Here, in the order that we visited, are the countries and our suggestions of what was the best part and worst part of visiting them. 16 countries in 13 months (17 if you separate Tibet from China) meant an average of one month per country with shorter stays in Singapore, Uruguay, Bhutan and Costa Rica.
Best for - Interactive nature! Walking hand in hand with Orangoutangs through Camp Leaky, having baby sea turtles hatch in our hands, pushing through clouds of stingless jellyfish; Indonesian Borneo is a place of wonder.
Worst for - Transportation. We got stuck for three days due to an unexplained countrywide airplane “maintenance review.” It took us three days, two planes, a ferry and a speed boat to get from the Malaysian side to the Indonesian. But it was worth it.
Best for - Science museums and zoos. Its not everyday you get the chance to sit in the middle of a tesla coil while electricity shoots around you. Moreover, just outside the museum is an indoor snow park where you can tube down an ice mountain while the weather outside is 90 degrees (maybe sparking a chat about global warming?).
Worst for - Cost. First world entertainment takes first world money.
Overall best for - Food. Even when we had no way of communicating whatever was brought to us was delicious. If only we could figure out how to say, “not spicy”. Ah well, it toughened us up for India.
Specifically best for Pandas - don’t miss the chance to be a panda keeper while in Chengdu.
Worst for - Communication. With so many billions of Chinese speaking tourists you can quite understand why tourist or transportation centers would not feel the need to hire english speakers but still it does make life difficult.
Best for - The people with their deep commitment to Buddhism. The reason we are considering this a separate country from China is because they do.
Worst for - Chinese soldiers on every corner.
Best for - White water rafting and general availability of snickers chocolate bars.
Worst for - Urban squalor. There does not seem to be any aesthetic appreciation when religious temples are covered in trash and relics from the 9th century are used as dumps. It may be that since there is some thousand year old building on every block it is simply too common to appreciate.
Best for - Most Romantic Couple (the King and Queen) and happiest subjects.
Worst for - Cooked meat. But since the country is 99% vegetarian buddhists it is really not their fault and tourists should just concentrate on the delicious cauliflower and potato dishes.
Best for - Camels. Between the Pushkar Camel Fair and the camel safari we took through the Thar desert we learned to know and love camels. We especially loved the ones that wore Kohl make up for the beauty contest!
Worst for - Food. Thal and Dhal got old fast. Much faster than our two month stay. It will be a long while before we can face an Indian restaurant again. Oh, and while the English may have left a superb legal system, they apparently were never able to institute the concept of “queuing”.
Best for - Malls. These are perhaps more impressive to us having come from a non mall culture in general (NYC) and having spent 8 months in Asian street markets, but any building with an Aquarium in the basement, an outdoor film screen and nightly free concerts is worth shopping at. Or just go for the food courts. Just kidding (hmm?), it is best for the elephant camp in Kanchanaburi where we learned one should never, ever ride in a howdah.
Worst for - Nothing really. Thailand is one of the easiest countries to get around in the world with great food, smooth transportation, polite people and plenty to see. But it is not really an “adventure.”
Best for - The Battambang Bamboo Railroad! One of our most fun days. We also loved Cambodian cuisine so much that we took not one one but two classes to learn how to recreate it back home. Would have loved to have had more time there and the first place I would like to return to.
Worst for - Over expectations. Everybody goes for Angkor Wat, which is nice but just another big temple framed by a sunset. The smaller temples, markets and Pub street in Siem Reap are plenty reason enough to visit.
Best for - Least Westernized Country. A true taste of the exotic, makes you appreciate how people lived hundreds of years ago.
Worst for - Least Westernized country. Villages have no running water, sanitation or medical facility. Makes you appreciate how difficult it was to live hundreds of years ago.
Best for - Scenery. Whether biking through Luang Prabang or gliding through ten thousand lakes Laos is uniformly pretty, serene and calm.
Worst for - Vang Vieng, a sad blight of pot smoking drunkenness imposed a beautiful culture. While we were there CNN ran a pretty accurate story asking “Vang Vieng: Backpacker Heaven or Hell?” saying “You are more likely to see topless tourists vomiting than you are local culture” and more seriously that “in 2011 up to 22 people were reported to have died on it’s river”
Best for - Aesthetics. Pretty much any art class is available - dance, sculpture, music, painting, weaving. The Balinese have beauty woven into the very fiber of their being and everything they do from how they wrap a sarong to how they offer a gift is infused with a delicate grace.
Worst for - Kuta beach. The amazing sunsets and awesome surf breaks have been lost to a sad mess of bracelet sellers and braid makers aggressively pestering drunken tourists.
Best for - Tango and streak. Here is where you get your meat fest on.
Worst for - Reverse culture shock. If you’ve lived in New York, Paris or Madrid, this is no different. But if you appreciate good restaurants, charming architecture, first class art work, it is not a bad thing.
Best for - Mate. A country of obsessed mate drinkers. English and Chinese tea drinkers are punters compared to them.
Worst for - Vegetables. If it can’t be grilled or put on top of pizza than it apparently doesn’t exist.
Best for - Swimming with the sea lions. Flora and Fauna in general. There is no comparison to the Galapagos Islands anywhere. We are ruined for zoos forever.
Worst for - Sigh, cost. Two weeks in the Galapagos equals two months in South East Asia. The rest of Ecuador, however, is quite reasonable.
Best for - Getting off the beaten track, walking in the steps of dinosaurs, otherwordly landscapes, $3 hand knit alpaca wool hats.
Worst for - Acknowledging Western tourists’ predilection for heat and running water - if it’s cold, just put on another shawl! At some point somebody told them tourists like pizza and to this day, outside of the major cities, it is almost impossible to find any other food source.
Best for - A paradise of active travel - zip lining, rafting, horseback riding, volcano trekking, rain forest hiking, there is every possible mode of getting from point A to point B, including driving your own minivan.
Worst for - Retired Americans in every nook and cranny. It is like Florida in the rain forest. Give up all hope of learning Spanish here since everyone who interacts with you will speak English.
Everyone always asks which was our favorite and the short answer is - they all were. There is not one country we are not glad we visited. But hoping to be helpful, we have broken them down a little bit more.
Best for Kids
Costa Rica and Bali - This is Disney land with ziplines and arial obstacle courses in lieu of roller coasters. Parents can stagger the adventures with a steady round of field trips to learn how chocolate, tea, coffee, rice and spices are traditionally (organically!) grown and processed.
Best for Teenagers
Nepal - If you want adventure, this is the place. They are the perfect age to trek up the Himalayas, raft down white water rivers or take to the skies on a paraglide. Moreover, they will find the filth and congestion of Kathmandu well worth the endless supply of mac and cheese or chocolate unknown anywhere else in Asia. Do not bother going down to the malaria riddled south since the Chitwan area has been throughly stripped of wildlife and the exploitation of elephants for tourists is pure and simple animal cruelty.
Borneo - Last chance for unfiltered interaction with Orangoutangs before their habitant is destroyed. Not only is it ultimately cool to be able to walk with and observe orangoutangs in the wild, older children will learn how fragile and interconnected all the world is as they see how the demand for teak furniture and cheap palm oil affects these great creatures.
Recommended only if you have done your research first
Myanmar - 60 years of repression and human rights abuse are not wiped out by one visit from our state department.
Laos and Cambodia - be prepared to answer questions about why we (Americans) indiscriminately bombed and killed people we were not at war with and still refuse to sign a ban on land mines which would entail helping to clean up the live explosives still in their fields and school yards.
This is not to say don’t visit! Tourism dollars and awareness help with all these issues. Just don’t let the beauty of the countryside and the people blind you to some serious problems.
Best all round
Ecuador - Like Costa Rica, it has beaches, mountains, rain forests and sophisticated cities in a manageably small country. Unlike Costa Rica, it is not overrun by American expats and retirees quite yet. Although, between its restaurants, knitting stores and ease of transportation, I could quite see the appeal of retiring here myself!
Bhutan - A fairytale of a place I can’t quite believe actually exists. I don’t think I ever want to go back just in case it is not as romantic and perfect as I remember.