2023 Travel Reflections: What Did I Learn From Living Abroad

Phousi Hill Luang Prabang Laos bench - featured image

From Wanderlust to Bucket List: How 2023 Shaped My Travel Goals for 2024

Unlike most travel bloggers, I am beginning to plan where to travel in the new year. It’s impossible for me to move forward without looking back and reflecting on what I learned from my travels in 2023. In January 2023, I would not know I would add three new countries, Singapore, Taiwan, and Laos, to my travel list. Nor did I know I’d spend three weeks on two different occasions in Chiang Mai, possibly one of my favorite places on Earth. We also visited Hoi An and Danang and traveled from the DMZ to the sea in South Korea. And I would have never expected these five places to become bucket list destinations in 2024. So, what did I learn about my travels in 2023?

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Hoi An and Danang Vietnam

This wasn’t our first time in Vietnam. We visited Hanoi and Halong Bay a few years ago. Hoi An and Danang couldn’t be more different. The former is quite touristy, while the latter is grittier, with people actually living there. We started our journey in Hoi An, staying at a gorgeous villa with a large rooftop overlooking the river. In Danang, we stayed at a two-story hotel room in the prettiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in.

What Did I Learn?

You don’t need a tour guide or even an agenda to enjoy either place, but being near the river in the evening is always a good idea. Strolling along the river, indulging in street food, and exploring the night market are perfect ways to spend your time. Don’t miss the lantern festival in Hoi An and the spectacle of the fire-spewing dragon in Danang. You can really feel the heat standing on that bridge. Just make sure you’re not in front when they cool it down by spraying water on the crowd—unless that’s the plan.

While we only planned a little, we did book one excursion in each place. We attended the Memories Show in Hoi An, which looked spectacular, but I fell asleep several times so that I wouldn’t recommend it. However, we bought tickets to Bana Hills to see the Golden Bridge, a phenomenal engineering feat. I still can’t get over the cable car journey up and over several mountaintops and into thick clouds to get there. That’s the kind of commute I can wholeheartedly get behind. It was surreal. You can buy an entrance ticket with a meal, but I wouldn’t recommend eating there—it was far too expensive.

Would I go back? I hope to return to Hoi An very soon; I love that place.

Singapore

Everyone says Singapore is expensive, and it is, if you aren’t savvy. We learned this the hard way when we spent $70 on four street tacos and two drinks at the riverfront. One moment of letting our guard down, and bam—we ended up paying for it.

What Did I Learn?

During our first visit to Singapore, we opted for attraction tickets like those for the Flower Dome or Cloud Forest. While they were beautiful, they aren’t what would entice me to go back. If you’re into flowers, you might want to skip both. There are plenty of stunning, Instaworthy floral opportunities, including the Botanical Garden, which is free.

What truly captivated me were the vibrant neighborhoods. Little India left me with a memorable henna tattoo, Arab Street allowed me to create a custom perfume, and Chinatown delighted us with yummy food. The heat was intense, and I cannot stress that enough.

Our accommodation was a cute hotel right in the heart of Little India, strategically chosen to explore the local culture. We made a point to dine at 4 or 5 of the food hawker stalls (especially Maxwell Center and Satay by the Bay), demonstrating a savvy way to save money in Singapore.

I prefer touring small towns to big cities, but you can have a low-key stay in Singapore if that’s what you want. If you have the time, stay in two different neighborhoods to get a unique experience. Unless you can’t help yourself (or you’re about to implode from instantaneous combustion) avoid the malls, the Marina Bay Sands or Raffles Hotels. Start your day as early as possible for the best chance of cooler air. And don’t forget your umbrella. It will come in handy, rain or shine. The key is to take advantage of everything free—tree and fountain shows, botanical gardens, hiking trails, street food, and public transportation. It’s the savvy traveler’s guide to enjoying Singapore without breaking the bank. But you also have to be aware of the amount of time you have in Singapore and the heat which kicked our butts. So, while taking public transportation is an option, we opted out and expanded our budget to include Ubers.

Taipei, Taiwan

Taiwan is just a quick 2-hour plane ride from Busan, South Korea, where we took off. It’s a fantastic destination if you have just a weekend and want to immerse yourself in a different culture. I was particularly intrigued to discover the similarities or differences between Taiwanese and Chinese people. Additionally, I was curious to gauge the level of support or resistance on the ground in response to the pressure exerted by China.

What Did I Learn?

Taiwan is amazing. The first thing that struck me is that the people identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese. I met an American who moved back to support the country’s sovereignty. In Taipei, people seemed more free to express their opinions compared to my experience in China. That answered my initial question—despite sharing a common lineage, there’s a notable difference between them.

So, why consider visiting Taiwan? Well, there are plenty of reasons. I discovered fantastic coffee houses and savored delicious food at the night markets. I highly suggest the Raohe Street Market. It has something for everyone. Many of the people I encountered spoke English to some extent. Taiwan is a modern city with stunning buildings and architecture. While it was hot, many streets had covered walkways to shield you from direct sunlight.

There were a few specific places I really wanted to visit: Yehliu Geopark, Jiufen, Shifen, and the Golden Waterfalls. Although you can reach all these spots more affordably using public transportation, we opted for a $31 tour through Klook. This is a great choice if you want more time and convenience. The tour picked us up and dropped us off at Taipei 101. I suggest you skip the ride up Taipei 101. I was disappointed you go all the way to the top. And while the view is nice and the stop is built for Instagram, it’s expensive. The coolest thing about the building is the stabilizer ball below.

I absolutely loved the geopark and Jiufen Old Town—both are must-sees. Shifen was incredibly busy, and I think I would have enjoyed it more without the crowds. However, I’m not sure if that’s even an option. Keep in mind there are a lot of stairs, so wear comfortable shoes. If it’s hot, you can take a break from the heat by stepping into the oldest theater in Taiwan for a bit of relief.

And finally. Hit the Seven Elevens. They have some yummy snacks, including toasties and milk teas. 15 themed stores are fun to check out.

Laos

I had never planned to go to Laos; we had intended to return to Bali. However, due to the war in Ukraine, my friends on the ground in Bali informed me that the island was inundated with Ukrainians and Russians. To the extent that entire classes were being taught in Russian. This prompted me to search for an alternative 2023 travel destination. We settled on Luang Prabang because it still maintains a low-key, off-the-radar charm—something I used to love about Bali.

What Did I Learn?

Laos turned out to be my favorite new travel destination for 2023. Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands out for its absence of street lights, Starbucks, or crowds. These factors make the city remarkably easy to explore by bike, an opportunity we gladly seized during our 8-day stay in Laos. The absence of street lights, Starbucks, and crowds makes the city remarkably easy to explore by bike. We could have easily extended our stay in Laos. We delighted in the charming coffee shops, while opting for different stalls in the night market for dinner each night.

Most hotels offer restaurants serving full hot breakfasts. Ours, situated across the street from the Mekong River, provided free bicycles and a sunset cruise that included alcohol. Don’t miss the hike to Phousi Hill, take leisurely walks, indulge in a full-body massage, or journal by the river. The trip had numerous highlights, and I highly recommend it.

Highlights

The Kuang Si Waterfalls, also known as Tat Kuang Si, approximately 29 kilometers (18 miles) south of Luang Prabang, were a standout. To avoid crowds, we left at 8:00 am, ensuring our arrival at the 9:00 am opening time. Getting to the falls offers multiple options, including scooters, tour groups, a cruise on the Mekong, or, as we did, hiring a driver for four hours through the concierge desk.

Another highlight of our 2023 travels involved booking a Monk Chat and yoga session online with Orange Robe Tours for $20. Additionally, participating in the alms ceremony and feeding monks as they walked from their temples around town provided a unique cultural experience. I loved waking up before the city and staying awake while watching the city come alive, setting up stalls, cleaning the streets, and getting ready for the day. Lastly, a tuk-tuk food tour booked on viator.com, although the priciest excursion, proved worth every penny during the 6-7 hour gastronomic adventure.

Conclusions

We also hired a boat (for the same price as the car) to visit the Pak Ou Caves. Surprisingly, the boat ride itself turned out to be the best part. The two caves, filled with thousands of Buddhas, presented different experiences—the lower cave had a scenic river view and was open to sunlight, and the upper cave required a challenging uphill climb, and, in my humble opinion, that’s not worth the sweat (or tears).

As two people around the travel block, we ensured not to lock ourselves into a rigid schedule. We like the freedom to do our own thing or stick together—it’s one of the things I love about traveling. This is incredibly doable in Luang Prabang because it’s so laid-back. Although I planned a few things, I kept plenty of time open for spontaneous adventures. I’ve come to realize that our trip’s enjoyment depends a lot on us. One of my key takeaways is that we both have expectations for every trip and if we end up dissatisfied, it’s on us.

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