The beginning of our trip coincided with Chiang Mai's annual festival of lights. Loy Krathong and Yi Peng combine into a multi-day celebration aglow with paper lanterns rising towards the stars and ornamental boats floating downstream decorated with incense and candles.
Chiang Mai was also the perfect place to catch our breath, plan our travels, and indulge in Thailand's delicious culinary culture.
Trekking in the mountains above Hsipaw was the highlight of Myanmar. It was as if every step along the cracked mud brought us back in time to a feudal past. Farmers driving oxen, women picking tea with children at their side, villagers hauling water from the community well, scenes from a simpler time that can only be witnessed in a few remaining areas of the globe.
The seven of us slept on mattresses in the living room of our homestays, rising at dawn to the sound of roosters and chanting monks. We were fed the best Burmese food of the trip because it was vegetarian and fresh from the fields. We played with the local children who were intrigued by our presence. We even exchanged nervous smiles with local militiamen with M16s slung across their shoulders. They were grateful for our intrusion because it meant neither side would risk fighting with foreigners around.
Myanmar's capital city is a mixture of urban decay and buddhist glory. The crumbling British colonial buildings and Hong Kong-like apartment blocks reflect the country's recent turbulence. The temples, however, tell the story of Myanmar's ancient roots and continued dedication to a spiritual empire that once rivalled its neighbours.
The crown jewel of the empire, the Shwedagon Pagoda, cannot be done justice by photographs. The golden stupa towers 30 stories above a broad plaza packed with buddha shrines and religious relics.
Wake before dawn, hop on an e-bike, scramble up a temple in the dark, then watch the sky cycle through shades of pink. As the mist clears and temple spires become visible, stand in awe of this vast plain studded with ancient temples, each housing something sacred.
Bagan is the type of place where you plan your days around sunrise and sunset. There's not much else you'd want to do quite frankly. I think Indiana Jones would retire here.
Inle Lake possesses such a beautiful ecosystem that it can support two fishing industries: one catches sea creatures, the other catches tourists.
The only way to truly experience the beauty of this region is by getting in a motorized canoe and zipping through its canals, which happen to be lined with knick-knack shops and stealth models who demand a high price for the picture you just took.
Luckily, we did our homework and knew what to expect. Once you know the game and how to avoid the traps, Inle Lake offers an incredible day of boat rides and bustling markets.
During British occupation, the mountain town of Pyin Oo Lwin offered the administrators a cool respite from Yangon's sticky summer heat. It houses the country's lush botanical gardens and retired generals.
I know that last part because we accidentally had breakfast with one of them at a street stall selling rotis and sweet tea. A man with a distinguished bathrobe sat down next to us and helped us order. He was getting takeout for his wife, but couldn't help practice his near perfect english and ask us what we thought about the country.
Kipling's poem, Mandalay, depicts the city as the source of a British soldier's longing for exotic beauty after arriving back in dreary old England. Sadly, the city's urban sprawl has paved over much of that beauty over the past few decades.
We did manage to escape the urban bustle while riding on old rusty bicycles to U Bein and drinking inexplicably cheap Mandalay rum in a dive bar near our hotel.
Pathein was our first stop that branched off Myanmar's main tourist circuit. The difference was immediate. I've never said "hello" (Ming-la-bah!) to more people in a day.
Our hotel, the best in town, reeked of cigarettes and bleach so we spent all but our sleeping hours wandering the streets visiting the handmade umbrella workshops that gave the town its reputation. My fondest memory of the place is resting at a lakeside tea shop (little plastic tables and squat stools) and striking up conversation with a student who explained how he ran a Facebook-based tarot card fortune telling business to help young burmese find love.
Homesickness is a serious threat when spending Christmas away from friends and family so we decided to do something special to distract ourselves. Beachside glamping was the strategy, and it certainly worked.
Our last days in Myanmar were spent lounging by the resort's poolside and enjoying 5 star hotel facilities but paying a fraction of the price because we were sleeping in a tent that we playfully decorated with christmas lights we bought in Pathein.
I fell in love with Georgetown in 2014 when I found a bus that took me from Krabi, Thailand, to Penang, Malaysia en-route to Kuala Lumpur where I knew I could find a cheap(er) flight to Europe. I had intended to stay 4 nights, but left on day 12.
When G found a cheap flight from Yangon to Penang on the date that our Myanmar visas would expire, I yelled "book it!" Myanmar was beautiful, but it wasn't comfortable traveling. The cafes, galleries, and food courts of Georgetown were calling me back.
Our friend had a week off and wanted to join us somewhere on our trip. She also wanted to lay on a beach and forget the dreary Canadian winter we were lucky enough to escape.
Koh Lipe was just two boat rides away from Penang. Its blue waters and beach-side bars beckoned.
The island of Sri Lanka packs immense ecological and cultural diversity. We experienced urban chaos, beachside surf towns, frigid mountain-top tea plantations, ancient buddhist temple ruins, and european trading settlements all within a couple of weeks.
Riding the rails was preferable to the high speed technicolor rave machines that pass as public busses, but a complete lack of personal space was common to both. Either way, each time we stepped off the transport we felt like we were somewhere completely new.
Private islands, lavish hotels, honeymoon bungalows... These are the images evoked when I heard the word Maldives. I hesitated to buy the plane ticket because it would make me one of "those people."
In the end, my phobia of the 1% didn't outweigh the 40% discount on a French dive boat named Le Soleil II that promised crystal clear waters abundant with underwater megafauna.
I booked the tickets only on condition that we'd have a week to explore some of the local atolls, the ones where Maldivians live a conservative muslim life that is starkly contrasted with the glitz and glamour of boozy beach buffets enjoyed in bikinis.
What we found above the water was a unique culture of hospitable seafarers who introduced me to my favourite new breakfast, Mas Huni, an aromatic tuna salad composed of finely chopped shallots, chili, and coconut served with chapati and and a boiled egg. Best enjoyed with your feet in the sand.
Oman wasn't on our destination list when we set off on the trip, but it ended up as one of our favourite destinations. A traveler we met in Sri Lanka described as "the best of Arab tradition with a Scandinavian temperament." I still can't come up with a more succinct pitch.
We landed in Muscat late at night and drove through the deserted suburbs to find our unique Airbnb, a car-top safari tent on the roof of someone's house. Budget accommodation is hard to come by in Oman and this seemed like a hidden gem. The price point became apparent when the city's mosques began blaring their calls to prayer shortly before sunrise.
Hotels in Oman aren't cheap. Luckily, bedouin tradition entrenched in Oman's laws means that you're able to camp anywhere that isn't private property, even the country's beautiful beaches.
We picked up a rental car around 10am and drove to a nearby Carrefour to buy a cheap tent, air mattress, sleeping bags, stove, and a few days worth of food. By mid-afternoon, we'd escaped the city traffic and found ourselves cruising along Oman's beautifully paved shore roads while keeping an eye out for a beachside campsite. And so it went for over a week.
A simple shower can feel like a gift from the heavens after spending a week camping along the hot, humid, and salty desert coast. Back on our Muscat rooftop, we washed the sand out of our, well, everything and traded our sedan for an all-wheel drive vehicle capable of traversing Oman's rugged interior.
We were treated to breathtaking landscapes, traditional villages, and the warmest hospitality.
We filled our bellies with hummus and falafel, rented a car, and prayed that our bodies could withstand the stress and fear we experienced driving out of Amman. Luckily, traffic thinned as we drove north. It may have been related to the signs along the road that said "Syria 98km."
Our destination was Jerash, a beautifully preserved Roman city that rivals any site I've seen in Italy. A site that is practically devoid of tourists, a rare quality that greatly enhances the immersion.
We then turned south, skirting the dead sea and onto the king's highway. We admired some of the world's first mosaics and continued on to Petra.
We couldn't help humming the theme of Indiana Jones while meandering through Petra's Siq, an easily defended narrow gorge that acts as the city's eastern gate. We had it stuck in our head for two days as we spent almost every daylight hour exploring the ancient city's burial tombs carved deep into the mesmerizing rock faces.
"A rose-red city half as old as time," is the description John William Burgon used in a poem. But words can't do it justice and neither can these photos.
We came dangerously close to skipping Wadi Rum, the desert where Lawrence of Arabia staged his legendary revolt against the Ottomans. The desert nights are cold and we'd been wearing our only warm clothes for several days. G made some calls to tour operators listed in our Rough Guide. We struck a deal for one night in a desert camp that included a camel ride. At least we could blame our stench on some dromedaries.
The novelty of riding a camel quickly wore off and we upgraded to riding on the roof a Toyota Land Cruiser that was built before I was born. I didn't ask how long he'd been driving it without functioning brakes, but I knew it was long enough for him to master the art of stopping by driving up sand banks, and starting it by rolling down the same slope. He was a true Bedouin and, although nomadic, one day in Wadi Rum was enough to know why he and his ancestors haven't drifted far.
We reached the Red Sea at the southern tip of Jordan and crossed over to Israel. We worked our way back north, sharing buses with the country's uniformed-youth with machine guns strapped to their backs.
We managed to find several versions of Israel in our short time in the country. The artistic community in Mitzpe Ramon, the cosmopolitan bustle of Tel Aviv, the historical epicentre that is Jerusalem, and the political storm still swirling in Palestine.
The stunning landscape is the thing that first strikes you when gazing out of the plane window on your descent into Cape Town. The ramshackle townships are the last thing you see before the aircraft touches ground.
I could say Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited, as long as I forget about the barbed-wire, poverty, and lingering racism. Post-apartheid South Africa is healing, no doubt, but its scars are still visible.
We spent ten days exploring the city, hiking mountains, eating world-class food, drinking affordable delicious wines, and saying hello to penguins.
The more I think about it, It had just about everything I loved in the world, except social equality and safety. It's both literally and figuratively the polar opposite of Scandinavia in that sense.
Renting a car abroad is always stressful. Driving on the "wrong" side of the road in a rental car is doubly so. "Keep left, keep left, keep left." The words were uttered aloud several times along the drive.
South Africa's coastline is breathtaking. The southern ocean has spent a millennia carving one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet and we were lucky enough to get a chance to drive along it. But north of the highway, between the wine region and Wilderness, we found a more unique journey through the Little Karoo on route 62.
Driving on the wrong side of the road in a rental car while wild elephants are part of traffic... That's a whole new level of challenge.
Addo Elephant National Park sure lived up to its name.
After seven months of travel, you start to get tired of planning. Getting from point A to B becomes your job and sometimes you need a vacation from that. So at a travel agency in Cape Town, we took a huge risk and joined a 21 day safari camping trip.
It can be argued that driving yourself out into the desert plains of Namibia along sparsely-signed gravel highways is a much greater risk than joining a tour, but at least you're in control. On a tour, you're at the mercy of the company you end up with.
We rolled the dice, and lady luck was kind.
Etosha National Park is a protected nature reserve in northern Namibia and is home to an abundant variety of wildlife, including endangered black rhinos. We spent two days driving across its vast plains trying to spot as many magnificent creatures as we could. It was my first "true" safari experience in an open jeep and it was a gateway drug for the nature photographer in me.
The Okavango Delta is one of Africa's greatest natural wonders. This inland delta is the result of about eleven cubic kilometres of rainfall that drains into a tectonic trough and settles until the scorching sun evaporates it. This fresh water is the life blood for an otherwise arid region and preserves an abundance of wildlife with its yearly flood cycles.
Here we navigated the reeds in our mokoros (small canoes) and did some safari walks on-foot where the small islands of land peaked over the flood waters.
Later, we visited Chobe National Park, where the sheer amount of wildlife left the other parks feeling empty.
The world's largest sheet of falling water tumbles off the ledge that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia. The entire volume of the Zambezi river hurtles off cliffs totalling around two kilometres in width. The photos cannot communicate the incredible sound and spray emitted by this natural phenomenon. You'll have to go see it for yourself, and go ahead, splurge on the helicopter ride.
Pizza. I ate a lot of pizza. I walked around too, but only because I needed something to do between bouts of hunger which I could satisfy with pizza.
I found it surprising in retrospect that I didn't take a single SLR photo of pizza. Then I remembered the animal-like voraciousness that overwhelmed my senses when those pizzas slid onto the table and dispelled any restraint.
Besides, Naples isn't a city of polite restraint. It's a down and dirty city that trades tourist glamour for good food and authentic street strolling. You can even spend the day in Pompeii and make it back by dinner, when you'll probably have another pizza.
Rome is where our round-the-world journey transitioned into a family holiday. It's also the place that reminded us why it's better to travel off the beaten path.
Rome is kind of like a Disney Land for western history buffs, but if you do your research, you can avoid the crowds and take shelter in the city's hidden pockets of authentic Italy.
A 70th birthday celebration brought us to Tuscany. The acquired memories of Tuscany will bring us back, I'm sure. Driving along the country roads of Italy revealed the Italy that authors have longed-for in their words.
The crumbling houses where one can imagine a hunched-over nonna stirring a pot of simmering tomatoes or expertly folding some tortellini. The country markets with boxes full of artichokes, basil, and zucchini blossom flowers. The family-run wine estate passed-on to the 26th generation.
A region that is timeless, every time you visit.
First piece of advice: download audioguides. Calling Florence an influential city in western history is an understatement. This is the birthplace of the renaissance. The city where bankers and artists broke with the authoritarian Roman Catholic tradition and reclaimed their Greco-Roman heritage. The arts flourished, trade bloomed, and nudity was everywhere. Walking around Florence without proper context is a missed opportunity. Download some audio tours, pop in your earbuds, and go wander.
Second piece of advice: Wake up early to line up and book tickets in advance. Florence has become a victim of the tourist hoards and much of it looks like a shopping mall. The museum crowds can make it feel like a boxing day sale where selfie sticks are half-off.