2015 was an extremely rewarding, yet equally challenging year, to say the least. Even though the past 12 months didn't go exactly as I had envisioned, let's take a look back anyway on a year filled with travel, adventure, love and mystery.
When I set out on my journey back in the Fall of 2014, I had no plans on visiting Australia, but I ended up in the land down under celebrating New Year's Eve on the Sydney Harbor with some great friends. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to ring in the new year in Sydney from a boat in the middle of the Sydney Harbour, and experience for myself the spectacular fireworks display the city puts on every New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day we took advantage of the weather and spent some time at Bondi Beach before having food and beverages at Bondi's best place to hang out, The Bucket List.
In my two previous trips to Australia I had failed to make it to the Blue Mountains as well as Fraser Island, but this time around I made sure I was able to visit both of these beautiful places since I had heard so much about them over the years.
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, and is the only place on Earth where a rainforest grows on sand. Packs of wild dingos roam the island and it is advised that you make every attempt to scare them off should you encounter them as they are not real friendly. Fraser Island is also home to one of the most stunning lakes I have even laid eyes on, Lake McKenzie. The lake is fed only with rain water, and the water is so pure that it's unsuitable for many species.
The next stop on my journey was actually back in the USA, just in time to capture wedding images for my good friends Kathy and Michael. I normally don't photograph weddings but this was a favor and certainly not any ordinary wedding since the ceremony took place outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, in January, in the rain. Michael is a nature and wildlife fine art photographer and you can check out his awe-inspiring images here.
After spending some time visiting friends and family in North America, it was time for me to get back to sunnier and warmer weather so I headed to one of my favorite places in southern Thailand, Ko Lanta. Having been there before, I knew what I could expect from this island paradise, which is off of the radar of so many travelers. The timing of my visit couldn't have been better because I was there for the Laanta Lanta Festival, held every year in March on the east side of the island in Old Town Lanta. I highly recommend the festival if you are looking to experience the many cultures of Ko Lanta while sampling as much street food as you can eat. It's some of the best in southern Thailand!
Getting back to the warmer weather I mentioned earlier, Ko Lanta is a full of really nice beaches with soft sand and clear, warm water. Stick to the west side of the island for the best beaches, my favorite by far was Long Beach simply for the vibe, great food and the sunsets.
During the Laanta Lanta Festival some friends and I were listening to a local band rock out, and out of nowhere a guy wearing an Indian headdress walks up with a suitcase in one hand and a bottle of Singha beer in the other. He put the suitcase down and started dancing to the music as we all wondered what was up with the suitcase just sitting there on the dance floor he just created. Look closely and you'll see for yourself just know creative the great people of Thailand can be. Yep, that's a dance floor suitcase beer holder.
I will continue to return to Ko Lanta as long as the island retains the unspoiled, magical feel it has today. For those of you who have been there, you know what I mean. For those of you who want to visit some day, do yourself a favor and rent a motorbike during your stay and cruise around the entire island because there is so much to see and experience on this beautiful island in southern Thailand.
In a region of southern Thailand named Krabi you'll find a rather interesting shrine inside of Phra Nang (Princess) Cave located on Railay Beach. Thai fisherman legend says the cave is home to a mythical sea princess, and fishermen make offerings before going out to sea in hopes of a successful bounty and safe return to the mainland. Oddly enough, the Phallas Shrine contains well over 100 carved wooden phallic symbols and other random objects believed to help with fertility. I'm not sure how safety, successful fishing trips, and fertility are interrelated but this is Thailand and you did just see the dance floor suitcase beer holder, didn't you?
Before this particular trip to Thailand was finished, I was able to visit some of the beautiful Buddhist temples in and around Bangkok, enjoy sensory overload in Bangkok's Chinatown, and adventure to the ancient city of Ayutthaya for the first time ever.
In April I returned to Vietnam simply because the month I had spent there towards the end of 2014 only made me want to experience more of this fascinating country. The plan this time around was to tour the country for three months, mostly by motorbikes and thanks to my experienced and helpful local tour guide I was able to experience the country just as a local would.
Towards the end of the month we visited the coastal town of Nha Trang and I honestly couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the magnificent clear blue color of the water on an island off the coast. All of the rivers I laid eyes on in Vietnam are brown and the coastal waters aren't much better, so to see water this clear shocked me. Too bad I ended up with a horrible bout of food poising in Nha Trang, I'll spare you the details, otherwise I might have seen more of this beautiful town and wanted to stick around for a bit.
In case you didn't know, Vietnam has so much to offer visitors including some of the most interesting small towns and hillside villages you'll ever come across. The country boasts eight (8) UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you can explore if you're looking to expand your cultural knowledge and truly understand the history of the Vietnamese people.
Sometime in May I was notified that I was awarded first place in the 2015 Best Experience Photo Contest hosted by International TEFL Academy. The winning image, me in the foreground of Bayon Temple located on the grounds of Angkor World Heritage Site in Cambodia. A second image that I had submitted for the contest also placed in the "Honorable Mention" category, that's the image of me standing on the beach at sunrise in Rio de Janeiro. This was my first ever photo contest award, a milestone of sorts and hopefully the start of many more opportunities to come.
From Vietnam I made my way to the Philippines by way of Singapore, a place I had never been before but heard so many good thing about. I planned an overnight stopover so that I could check out the vibe of the city, take a few nighttime images around Marina Bay, taste the local cuisine, and get a feel for how long I will need to stay for during my next visit.
The time I spent in the Philippines was really amazing, and one of the highlights from three months in the Philippines was my visit to Caluya Island. This beautiful remote island is a 4-hour bangka boat (ferry) ride away from nearby Panay Island, and rarely sees western visitors. The local Filipino kids on the island were so curious and playful, they literally followed me around like I was a movie star. The kids loved looking at pictures of themselves on my phone, and many of them learned to swipe left and right that day. The looks on those kids' faces along with their accompanying giggles when swiping and seeing themselves were priceless.
Just two days before my 43rd birthday in June, I suffered a fractured clavicle (broken collarbone) in the Philippines, and this injury would alter my travel plans indefinitely. I'll get to those plans in a minute, but first I must point out that I was 42 when I was injured, yet the helpful medical staff at the first medical center I went to following the accident listed my age as 44 on the folder. I get that people make mistakes, but can you guess where I didn't have my collarbone surgically repaired?
Getting back to my original Summer travel plans (July - September), some of you may remember that prior to me breaking my collarbone I was scheduled to spend three months traveling across Europe, and attend a digital nomad conference in Berlin at the of July. Well, since I was supposed to be traveling to Europe, I considered staying and working there somewhere so I applied for several teaching jobs in multiple countries including Italy, Czech Republic, and Spain. After a Skype interview and follow-up call with one company, I was offered a position teaching business English in Prague. I sat on the offer and contemplated my current conundrum for at least a week, but in the end I respectfully declined the offer due to the severity of my injury and the time it would take fully recover.
Prior to the surgery I had to repair my broken collarbone, I decided not to travel to Europe for the Summer, and instead I remained in the Philippines to rest, recover and heal from my injury. Soon after I got out of the hospital I met and quickly fell in love with a very sweet and truly amazing Filipino woman who basically took care of everything for me, including post-op surgical wound care, laundry, cooking, cleaning and non-stop water refills. Seriously, I drink a lot of water. One month into my recovery I was still wearing an arm sling but feeling pretty good and itching to get out and explore more of the Philippines, so we hopped on a flight and headed off for some adventure. Our destination was Palawan, an island which consistently ranks among one of the best and most beautiful islands in the world. Believe what you read about this magical place, the scenery is so stunning you need to keep your head on a swivel at all times.
In late August I was still wearing an arm sling, my recovery was going well, and everything was feeling great in my collarbone/shoulder region. That was right up until I started feeling a sharp pain just shy of eight (8) weeks post-op, a pain I had never felt before coming from the surgically repaired collarbone. I ran my hand along the incision on my neck right where the pain was coming from, and I could feel something foreign, such as the head of a screw. When I turned my head to the left I could see the screws and/or plate protruding from my neck in the mirror. Obviously, something wasn't right. A new x-ray revealed that two of the four the surgical screws holding the plate to my collarbone were backing their way out of the bone. That's what that pain was! During the second surgery, my orthopedic surgeon removed the plate and screws, sewed me back up, and left me a souvenir to remember my time spent in the Philippines. In case you're wondering, hospital food in the Philippines might look scary but most of it is actually pretty tasty.
In early September I traveled all the way back to the USA again, just in time to see long-time friends tie the knot (I was not there to shoot wedding images this time), and then take a road trip down the panoramic Oregon coast with some family members. After traveling abroad for most of the year it really was great to have a chance to see so many people who mean so much to me.
I pretty much laid low most of the Fall season and spent a considerable amount of time catching up with friends, and rehabilitating my shoulder with resistance bands since some of my muscles atrophied, a result of my arm being in a sling for three whole months following two surgeries. At some point I made my way across the country from Seattle to Philadelphia, back to my hometown just in time for the long holiday season. Following Thanksgiving, I spent a just about a week in New York City and had the opportunity to reunite with some great friends while attending year-end cultural holiday events and free art galleries, and savoring delicious meals in many of the city's eclectic neighborhood eateries.
My year winded down with me continuing to get healthier and spending time catching up with family and friends I haven't seen in a while. I had the opportunity to explore a bit of Philadelphia on foot by myself before Christmas, and as I did I found myself reflecting back on what a crazy, yet amazing year I just experienced. Places I called home in 2015 include an apartment, bamboo huts and bungalows, boarding houses, a condominium, a pair of hospitals, numerous hostels and hotels, a few friends’ houses, more than a few guest houses, and a couple of tents. Last year I became an award-winning photographer, and lived on a tropical island before getting injured and having the course of my life altered again. Remember to always have a plan, but be flexible because life is short and you never know what tomorrow will bring. To all my family and friends around the world, a huge, heartfelt THANK YOU for your continued encouragement because I wouldn’t be where I am today without your love and support.
Final statistics from 2015:
Well, there you have it and I certainly hope you learned something about my year that you didn't already know, and that you enjoyed seeing some images that I have yet to share with the world. I would very much appreciate hearing any comments regarding how my 2015 story may have inspired you to go out an explore this beautiful planet we call Earth. Lastly, if you think your online community could benefit from reading this post, please feel free to share it on any of your social media outlets and thanks in advance for doing so!
Click an image below to stimulate your curiosity and learn about a different culture halfway around around the globe.
Mike (Sunday, 06 March 2016 19:02)
Thank you, Hien and Michael! I appreciate your kind words and look forward to sharing my adventures with everyone.
Hien (Friday, 04 March 2016 21:13)
Beautiful photos and such an adventure, Mike! I am waiting for more stories to come though.
Michael Schertz (Saturday, 09 January 2016 14:43)
Great collection of images and memories my friend!! Thank you for capturing such a great moment in our lives!! Continue on the journey!!