Where in the world should I go?
November 15, 2009 5:19 PM   Subscribe

The last few years of my life have been fairly difficult for any number of reasons. But things are finally looking up: in May I'll finally graduate with my long sought-after PhD, and I have one firm job offer and a few tentative ones, any of which I'd take in a heartbeat. As a present to myself for making it through, I want to take a few weeks and do some traveling. I'm American and would like to go someplace new and exotic and international. The only question: where?

Some details, helpfully laid out in list form:

1. I've been to England, Italy, Spain, and Guatemala. All of these trips were great. I'd go back if that were the best option, but it's a big world - I'd also love to go someplace new.
2. I'm reasonably adventurous. I'm not interested in packaged vacations; I want to wander at will and see local color and stay in weird places and hang out with the locals. All the same... I'd like to stay safe and have a suitably low risk of being robbed, murdered or jailed. (I realize that this depends a great deal on my activities and behavior, but I'm reasonably street smart in unfamiliar places.)
3. I'm trying to convince one or two people to come for all or part of this trip, but there's a decent chance I'll be traveling alone. I'm pretty OK with this. Even though I'm a hardcore introvert, I'm cool with faking it and meeting people now and then, and having a good time by myself the rest of the time. Never done this on vacation, though.
4. I should be able to scrape together a few grand for this - say $2K or maybe a bit more as a budget for 2-3 weeks. So someplace super expensive is probably out, but I'd hope that still leaves me with a pretty wide range of options.
5. This trip would be in May or June of 2010. I don't mind going someplace out of season, but I still want there to be enough going on that it's appealing.
6. I'm fluent in English, barely passable in German, and I know a few phrases in Spanish. Since this trip is 6-7 months out, once I decide where I'm going, I intend to learn some useful bits from the applicable language(s).
7. If it matters at all, I'm male, white, tall, and nearly 30.

MeFites seem like a well traveled bunch, so my question is: what jumps to mind? Where have you gone that was life-changingly cool, and what was so great about it? Where do you tell all your friends they need to go before they die? I realize this is a very vague kind of question, but I'm honestly open to all kinds of input. Thanks!
posted by captainawesome to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
India is a giant enormous vivid huge trippy intense mindbending sensory overload. No way to see it in three weeks but pick a corner, any corner...... And English will take you a long way there enabling meaningful contact with local people. Don't be frightened by people saying you need three months or three years or whatever - sure, more is is better but if you just take a corner and dwell in its richness then three weeks will whet your appetite.

And congrats on your PhD!
posted by Rumple at 5:27 PM on November 15, 2009

India sounds cool to me too, but the real point that I would second from Rumple's answer is to spend your time more or less immersed in one place rather lots of quick stops. Of places I've been that you haven't (yet) I would suggest Italy, Turkey or Greece, a bit warm in May/June but not intolerably so. Of places neither of us have been it might be cool to visit Ireland, Vienna, or as said India.
posted by Rain Man at 5:35 PM on November 15, 2009

Oh, and congrats on the degree too! :)
posted by Rain Man at 5:35 PM on November 15, 2009

I loved Peru. Did two weeks there a few years ago starting in Cuzco/Macchu Picchu, then working my way down toward Lake Titicaca and across into part of Bolivia. I did it with no packaged tours, (except small day trips), and found it pretty easy to get around with a phrasebook and my dim memories of HS Spanish. It was two of the best weeks of my life. Cuzco has to be one of my favorite cities in the world.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:37 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is this going to be right after your defense? If so -- are you imagining a chill, relaxed, warm, vacation, with a few culture-bits thrown in? Or do you want to do something with a bit more activity?

When you close your weary eyes, what do you imagine doing? What do you like to do? My Ph.D. vacation will be somewhere warm, chill and awesome. I'll need to veg. I don't want to think I have to go see random churches or deal with super busy crowds. But I know some people can't just veg like that. Which one are you? And what do you like to do? Beach, city, forest?

I'd say Brazil, especially the northern part. Warm, lots of culture, lots of hiking, swimming in gorgeous ecosystems, good food. SE Asia is also possibility. As is Croatia. Southern Spain. Parts of India.
posted by barnone at 5:42 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pater Aletheias beat me to it. Peru is glorious - I spent my time in Cuzco/Macchu (New Year's day in Macchu, great times), and then headed to Arequipa & the Colca Canyon. Almost got nailed in the head by an Andean Condor.

If you think you're up to it, check out hiking the Inca Trail - I might go back to Peru just for that.

Also, congratulations!
posted by Lemurrhea at 5:45 PM on November 15, 2009

barnone - I'm anticipating the defense in mid-April, so the vacation will be a few weeks after that. And ideally, there would be plenty of opportunities for chilling and seeing stuff. I'll want an afternoon on the beach now and then, and yeah, someplace warm would be nice. But I'd want some stuff going on, too. :-)

All of these suggestions sound great - thanks!
posted by captainawesome at 5:48 PM on November 15, 2009

Morocco. Awesome beaches, hiking, nightlife, culture, history, and people - all within one fairly compact country.
posted by HopperFan at 5:49 PM on November 15, 2009

posted by rhizome at 6:12 PM on November 15, 2009

I went to Peru last year, and it was great. Obviously lots of hiking, cool cities, cultural things to do. But it's not really warm and relaxing in that way that I'd hope for after spending 5-10+ years of your life working, sitting on your butt, dreaming about something vaguely tropical, and the last 18 months of that unbelievably stressed out. And if you only have 2-3 weeks there, you'll end up flying places if you're not just staying put in one place, or taking overnight buses (which are safe and fine, but not really intensely relaxing). But I could be projecting ;-)

Northern Brazil has some great cities and towns, amazing food, nice beaches, great hiking, fun culture, nice lively nighttime. It feels like an amazing holiday - not just a 'trip' - but a proper holiday. Morocco, Croatia, Turkey, India, parts of SE Asia.

Scandinavia is cool too - amazing cities, really beautiful countrysides to explore, easy to get around. But maybe not as overtly different or again, that elusive 'holiday' feeling.

Anyway - it's a broad list for a broad question.
posted by barnone at 6:14 PM on November 15, 2009

A lot of Asia is a wonderful place to really immserse yourself - language barrier, yes, but you'd survive. Vietnam, perhaps?

Also, central America or perhaps northern Africa.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:20 PM on November 15, 2009

Seconding Turkey -- layers of history, amazing beaches, friendly and open people. I spent two weeks there when I was 20 and I've been recommending it ever since. No disappointed customers yet. :)
posted by girlpublisher at 6:23 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Istanbul - totally.
posted by ersatzkat at 6:30 PM on November 15, 2009

Colonial Mexico - Oaxaca, Puebla, Morelia, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Taxco. Especially Oaxaca.
posted by Wet Spot at 6:31 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Japan might be on the expensive side for two to three weeks, but you might want to check out China. Especially away from the east coast, you can stretch money pretty easily. There are several places that backpackers flock to, with all the attendant cheap places to stay (a couple dollars a night), and it's a fantastic place. You can decide while you're there what you want, the chill, relaxed approach, or really pushing yourself to get around the place.

Split your time between Yangshuo and Dali if you want to just relax in a beautiful area (though, of course, filled with backpackers and teachers in China escaping for a holiday.

Or you could, in three weeks, see Xian, Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai.

If you do go to China, take at least one long, overnight train trip. It's likely about as far from your PhD life as you can get in a two week span.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:46 PM on November 15, 2009

Costa Rica.

Cheap, tons to see, and you get everything from beach to mountains.

I visited Costa Rica a few years ago with friends. We rented a car and were able to see the entire country in 2 to 3 weeks.

Worth thinking about.
posted by ASM at 6:56 PM on November 15, 2009

Are you looking for a complete culture change? Somewhere where you aren't sure if what you are doing is offending people innocently, transgressing rules? Somewhere where you are in a state of delightful cultural confusion?

If yes, then I would recommend Japan. I've been to a few South American countries, to a few European countries, and nothing has done that for me like Japan. I've not been to China, Vietnam, Korea or anywhere else in Asia though so I can't compare these.
posted by Admira at 8:34 PM on November 15, 2009

Like Ghidorah, I would totally recommend China too. You can really stretch your money there, and even just traveling on a train (hard sleeper ftw!) is being in a completely different world. And you can choose your level of activity to fit any mood - from drinking tea and just chilling to crazy adventures - city life to countryside life. And the history/culture stuff is everywhere. Highly recommended.
posted by gemmy at 9:15 PM on November 15, 2009

I love Dubai; I've been there many times. I like staying in the "old town" part at an old hotel, not the flashy new hotels on the Northwest end. Lots to see and do, wander around the souks, good food, friendly people. Lots speak English. I've spent days there alone and done just fine. Take a guided camel tour out on the desert for one overnight with a camp dinner, it's fantastic. You can spend as much or as little as you like, and be as active or relaxed-by-the-pool as you like.
posted by ctmf at 10:48 PM on November 15, 2009

Go to Italy, preferably Tuscany, with side trips on the train to Rome.
posted by RussHy at 2:51 AM on November 16, 2009

I spent a month in Uzbekistan last year, just because a friend was going there for work, invited me along, and it sounded exotic, and I've travelled in places like Libya, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan.

It was stunning! I'm definitely going to go back soon. The fabled Registan square in Samarkand, the Shah-i-Zindi necropolis, Ulug Beg's observatory; cool, leafy Bukhara; Khiva, a museum town frozen in time; Muynaq, where the fishing boats are lined up in the desert now that the Aral Sea has shrunk to 100 km away - I never imagined it could be such a great experience. Language problems yes, because you won't find many people who speak English outside the hotels and travel agencies, but somehow you can get by - I did! (Take a Russian phrasebook for emergencies.) Friendly, hospitable people; plenty of opportunity to see local colour and hang out with the locals. Very low crime-rate or risk, especially for somebody street smart like yourself. Food was fine, drink available even though it's nominally Muslim (but not fundamentalist). Warm yes: check the weather stats before booking, because the two annual windows between furnace and deepfreeze are fairly tight. The most you'll spend is on the air ticket - on the ground it's very, very cheap. Comfortable, clean, cheap train on the main line. No ocean beaches, but some great lake beaches.

Many people say don't support a totalitarian regime with your tourism: well, there's plenty of room for opinion on this, but personally I don't think boycotting a country sends much of a message to the regime, it just takes money out of the pockets of the B&B operators and others who need it.

Two good books to prepare on: Uzbekistan - the Golden Road to Samarkand by MacLeod and Mayhew (for the positive side); Murder in Samarkand by Craig Murray (for the downside).

If you'd like any more detail, MeMail me and I'll send you some stuff.
posted by aqsakal at 4:04 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh yes, and congratulations on your PhD! :-)
posted by aqsakal at 4:05 AM on November 16, 2009

I'm seconding India, because every traveler has to knock that one out sometime, and you will really be able to relax in some places and see a ton as well. I recommend spending a little downtime in Mt. Abu which is a tourist destination for Indians but very few people from outside the country. It's an interesting perspective, and a very relaxing place.
posted by itsonreserve at 6:41 AM on November 16, 2009

Thailand. It will cost you about $700-$800 to for a flight from the United States, but it is awesomely cheap once you get there. For about $50 a day you can live like a king and stay in a really nice hotel and eat splendid food.

I was alone on my trip and I felt completely safe. I learned a few basic words in Thai, but I rarely used them. Everyone spoke English and acted friendly towards me.

I love Bangkok so much. It's a place full of novel experiences, and I really enjoyed the markets, but I very sad that I couldn't buy my own hedgehog to take home. (Stupid customs!)

Phuket is a little expensive, but the rest of the sea coast is very reasonable. I had a chance to visit a village on stilts in the middle of the sea and I loved watching the mudskippers flop around at low tide. The seafood is excellent and inexpensive and the diving is unique.

If I could go back, I would visit Chiang Mai in the north. In mid April the New Year's festival there is supposed to be spectacular.
posted by Alison at 7:21 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding Thailand. I traveled there on my own for about 6 weeks in my mid-twenties (10 years ago) and found it to be a very easy place to get around, without being Disneyfied. I'm not sure what the climate is like in May. Congrats on the degree, and the job!
posted by sevenyearlurk at 9:36 AM on November 16, 2009

I'll just give you the list of all the places I want to visit in the future: Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Brisbane, the northern coast of Italy, and Bulgaria where property is still cheap. Have fun!
posted by VC Drake at 10:02 PM on November 17, 2009

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