Last Updated on November 23, 2021 by Nellie Huang
I cannot quite believe the year has gone by just like that. It seemed like just yesterday that we moved to Amsterdam!
2018 has been a year packed to the brim with travels — I traveled to 19 countries, of which 12 were new to me. These include several ‘forbidden lands’ that I’ve always been intrigued with, such as Iraqi Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Most of these trips were self-funded, leisure trips and it’s been very refreshing to travel for fun once again!
This year has seen a major transformation on my blog. After giving it a facelift at the end of 2017, I spent this year cleaning up my old content, freshening them up, and optimizing them. So this blog is now a much better version of what it used to be, and I’m really proud of that.
Another project that has kept me really busy this year is a book that I’ve been working since April. I was extremely lucky that DK Books reached out to me and commissioned with the book to write. It’s a kids’ book and tells the stories of some of the world’s greatest explorers. I definitely can’t wait to see it out in print.
Here’s a look at all the countries I traveled and experiences I had this year.
Table of Contents
- 2018: My Year in Photos
- January: Slovakia
- February: Singapore
- March: Ukraine
- April: Guadeloupe, St Vincent, Barbados, and St Lucia
- May: Antigua
- June: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland
- July: Tajikistan & Afghanistan
- August: Greece
- September: Japan
- October: Iraqi Kurdistan
- November: Spain
- December: Saudi Arabia & Kuwait
- What’s Next?
- Interesting in reading more?
2018: My Year in Photos
We started 2018 with a short ski trip to Donovaly in Slovakia. I’m a big sucker for snow and always try to get away to snowy places for winter. We thought it would be a great time for Kaleya to try skiing, and if she didn’t wanna ski, we could still have fun in the snow and get enjoy quality time together.
A quick search for ‘family ski resorts’ led us to Park Snow Donovaly in Slovakia, a small-sized ski station great for young families like ours. Within five minutes, we found budget flights to Slovakia for just 30 euros return and a car rental for 60 euros! It turned out to be a fun weekend sloshing in white powder, drinking 1 euro jugs of beer, and feasting on delicious Slovak food!
A few weeks after Slovakia, Kaleya and I headed back to Singapore to celebrate Chinese New Year with my family. It’s something we do every year, and each trip back is always as good as the previous one. Despite having left Singapore over 15 years ago, Singapore is still home and it’s where my roots are. Every time I go back, it feels like a real holiday where we get to just hang out with family, eat a lot and unwind.
Shortly after returning to Amsterdam, I brought Kaleya on yet another mother-daughter trip, this time to Ukraine. I’d been wanting to travel Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova for some time, but decided to narrow it down to just Ukraine this time for Kaleya’s sake.
We met up with one of my best friends Melinda, who came all the way to Canada to join us. I usually travel with Melinda at least once a year and this felt like a good time to introduce Kaleya to her. We ended up spending a week in Kiev, its capital, and it turned out to be really cool and there was quite a lot to do and I really liked the quirky, vibrant city. Plus it snowed a lot while we were there and I absolutely love snow so really, perfect timing!
April: Guadeloupe, St Vincent, Barbados, and St Lucia
In April, Kaleya and I went on yet ANOTHER mother-daughter trip — we took a two-week transatlantic cruise from the Caribbean to Spain. Going from one island to another in the Caribbean can be expensive so this was a good way to see four on one trip.
Plus, a transatlantic voyage sounded like an epic journey and a rite of passage for any traveler. Crossing the Atlantic on cruise would give us the chance to relive history and experience the passage that migrants took in the 19th and 20th centuries on steamships.
Our 14-day cruise started in Guadeloupe and took us to three different Caribbean islands (St Lucia, St Vincent and Barbados) and three different parts of Spain (Tenerife, Malaga and Barcelona). As it turned out, the transatlantic experience was pretty disappointing. I’d romanticised the whole idea of crossing the Atlantic Ocean — it was nothing as dreamy or adventurous as I’d imagined.
But we did have fun at the stops, especially going to the top of Mount Teide in Tenerife, exploring the rainforests and waterfalls of St Lucia, and chilling on the beaches of Barbados.
It was literally just a few days after returning home that I found myself back in the Caribbean again. But this time, I was invited to Antigua for a travel conference called Traverse. Antigua was definitely a great spot to have a mini conference, with its beautiful beaches and laid-back Caribbean vibes.
In between the sessions, we went island-hopping, kayaking, snorkeling, and chilling on the beach. I really enjoyed hanging out with my blogging colleagues and learning new skills from my peers. I also took a day to rent a car and explore the whole island with my blogger friend, trying local food in the capital St John’s, scouting out the best beaches and seeing as much of the island as we could.
June: South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland
Next, it was time for our much-anticipated family trip to southern Africa. Alberto and I both love South Africa and we wanted to show Kaleya one of our favorite places in the world. I managed to persuade him to add Lesotho and Swaziland into our itinerary, so we made a big road trip out of it.
Lesotho and Swaziland are both tiny nations landlocked and surrounded by South Africa. I was really curious about how they would be different from South Africa. We first traveled to Swaziland (now known as Eswatini), often described as ‘Africa in a nutshell’, a microcosm of the best Africa has to offer.
As it turned out, Eswatini really does pack a punch with an impressive range of sights in a tiny area. In just five days, we had some of the best wildlife experiences of our lives, witnessed colorful and lively cultural dances, and hiked several walking trails. Plus, there are stunning scenery, adrenaline-pumping activities, affordable yet high-quality accommodation options and some of the most welcoming and proud people in the world.
Often dubbed “the Kingdom in the Sky”, Lesotho is a largely mountainous country with lofty altitude — it has the highest lowest point of any country in the world (1400m) and is the only country to be entirely above 1000m!
Despite being so easily accessible, Lesotho still remains an under-explored country, and a vastly underrated travel destination. I absolutely loved our short time in the T’sehlanyane National Park, exploring the mountains on horseback and short hikes. Maseru also proved to be a pretty small and easy-to-navigate capital city.
July: Tajikistan & Afghanistan
Just a week after returning home, I headed back to Central Asia to lead my second WildJunket Tour! The trip turned out to be quite an adventure, as with every trip to Tajikistan. Tajikistan travel can be a challenge as it’s not completely safe. But the country is truly blessed with some of the most inspiring, high-altitude landscapes in the world. Over 90% of the country is covered with mountains. Everywhere you go, you’ll find multi-hued lakes, monstrous snow-peaked mountains, and high passes.
We spent almost the entire trip traversing the Pamir Highway, the second highest international highway (after the Tibet Highway) in the world. It’s a bone-crunching 2000km switchback through the western arm of the Himalayas and revealed some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country.
A major highlight of our trip was the Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory wedged between the Pamir Mountains and the Karakoram range. The Wakhan Corridor runs along the natural border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It’s dotted with picturesque villages, nestled in fertile plots of intensively cultivated land and half-buried under fruit orchards.
While we did cross over to Afghanistan, we only stayed in a village near Sultoni Ishkashim for just one night. It was still an eye-opening experience, seeing women clad in blue burkhas (where even their eyes are covered) and having men openly staring at us as foreigners are definitely rare here.
Our trip didn’t go very smoothly in Sultoni Ishkashim, with the immigration officer trying to molest some of the girls on our trip, then having a local guide who was obviously lost, and then major drama back at the border where we had to pay a bribe to be able to re-enter Tajikistan. It was a crazy adventure for sure!
Since Kaleya had a two-month long summer break from school, I decided to bring her on a last-minute trip to Santorini, Greece. Alberto and I had been to Santorini more than 10 years ago and we absolutely loved it. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, despite how touristy it has become.
That said, traveling Santorini with kids is actually quite easy and fun. Most tourists are concentrated in Oia, admittedly the most picturesque town perched on the clifftop of Santorini. But once you get outside of Oia, the island actually isn’t overly crowded. We rented a smart car and drove all around the island — some of my favorite spots were the quaint village of Pyrgos, Imerovigli and Fira (crowded but still worth seeing).
In September, we returned to Japan, Alberto’s favorite country in the world. This time, we rented a car to drive around Japan, revisiting some places we loved and also finding new spots. We started our two-week Japan trip driving from Tokyo to Hakone where we had a blast exploring the volcanic sites, then we continued to the Okuhida area in the Japanese Alps where we soaked in plenty of onsens (hot springs).
From there, we headed to Takayama, Kanazawa and the cultural capital Kyoto, and then eventually Nagano to see the famous snow monkeys. As it turned out, Kaleya loves Japan as much as we do! Japan is a great destination for kids, being very easy to navigate and really colorful, dynamic and culturally interesting.
October: Iraqi Kurdistan
Two weeks after returning home from Japan, I set off on my Iraqi Kurdistan tour. Sadly I had to cancel the trip last year due to the closure of air space in Kurdistan following the results of the independence referendum. Most international flights to Kurdistan were cancelled and airports closed.
This trip to Iraqi Kurdistan was truly transformational. I knew that it would be a learning experience, but I had no idea it would stir up so much emotions in me and change some of my perspectives in life. Having been spared the war of 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan is a very different place from southern Iraq. Also known as “the other Iraq”, the semi-autonomous region is relatively safe, because of its strong military Peshmarga forces who have successfully defended the country from ISIS.
I was blown away by how different Iraqi Kurdistan was to how I imagined. It wasn’t what one would describe as “war torn” at all — instead, the cities were bustling and vibrant, and the natural sights were spectacular.
Next, I was supposed to go to Guyana for a press trip with the tourism board, but I sadly had to withdraw at the last minute due to a horse allergy. I sent a writer on behalf though, and her Guyana travel guide made me want to go there so badly!
Canceling my trip to Guyana meant I could join my husband and daughter on a weekend trip back to Granada, Spain to see family. It was a short but sweet trip, and we definitely enjoyed seeing friends and family again.
December: Saudi Arabia & Kuwait
I ended the year off with an exciting trip to Saudi Arabia — what was once known as the most difficult country to visit. Many friends were concerned about my safety traveling Saudi Arabia as a woman and a few were actually angry that I would support an oppressing regime that was notorious for gender segregation and human rights issues.
To be clear, traveling to a country doesn’t mean I’m supporting their government. I want to understand a country from the ground level, by meeting locals and getting to know its culture. Plus, changes are coming to Saudi Arabia — and I was extremely lucky to be there to witness it. As part of the kingdom’s plan to diversify their economy and open up tourism, they recently introduced a new e-visa system.
As with the case for many countries I’ve been, Saudi Arabia turned out to be quite different from how it is often portrayed on the news media. I was surprised by how much freedom I enjoyed as a female traveler. I also easily chatted with both male and female Saudi Arabians and they were more than happy to socialize with us. I didn’t have any problems entering places because of my gender, though females have to use the family areas in public spaces.
From Saudi Arabia, I continued my journey to Kuwait, a country I knew very little about. I only had a few days to explore Kuwait City, but I actually ended up liking it more than I expected to. Kuwait City felt like what Dubai would have been 10 years ago — it’s rather vibrant and modern, with small mosques dotted around tall skyscrapers, interspersed with retro buildings from the 60s. I also got to meet a Kuwaiti traveler I connected with online and it was really interesting to learn about Kuwaiti culture through her.
In a few days’ time, we’re heading to Paris for New Year’s Eve and then Granada for Three Kings Day (Dia de los Reyes) to spend time with my Spanish family. I’m looking forward to seeing friends, drinking lots of wine and stuffing my face with festive sweets.
2019 looks set to be a year of even more travels. I’ve already planned several trips for the first half of the year, including a winter break in Estonia, a two-week adventure in Chile, exciting solo trips to Senegal, a mother-daughter holiday in Morocco, and a family jaunt to Panama and Costa Rica.
Can’t wait for the new year to begin! Here’s wishing all a fantastic 2019 filled with lots of travels.
How was 2018 for you? What were the highlights?