My Asia trip was just short of 5 months and I have been back for over a month now, so I've had some time to rest and relax and think about the trip as a whole. In case you can't be bothered to read all of my posts, which would be completely understandable, here's where I went:
- South Korea
- Hong Kong
At some point not too long before the end of the trip I decided I wanted to do a "best of" post in various categories that I made up. So without further ado, here it is:
Most Attractive Country
This is a difficult one, people all over Asia are pretty attractive, the three finalists in my mind are South Korea, Vietnam and Japan. South Koreans absolutely win in the "best dressed" category. They way everyone dresses is right up my alley. Plus clothes there are so plentiful and cheap. All the men wear really good fitting and good looking suits and awesome shoes and the women are all quite attractive. On the other hand, South Korea is well known for it's affinity for plastic surgery so it's kind of cheating in my mind. In Japan, people have a similar aesthetic, though it tends to be a bit more varied and unique. However it's seen as "cute" for Japanese people to have teeth that are a bit fucked up, both in alignment and in coloring. In Vietnam, everyone is extremely attractive but they dress like they are midwesterners from 10 years ago. But this is the "most attractive" category, not the best dressed, and Vietnamese people are the most naturally attractive of all the countries I visited.
Most Surprising (in a good way)
Several countries could be the most surprising to me, mostly because I expected a lot of Asia to be a total shithole and found it to be anything but (for the most part). After spending a month in India based on what I had read in books and online I expected Thailand to be a dirty haven for prostitution and illegal drug use. What I found when I arrived is that it is an extremely beautiful country and Bangkok is a total modern first world, and dare I say Westernized city. If you plopped it into the middle of the US (or rather the south because it's damn hot) it wouldn't look out of place at all.
When I outlined my trip to people before I left people were generally excited about it, though India was polarizing between two groups: Those who had been there and those that hadn't.
"I've always wanted to visit India" "Oh god, good luck in India"
When people told me that India was difficult to handle I dismissed their claims, assuming that I was more worldly, more tolerant of poverty, more willing to rough it. Unfortunately, they were totally right.
India is a shockingly difficult place to visit. It's dirty, so much dirtier than you expect. The streets smell of piss and cow shit. I love Indian food in the US. I have been known to say that Indian is my favorite ethnic cuisine. I eat it as much as possible. The food in India is difficult to say the least.
What I expected food wise when I went to India.
- Fresh Vegetables
What I got when I went to India.
- Fried Dough Balls
The hardest thing about going to India though, by far, is dealing with being a white person. This sounds like a minor complain but it wears on you. Western visitors are extremely rare in India, I assume mostly because the visa-obtaining process is nothing less than horrific. Because of this, you stand out, a lot. You will get harassed on the street. A lot. I say this as a white male, I can't even imagine what it's like to be a western female traveling on her own here. And I'll tell you, it wears on you. It shouldn't but it does. After 20 people ask to take a picture with you every day it grinds you down. What could they possible be doing with those photos? Telling their friends "Hey I met a white person, awesome!" or lying and saying that you are friends. When you walk down the street and 100 guys try to come up and talk to you and try to sell you something or get you into their tuk tuk or the worst of them all, pretend to take a genuine interest in you so that they can scam you or otherwise separate you from your money, it wears on you.
Don't get me wrong, India is a beautiful country with an interesting and ancient country and I would visit again in a heartbeat (especially now that I know how to handle it) but when people say it is a difficult country to visit they are absolutely correct.
Winner (or Loser?): India
I was really excited for Indian food and really disappointed by what I ate for the most part. Thai food on the other hand was the exact opposite. I didn't particularly like Thai food in the US. I didn't dislike it per se, but I hardly ever sought it out and found that 90% of Thai places tasted the exact same as each other. But my god, Thai food in Thailand is incredible. It's cheap and so delicious. Now that I know what to get I won't be having any trouble with Thai in the US. That being said, even though I knew it was going to be good, I think this one is going to go to Vietnam. Between Pho and Banh Mi I was in heaven. Not to mention you never spend more than a dollar or 2 on a meal, the food in Vietnam is incredible and makes a trip there just to eat totally worth it.
Best Public Transit
This one goes to Japan, hands down, no question. The subway system in Seoul was great, and same with China (they might have all been built by the same contractor in fact because they were eerily similar) but in terms of getting ANYWHERE, and I mean ANYWHERE in tje country quickly and easily, Japan is the winner. Though you're going to want to have Google Maps and Hyperdia apps on hand because it could be super confusing otherwise.
Best at English
I found the countries that relied on western tourism the most to have the best English. Which explains why English in China is virtually non-existent and in Japan existent, but terrible. India is also shockingly bad considering it is one of their official languages, and you know, being dominated by the British for a century plus. So Thailand has decent English because they are fairly reliant on western tourism, but Cambodia wins this one for sure. Almost everyone I met was not only completely fluent, but spoke like they were naturals. Including the kids. One of the best conversations I had there was with a 7 year old girl who bullied me into buying a bracelet from her. Cambodia is shocking for many reasons, it could be called the "India of Southeast Asia" in regards to their infrastructure, but my god can they speak English well.
As you can probably tell I have a penchant for the simple and beautiful. So do the communists it seems because my favorite flags were China and Vietnam. Japan also has a simple and beautiful flag but something about the red/yellow combo from the Commies really strikes my fancy. Vietnam take the prize with this one, the single yellow star on a red background is just too goddamned cool.
If I had spent more time there (especially in seasons in winter) I have no doubt that China would have won this prize. And without a doubt, Hangzhou, Huangshan and Harbin are absolutely beautiful. But for ease of access Hong Kong is going to be the winner here. I went on a hike through a gorgeous mountain basically every day I was there, and it's super easy, because the mountains are essentially right in the middle of a huge modern city. You can just walk right up it. Never in my life have I had such easy access to nature. Hong Kong is pretty standard in a lot of other ways, but in terms of a nature/city combo it can't be beat by anywhere I have ever visited.
Winner: Hong Kong
Places I would Live
This category is going to have multiple winners, as there are several places in Asia I would love to live.
Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam is what I imagine Bangkok was like 10 years ago. It's very modern and fast paced and yet still retains Vietnamese cultural elements. It's super warm all the time and beautiful and my god the food. Not to mention I'm pretty sure you could get an amazing apartment for super cheap.
Tokyo is just an awesome city all around. It's really pretty, huge, and yet super easy to get around, both by walking and on public transit. It weirdly reminds me of Minneapolis, which is another gorgeous city. The food is great and the culture amazing. It would be super expensive though, and I'm sure lonely at times.
Hangzhou China only had me for 2 nights but I would go back there in a heartbeat. It's a "small" city by Chinese standards (just a few million) but it's gorgeous, with a big beautiful lake smack dab in the middle of it, the food is amazing, they just build a brand stinking new subway system, and it's also super cheap. This city is on the up and up so I'm not sure it will remain cheap for long.
Winner(s): Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Hangzhou
Tokyo. Without a doubt. Having visited a huge portion of Asian cities before visiting Tokyo it's easy for me to tell that Tokyo is the city that all other Asian cities are aspiring to be. Obviously that's not entirely true, but Tokyo is a word class, top tier city that all other cities everywhere in the world should aspire to be more like. It's got everything you need. In my mind, there is no doubt that Tokyo is the best city in Asia.
I deliberated over this one for a long while, and while all the countries I visited were awesome in their own unique way, there has to be a winner. For a long time I kept going back and forth between Japan and Vietnam, Japan and Vietnam. Japan has everything I want in a country, public transit, history, culture, natural beauty, food, people. Vietnam is decidedly less cultured, harder to get around, more difficult, less nice. But there is something magical about it. Maybe because it's on the up and up while Japan is on a slow decline. Maybe it's because the food is so incredible I am having trouble putting it into words. Maybe because they are commies. Maybe because their cultural history is less pronounced but still as long and rich as Japan, I'm not sure what it is. So it's a tie in my mind, they are both amazing countries. The tie breaker is cost. Japan is as expensive as the US. Vietnam is like 2 orders of magnitude cheaper. So blam. Vietnam, best country I visited in Asia.
Overall I had an amazing time (even in India, despite my whining), it was absolutely worth it and would highly recommend anyone visit any of the countries I have seen. I've learned a lot of my trip, mostly about how much I enjoy not having a full time job, and how fun it is to ride motorbikes, and how much more I love Asian food than I thought I did, but it's good to be back. I've also learned that doing a 5 month or longer trip is totally not necessary. The best way to go about it, from what I can tell now, is somehow finagle yourself 1 month of vacation a year, and make sure to spend that whole month traveling. The best would be to spend that whole month in some different country. Repeat every year, different country until you retire and that's a full life if you ask me.