The time has come as the year draws to a close. I can’t help but reflect on what a fruitful, tumultuous and life-changing year it has been.

These are the trips I’ve been on in 2019:

That brings me to a total of:

4 new countries (Bhutan, Laos, South Africa, Sri Lanka) and 1 new continent (Africa!) conquered!

I’m truly humbled and very privileged to be able to live my life the way I do, as a full-time travel blogger and traveller.

The monumental times I’ve had which are edged in my memory, the adventures that have coloured my life, the chances I’ve taken that made me feel alive – this all brings me closer to discovering myself. It makes me a part of who I am and builds me to who I will become.

My heart is full – so full – of gratitude for the life I’m privileged to create on my own.

Truly, I am so personally proud of myself to have created the life I have now.

I suggest you start on my post on the life takeaways from a year of travel in 2019. Otherwise, here are my insights and reflections from being in the individual countries this year:

Bhutan

prayer flags on road, bhutanBhutan is such a unique country, one that no other country has been able to replicate. There’s so much we can learn from it, like how they prioritize happiness and quality of life over economic development.

Living in a homestay in Bhutan got me face-to-face with simple contentment, and being happy with less.

Their love for the Earth is evident everywhere. The environment is regarded as a building block of life, essential to our lives. They use recyclable cloth bags as shopping bags instead of plastic bags.

Did you also know, that they are a carbon-neutral country (i.e. they absorb more carbon than is emitted)?

The one revelation from this country that I am in awe of the most is their respect for all forms of life – no killing of animals is allowed on the country, not even fishing, not even hunting for food. That is because they regard animals and humans equally. You’ll be surprised at how many stray dogs there are on this country.

Read: 
What to Eat in Bhutan When You're There
10 Surprising Bhutan Souvenirs To Bring Home
Worship this Penis and Have Babies at Chimi Lhakhang, Bhutan!
How To Prepare For Bhutan; Things To Know Before Going
Punakha Tshechu in Bhutan; Slaying Demons & Evil Through a Dance?

Japan

Japan shopping, what to do in Kyoto, kyoto attractions, kyoto tourist spots, kyoto sightseeing

Shopping in Japan

Living in Japan for a total of 8 months (3 months each time due to tourist visa restrictions) in retrospect made me count my blessings for being able to lead such an easy, comfortable, laid-back, trusting and supportive environment.

Living with Phil taught me so much about open communication, expressing my feelings (which I’m used to keeping it hidden) and bringing me back to the simple act of drawing, reading and writing (on paper) again – something we’ve mostly forgotten in the age of smartphones and Macbooks.

Read: Why It's OK To Travel Without Wifi.

I’ve learned that summer in Japan is horrendous. You literally melt the moment you step out of your home. That stink bugs in the autumn up in the countryside is a nightmare. They appear every-freaking-single-where, including in our bowl of stew (which Phil accidentally bit into). G-R-O-S-S. While they’re harmless (except for the smell they release when threatened), they creep up on you when you least expect it, which is creepy! Ugh.

camp-tent-winter-camping-what-to-packIt’s also my first time living through winter – not just visiting a wintry destination, but actually living and getting through winter.

Boy, it is not fun showering everyday or waking up from the warmth of my bed, but waking up to see your surroundings turn powdery white one fine day feels like a miracle every time the snow recedes and returns.

Running out in the open to feel the gentle snow drops trickle on your tongue is a childlike, unadulterated joy I deeply relish.

I’ve taken to hiking much more seriously from being here with him too. We’ve scaled all 3 holy mountains of Japan – Hakusan, Mt. Tateyama, and Mt. Fuji and I’ve done my first winter camping here which was phenomenal!

Our previous camping experiences started from New Zealand where we camped on a glacier and one of New Zealand’s beautiful mountains.

skiing japan winterLiving in Japan, I was also able to learn a new sport – skiing, which I’ve never done in my 26 years of life until now.

injured-bel-girl-wheelchairThis resulted in a major fall I’d taken from a skiing accident, which had me living on a wheelchair and on crutches for awhile from the impact and torn ACL. I survived limping my way to the toilet assisted and it gave me a glimpse of what it was like losing my capacity to walk.

As a runner and athlete, there’s so much to be thankful for just by knowing that I’m a fully-formed person, full and whole, able and capable.

Read: 
What To Do In Kyoto, Japan
13 Day Trips from Kyoto Everyone Raves About
First Time in Tokyo? A Complete Guide to Tokyo, Japan
Ease Your Way Into Learning Japanese
What's Famous in Hokkaido; Japan Rail Passes & A 6-Day South Hokkaido Itinerary

USA

horse-riding-aspen-pack-station-things-to-do-around-Yosemite-National-Park-Tuolumne-California

United States was even more phenomenal. Having seen all the beautiful national parks in the US online, I’ve always wanted to make a trip to see it with my own eyes. Yet, I was hesitant about going to the US for too many reasons (that on hindsight were unnecessary):

  • I would be travelling solo.
  • The US is VAST – where do I even begin?
  • I would be driving on the opposite side of the road.
  • I would be driving SOLO in Hawaii and Cambria. This last thought scared me the most, considering I’m used to public transport or being ferried around in Singapore all the time.
  • Hearing so much about the dangers of the US (drugs, politics, crime, guns, homeless people, men – which is pretty much apparent everywhere else) really made me think twice and thrice about doing this trip.

But I did anyway, against everyone’s warnings not to travel solo, including fitting in 2 press trips and meeting a bunch of other travel bloggers based in the US.

It was the first time I’d travelled solo to a country that scared me. That’s what made the trip even more meaningful to me, because I’d faced my fears, because of all the beauty I’d discovered unexpectedly and spontaneously along the way – in the people I meet and in the places I ended up in.

Lunch-Beach-House-Kauai-Hawaii-what-to-eat-in-kauai

Lawai’i Beach, Kauai, Hawaii

So much so that I had to jump at the opportunity to go back to the exact same places and see the exact same people the next chance I got – hence me being in Kauai for the year end to ring in Thanksgiving (my first!), Christmas and New Year.

Read: 
First Timer's Travel Guide to Kauai, Hawaii; All you Need To Know!
Exploring North Shore Oahu Activities by BUS – Yes, It’s Possible!
13 Local Things To Do in North Shore Oahu Activities, Hawaii

This trip felt like it had been a breakthrough to my personal growth, not only because I know I can overcome the fear of travelling to places that scare me, but also because I’d faced my (then) biggest fear of driving on the opposite side of the road all on my own.

road trip-Things-to-do-in-Kangaroo-Island-AustraliaI’ve been on the driver seat more times than I ever have since I first started got my license to drive. I’ve driven more overseas than I have back home, in Japan, the US and South Africa.

The more I take on those long drives, the more I feel it’s almost therapeutic sometimes, driving on autopilot as your thoughts take over your mind. Being able to have your own space, and to be unbridled with your own thoughts.

It is also quite a metaphor for life – it’s as if I’m finally taking control of my life, being on the driver seat and deciding where to go with my life.

I’d seen with my very own eyes the magnificence and the magic of Yosemite National Park, the mecca and birthplace of raw climbing that only rock climbers will feel and understand. I’ve always only watched it in shows ever since I started climbing that I’ve almost come to worship the place, so seeing it with my eyes was a ground-shattering moment for me.

Read:
The Secret Californian Coastal Town Nobody Knows About; Cambria & San Simeon
Beyond Yosemite National Park & Other Exciting Things to Do in Tuolumne County
8 Intriguing Solo Travel Experiences Not to Miss in San Francisco, California, USA
Visiting Los Angeles on a Budget? Here’s what you need to know
8 Fun Things to Do in Los Angeles Today

If there’s one other thing I discovered about myself from being in the US and meeting certain people, it’s the insanely difficult battle between my heart and my mind. As much as I try to do right and be a logical person, I constantly struggle between following my heart and making rational (but-heart-wrenching) decisions.

Most of the time, the heart wins, and in opening myself up, I become vulnerable. This was why I’d been subjected to a lot of heartbreaking moments – being lied to, betrayed, used, feeling remorse…

Yet somehow, I still find it in me to forgive, to believe in second chances, to believe in the good naturedness of people.

I’ve also realized how I want to live a life as healthily and positively and sustainably as possible. By that, I mean I wouldn’t want to rely on artificial enhancers to get high or to escape negativity. I want to pursue healthy outlets to vent my frustration, sadness, quandaries and negativity. It’s the reason why I always turn to running to clear my mind, writing in my journal, or talking to friends. 

Granted, sometimes I simply turn to travel to escape.

South Africa

I know I’ve told Daniela how awful I felt when I was in South Africa because of a personal emotional trauma I was going through.

After leaving that country though, I found myself reminiscing everyday about my month there – road tripping, animal-spotting, the carefree days (not that I’m not carefree now) of exploring somewhere new, of being exposed to new stimulus, the exhilaration of a new discovery, the emus that greeted me as I sip my morning tea at Cape Point Villa, the mocha runs, and the solo drives through thousands of kilometres across South Africa.

It was also the first time I’d travelled:

  1. with a girl only
  2. whom I’ve never met in person before
  3. for a solid whole month – the longest trip I’ve planned yet.

Yet, we’ve bonded even closer than every other friend I’ve ever been with back home in my entire 26 years of life, and not once did we feel like killing each other. She’s seen me bleed, cry and was there to toast with me when we cursed at everyone who’d caused us to feel like we are undeserving of happiness.

I’d never felt such unprecedented sisterhood before, where I was able to bare my all – my sadness, anguish, fear, guilt and regret, and not be afraid of being judged nor felt once that my trust might be misplaced.

I was able to have girl talks with her that I was never able to speak about to anyone else in the entire world, and I love her so much for that.

How in the world did the universe conspire to bring a Mexican and Singaporean together? She’s like the sister that every girl deserves to have and that means soooo much to me, perhaps in part because she holds the darkest secret of mine.

I never properly thanked you for making my South Africa dreams come to life, so thank you from the bottom of my heart Dani! <3

After spending 21 hours in the bush animal-spotting, I’ve come so close to life and death.

Laying there is a pile of giraffe bones, slowly disintegrating into the earth.

I can’t help but wonder what similar fates we human beings have with them. It’s a reminder of what a brief time we have on this planet. And we have the power in us to decide what to do with the time we have.

Everyone we meet, everyone we love, how we got here, what path we choose, and who we choose to remember, they are all a part of our story.

But we cannot let our story be written for us. Because we don’t have forever. Sometimes, all we have is a moment. And it’s up to us to seize it.

Sri Lanka

My last trip of the year, to Sri Lanka, just made me marvel at fate even more.

How it brought a Dutch, an English and a Singaporean together through a press trip in a foreign country is a concept I’ll always be in wonderment at, and how awfully relieving it is to be able to connect with others about a blogging job that so few understand.

It highlighted the similarities I find myself associating with these people from such foreign cultures more and more.

Read the rest of my 2019 reflection here.
Isabel Leong

Isabel Leong

An explorer at heart, the world is Isabel's playground. She enjoys seizing every moment exploring every hideout and doing the unimaginable, like bungee jumping in Phuket and couchsurfing in Europe. If she had wings, she’d definitely be soaring right now. Also a fitness trainer, if she’s not at the gym, you can find her doing yoga or rock climbing! Read more about her on belaroundtheworld.com/about.