Yes, the world is big and there are endless places to explore if you can find the time and money. And each new place often begets a new list of other places to visit, aided by conversations with other travelers or magazines.
I have traveled to places that are popular hotspots and places that are off the beaten path. Most of my favorite countries are not the ones that you find at the top of most lists. It's probably for a combination of reasons: (1) I've never liked doing what everyone else is doing, (2) I'm not a big fan of crowds, and (3) you can set yourself up for disappointment if you go to a place that you've heard about forever.
I often get asked where my favorite spot is in the world. That's a hard one to answer because often what the person really wants to know is what the one spot is that I'd recommend for them to go. That really depends on what you are interested in, amongst other considerations.
It is, however, always fun to reminisce and I do think it's useful to get new ideas to add to your travel aspirations. I've written about this before with my favorite wildlife trips, so today I wanted to focus on my favorite countries. Perhaps in a future post, I will add to this with my favorite experiences if there is interest.
My Favorite Countries
I love the food, the music, the dancing. Wine and steak every night. Staying in an estancia (ranch). Traveling from the beaches of Buenos Aires to the lush landscape surrounding Iguazu Falls to the plentiful vineyards of Mendoza down to the sheer ice and spectacular beauty of Patagonia. Argentina is affordable for Americans and is sheer perfection. If you want even more reasons, read about why I think Argentina should be on everyone's bucket list.
Bill and I often wonder if we should just sell everything and move to Thailand. The food is outstanding and you can get a great meal for under $1 USD. The beaches are amongst the most beautiful in the world and there is great hiking in the north. Chiang Mai with its rich history and culture (many hill tribes live in the north) is a great place to take a traditional cooking class, browse the local markets or go to a lantern festival.
In Bangkok, you can get a bespoke suit, visit the Golden Buddha or stay in a monastery as part of a silent meditation retreat. Having done that last part, I highly recommend that you start with a two-day retreat before you jump into one of the longer ones. All of the questions that you didn't think to ask immediately pop into your head and you get to fester on them in silence. I will say that now as a mom I am quite sure that I would do much better and just enjoy the quiet.
Germany is underrated. It's not that people talk down about it, but I just don't hear people talk about it much at all unless it's about the Christmas markets. Those are amazing, but there is so much more to see and do than that. A walking history tour of Berlin is a must to see the Brandenburg gate, learn about the rise (and fall) of the Third Reich and see parts of the former Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie. There's also the romance of the Romantic road and the charming wooden churches and towns along the way. Castles, beer, sausage, history, beauty. Germany has it all.
I remember being in Interlaken, Switzerland and doing a 360-degree view. Mountains were the tall border on all sides and within them were lush valleys and glacial rivers. Houses with sod and plants on the roof. Railways zig-zagging through the mountains. I remember thinking, "this is my happy place." And it is. When someone tells me to go to my happy place (usually as a joke), my mind immediately goes there.
I have a few travel deals that I've booked over the years that I consider my crowning coup d'etats. One of those was a family trip to Ireland with Bill, my parents, and my sister and brother-in-law. We had an offseason rate of $321 which was an all-inclusive price for our airfare, six nights in a bed-and-breakfast of our choice and a rental car. I'm still not sure how I pulled that one off.
I love Ireland because of its natural beauty and more importantly, its people. Ireland and Thailand, in my opinion, have the nicest people ever. We traveled all around the country and were intoxicated by the magic of its people and how you were immediately welcomed into any pub or home. I took extra delight in driving our good-hearted bartenders crazy by asking them to either draw a shamrock in my Guinness foam ("fookin' tourists," one smiled and said) or spell my name. On the last request, the bartender said yes and then asked my name. "Christina." I won't even tell you what came out of his mouth. There were some bad words but then he looked up at me, winked and said, "Twill be difficult, but not impossible."
Southeast Asians have a saying that I've adopted: Same same, but different. That's kind of how I feel about visiting a lot of places in the world. Every place is unique, but there are common constructs that you recognize even if the language or architecture is different. India is unlike any place that I have ever been and that is one reason that I love it.
I have only been overcome with emotion three times when traveling, and India was responsible for two of them. The first was seeing the Taj Mahal. I honestly had no preconceived notions. Bill had planned our India itinerary, I knew it was on there and I was looking forward to seeing it. When we walked through the gates, I swear the building shines like a diamond. And it was built as an act of undying love by Shah Jahan for his wife who died. I surprised myself by crying at its beauty.
The second time was at Varanasi which is along the Ganges river and is a very sacred place for Hindus. Hindus make pilgrimages to bathe in the river's water along embankments known as ghats. Most of the ghats are for ritual bathing, but some are also the site of funeral pyres. Hindus believe that if you die there you break the cycle of death and rebirth and attain salvation.
We walked through those pyres with permission and encouragement from an owner and it was very, very spiritual and beautiful. Later, we sailed in the water and saw marigold tributes floating in the water and women spreading their jewel-toned sarees out to dry on the banks*.
Sites in India along the Ganges River: (1) a ghat (2) candles and marigolds offerings (3) sarees drying on a ghat
I love Mongolia for the same reason that I love India, it's so unique and does not feel like any other place on earth. And just because I can't resist the irony, I have to say it: it's same same, but different. Bill and I once did a two-week ride along the Trans-Mongolian, starting in Beijing and ending in St. Petersburg. Before we left China, the land had turned to wider expanses, but nothing quite prepared us for Mongolia. The capitol, Ulaanbataar was not unlike many other cities across the globe. But as soon as we left its outskirts, it was clear that this place was different.
In a country of nomads, there is trust forged like nowhere else. Staying in a ger (more commonly known as a yurt), it is normal to travel by foot or horseback and stay at someone else's home that you do not know. Even if they are not home, you are welcome and often there is fresh yogurt fermenting under a bed to eat. The gers also are frequently moved from place to place.
If any of these places have been added to your list, I'd love to know. Also, please send a link to anyone that may be interested.
For more inspiration, read about my favorite wildlife experiences.
*The third time was when Bill and I were traveling between Egypt to Singapore around the holidays. We had been traveling for six months and had six more months without seeing any family. We missed our connection and had to overnight in Frankfurt. We went into town and came up from the metro into the middle of a Christmas market. It was magical and sad because I knew that it was just for a few hours and then I would be leaving for a non-traditional Christmas.