2016 in (mostly) pictures
In all honesty, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around everything that happened in 2016. I'm not going to even try to talk about some of the year's larger events here, since I don't feel that this is appropriate platform. For now, let's just say I went an awful lot of places and wrote an awful lot of things. Here are some of them.
Early in the morning, the piste is all but empty despite the perfect conditions.
There’s no real après–ski scene or glam resorts at this little glacial getaway, just perfect powder and heart-stopping views over the German-Italian border.
Copenhagen's downtown is both lovely and small enough that you can tackle it by foot.
It’s no secret that the Danish capital has an unbelievable culinary scene. While I may not be able to claim the bragging rights that a seat at Noma entails (although, hey, I did talk to some of its former chefs months later), I ate remarkably well and had some pretty great craft beer.
Saying "hi" to the inhabitants at the Giraffe Centre in Karen, Nairobi.
This was my second visit to Kenya and while I didn’t go on safari this time, I did manage to spend an afternoon with a tower of endangered Rothschild’s giraffes. I also talked to the best (and some of the only) cheesemakers in the East Africa, met an entrepreneur who credits his entire education to Google, and ate freshly made mutura.
Munich and Bavaria, Germany
The town of Schliersee may be tiny, but there's a surprising amount to see and do. My personal favorite: check out the whisky distillery or pop into the impressively decorated church.
I managed to get out of the city long enough to go foraging in the countryside and see a few more of the area's glacial lakes.
Bawled at the theater, raced through the museums, ate some pretty fabulous food, and generally reminded myself of how much I love this city.
As if it weren't already cool enough, Stockholm commissioned sculptors, painters and installation artists to make a masterwork out of its metro system.
Although I breezed through the Swedish countryside in February, this was my first trip to the capital. Like any good tourist, I stopped at the museums and ate as many kanelbulle (cinnamon buns. Delicious), tunnbrödsrulle (a hot dog wrapped topped with mashed potatoes and shrimp salad. Questionable), and, yes, köttbullar (the Swedish meatballs of IKEA fame) as my stomach could hold.
Getting lost in these canals is one of the best ways to spend an afternoon.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, it doesn’t take much to convince me to go to Amsterdam. So when I heard about pair of rather eccentric Dutch restaurateurs creating edible art in their restaurant/gallery, I had to head over for a weekend.
Wandering through Bologna's portici by night brings back all sorts of memories.
I’ve already gone on and on about this city on this blog, but it bears repeating: this will always be one of my favorite places. Over the course of a too-short weekend, I revisited old favorites and a few new places.
Munich and Bavaria, Germany
Again, I've sort of avoided touching on some of the larger issues here, but it bears noting that my visit to Munich was right after an attack this summer. This sign reads, "Love is stronger than hate.".
As cozy as it may be in winter and as much fun as Wies’n (or Oktoberfest) may be, summer is still the best time to visit the Bavarian capital, in part because of all the outdoor getaways within easy driving distance of the city.
Lake Garda, Italy
The drive up a series of 180-degree switchbacks to Hotel Paradiso is more than worth it for lunch with this view.
Sure, it may be mobbed with tourists, but the shores of Italy’s largest lake are so ruthlessly gorgeous it doesn’t matter. Plus, you can still find little, lesser-known gems like this historic limonaia just off the main drag.
Technically, this is a picture of me getting away from Bangkok for a day, but isn't it pretty?
There may be a few new additions to the skyline and a few dozen new restaurants each time I visit, but going back to Bangkok always feels a bit like coming home. I returned for an extended stretch for work and managed to get myself chased by North Koreans and meet the craft beer-fans behind Thailand’s first commercial hops farm.
Ho Chi Minh City
Taking in the view from the rooftop bar at Hotel des Arts Saigon MGallery Collection.
While conducting research for the launch of the newly rebranded Vietnam Tourism website, I spent a few days wandering the atmospheric streets of old Saigon.
Danang and Hoi An, Vietnam
The protected heart of Hoi An feels like stepping into another era.
On the same trip, I paid a visit to the UNESCO-lauded center of Hoi An and roamed up and down the beaches of Danang.
Staying at Amanjiwo in central Java feels like another world.
Driving straight in the tangled, emerald Indonesian jungle was a shock to the system after all that city time. After getting up well before the crack of dawn to gawk at Borobudur, an ancient Buddhist temple, I spoke with some of Java’s most influential painters.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Morning is the best time to see the temples in the historic center in Chiang Mai.
As much as I’ve always loved Chiang Mai, I never make it up there as much as I would like. In an attempt to remedy that, I spent a couple weeks up north checking out the local art scene, chatting with owner of one of the coolest coffee shops anywhere, and cycling around town.
The Reverie Siam is the perfect, laid-back alternative to the somewhat overrun town center.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here, as I’d heard conflicting opinions about this little town. If I were to go back (and I would very much like to), I would skip the oversaturated downtown entirely and spend as much time in up in the surrounding green hills of the northern Thai countryside as possible.
Visiting the ruined temples and statues in Ayutthaya.
While doing research for an upcoming article, I traipsed through the temples and past crumbling Buddha statues in this former capital city.
Sailing the high seas off the coast of Hainan province.
This coastal city in Hainan province is mainland China's go-to beach getaway. I hopped over on behalf of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia for a few days of rock climbing, sailing and hanging out by the sea.
The sun sets over a half-frozen pond in my hometown.
Sometimes after you’ve been all over, all you really want to do is go home. I’ve celebrated the holidays in all sorts of places and nothing else would do this year.
Borobudur temple in Central Java
For one brief, blissful moment, all the crowds dissapated and I got a clear shot. Make sure you go early in the morning to avoid the rush and the punishing midday temperatures.
Years ago, after the umpteenth person demanded how I could possibly live in Asia and not have seen Angkor Wat, I booked a last-minute ticket for the Cambodian border. As flights were sold out for weeks, I ended up on one of the less pleasant bus trips of my life, a grueling, sluggish ordeal that lasted more than double the projected time and ended in me befriending a bunch of Danish and Polish backpackers. Maybe it was the hassle involved, or maybe it was the fact that the spectacle had been so heavily hyped (show me a bucket list it isn't on), but for some reason I found the experience underwhelming. There’s no denying that the temples around Siem Reap are impressive, but having to elbow my way through a sea of selfie sticks seemed to dampen the thrill. The worst was at sunrise, when a horde of thousands gathered in front of the reflecting pool, transfixed by the images on their smartphones.
While I still think everyone should see Angkor Wat, the more I travel around this region, the more I’m convinced that it’s worth giving other monuments a chance. Lara Croft may not have stormed the temples of Sukhothai or Ayutthaya in Thailand, but both make for an exceedingly pleasant bike ride. What floored me more than either though was Borobudur, which I explored on my recent trip to Central Java.
Token shot of one of Ayutthaya's more famous features. Temples are scattered all around the ancient capital, but there's a large concentration right in the middle of town that's easy to approach.
To call this 9th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site an undiscovered gem wouldn’t exactly be honest, but because of its location it suffers from less overcrowding than Angkor. Like everyone else, I rose early and came to bag that coveted shot of the sunrise. A dense, opaque morning mist meant that it never came, but the eerie silence and sense of wonder as solemn Buddha statues and mythological creatures slowly revealed themselves was almost more awe-inspiring.
Myths and monsters before dawn.
A full 1,420 panels like this tell tall tales. The level of detail that has survived is remarkable.
Every single element of the temple is carefully considered and has a specific meaning. A total of 1,420 panels with ornately carved stone reliefs depict scenes from the life and various reincarnations of Buddha. Each of the statues has an allegorical meaning or story behind it, from the giant whose jaw was blown off by Vishnu when he tried to drink the water of immortality to chimerical monster with lion, dragon and bull parts symbolizing the dangers of sexual desire (really). My excellent guide from Amanjiwo, Dator, referred to it as “an open Holy Book, an open Bible” and explained how walking through the various levels was meant to invite contemplation. Unlike Western places of worship, there’s no way to enter Borobudur. Instead, pilgrims walk the levels in silent meditation, honoring the never-ending cycles of reincarnation in the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.
Interestingly, the entire temple was once held together only by interlocking volcanic stones. No cement or binders were used in construction, although later preservation efforts have added them to make it a bit more structurally stable.
A row of Buddhas emerging from the morning fog.
The fact that Borobudur still exists today is something of a marvel, considering all that it’s been through. For years, the temple was lost to the jungle and overgrown with greenery. When the Dutch “discovered” it in the 1800s, they did what all good colonists do and promptly looted whatever statues and reliefs they could carry off. In 1911, a well-meaning archeologist painted sections of the temple yellow to “improve” it. Today, UNESCO status protects the place from such insults, but can’t do much to stave off the violent volcanic eruptions that still plague Java. Mount Merapi’s devastating outburst in 2010 deposited hundreds of tons of corrosive ash on the structure.
The landscape is unbelievably green and wild.
Unless you’re up for a nine-hour (very scenic, but still) drive from Jakarta, the best way to get here is via Yogyakarta’s tiny airport. While at first glance the city itself may not seem like the most interesting place, it harbors a surprisingly diverse arts scene, which is worth checking out if you’re in the neighborhood.
Where to stay
The resort is almost as stunning as one of the area's ancient temples.
I visited Java on a work trip on behalf of Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia. While the resort I stayed at may not be within everyone’s budget, I can honestly and objectively say that it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Built 20 years ago, in a time where such high-end accommodations in remote locales were truly a rarity, Amanjiwo is in a class all by itself. Most of the staff have been there since Day One and there’s a remarkable sense of place that you just don’t find in most generic luxury properties. From the gamelan music at dinner to the Javanese afternoon tea in the grand, colonnaded central dining room overlooking Borobudur, every element of the place is infused with the local culture. It’s a struggle for me to describe the place without using the kind of hyperbolic language usually found in a press release, simply because it’s that impressive. It’s also the only resort of its caliber for miles (although an Alila is supposedly in the pipeline), making it a little easier to justify the splurge.
On a clear day, you can see all the way to Borobudur from the terrace of my suite.