. If you do go I strongly advise you to pay a little extra to get a car with AC or else the Tetse flies will eat you up (think of a horsefly on steroids that stings like a bee).
Croatia (Spring (2017)
Incredible, absolutely incredible. Everywhere I looked in Croatia honestly felt like a scene out of a movie… or T.V. show……… also known as Game of Thrones (fun fact much of game of thrones was shot in Croatia like Kings Landing is in Dubrovnik). We spent a whole day in their famous Plitvice Lakes National Park and it was just a gorgeous setting. I recommend waking up early and taking the long hike (6-8 hours) that goes all around the park. The best part about this hike is that they have a fully functioning walkway that takes you right above the water in many places for amazing views.
Philippines (Fall 2015)
I have to give the Philippines the last spot mainly because of the beaches. Nowhere else have I seen such pristine white sand beaches like you see in all of the movies. I miss the days of just lounging on the beaches, sipping a pina colada, and reflecting about life. Definitely an experience you need after studying abroad parting all over SEA.
Top Historical Visits
Rwanda (Summer 2016, 2017)
For me Rwanda remains one of my top historical sites because of what an amazing story this little country in Africa represents. For the unfamiliar, Rwanda went through a horrible genocide in 1994 where over 1 Million people were killed in the span of 100ish days. It’s an incredibly sad story especially because of the fact everyone in Rwanda has been affected by it today. The genocide and racial tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis occurred a little over 20 years ago…. that means right now most of the young adults my age lived through that time period and it affected so many parts of Rwandan culture and society. This is a genocide most people in the states will never hear about except for references in pop culture like the movie Hotel Rwanda which is truly saddening, especially because Rwanda is so much more than the genocide. It’s become a tiny country that’s brimming with hope and confidence in a better future through massive social change and investments in technology.
Through Project Rwanda, a service organization I led at Carnegie Mellon, I was able to work with exchange students from CMU Africa and actually stay in Rwanda for 2-3 weeks. While there I got to see first hand how much the country has developed and I got to learn the innovative ways they approached horrific problems. One case that always sticks with me is the question of “how do you live with your neighbor knowing he killed your family members?” This was an actual problem many Rwandans faced and in our western world our answer would probably be imprison the attacker or give him the death penalty. The Rwandans had a much more humane approach that emphasized forgiveness over all things. They created community courts where people were given a chance to confess their crimes. Those that confessed were given half the jail time but were forced to spend the other half in rebuilding the community. Creating public infrastructure, or even building the family they hurt a new house. Through various societal changes they were able to bridge the gap between these two groups of people and now the citizens are only seen as Rwandans. If you get the chance go to Rwanda learn about the culture and history, it’s a moving experience.
Western Europe (Winter 2015)
Ok this is a cop out. DON’T JUDGE ME. Real talk I was a low key history nerd back in middle/high school. I played Age of Empires, loved historical fiction, and absolutely loved knights as a kid #Medievaltimes. So wandering around Western Europe (Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam, etc) I got to see so many historical sites I saw in movies or read about. For example, one amazing spot was the Palace of Versailles. When we got there, not only was it beautiful, but my memories of history class hit me like a truck. This was where the treaty of versailles was signed in 1919. A historic event I heard about constantly in High School history classes, and I was in that same place it happened. There was something magical about small moments like this that constantly happened as I traveled Western Europe.
I felt like I had to put Korea on this list mainly because I don’t identify myself as Korean. Yes my parents are from Korea, but being a New Yorker by birth I’ve never really fit with Korean culture. For example, at the moment I can speak 3 languages (English, Spanish, and Chinese) better than I speak my mother tongue of Korean. Despite this, I had a great time connecting a little bit with my ethnic culture from my 10 days in Seoul. I also really enjoyed learning about the current tensions with North Korea (despite how propagandized everything I heard). A super cool experience was going on the JSA tour in the DMZ where we actually saw the border of North/South Korea and got to stand inside North Korea for a few minutes. We even got to talk with a North Korean defector and a US soldier at the border and it kind of humanized this whole Korean War situation learning about life in North Korea. For example, we heard stories of the type of training North Koreans had to do (10 years of mandatory service) and how the Korean War almost restarted a few times due to other incidents. It was a fascinating experience for me because we never really discuss North Korea in America, besides the media being terrified of North Korea’s nukes and Trumps “DON’T MESS WITH US ROCKET MAN.” Sometimes we forget that at the end of the day were all just people trying to live in the constraints of our societies regardless how crazy these societies might be.
Best Food Scene
OMG YES. Every meal we had in Japan was absolutely amazing. Whether it was a cheap bowl of ramen, to an assortment of conveyor belt sushi, or an OUT OF THE WORLD KOBE BEEF STEAK, we never had a bad meal. Even getting a quick snack in a convenience store, everything we ate was amazing. Personally this take my top spot because of how many unique/ local dishes we were able to try in Japan for a reasonable price. For example, we had Hiroshima Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, Kobe beef in Kobe, Sushi right outside tokyo’s biggest fish market, and so many delicious versions of ramen. Of course you can find tons of Japanese foods in America, but getting the same quality/quantity for the price is impossible. The kobe beef was the most expensive dinner I ever had at ~$130 dollars but by the end of it I finally understood when people say fine dining is an experience. The sushi from Tsukiji fish market was some of the best in the world for ~$3 for the fattiest cut of tuna I’ve ever tasted. Overall I would go back to Japan just for the food alone.
I can’t rave enough about Singapore’s food because it was so worth it. You might remember that wild story of the first Michelin star street food vendor who served noodles for $2. While I never got to try those noodles, any hawker center you go to in Singapore produces that level of quality for less than $1-$4 a meal. It was absolutely incredible being there and just eating like a king for every meal. Food there is so cheap, many of the Singaporeans I met confessed that they don’t even cook because you can get such great food at such a low price.
Once again absolutely incredible food. I was visiting my friend Shree who lives in Kolkata for a few days and I was blown away by the food. In terms of traditional Indian foods there were so many curries/nans I’ve never heard of that was absolutely delicious. I got to try the different regional foods like South Indian dosas to North Indian curry specialties, and I got to try a lot of fusion foods I never would have imagined. For example, one dish that sticks in my mind was this italian pasta with a fiery spice you would never find in a typical italian restaurant. The craziest part about my 5 days eating in India….. IT WAS ALL VEGETARIAN. As you might have realized, I love meat. To respect Shree’s religious practices I ate what he would eat in India which was the longest time I’ve ever gone without eating meat. Honestly, I didn’t miss it. Indian cuisine found a way to make something like a simple potato into so many different ways that I would eat again and again. I did try some street food…. it was amazing ….. but it did lead to straight diarrhea the same night so be prepared and ask the locals for help in finding street foods you can eat.
Places I Would Revisit
As sad as it is some countries like Singapore after 3 months I kind of saw as much as I wanted. The following countries are places I would gladly live for an extended time for a variety of reasons. Interestingly enough these are the same as the ones I put as the most culture shocking.
I highly recommend everyone to visit Japan at least once in their lifetime and stay as long as you can. The thing with Japan is that they have such a unique culture that you can’t find elsewhere. As sad as it is, most developed countries end up being kind of the same mainly due to globalization. Japan is one of the few countries where things you experience there you won’t find elsewhere. For example, I had to get used to ordering from vending machines instead of human waiters. Tokyo has a massive Anime/videogame section of the city called Akihabara which was amazing for an anime fan like me. Every local we interacted with had such a calm and sweet level of politeness (despite the language barriers) that made us foreigners feel comfortable. There was a park in Nara where you can play with deer and they even bow to you (IS THERE ANYTHING MORE JAPANESE THAN THAT?!?!?). All in all it was just an incredible experience and I would gladly spend a year traveling around Japan if I could.
India was also such a unique experience for me in terms of food and culture. It’s one of those countries that if you aren’t Indian, chances are you are probably not going to visit anytime soon and that’s a shame. I had a great time going around with Shree seeing some cultural sites, learning about Hinduism, and eating as much as I could. Given how big of a country it is, I definitely want to travel around for a month to eat all the local delicacies and see some of the famous sites like the Taj Mahal. The one thing I am doing differently for sure is going in the Winter. The summer is just way too hot.
I think I’ll save my China trip for a while as a kind of symbolic bringing of my journey 360. Being one of the first countries I truly traveled, I was only able to see a handful of cities and left tons of sights to see like the Great Wall. I also would love to see some of the more naturey things in China like the Red Pandas in Chengdu, and the avatar mountains (you know when Aang fought the fire lord in the last airbender… THOSE MOUNTAINS EXIST). It’s also such a huge country with so many regional dialects and cuisines I’m sure you can spend years and never fully see China.