Looking Back on 8.5 Months in Asia

Wat Phu, Pakse - Laos Travel

“‘Live each day as if it’s your last’, that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn’t practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard…something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”  // Emma Morley (Excerpt from One Day)

When I stepped on that flight to Hong Kong last October, I had no idea how much my life would change in the course of eight months.

When I look back on my time in Asia, I see how much I’ve grown in less than a year. I feel more confident, happier, and I like who I am better now than who I was before I left Vancouver.

Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar - Asia Travel
Sunrise in Bagan, Myanmar.

After eight months of facing eight completely different cultures and the challenges that come with that, I feel like I’ve grown even more so into who I was meant to be all along.

I see what people mean now when they say that their 30s were their favorite decade, because now that I’m finally inching toward that milestone, I understand how much more I’ve started to appreciate who I am.

I’ve become more self aware, less self conscious. And I’d like to think that travel and the experiences that I’ve had from it has made that so.

Most importantly, I’ve learned how to listen to myself. I was originally planning on spending at least a full year in Asia, but after eight months I realized that wasn’t the path that would make me happiest – so I changed it.

Tainan, Taiwan - Asia Travel
Wandering around historical monuments in Tainan, Taiwan.

I had some incredible experiences in Asia and memories that I’ll not soon forget. What happened during my time in the region was a whirlwind of experiences, moments, and emotions – both good and bad, as life is.

This is a glimpse at what the last 8.5 months of travels around Asia were like.


Snapshot

Countries: 8 

Towns/Cities: 44

Islands: 16

Favorite Countries: Taiwan and Thailand 

Least Favorite Country: Singapore – not because I disliked it so much as I just didn’t find it all that interesting.

Taiwan Street Food - Fengjia Night Market
Dumplings at a night market in Taichung, Taiwan.

Less Than Stellar Moments

  • Finding out my grandma passed away
  • Becoming very ill for half of my time in Myanmar
  • Trekking through mud for three days straight when I was still ill
  • Staying at the Mirador (“Murder”) Mansion in Hong Kong – just a tad on the creepy side

Favorite Experiences & Memories

  • Volunteering at an animal shelter in Koh Chang
  • Spending the afternoon at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai
  • Motorbiking around Saigon with XO Tours
  • Finally getting over my fear of driving my own motorbike in Langkawi
  • Discovering all the street art and good food in Penang
  • Hiking up to the monastery in Hpa-an my last night in Myanmar
  • Spending every morning watching the sunrise from a different temple in Bagan
  • Meeting so many awesome people in every country, but especially Thailand.
  • Celebrating my birthday with baby goats in Don Det, Laos
  • Enjoying Songkran in Koh Phangan, dancing and soaking locals and hanging out with a good crew for the day.
  • Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan – less for the party itself and more for who I was with.

 Places I Went

Hong Kong ~ 10 days

My journey started in Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan city I didn’t know too much about before I arrived. I quickly realized that 10 days was too long for what I wanted to experience in the city, and my budget.

Yep, Hong Kong was much more expensive than I thought it would be, and I spent a good portion of my initial Asia budget on those 10 days.

First Impressions of Hong Kong | Asia Travel
Hong Kong accommodation.

I stayed in Kowloon for the duration of my stay, in three different areas and accommodations. Mong Kok, the most densely populated area in the world, ended up being my favorite for its night markets, vibrancy, and food options.

I survived my first level 8 typhoon, found that I didn’t actually like Cantonese food that much, and dined on Hello Kitty dim sum. I stayed in one of the “murder’ mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.

I also met up with one of my good friends from college, Kyle, who I experienced a junk boat party with, the Happy Valley Races, and a night out in Lan Kwai Fong.

happy-valley-racecourse-hong-kong-asia-travel
Jacky, Kyle, Me, and Kendall at Happy Valley Racecourse.

I explored the small craft beer scene in the city, saw the biggest sitting bronze buddha in the world on Lantau Island, witnessed the nighttime view at Victoria Peak, and spent a day relaxing in Hong Kong Park.

Posts: My First Impressions of Hong Kong, Travel Budgeting for Hong Kong

Taiwan ~ 1.5 months

  • Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Fenchihu, Alishan National Scenic Area, Tainan, Kaohsiung, Kenting, Dulan, Hualien, Taroko National Park. 

Taiwan was probably the country that surprised me the most in Asia. I had no idea what to expect and  I was blown away from day one. I adored the coffee scene in Taipei, the over-the-top night markets and carnival games, and oh my god, the FOOD.

I ate so many pork dumplings, that’s pretty much what I lived off of for of a month. Although Taipei was an attractive city in many ways, I really fell in love with the country when I got outside of Taipei and worked my way down the west coast and up the east coast.

38 Reasons Why Life is Better in Taiwan - Asia Travel
Exploring Fenchihu, outside of Alishan National Scenic Area in Taiwan.

Taiwan is made up of a lot of big cities but also a lot of national parks. I experienced my fair share of both, although when I return to the country someday I think I would choose to spend more time in the outdoor pursuits.

I loved discovering Rainbow Village in Taichung, the layered history in Tainan of Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese occupation, the local holiday destination of Kenting, and the laid back nature of Dulan with its green fields of sweetsop trees and surf culture.

Taroko National Park - Taiwan | Asia Travel
Taroko National Park in Taiwan.

Spending a day on the back of a motorbike driving around Taroko National Park with its deep gorges and waterfalls, it was everything that I wanted to end my time in such a special place.

Taiwan is a country that will stay with me for years to come, as that place that I’ll never not want to go back to.

Posts: 38 Reasons Why Life is Better in Taiwan, Travel Budgeting for Taiwan (2017)

Singapore ~ 4 days

I flew down to Singapore for a few days because it was actually less expensive to have a stopover in the city than flying directly to Myanmar. I had been to Singapore already a few years back, and it was pretty much as I remembered it.

Singapore, Singapore | Asia Travel
Little India, Singapore.

I think I may have been more impressed with my first visit, with its cool futuristic nature. This time I felt the sterile atmosphere more, noticed how the locals weren’t actually that friendly (especially compared to Taiwan), and honestly, was pretty bored after my first couple of days in the city.

I managed to see the zoo and the botanical gardens with this visit. I spent more time in Chinatown and stayed in Little India. A second visit made me realize that it’s not a place that I would seek out to go back to unless it’s for a layover.

Myanmar ~ 29 days

  • Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Pyin oo Lwin, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Hpa-an 

My most challenging country of my whole eight months. Myanmar took me in, swirled me around, and spit me out. It humbled me and made me realize I’m not always that know-it-all traveler, I still have a lot to learn.

It’s a country that taught me to have more patience, and also to not take things too seriously. It peaked my curiosity, frustrated me, but also had a deep impact on me. It’s a place I would want to get to know better someday.

Myanmar in December | The Atlas Heart
Bagan, Myanmar.

Many of my challenges came from the food and drink, which made me very ill multiple times throughout my 29 days. I’m one of those lucky travelers who hardly gets sick in new countries. Hell, before this trip I’d only thrown up three times in my life.

I used to brag that I had a stomach of steel. It’s the Scottish McFadden genes I would say – we can handle any kind of food or amount of alcohol. Oh, little did I know that Myanmar had different plans for me.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
Me when I was still quite sick during our 3-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that there was a point that I thought I was dying. Perhaps this is because of how little I’ve been really, and I mean really, sick in my life, but I was in so much pain, my fever so high, and I felt horribly helpless.

I’ve never felt so helpless in my life. And if that kind of experience doesn’t humble you, I’m not sure what would.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, I also had some really good experiences in the country. I saw the ancient temples of Bagan and watched the sunrise and sunset from them every day, multiple days in a row.

Travel Budgeting for Myanmar | Asia Travel

I would leave in the cold dark mornings, bundled up, trusting my boyfriend to find another new temple that morning as I groggily held on to him tight to cut out the wind.

At night we would fight off the bugs that constantly threatened to fly up our nose and into our eyes. One night, our E-scooter didn’t make it all the way, and I had to walk back in the dark by myself as he went to go find the place to charge it.

Travel Budgeting for Myanmar | Asia Travel
E-scooters in Bagan, they love to run out of battery.

In Mandalay, we got drunk off Mandalay Rum for Christmas, and both became incredibly ill that night and for many days after.

We found an amusement park in Mandalay that had that feeling of abandonment but was still busy and in full swing. The locals would line up to take pictures with us, the only two foreigners in the park, as soon as we sat down.

In Kalaw, we celebrated the New Year together. We watched our guesthouse owner set off fireworks from the roof in glee.

We spun around and witnessed the rest of the small mountain town come alive with fireworks from every direction, even though it wasn’t the Burmese new year for another few months.

I barely made it to midnight, still weak and sick from my illness that struck on Christmas.

Trekking in Myanmar - The Atlas Heart
On the plus side, Myanmar was really gorgeous.

I spent the rest of my time in Myanmar trying to get healthy again, which didn’t actually happen until I was a couple weeks into my time in Thailand.

I experienced more of the crazy driving and near death experiences that are common on Burmese roads, trekked for three days in rain and mud to Inle Lake, and spent my last night in the country with monks and other travelers, watching a perfect sunset at the top of a monastery.

Posts: 12 Things to Know Before Visiting Myanmar in 2017, Hill Tribes, Mud, and Determination: A Three-Day Trek in Myanmar, Travel Budgeting for Myanmar (2017)

Thailand ~ 4 months

  • Bangkok, Chanthaburi, Koh Chang, Koh Mak, Koh Kham, Koh Lanta, Ao Nang, Krabi, Railay, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai

Thailand. Where to even begin with a place where so much changed in my life. First off, this was my second time in Thailand and I had a very different (and much better) experience this time.

I enjoyed myself more, met my favorite people in Asia, and gorged myself on every Thai dish imaginable, and still rarely grew tired of the cuisine.

This is where I spent the bulk of my time in Asia, which I wasn’t betting on when I first started planning this trip. I mean, I didn’t even like the country that much with my first visit.

Wat Pho, Bangkok - Thailand - Asia Travel
Exploring Wat Pho temple in Bangkok.

But my plans changed when my boyfriend found a job as a scuba instructor at a local dive shop on a tiny island called Koh Mak. Since I could work anywhere that had WiFi, and I was itching to be in one spot for a few months anyway, we started our new life on a remote Thai island for the next month.

We had our own bare little bungalow with lizards on the ceiling beams that would echo constantly into the night. I started helping out at the dive shop a few days a week. There were newborn kittens at the shop, and I would give them love and see them grow little by little everyday.

 

I quickly found my favorite local spots, biked all over the island, spent my days near the ocean and in hammocks, writing or working for clients. Sometimes I’d go out and dive with my boyfriend, or go snorkeling and meet some of the customers that came out for the day.

Then I woke up one morning to a short message from my dad telling me my grandma passed away back home. It wasn’t a big surprise, she was 95 and had been deteriorating mentally for awhile, but it didn’t make the news any easier to digest.

I went into a deep sadness for a couple weeks. The relationship I had with my nana, it was one-of-a-kind. We were very close, she was always a part of my life growing up, my biggest cheerleader. Someone who always loved me endlessly, and I felt the same kind of profound love for her.

Koh Chang, Thailand - Asia Travel

The fact that I would never be able to give her a hug, talk to her about that new book I was reading, or hear her voice again, it broke me a little.

Even now, five months later, I still tear up whenever I think about my grandma. I think she will always have a special place in my memories, both from childhood and as an adult. She will always be a a part of me.

In the midst of my grief, I made my way to Vietnam. I had promised one of my best friends from home that I would come meet her in Vietnam for a few days, so I left after I’d been on Koh Mak for about a month.

I was only gone for two weeks, but when I came back everything had changed with my relationship as well.

Koh Chang, Thailand - Asia Travel

My boyfriend greeted me awkwardly like an old friend my first day back. I gave him space, but the next night when I asked him why he was being weird, he broke the news that he no longer wanted to be with me.

He said that he needed to find himself and he couldn’t do that with me by his side.

The news knocked the breath out of me at the time since I didn’t see it coming. It was only 10 months ago that he had proposed to me on my birthday, we had been together for close to three years.

I spent a pretty miserable week on Koh Chang, trying to come to terms with reality. And I did. As soon as I left that island, I had a resolve to be happy with how things were.

By the time I made it down to Koh Lanta I was in a different mindset. I had already realized by that time that even if my ex needed time to find himself, I didn’t. I had already done that kind of soul searching years ago and I was happy with where I was now, with my business, my travels, and who I kept close in my life.

Pangea Bar in Koh Lanta, Thailand
Girls night at Pangea in Koh Lanta.

In that sense, it was clear that we were meant to part when we did. Our paths were going in two very different directions, and neither of us would’ve been happy if we had stayed together.

My next couple of months was everything I could’ve hoped for. I met Pascale, who would end up being one of my closest friends, and so many other lovely people on Koh Lanta.

I spent my nights going to beach bars and decking myself out in Day-Glo with a Leo in hand. I went up with Pascale to Ao Nang, and leaned into my hedonistic side on Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party.

Songkran in Koh Phangan, Thailand - Asia Travel
Me and Pascale in Koh Phangan for Songkran.

 

I spent quite a bit of time on Koh Lanta by myself after my couple weeks of partying and traveling, finally heading to Koh Phi Phi and then up north to Chiang Mai, Pai, and Chiang Rai for my last week in Thailand.

Washing elephants outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand
Washing elephants outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Posts: On Letting Go: A Letter to Nana Joyce, On Getting Dumped in Thailand, How to Spend a Week in Koh Chang, Thailand, If You Were Here (Part I), Why a Second Visit Changed My Mind about Thailand

Vietnam ~ 2 weeks

  • Ho Chi Minh City, Phu Quoc, Can Tho 

As I mentioned above, I went to Vietnam halfway through my time in Thailand to go meet one of my best friends from home. She could only come for a few days but we lived it up in Ho Chi Minh City while she was there.

We stayed in the comfortable and luxurious Liberty Central Skygon Citypoint Hotel, ate a lot of Pho, went to the War Remnants Museum, partied on Pham Ngu Lao, had a day drip to the Mekong Delta, and took a cooking class.

Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint Hotel - Vietnam Travel

I chopped off all my hair in Vietnam as well, ready to finally be free from my heavy locks in the Asian humidity.

After Kelsey left, I spent a few more days in Ho Chi Minh City before flying to Phu Quoc Island and meeting up with a few other travelers I had met in Vietnam. I spent a good few days down there going diving, snorkeling, laying on the beach, and drinking coconut rum.

Snorkeling in the Phu Quoc archipelago

My last stop in Vietnam before heading up to Ho Chi Minh City again was Can Tho. There wasn’t a whole lot to this Mekong city, and I mostly worked while I was there, but I was happy to see another more local spot in the country before my departure.

Posts: Experiencing Saigon by Motorbike with XO Tours, Peace, Clarity, and Rooftop Pools: Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint, A Day of Agritourism in the Mekong Delta, A Day of Agritourism in the Mekong Delta

Laos ~ 1 month

  • Huay Xai, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Don Det (4000 Islands), Pakse

After saying goodbye to Pascale, who had come to meet me in northern Thailand, I made my way to the dusty border town of Huay Xai in Laos. It was like most border towns, abandoned and a little seedy, and I was happy to leave a couple of days later, taking the overnight bus to Luang Prabang.

First Impressions of Laos - Luang Prabang - Asia Travel
Luang Prabang, Laos.

I spent about a week in Luang Prabang and had my fill of temples, Laotian cuisine, waterfalls, and plenty of time spent in cafes watching the rain and working. I also walked up to Mount Phousi one day for the best view in the city.

Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos - Asia Travel
The view from Mount Phousi in Luang Prabang.

After Luang Prabang was Vang Vieng, where I was lucky enough to meet Steph my first day in the town.

We clicked immediately and spent the next couple of days together, floating in many an inner tube and drinking Lao whisky into the wee hours. I could not have asked for a better partner in crime for my short time in Vang Vieng.

Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos - Asia Travel
Living in inner tubes in Vang Vieng.

I soon went down to Vientiane, which is where I was planning on spending my birthday. After a few days in the city, I realized that I didn’t actually want to turn 27 there because I would rather celebrate my birthday somewhere really beautiful.

At the last minute, I booked an overnight bus to Don Det, also known as the 4,000 Islands, and splurged on a nice hotel room for myself looking out over the Mekong.

I had one of my best birthdays of my 20s, and I loved that it wasn’t just focused on partying. I spent the day kayaking the Mekong, holding baby goats, sneaking into Cambodia, and really just having an epic adventure for the day.

Baby Goats in 4000 Islands, Don Det Laos - Asia Travel
Holding baby goats on my 27th birthday – couldn’t have asked for a better present.

I spent it with my friend Irma who I had met on the overnight bus, and it was wonderful having her to share those few days in Don Det with.

After my birthday festivities, I headed up to Pakse for a few days and then Vientiane for about a week before heading to Malaysia.

Posts: An Ode to the Asian Night Bus, My First Impressions of Laos

Malaysia ~ 3 weeks

  • Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Langkawi 

Malaysia was another country that I had already been to during my Asia trip a few years back, but only to Kuala Lumpur. I spent a few days exploring more of the capital city, eating a lot of food, and checking out more museums.

I was ready to see more of the country though and my eyes had been set on Penang for awhile now. I ended up spending a week in Penang and loved it even more than I thought I would.

June Wrap Up - Penang, Malaysia | Asia Travel
Street art in Penang, Malaysia.

There was so much street art, a cute yoga studio to spend my evenings at, probably the best food I had in Asia (which is saying something), and a beautiful national park not far from the city.

Hiking to Monkey Beach - Penang National Park | Asia Travel
Hiking to Monkey Beach in Penang National Park.

Langkawi was my last destination before heading back down to Kuala Lumpur. I loved spending my time on a beautiful Malaysian island for my last week. It seemed fitting, I had spent so much of my time in Asia living on islands.

I finally got over my fear of driving my own scooter with a friend who I had met in my dorm in Penang, and we spent a day driving around the green island.

I made sure to catch a last cotton candy sunset on one of my last nights in Asia, and had my fill of good Indian food for multiple nights in a row.

Cotton candy sunsets in Langkawi, Malaysia - Asia Travel
Cotton candy sunsets in Langkawi.

When I took the bus down to Kuala Lumpur, and then another to Singapore for my flight to Athens, I didn’t look back.

All of the many experiences, memories, and personal growth I had during my time in Asia, I will cherish. But as soon as I got on that plane and stepped down on European soil, I knew I was ready to start anew.

My 8.5 months in Asia is a past that I’ll look back on fondly, but now I’m looking forward to enjoying the present. And being that my present is a summer in the Mediterranean, it’s not looking too shabby so far.

Sunset balcony view in Crete, Greece - Europe Travel
The view from my balcony at sunset in Crete, Greece.

We’ll see what the next European chapter has in store for me!

Have you ever spent an extended amount of time abroad? What were your experiences like? 

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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