Which are the best countries in the world to visit?

Given my travel history, I regularly get asked which is my favourite country in the world….. Honestly, that’s easy. New Zealand every time!

However, I do have a list of places that I highly recommend, many of which I  would go back to (or have gone back to) over and over again. Here it is:

Africa highlights

1. Mali

I totally lost my heart to Mali. Hiking in the Dogon was one of the highlights of my life. No hot water or showers, few cold drinks, filtering my drinking water from the wells, sleeping on grubby sheetless mattresses in the dusty wind on the roof of the chiefs house in every village, and dinner of gritty couscous and mystery meat most nights. I went in summer and sweltered doing 30k hiking days in 40 degree heat for six days (we had to lie down on the shade from 11-3 every day). I would recommend going in December when it’s cooler. But I loved it!!!! The scenery in the Dogon is amazing, the welcome incredibly warm and the history was fascinating. (Djenne was lovely too) I can’t recommend it highly enough

Djenne mud mosque
Djenne market
Yougoudougourou Dogon

2. Ethiopia

I am torn on Ethiopia. Addis is a crap hole full of touts. And there are more and more busloads of Italian tourists. And whenever you stop to pee, anywhere in the country, you will be surrounded by kids while your pants are down asking for a pen or a sweet. However, there is nothing like going to Bet Giorgis in Lalibela at dawn for the services, or climbing up to the ancient monasteries in the Gheralta (although some are men only, like Debre Damo). I loved it, and have developed a real love for Injera. I have been back, and am planning to go again to Harar to see the hyenas at some point, as well as see the Danakil depression (which was closed to tourists last time I went)

Yemrehanna Kristos
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Church Guardian
Bet Giorgis

3. Namibia

Sossusvlei alone merits a visit to Namibia. Big red dunes, amazing old trees, and stunning sunrises – if you have extra cash take a balloon ride at dawn. With more time, you can fly up the skeleton coast, cruise around Windhoek (which wins my vote for the most zen capital in Africa), and go on safari in Etosha. Originally colonised by the Germans, the efficiency and organisation remains!

Dead vlei
Desert flowers

Asia

4. Myanmar

We went before it got touristy (luckily we did the same in Cambodia). I hope it still retains its charm. Getting up early to see the monks collect alms, watching the sun set over what seems like hundreds of miles of temples, and spending time with very friendly locals. You do need to offset that against a truly oppressive political regime.

Monks going for morning alms
temples in bagan
happy monks
temples

Americas

5. Bolivia

The first off the beaten track place I went in South America 20 years ago, I am sure it has changed so we are going back this year to take a look. It was a lifetime highlight, cycling from La Paz down the death road to Coroico, seeing a black jaguar swimming across the amazon while I was in the rainforest, freezing my butt off at 4,800m while being amazed by the salt plains in Uyuni, and horse riding in the footsteps of the Sundance kid in Tupiza. Often overlooked for neighbouring Peru, I would take Bolivia every time, even when I remember the 24 hours I spent lying on the bathroom floor in La Paz with altitude sickness barfing into a less than clean loo.  (No photos as I went in the olden times when we had Kodak film and printed them out)

Europe

6. Georgia

Tbilisi is a trip, great food (Khinkhali and kachapuri) and some terrific architecture. But the joys of Georgia can be found out of town. Apparently it has changed since I went and there are now some posh hotels, but I have amazing memories of hiking in the Kazbeg and loving the locals in their skodas. I also enjoyed David gareji – the ancient monastery. It’s safe, friendly and stunning.

Tsminda Sameba
Ananuri Fortress
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Old town architecture Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi

7. Uzbekistan

Ok it has a totalitarian dictatorship and the food isn’t amazing (plov!). However, the Silk Road architecture is incredible – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. I have been three times and will go again. The first time I went there, ten years ago, there were no tourists to be seen. Last time there were busloads. Try to go off season but pack warm clothes

Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
Chor Minaret – Bukhara

The Minaret late afternoon – Bukhara

For a splurge

8. Botswana

For eye watering sums of money, in my view, there is no better place to see big game. You might find leopards more easily in Kenya, but within ten minutes you will be surrounded by other vans bursting with camera toting tourists. Find a leopard in Botswana and chances are you will have it all to yourself. We went top end and stayed at Mombo, and I don’t want to remember what we paid but it was worth it. Flying in the tiny planes between camps, and scanning the runway for elephants before you land also created memories for a lifetime.

Job done!
The baboon tree viewing gallery

Elephants in the Okavango

9. Bhutan

Expensive but worth it! I saved Bhutan for country 182. I spent more in one day in Bhutan than I did in a month of over-landing on a truck in west Africa the year before. I tried not to think about the cost too much and just enjoyed every minute. A highlight of my travels – the most astoundingly friendly people, a culture which is cherished and preserved, and obsession with improving gross national happiness rather than GDP. Add that to outstanding landscapes and stunning monasteries with great hiking and it is my perfect travel destination. And for my husband – the five star hotels with world class food were a big draw! Save up and go!

Tigers Nest Monastery
Archery in Paro
Monks in Punakha Dzong
Paro Dzong

Off the beaten track countries I wouldn’t go back to, but are definitely worth a visit

10. North Korea

Ok this is a controversial one as the oppression is horrendous. However, I can think of few other places as unusual and where you are so tightly scrutinised! The questions the guide asked me made it obvious they had investigated me before arrival. So, the sights aren’t great shakes, you will get heartily sick of the propoganda and bullshit, and you will struggle not to pee your pants laughing when you hear about how the ‘great leader’ solved all the worlds problems. Recommended if you want to see what life without freedom looks like, it’ll make you thankful for whatever your political system is at home.

Pyongyang metro

11. Eritrea

Very hard to get into, and hard to get around without lots of paperwork, but worth it. For any Art Deco fan, the architecture in Asmara is worth making the trip. The coffee is good, the donuts better! Tourists are so rare that you will be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet, and I found it difficult to pay for my coffee at any cafe.

Bowling alley
Famous fiat garage

12. Yap, Micronesia

Ok it’s blimmen hard to get to (and united just made it harder by cancelling the weekly flight) and you aren’t allowed on any of the beaches without the local chiefs permission. And yes you have to carry a leaf when you wander around the island to demonstrate you are not a threat. And women aren’t allowed to wear shorts. And if you want to go to the national festival you have to go in local costume (that means topless!). But Yap has a charm that I rarely found elsewhere, largely because of its isolation. The stone money and paths are amazing. If you are a diver, apparently the manta rays are extraordinary. And I also suspect the excellent Oceania hotel I stayed in in Colonia made all the difference. However the Chinese government had just started big net fishing on their reefs, so I hope their idyllic lifestyle survives.

Ancient stone paths
Meeting house and stone money
Stone money
Meeting house

13. Sudan

Far more interesting than its Egyptian neighbour, Sudan has the stunning pyramids at Meroe, the nile, the lion temple at Naqa and the whirling dervishes at Omdurman. It’s hard to get into, completely corrupt and you can’t get cash when you are there. But the entrepreneurial Greek brothers at the acropole hotel (a Khartoum legend) can sort you out.

Women at Omdurman during the Friday service for the whirling dervishes
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Naqa Lion Temple

14. DRC

a terrific place to see gorillas, and support the conservation of them.  its cheaper and less touristy than Rwanda, so you might well have the whole family of gorillas to yourself.  And while you are there you can climb Nyiragongo.  Its easy to get to Goma through Rwanda and you can book everything direct with virunga.org

For first time travelers

15. Thailand

yes this may seem an odd choice, but Thailand is fantastic for first time travellers. It’s pretty safe, travel is easy and the food is excellent. I have been more times than I can count (largely as it was a great place to stopover on the way home from London to Nz and spend a week on the beach). If you haven’t travelled a lot, and want to get started – go here

16. South Africa

An ideal first time safari destination, amazing food, great wine and very very good value. You can go on safari in Kruger or any number of the neighbouring parks and drive the garden route from cape town to plett. Another country I have been to more times than I can count. If you haven’t been to southern Africa this is the very best place to start

——/——

It’s hard not to keep adding countries, as I have had wonderful experiences at most places in the world (largely as a result of the people I meet), so just because I didn’t put it on this list, doesn’t mean I didnt love it.  Honestly, I love France so much, I made it my second home, and everyone should go there, but I reckon most people will go there without my recommendation.   I also love a tonne of other places, too numerous to list.

At this point, I also still have 13 more countries to visit, so one of them might get added to the list

I also don’t think my list is for everyone, it’s entirely subjective and solely my opinion. No gripes if you don’t agree, just write your own list!

Happy trails!

Places to Return to – Uzbekistan

Few places have captured my imagination like Uzbekistan. The first time I went in 2011 I was there for two weeks and apart from Russians, I only saw two tourists (Australian ladies). It was astounding that a country with such incredible architecture, reasonable food and friendly people had so few people visiting it, but how lucky I was to visit then (and to have my buddy Rob along for company). I have since been back to Bukhara and Tashkent (in September 2015), and in one day in Bukhara I saw over two hundred tourists. It was certainly different with so many people around, but still worth going.

Visit Tamerlane’s capital – Samarkand

Tamerlane’s capital, and home to some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. There are amazing buildings everywhere and you should wander the streets until your feet hurt, but make sure you don’t miss

  • The Registan – truly astounding and widely ranked as one of the most grandiose pieces of architecture in the Islamic work and as one of the noblest public squares in the world. While the building complex has been aggressively renovated, it is still largely faithful to the original design, with tile makers today still toiling to create replacement tiles.Registan
  • The tombs of Shah i Zinda are the holiest of Samarkand’s sites. Many famous samarkand historical figures are buried here, but alas my history education in NZ was too pants to give me much of a grounding in the who’s who. However, it is stunningly beautifulShah i zinda
  • Gur Emir – was my favourite place in Samarkand. A little quieter, and the mausoleum of Tamerlane.Registan 3
  • Bibi Khanum Mosque – worth visiting as it hasn’t been intensively renovated and so is more archaeologically interesting. Was built for Tamerlane by his favourite wife, a chinese princess calls Bibi Khanum, as a surprise for him while he was off devastating North India

Stayed at Malika Prime which was fine, unremarkable but with ok wifi. Arrived by fast train from Tashkent. No guide required, take a map and walk everywhere

 

Drink tea in Bukhara
Bukhara is a delightful village with plenty of tea shops (and even a german cake shop) deeply contrasting with the hustle and bustle of Samarkand.  I would happily spend a few days in Bukhara hanging out and drinking tea.    My favourite places to while the day away and watch the light are these:
  • Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir i Arab Madrasah – Both the Mosque and the Madrasah are beautiful, but the Minaret is incredible.  It is 48 metres high and has stood for 850 years.  Used for the call to prayer, and as a city lookout, it also served as a place to punish criminals, who were thrown from the top in sacks!

    The Minaret late afternoon (with Rob)
    The Minaret late afternoon
  • Ismael Samani Mausoleum – the best preserved building in Bukhara.  It is a perfect brick cube with brickwork ‘woven’ to look like a basket.  It looks magnificent in the afternoon light

    Tomb of Tajikistan's most loved son
    Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
  • Bolo Hauz Mosque – a beautiful mosque which reflects in a pool across from the Bukhara fortress.  You can take tea at the chaikana next door

    IMG_0943 copy
    Bolo Hauz
  • Chor Minor – last but by no means least, the small but perfectly formed gatehouse of an old madrassah with four minarets.
Chor Minor
Stay at any of the pensions around the Lyabi i Hauz.  They are reasonably cheap.  I have stayed at the Emir and the Amelia Boutique and they were both fine.
Get Married in Khiva
There must be something auspicious about getting married in Khiva.  When I visited, it was 5 degrees celcius i.e. bloody freezing, so hardly peak wedding season, but I saw no less than 8 weddings in the old city that day.  The couples all looked in their late teens, with full ‘big fat gypsy wedding’ regalia.  I tried to figure out how to get invite to some of the parties but with no luck.
Khiva wedding
Khiva is more like a museum than Bukhara, but the old city is beautifully preserved and a lovely place to wander around.  My personal highlights were the  the Tash Hauli palace, which has beautiful carved pillars and incredible tiles, and the Kalta Minaret – one of the few minarets which was fully tiled
IMG_2532
Ichan Kala Khiva
Stayed at Malika Khiva, which was fine but overpriced for food.  Can walk everywhere!
Some additional tips!
  • There are police everywhere, and life as a local citizen is likely pretty crap.  I was stopped often, but always waved on once they realised I was a tourist.  You feel very safe there, but can’t help feeling bad for the locals in such a totalitarian state
  • The trains are amazing!  I did a couple of night trains by myself and ended up sharing with Russian business men both times.  And in both cases they tried to feed me vodka, and also made sure I was ‘safe’ from the locals
  • Tashkent is an ok city, very easy to get around on the metro system which has some great stations
  • The food is ok, but not extraordinary.  Rob wished he had brought his hot sauce to spice things up.  I ate a lot of the local bread (delicious), tea, pomegranates (amazing!) and cheese.
  • Wherever/whenever you can try and visit the sights 2-3 times during the course of the day.  the light and mood changes significantly, particularly in the late afternoon and it is worth the multiple visits to watch the light play on the walls and take better pictures
  • I watched a good documentary on the bbc the other day on Samarkand – worth a look if you are interested http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03qb25g/the-silk-road-episode-2
 Kaon Mosque and minaret