This has been an amazing year for us ferrets. It was our first full year of living in Shanghai and my first experience living abroad and I loved every minute of it. We spent time in six different countries, developed an intense love of Sichuan food and remembered how much fun riding a bike could be. Now as we gear up for 2013 and another year of adventures, I wanted to reflect on the memories we’ve already made.
1. Without a doubt, my favorite experience of the past year was spending a day with the elephants at Patara Elephant Farm in Thailand. Caring for my own elephant, feeding him and washing him in the river, filled me with so much joy that I hardly have the words to express it. I will never forget that incredible day.
2. China’s furry mascots are beloved the world over and a source of national pride. Pandas are treated with due deference at the Chengdu Research Base and breeding center, where we marveled at these adorable creatures in their natural-looking habitats. For the ultimate treat, we also got to hold a baby panda for several minutes!
3. We had the good luck to celebrate the Loi Krathong Festival twice in Thailand: once in the ancient city of Sukhothai where the custom supposedly originated, and then again in Chiang Mai where parades were held three nights in a row. We were enchanted by the sight of the night sky filling with hundreds of glowing lanterns as revelers celebrated all around.
5. I was unprepared for the dazzling temples and palaces of Bangkok. Covered in gold, jewels and mirrored glass, they stand glittering along the river creating an almost mystical effect. It was the most awesome display of royalty I have ever seen.
6. I had heard mixed reviews of Yangshuo, China, but was pleasantly taken by the place. This small town in Guangxi Province is situated along the banks of the Li River and surrounded on all sides by towering karst mountains. Breathtaking scenery aside, Yangshuo was a charming attraction in its own right. Full of artisan shops selling unique handicrafts and Western-style cafes serving English-style breakfasts and cappuccino, it was an absolute delight.
7. Growing up in the United States, I was always intrigued by the idea of devout Amish riding their buggies through quaint farms, but had never visited Amish Country until this summer. I was giddy at the sight of all those buggies and ladies in bonnets. Their acceptance of non-Amish neighbors and willingness to let curious tourists peek into their lives is admirable. I also loved their giant helpings of pie.
8. Hanoi’s Old Quarter left me breathless and energized at the same time. The pace of life surges in the crumbling neighborhood as bicycle vendors hawk their wares, locals shop the streets filled with shoes or plastic toys and overwhelmed tourists watch over cups of beer on the sidewalk.
9. Dragging myself out of bed before dawn to trudge into Tokyo’s brutal winter weather was a challenge, but attending the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market made it a worthwhile endeavor, especially with the market reportedly closing in 2013. Watching as thousands of dollars of fish were bought and sold and listening to the auctioneers’ animated calls was mesmerizing. After the action ended, we wandered the stalls of the vast market before eating a giant bowl of the freshest sushi for breakfast. Every day should have such a good start!
10. If there is an animal encounter to be had, I can usually be trusted to work it into our itinerary. We had the option of doing either the famed Night Safari or the Jungle Breakfast at the Singapore Zoo, but since the latter involved an active troupe of orangutans that we would get to stand this close to, it was an easy choice.
11. One of the best meals of the year was enjoyed at Peking Duck Private Kitchen in Beijing. The restaurant’s namesake dish was so succulent that I would return to Beijing just to eat it again. The waitress suggested a half-duck portion for our party of two but we ordered a whole one and devoured every morsel.
12. My favorite of the sites we visited in Beijing was the Summer Palace. It is easy to see why emperors would enjoy holidays here. The ornate buildings, peaceful lakeside setting and countless amusements had us wanting to stay a while too.
13. It was assumed that we would eat our body weight in Sichuan food while visiting Chengdu, but getting a taste of Tibetan cuisine was a pleasant surprise. We enjoyed a rustic and filling meal of fried yak and bread, dumplings and peas, and finished with a mug of yak butter tea. Let’s just say it was heavy on the butter and light on tea.
14. Hubby outdid himself on my birthday, taking me to Shanghai’s Waldorf Astoria for their extravagant champagne brunch. We indulged in lobster and caviar while drinking an endless supply of Veuve Clicquot. I felt the way every girl wants to feel on her birthday – glamorous and loved.
15. Even after waiting for hours amid a crush of Chinese tourists and climbing a mountain (twice!), viewing the Grand Buddha of Leshan was worth the effort. Standing below the colossal statue – literally carved out of a mountain – you feel small and insignificant in the best possible way.
16. I had such fun showing my mom around Shanghai on her first visit to Asia, and shared many wonderful experiences with her. My favorite happened totally by accident when we were trying to escape the brutal summer humidity and stumbled upon the Haagen Dazs ice cream afternoon tea. The fanciful – and frozen – confections were a welcome treat!
17. We spent a very memorable night in Ho Chi Minh City exploring Snail Street with our friends at Saigon Street Eats. Our knowledgeable guides took us to the best places for fresh seafood in the city while winning our affection with their easy-going manner and hilarious jokes.
18. I a big fan of ramen, the Japanese noodle soup full of porky goodness. So when I read about the Ramen Museum in Yokohama, outside of Tokyo, there was no way we could pass it up. The museum explains the history of ramen and outlines the regional differences across Japan. Restaurant stalls selling the different varieties line the basement, which is made to look like a scene from Tokyo in the 1950s. We even got to pose for goofy photos dressed as chefs with a giant bowl of noodles!
19. I am a history nerd who reads about bygone eras in her spare time. I also enjoy museums and anything having to do with period costume. So following around a couple of other history nerds pretending to be gangsters while learning about the seedy underworld of 1930s Shanghai is my idea of a good time.
20. Going to the movies in Bangkok rounds out my top 20 experiences of the year. This was actually our first visit to a cinema since our move to Shanghai in September 2011. China only screens a small number of foreign films each year and those are usually edited so we haven’t bothered. But Bangkok takes movie watching to a whole other level. We snuggled in leather recliners with pillows and blankets while waiters brought us drinks and snacks. Since we were seeing James Bond, dry martinis seemed only appropriate.
Here’s to a happy 2013!