Trip Highlights

Dubai

We were able to see Dubai’s major attractions during our quick two-day visit to city. While there was still plenty more for us to see (more malls, beaches, day trip to Abu Dhabi, etc.), Taryn and I agreed that the two days were enough.

Dubai is a city of superlatives. It has the biggest mall, largest man-made marina, most expensive diamond, etc. Probably the biggest attraction in Dubai is the world’s tallest building, the Burj Al Khalifa.

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Burj Al Khalifa – the world’s tallest building

Indeed, this building is massive. It’s also next door to the Dubai Mall, the world’s largest mall that also contains the world’s largest fish tank.

Each evening, the pool outside the Dubai Mall and Burj Al Khalifa host a fountain show for the hundreds of onlookers. Think the Bellagio fountain show in Las Vegas, but bigger. Not surprisingly, it’s the largest such show in the world.

I love skyscrapers and rooftop views, and what’s so crazy about Dubai is that these tall building were all constructed in the past 20-25 years. It’s a modern metropolis that seems to have sprung up from the desert overnight.

There are a variety of rooftop bars to take in the skyline, and we went with Level 43 at the Four Points Sheraton.

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Dubai skyline

After a day crisscrossing the city, we decided to take a tour out to the desert. In a matter of minutes, we were away from the bustling skyscrapers and completely surrounded by sand.

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Desert outside of Dubai

We spent the evening driving through the sand dunes, riding camels, and eating at the tour company’s “desert oasis” (which exceeded our low expectations). But the highlight of the tour was definitely the desert sunset.

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Desert sunset

Dubai is a fun and unique city.  Would I go back?  Sure, but only if it’s on the way to somewhere else.


The Maldives

Bottom line: The Maldives are too spectacular for just a few pictures, so instead I gave the country it’s own page:

The Maldives

Easily the most incredible place we’ve ever been.  Here’s a peek:

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Heaven on earth

Sri Lanka

We had a one-day stopover in Colombo, Sri Lanka, before heading to Singapore, so we decided to make the most of our quick stay by taking a city tour.

Colombo isn’t exactly a tourist hotbed, but that’s slowly changing. Case in point: there’s a tour company that whisks guests away in tricked out tuk tuks for day tours of Colombo and other nearby sites in Sri Lanka.

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Tuk tuk tour of Colombo, Sri Lanka

The tour guide and tuk tuk driver (who preferred to be called Bob Marley) wore an over-the-top colonial era uniform and kept us entertained for our six hour adventure. The tuk tuk itself cane stocked with drinks (beer, pop, and water) and even had a speaker system to plug in our phones to blast music during the ride.

Bob Marley let me drive the tuk tuk on a side street, at which I failed miserably. The Colombo streets were a bit busier, but lucky for us, Bob Marley was a pro.

We visited a coffee shop, a tea shop, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, and also tried a variety of different street food. We capped off the tour throw back the Sri Lankan national beer and enjoying the sunset. It was a perfect way to get a taste of the city during our short stopover.

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Sri Lankan beer to go with a Sri Lankan sunset

Would we go back? We’re not going out of our way to fly to Sri Lanka, but we one day was clearly not enough time.


Singapore

Singapore might be our favorite city in the world. We had high expectations going in, and our three nights in the city blew us away.

If you’ve ever seen a picture of Singapore, it was probably of the crazy skyscraper of a hotel called the Marina Bay Sands. It’s a resort, casino, and mall all in one building.

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The famous Marina Bay Sands resort

But probably the coolest part is the rooftop pool. It’s only available for guests staying at the Marina Bay Sands, and since we used points for most of the airfare, we decided to splurge by staying at the hotel.

Needless to say, the views didn’t disappoint.

The views from the rooftop pool are obviously a big draw, but whole rooftop was pretty awesome.  The pool was always packed, but there were plenty of loungers to catch the sun.

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The rooftop pool was completely worth it

The pool stays open until late in the evening, so we had the opportunity to see the Singapore skyline both during the day and at night.  Despite being scorching hot during the day, the windy and cold rooftop was just barely tolerable after dark.

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Nighttime swim with the Singapore skyline

In addition to the pool, the hotel hosted sunrise rooftop yoga with 360 degree views.

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After a class of sun salutations

But the best part of Singapore is the food.  Singapore has hawker centers throughout the city, which are open-aired complexes with small food stalls.  The food is safe, incredibly cheap, and incredibly delicious.  Literally, there are restaurants at hawker centers that have Michelin stars, and a dinner will cost less than $10.

We heard the food at the hawker centers was good.  But Taryn and I tragically underestimated how good.  I would travel to Singapore just to eat at these hole-in-the-wall restaurants for an entire week.  We had made other lunch & dinner plans, but decided to cancel all of those to instead eat at the hawker stalls everyday.

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The best food on our trip at Singapore’s hawker centers

What’s intimidating at first is how big the hawker centers are and what to pick.  But we learned from experience that you can’t go wrong.  Especially if anything involved the Hainanese chicken rice.

Would I go back to Singapore?  IN A HEARTBEAT.  It’s an incredible city, and a great gateway to the rest of SE Asia.


Siem Reap, Cambodia

We went to Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor Wat temple, which is definitely a must-do.  But also realize that it’s a must-do for every other tourist in the city, which means you’ll need to be there well before sunrise for the iconic picture.  It’s not nearly as private and tranquil as most of your friend’s pictures make it out to be, but it’s still amazing.

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The requisite sunrise photo at Angkor Wat 

We expected Angkor Wat to be most memorable part of Cambodia. but we were thoroughly impressed with everything else as well.

One afternoon, we took an airboat tour on Tonle Sap Lake.  The guide talked about floating villages in the lake, which I thought would be a a few huts tied together.  But these were legit villages in the middle of a massive lake.

There were whole communities living on the lake.  Schools, restaurants, stores, government “building,” houses, etc.  It was fascinating to see how these villages were able to create a community completely on water.

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Kids going to their floating school in Tonle Sap Lake

We also took a moped tour of the Cambodian countryside.  We visited a Buddhist temple, got blessed by a monk, and had lunch at a local family’s home in the middle of the rice paddy.

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Cambodian countryside tour via moped

We expected Siem Reap to be overly touristy and devoid of any real cultural interest.  But after Tonle Sap and the lunch with wild chickens running between our feet, we were pleasantly surprised with our time in Cambodia.

With that being said, we also went to Pub Street, where all the cheap bars and typical tourist traps.  I thought a fish pedicure was a good idea, but I quickly learned I am way too ticklish to even last a few seconds with those hungry fish.

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I could not handle the fish pedicure

Would I go back?  Yes, I would love to visit again at some point.


Hong Kong & Macau

After visiting Singapore, we had high expectations for Hong Kong.

I’m a sucker for skyscrapers, and Hong Kong is definitely a great city for tall buildings.  Victoria Peak is a perfect spot to take in spectacular views of the city’s Victoria Harbor and Hong Kong’s hilly terrain.

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Harbor views from Victoria Peak

As luck would have it, we planned our trip to Hong Kong during Chinese New Year, which meant a grand fireworks show over the picturesque harbor.  We redeem credit card points for a fancy room at the Grand Hyatt overlooking the harbor so we could have front row seats of the fireworks.

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Where we had hoped to view the Chinese New Year fireworks

However, due to a tragic bus accident the week prior, the government of Hong Kong decided to cancel the fireworks celebration out of respect for the grieving families.  While that was a gracious gesture by the government (apparently tragedies aren’t as common as in the U.S…), it was disappointing that our grand plan to watch the fireworks from the harbor-side Grand Hyatt was thwarted.

Because of the holidays, many stores and restaurants were closed.  But we were able to find a local expert who led us through the highlights of the city.

The best part? Devouring dim sum.

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Dim Sum lunch in Hong Kong

We found one of the few traditional dim sum restaurants open during the holidays.  It was chocked full of families, but we were able to snag a few seats in the back corner.  Yes, there were plenty of BBQ pork buns involved.

The restaurant was huge, which meant the kitchen was pumping out bamboo steam baskets.

We also took a day trip from Hong Kong to Macau.  After an hour ferry, we arrived in Macau just in time to see the island’s Chinese New York parade.

 

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Chinese New Year celebrations in Macao

While Hong Kong is a former British colony, Macau is a former Portuguese colony.  It was surprising to see just how pronounced the different colonial heritages are in each city.  Now, both Hong Kong and Macau are autonomous regions belonging to China.

Macau is most famous for its casinos; it actually brings it more than 2x the gambling revenue of Las Vegas.  We thought we might play a little blackjack, but the casinos all had Chinese casino games that we didn’t understand, so no dice.

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The Ruins of St. Paul, one of the main attractions in Macau (besides casinos)

Maybe it was because it was Chinese New Year.  Maybe it was our inflated expectations after Singapore.  Or maybe I couldn’t overcome the buzzkill of the cancelled fireworks show.  In any case, we were disappointed with Hong Kong and Macau.  Would we go back?  I would like to, and like Singapore, Hong Kong is great gateway to the rest of the region.  But I won’t be jumping through hoops to travel back.  And while Macau was fun to see, I’d much rather spend more time exploring Hong Kong.


Myanmar

Until recently, it was difficult to visit Myanmar as an American tourist.  And that is partially why we wanted to visit.  While Cambodia and Thailand have robust tourist infrastructure, Myanmar is still a bit more raw, which makes it more unique.

We only had a short stay, so a visit to the Schwedagon Pagoda was #1 on our list of things to see.  Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the Schwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in the country because it contains relics from the real Buddha.

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The golden Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

Everyone was required to wear a longyi, or type of Burmese skirt, while visiting the pagoda.  The Schwedagon Pagoda is both a religious site and tourist attraction, which meant we saw many monks and worshippers from other Buddhist countries paying their respects.

The pagoda was enormous, and I can’t imagine how much gold is in the stupa.

While Myanmar is rich with tradition and history, it’s also slowly developing.  Which means upscale malls with fancy signs.

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Hello from Myanmar. Or Burma. Or whatever…

I’m glad we took a quick trip to Myanmar on our way to Thailand.  Would I go back? Probably not, unless I had more time to travel around the country.  We stayed in Yangon, the capital and largest city.  But a few of the other cities seem even more interesting and worthy of a visit.


Chiang Mai & Bangkok

Why are there Thai restaurants all over the United States?  Because Thai food is incredible.  And it’s even more incredible in Thailand.

We took a street food tour our first night in Chiang Mai, which was a great introduction to the city.  I stuffed myself with more khao soi and mango sticky rice than I thought I was appropriate, than washed it down with a Chang beer while sitting on a milk crate along the side of the street.  It’s the most Anthony Bourdain I’ve ever felt.

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Our introduction to Thai streefood

We also cook a Thai cooking class, which was a lot of fun.  I swear cooking food yourself makes it taste better.  And not having to clean the dishes also helps it taste better, too.

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Final product from our Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai

But there’s much more to do in Thailand than just eat delicious food.  We also took a day trip to an elephant sanctuary outside the city where we helped food and bathe the park’s rescued elephants.

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Bathing the elephants at Elephant Nature Park

As we learned, riding on an elephant’s back is very damaging to these huge animals.  Elephant sanctuaries help save elephants who are victims of abuse, and they gladly take tourists’ money to more humanely interact with them instead.

On our way back to the United States, we scheduled a long layover in Bangkok.  Taryn and I had one last bowl of khao soi, one last Thai massage, and ended our crazy adventure around the world with drinks at one of Bangkok’s famous rooftop bars.

Would I go back to Thailand?  Yes, most definitely.  I would highly recommend Chiang Mai, which is easily accessible for the American tourist but also authentically Thai.  After a day in Bangkok, we quickly realized that Bangkok is too big and busy to really enjoy.  It looks 45+ minutes in a taxi to travel from one place to another, whereas we could walk across the entire city in Chiang Mai.

 

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