Big Buddha Phuket, Thailand, Dan

2023 Year In Review – What I Got Up To & What’s Next

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Another year has come to a close and as always, it’s nice to look back at what’s happened over the previous 12 months.

If you’re interested in what I did in 2022 and what I got up to then as well as my goals for this year, you can read that by clicking here.

As with last year, I still have a full time job working in SEO which takes up 40 hours of my week. This provides me with how I fund my travels. I just like to get that out the way before people think I have a trust fund or any other methods of how I afford to travel.

If you’ve read my plans from last year, I wanted to slow down in 2023, maybe stay in one place for a long time. I even considered renting an apartment for 6 months. As you’ll read below, that didn’t quite happen…

If you follow me on Instagram, you would have seen most of what I have done, but I don’t post everything on social media every day. You’ll have a good idea, but I’ll include the reasons behind my choices here.

Welcome to Dan Round The World 2023 edition…

Travel Stats for the year

After taking 32 flights in 2022, I promised that I would reduce that number as I planned on staying put for a bit. I lasted 18 days into 2023 before taking a flight and have currently just taken my 38th flight of the year!

I’ve retained an airline status which means that I’ve spent time in 19 different airlines lounges around the world which brings the total 94 hours in the sky and the 80+ getting to and from airports and spending time in them during stopovers means I’ve again spent more than a week of this year propping up the airline industry.

Camping in tent, Dan, Llangollen, Wales
One of my nights in a tent

I’ve stayed in 31 hotels and 7 AirBnBs with a couple of guesthouses, hostels and nights in a tent thrown in.

I visited 12 countries with 4 (maybe 5, is Taiwan a country?) being “new” countries for me as I hadn’t visited them before.

I did say that I didn’t slow down much this year…

Starting the year – eating more than Christmas

I started the year in Penang, an island known for its food off the north western coast of Malaysia. I had planned to rent an apartment for around 6 months and use it as a base. After panicking that I couldn’t find anywhere, I paid far too much for an AirBnB for the Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year period.

Chicken Satay and peanut Sauce, Penang, malaysia food
Enjoying satay and peanut sauce in Penang

Despite my hunting I couldn’t find suitable long term accommodation so I cut my time in Penang short. The month I did spend there, working at Settlements coworking, eating all of the fantastic street food that Penang is known for and really getting to know somewhere, makes Penang one of my favourite places I spent the year.

I also met some really good people and made a small hiking group that hung out often. I really loved my time in Penang, but unfortunately I couldn’t stay so moved onto Langkawi, another Malaysian island that I hadn’t been to before.

I had heard so much about Langkawi, its THE tourist destination in Malaysia with beautiful beaches, holiday resorts and adventurous activities. I arranged to stay at Jetpack Langkawi, stayed in a small hotel next door to the coworking space and renting a motorbike that took me all over the island.

I joined a local gym where I was often the only non Malay in there. Unlike Penang where most people spoke a dialect of Chinese, Malay was spoken everywhere in Langkawi and I’d like to think that my Malay improved a lot in that month.

My days were spent working, my afternoons were spent lying on a beach a short walk away. I was finally doing the whole digital nomad thing that I was supposed to do. (Isn’t that what all digital nomads do, sip a coconut from a hammock whilst working from a laptop on the beach?)

A lot of people had told me that Langkawi was one of their favourite places and I have to agree with them.

Sunset in Langkawi

Suddenly I can’t read

Despite my love of Malaysia, they only let me stay there for 90 days at a time so I had to take a flight out of the country.

I flew to Taiwan, somewhere I hadn’t been before. Is it a new country? Well that’s another debate, but I have been there and I really enjoyed my time there.

But there was a bit of a culture shock when I first arrived which took me a bit of getting used to. I’d spent most of the previous 6 months in countries where I could understand and be understood. But now the shiny neon signs were all in Mandarin. What does that restaurant sell? I have no idea. What does the menu say? Out comes the phone with Google Translate. What are they asking me in the shop? I don’t know but hopefully the answer involves one of the few Mandarin words I know. What was that strange food I’m eating? I still don’t know and not sure I want to.

My apartment wasn’t great, it was basically a boxey hotel room with a smelly bathroom. But Taipei quickly became a city I would recommend to anyone.

Taipei 101 at night
Tapei at night

I enjoyed the moderness of the skyscrapers like Taipei 101, I enjoyed the traditional shop houses and night markets, I enjoyed the massive amounts of culture and landmarks like the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall , I enjoyed the small amount of nature a short distance from the city as well as the beautiful parks that dot the city.

It’s very easy to get around Taipei on their excellent metro system and also to get around the rest of the country on their bullet train system.

Taipei Main Station is HUGE! As big a train station as I have seen anywhere in the world. But with that access and affordable fast transport, I took weekend trips to Taroko Gorge and Hualien City, both places come highly recommended.

An ulterior motive of going to Taiwan was to catch up with a friend who teaches English over there so I ended up taking a flight (yes another one!) to the small island of Kinmen off the coast of China. Seeing such a remote town on a remote island in a place like Taiwan that isn’t travelled too often is a real highlight of mine and I’m grateful for the opportunity to see it.

Back to Malaysia

After a month in Taiwan, I decided to head back to Malaysia and to the city of Kuching.

Kuching is in the south of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, one of the few states in Malaysia that I hadn’t fully explored. I stayed for 6 weeks in a lovely apartment with a massive comfy bed, a big desk and an amazing desk chair! It’s the simple things that make you happy when travelling and working.

I joined a gym and a coworking which meant I had an excellent work and fitness routine, something that I don’t always have on the road. I found a guy offering a blind massage for a very reasonable price and went often to soothe my aching muscles. My work life balance was excellent.

On Easter weekend, with four days off work, I took a small propeller plane deep into the Bornean jungle and stayed at Mulu National Park.

Mulu National Park had been on my radar for a while and even appears on a Planet Earth episode narrated by David Attenborough. I joined a tour with a Scottish family and spent three days exploring the park with our local tribal guide. We saw millions of bats fly out of one of the largest caves in the world. I went into that cave that could hold Wembley stadium, went into local villages after scooting down the brown jungley rivers in a longboat. I shot a poison dart from a spear (at a paper target I should add) and hiked into the rainforest being amazed at the variety of frogs, millipedes and butterflies that called the park their home.

For somewhere that had been on my list for so long, it didn’t disappoint.

On other weekends from Kuching I went to Semenggoh orang utan centre to see those incredible creatures in the wild and to Bako National Park on the coast. For those that know my love of all things monkeys, getting the chance to see proboscis monkeys, Orang utans and macaques monkeys in Bako was an incredible experience. And all of it could be seen within 30 minutes of Kuching, one of Malaysias largest cities.

Alpha male orangutan, eating, semenggoh, Kuching, Malaysia
Seeing orang utans in Sarawak
Bako National park, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Proboscis monkey at Bako National Park, Sarawak

Meet the parents

I’ve often said that most of my travels have been by myself. Occasionally I’m joined by friends, but for the first time, my parents wanted to come and visit me in Malaysia.

Of all the countries I thought they would visit, I never thought it would be Malaysia. I once remember my mum saying that she wouldn’t go to a country where she would have to use squat toilets (spoiler alert: she did) and a country not known for its fine wines made me think my Dad wouldn’t visit either.

But after I played travel agent and booked and planned most of their holiday (I’m not going to lie, I do enjoy that), they came out to visit me for three weeks taking in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca before they were left to their own devices in Singapore where luckily they survived. We met up again in Penang so I could show them my backyard and then Langkawi for them to relax on the beach.

Mum Dad Dan, Langkawi, malaysia
With my parents in Malaysia

It made me realise that things I take for granted travelling in that part of the world so often, and Malaysia even more so, can seem so alien for people that had never stepped foot in Asia.

One of my favourite meals in Malaysia is a nasi lemak, it’s coconut rice with a boiled egg with a spicy sambal sauce, some sliced cucumber and fried anchovies. I have it most days when I’m in Malaysia and think of it as normally as a bowl of corn flakes. However my Dad found it hilarious and intriguing in equal measures that some of the fried anchovies still had eyes in .

“I can’t remember the last time my breakfast stared back at me” he exclaimed before tucking in.

Nasi lemak, Plaza Premium First, KLIA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
My breakfast of nasi lemak
Nasi Lemak, Malaysia
Vs what my Dad saw… Can you see the offending eyes?

With the parents safely on a flight back to London, I stayed in Kuala Lumpur for another month exploring the capital in a way I had never done before. I have been to KL many times, but it was always in passing to somewhere else so never got underneath the skin so to speak. But the city grew on me more and despite its flaws (lack of public transport being a major one!) I now love KL more than I ever have.

God morgen

People often ask me if I have friends all over the world now. And sometimes it feels like it.

Through knowing people, I had the opportunity to sublet an apartment in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark for the month of July. I do enjoy a European summer where the cities come to life, parks are full and cafes and restaurants sprawl onto the streets with patrons enjoying late evening sunshine.

I knew little about Copenhagen before I went, other than how expensive it is and that it’s the home of Carlsberg. As someone who likes to sample the local delicacies, I can confirm that Carlsberg is a very delicious beer in Copenhagen and nothing like the cheap stuff that’s sold in cans in the UK. I’m told Guinness tastes better in Dublin than elsewhere and on this evidence, I’m inclined to agree.

For one weekend, I took the train over and under the border to Malmo in Sweden. When another country and city is so close. I loved Malmo as a city and would have happily stayed there longer.

Turning Torso from beach, Malmo, Sweden
The Turning Torso, Malmo, Sweden

Returning home…

Since Covid occurred, I’ve spent very little time back in the UK. Although I had returned semi frequently, it was only for a weekend here and a week there whilst I attend weddings, events or just to connect between flights.

One of my goals for the year was to spend a good amount of time in the UK and finally catch up with people I hadn’t seen in a while and do the life admin stuff that doesn’t get done on a flying visit.

I spent all of August staying in London enjoying an English summer (or what there was of it) and also taking the chance to road trip around the UK when I hired a car for 10 days.

Chester, United Kingdom
Chester city centre

I love the freedom of road trips and returned to places I know I love such as Chester but I also got to explore other areas and found hidden gems like Llangollen, somewhere I had never heard of but got to do some hikes and ended up joining and Australian couple in a bar as they were on a European trip and exchange thoughts on each others respective countries.

Back to Bansko

For September I needed somewhere relatively close to London that was cheap, had good weather, plenty to do and somewhere relatively easy to travel to. The stars aligned and I had the chance to travel to Bansko in Bulgaria for a month.

Dan, Bansko, Bulgaria
The main street of Bansko with mountains in the background

If that sounds familiar, it’s because I went there in 2022 for 7 weeks and loved my time there. There’s a great community and it’s a place that is basically set up for digital nomads when it isn’t ski season. The reason it had to be close to London was because I already had a flight booked from Heathrow on 1st October that I couldn’t miss…

Meeting colleagues for the first time

One of the quirks of a fully remote job is that you never know much about your work colleagues as you never meet them. No water cooler conversation to find out their favourite TV shows, not knowing anything about their home life other than the room they are sitting in and to be honest… no idea how tall they are either!

After working for my company for over two years, there was finally a company retreat booked in Phuket, Thailand for mid October. The company was paying for everyone to fly in from all over the world to spend a week together getting to know one another and working and planning for the future. With my travels, I’ve been lucky enough to meet two colleagues already, which is about two more than everyone else at the company.

I met my first colleague at Doha airport in the lounge. As I was arriving in Thailand early, I met some others in the week before the retreat. There was then 5 of us that stayed in Phuket for the week after the retreat and got to see the Phuket Vegetarian Festival which has to be one of the most incredible things I’ve seen this year.

Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival, the festival coincides with the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calender. One of the strangest aspects of this festival is the self ritualised mutilation they undertake to show their devotion. It starts off tame enough with walking on firecrackers in barefeet and escalating at the end of the festival with swords and spears stabbed through their cheeks and mouth in a show of devotion as they enter a trance.

As the photos show, it’s not for the faint hearted.

Sword Phuket vegetarian festival, Thailand

Conference season

Whilst I was in Phuket, I had heard of an SEO conference in Singapore. Whilst work couldn’t pay for me to go or allow me the time off, I headed to Singapore anyway as it’s one of my favourite cities in Asia and somewhere I hadn’t been since 2018.

As luck would have it, I knew people at the conference and managed to sneak in to the networking drinks after and made some valuable contacts. With the serious bit done, I headed to Gardens By The Bay to watch their nightly sound and light show, Garden Rhapsody, to be blown away by it yet again.

Garden Raphsody, Gardens by the bay singapore
Garden Rhapsody, Gardens By The Bay. The images don’t do the show justice

After nearly missing a flight for the first time in my life (which lead me to write this post) I flew to Langkawi to be a speaker at Langkawi X Nomadcon as a celebration of all things digital nomad and to promote Langkawi as a digital nomad destination in the future now Malaysia has its own digital nomad visa.

It was my first time public speaking in a few years but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met some great people and hope to go back again in 2024.

Dan on boat in Langkawi for sunset, Malaysia
Sunset as part of the boat cruise at Nomadcon

Adventure awaits

I headed back to Bangkok to get some vaccines as I wasn’t sure of where I was going next. But a plan had been formulating. Just events in the Middle East had given a reason not to book anything. After checking, double checking and getting word from people already there, I booked flights to Iraq that left three days later.

Each year I try to do at least one “silly” thing. This is something that most normal people wouldn’t dream of doing. In 2019 I went to North Korea, 2021 I went to Chernobyl and 2022 I took the Iron Ore train in Mauritania. For 2023 my silly idea was to travel Iraq.

Babylon behind Dan, Iraq
Standing on a hill overlooking the ancient city of Babylon

I arrived in Baghdad airport late at night and got picked up by my hotel. I drove past armoured trucks and police with AK47’s in the middle of junctions. When travelling around Iraq, I was stopped at multiple checkpoints leading in and out of cities. It was quite the culture shock.

I took a week off work and took a route that went from Baghdad to Hillah, Babylon, Karbala, Mosul, Hatra, Sulemaniyah and Erbil but as of now, I haven’t written about it but hope to soon.

But it was all worth it seeing religious monuments, ancient history, amazing nature, bustling cities and being treated to incredible hospitality. I had only heard good things from travellers that had ventured to Iraq and I have to say that I am now one of those.

Erbil Market in Kurdistan

Ticking off more of the Middle East

I’ve mentioned here how many times I have passed through Qatar airport but I have never been to the country. I wasn’t expecting much as my thoughts would place it in a similar league to Dubai (which is definitely NOT one of my favourite places).

After eating all kinds of street food in South East Asia and lots of roadside schwarma and kebabs in Iraq, I ate a salad at my fancy hotel in Doha and spent the next three days with one end of my body over the toilet, switching ends regularly. So I still need to go back to Qatar and see more than the inside of a hotel room.

View of Doha from the Corniche

I hopped on a flight to Kuwait which now ticks off all of the Gulf countries for me and to go to another country that people don’t usually visit. There isn’t loads to do in Kuwait City but for a day or two stopover it is a nice enough city and feels a lot more Arab than Iraq or Qatar, basically similar to Bahrain.

Christmas in England?!

I had the option of a flight back to London, which I gratefully accepted. I had been travelling extremely quickly for 2 months, living out of purely hotels and staying in one place for a maximum of 6 days whilst also working 40 hours per week in my full time job. I was getting tired and I could feel burnout setting in.

I returned to the UK for what was meant to be a few days to recharge the batteries and then find out where to go next.

It turned into a few weeks and I stayed in London for my first non-Covid Christmas at home since 2014. I suppose it was about time.

kuwait towers, kuwait city, Kuwait
I flew back to the UK from these towers in Kuwait

New year, new me?

Just after Christmas I headed to Tallinn to spend some time in Estonia and where I’ll be bringing in 2024. Those who know me personally will know that I’m not the biggest fan of cold weather, so going somewhere with temperatures down to -13 degrees and snow on the ground for most of the month will be a massive shock to me and will take me wayyyy outside my comfort zone. Which is what it’s all about isn’t it…

How the blog was in 2023

One of my goals for 2023 was to spend more time on this blog and make it profitable. I’m still behind with the writing side of things but I have to say it has been a success.

Spending a few solid weekends on it throughout the year has seen it gain a lot of traction. I’ve had more views in the last month that I did in the entirety of 2022. And I’m finally earning some money from it from the ads you see on this page and if you decide to click on a link to any product I recommend on Amazon (such as this one: my new backpack which I love!). My income has pretty much doubled every month since June.

In fact, one of the weekends I spent on this blog in June has really paid off, I did a full SEO audit, set up ads properly, get in behind the scenes, made it quicker, wrote new posts and my traffic has been steadily growing ever since.

My most viewed page throughout summer was a post on getting to the Blue Eye in Saranda Albania, but has since been overtaken by my post on the best lounge at Kuala Lumpur airport as the most read blog post this year. For some reason my post on downsides of solo travel had a mini viral hit in December which took it close to the top of the rankings but probably too late to hit top spot.

Sushi and work area, Platinum & Gold Lounge, Doha

Looking ahead to 2024

I’m going to suggest that in 2024 I will slow down my travels, but I also know deep down that probably won’t happen. There’s too much of the world I want to see and experience.

I’d like to think that Malaysia will be on the list again. I’ve never been to southern Africa or South America. England are playing cricket in some exotic places which I’d like to go and visit. And of course I need to do my “silly” thing of the year.

Dan, elephants, Phuket Thailand

I’d like this blog to be earning more and encouraging more people to travel. I know my own weaknesses with this blog but unfortunately it just takes time for those to be improved. And when travelling and working and trying all the foods and exploring and writing blog posts and updating social media to feed traffic to the blog, that takes up a lot of time as it is.

But of course I’ll keep updating this page with all the tips and travel tricks you’ll need before going to some off the beaten path destinations like I always have done.

Safe travels,

Dan

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