A quick look back, and an announcement for the future!

Now that I've finished documenting my awesome 3-month trip to SE Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, and I'm about to launch a major new professional endeavor, I thought it would be a great chance to pause and look back.  So, here are some lessons learned for future independent travellers:

- Travelling solo is really not a big deal!  I promise!  I mean, sure, eating alone can be a little off-putting at first, and maybe it can be a little lonely from time to time.  But you get to do exactly what you want to do, and when you want to do it.  Honestly I met so many people along the way - I wasn't truly "alone" all that often.  Generally - the folks you meet are incredible people, as they're also off on an adventure and looking to share experiences.  This "on-the-road advice" is some of the best you'll receive - listen to it!  Also, I only felt "uncomfortable" from a safety standpoint about once that I remember during the entire time.  And that was just because Hanoi is a crazy busy city prone to scams and I'd been in the sleepy countryside for days.

- Be okay with changes in plans, especially on a long trip like this.  You never know how you're going to like a place, when deals will come up, or what travel companions may want to do.  I had an overall plan for the first 5-6 weeks of my trip, and while I mostly stuck to it, I did make some major changes, for all sorts of reasons.  And that ended up being perfectly fine. 

- You'll never get to see EVERYTHING, and you can always go back.

- Pre-plan in some down-time.  I moved fast, rarely staying more than 3 nights anywhere.  This wasn't actually what I had set out to do, but that's what happened.  Now, I got to cover a ton of ground in three short months, but I also hit a wall here & there, and ended up taking "mega" breaks of about 6 nights about once a month (in Koh Lanta, Cairns, and Sydney at the end).  Again- it all worked out in the end, but you should probably have those week-long pit stops planned out a bit, just so you don't end up driving yourself ragged.

- Take cooking courses!  Well, where it makes sense.  Eg:  LOVED my Thai and Vietnamese cooking classes because I got up close & personal with local markets and products, and saw a different side of the country than the touristy stops/restaurants.  However, the food in OZ and NZ is not really what you would call unique, so I didn't really rush to do so in either place... But, if you're in a place with excellent local traditions & cuisine - GO FOR IT!

- Don't pick favorites!  About the second question I seem to get about the trip is "what was your favorite place"?  That is an impossible question.  I finally break down & say I loved NZ as a country, and it's true, I do!  But how on earth do you compare a beach in Thailand to the scene on the Mekong River to the Great Barrier Reef, ect...  You can't and they shouldn't be ignored.  So now I try to narrow it down to favorite days.  And since people seem interested - here are my top 10 favorite days from my trip to the East & Down Under, in no particular order:
1) Sunrise at Angkor Wat, the dawn light on the Banyon faces, and dodging tourist groups to find some serenity amongst the trees at Ta Prohm.  All that exploration was followed by fun travel talk with fellow explorers by the pool.
2) My kayak + hike in Abel Tasmin park in NZ.  Simply paradise on earth.
3) The day I received my diving certification - I got to swim around a teeny Thai reef/island alongside a giant school of silvery barracuda - magical!
4) Sleepy cruise on the Mekong followed by frolicking in the most gorgeous waterfalls ever, followed by a sunrise viewing of the alms processional in Luang Prabang (that's 24 hours - it counts).
5) Trail ride along the Dart River in Lord of the Rings territory.  I would almost move to Queenstown to work there!!  We also had the super fun night out in Queenstown that night.
6) Rafting the giant waterfall near Rotorua, followed by a blissful visit to the thermal spa for a mud bath.  Oh- and that had a fun St. Patty's day pub dinner with Alex after!  (Hooray for new friends!)
7) The boat trip on Halong Bay - besides the beautiful karsts and thousands of photos, it included cave exploration, kayaking, and an excellent, excellent midnight chat with 2 very cool gents.
8) Me, Gregg, and Val going trekking on elephants, floating on a bamboo raft, and hiking to a truly lovely waterfall - all in the hills of northern Thailand.  Dinner that night was riverside, as it should always be in Chiang Mai.
9) Diving all day (and night!) on the Great Barrier Reef - rays, sharks, TURTLES, tons of fish and coral, and even a jelly-fish sting.  Amazing and worth it (besides, the trauma of the sting makes for a fun story!).
10) Getting to explore the gorgeous Whitehaven beach, snorkeling over a lovely reef, and happy hour floating in the water.  Our cruise in the Whitsundays was truly awesome with really, really great people (I hardly even remember the terrible sleeping conditions).

**Caveat- I didn't include either of my sailing days in Auckland or Sydney, which were great experiences, but I can't remember the rest of those days particularly, so they don't make the top 10.  :)

**Caveat 2 - I completely forgot about the road to Milford & our overnight cruise on the Milford sound!!  I blame that on the fact that I got sick that day - but that was a GREAT day (with an epic jenga game included) and deserves a mention.

-Notice that most of the above list included me actually DOING something - not just checking a sight off a list of things to see.  That was some advice I got from a guidebook and it's really true.  I find I enjoy things much more when I actually am getting out and doing some sort of activity, like a hike or a cooking course, than the days I sort of walked around a city from site to site.  So- that is a BIG lesson learned!  Get out of the bus or car, use the expertise of a local in some way, even just hop on a boat.  Almost always those choices will make for a better day than wandering aimlessly.  (Unless you're in a city like Venice - that place is made for aimless wandering!)

That experience I've gained is something I hope to use a lot in the future with my aforementioned new professional endeavor as a bona-fide Travel Agent.  Yes, that's right - somewhere along the way (perhaps meditating on a sunset somewhere) I realized that I didn't need to get another job at another tour operator, I could just go out on my own.  Not only that, I realized that's what I really want to do!  I've known for years that I want to work in the travel industry, and my first experience with a tour operator didn't squash that passion.  In fact, it still is my favorite thing in the world to help people make travel plans, so- voila!  Matheson Travel is born!

This blog will be moving over to my own beautiful new site (www.mathesontravel.com coming soon!), and you'll all be hearing much more about that from me soon. I've signed up to be part of the Signature Travel Network with provides awesome benefits and resources.  SO, until the official announcement - feel free to drop me a line for any travel needs, or send your friends and family my way! I am currently able (and willing!) to help with anything from flights & itineraries to tours or cruises, anywhere in the world.  Of course, if you know me already, you know my passion for Paris, so I'll be specializing in trips there, but I do have a few other destinations in my tool belt as well.  Until next time dear friends, I leave you with travel dreams dancing through your heads, and a trusted friend to help you make them a reality!  :)