The year 2015 has been a satisfying year of traveling. I expanded my footprint in Southeast Asia, embarked on road trips at home and even managed to scale four mountain in between.

Here’s a recap of 7 travel lessons I learned throughout the past year:

1. Indonesia’s Ethnic Diversity Is As Vast As Her Islands

Indonesia has been aggressively promoting themselves on the international travel arena and one of their unique selling points is the nation’s ethnic diversity. Its archipelagic nature allows the hundreds of ethnic groups to preserve their ways and even thrive to this day.

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One of them, the Minangkabau of Western Sumatera, has a unique set of traditions whereby familial properties like land and houses are passed down along the female lineage while men are encouraged to wander to seek wealth abroad.

Throw in the outrageously pointy traditional houses of Rumah Gadang and the many dishes of Nasi Padang, the Minang highlands was a fulfilling trip in terms of experiencing a living culture out of the glass box.

Read more about the sights of Bukittinggi here and Padang cuisine here.

2. It Really Is More Fun In The Philippines

Boracay is hardly the place to immerse oneself in Filipino culture but it can provide you with bucket loads of fun. My wife and me were part of a large of group of friends who rented a beach house and really soaked in the sun throughout our four days there.

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Thirsty after a day dipping in the cool waters of White Beach? Quench it with a bottle of Jonah’s Fruitshake. Need a little bit edge in life? Go cliff diving off Aron’s Magic Island. Wanting to end the day with a perfect send-off? See the sun set on a paraw sailboat.

I’ve been to a number of vacation islands around Southeast Asia like Langkawi and Koh Samui but Boracay has everything for everyone, from party-goers to laid-back slackers. First impressions matter and Boracay has convinced me that this will not be my last time traveling to the Philippines.

Check out my complete Boracay experience here.

3. Nothing Beats Small Town Comfort Foods

There’s something about small towns serving the best comfort foods. Maybe it has to do with the idea of a close-knit community where the standards are “as close as you can get to home-made” and “how your mother would cook for you.”

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For that reason I decided to travel to the royal town of Muar, Johor over a weekend. This quaint riverside town is famous for its distinct southern Malaysian dishes like mee bandung, mee jawa, rojak petis,  breakfast satay and a rich asam pedas stew.

The best part about eating in small towns like Muar is all the shops are family-run so you have the chance to interact with the owners. Only through seeing them preparing the same food every day and listening to them wanting to bring satisfaction to their customers’ faces and tummies you will truly appreciate a home-cooked meal.

More on Muar’s “southern comfort” food, click here.

4. A #TSDayOut To Remember

It was my first time being part of #TSDayOut where Tourism Selangor would bring in travel bloggers and influencers to experience the best Selangor has to offer. I was excited to join 30 other participants in the Bukit Kutu Hiking Expedition, a 1,053 meter mountain one hour away from Kuala Lumpur.

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Photo Credit: Ding Xiang

We crossed shallow rivers, climbed a steep trail to a massive boulder and crashed through a bamboo forest before reaching the peak. After four hours of toiling, we were finally treated to sweeping views of mountains and the Selangor Dam while curiously peering at remnants of an abandoned colonial bungalow.

I was elated to meet experienced bloggers, photographers and organizers in one bunch. It was inspiring to meet people involved in the industry, through vocation and passion, putting out all stops to promote tourism in Selangor and Malaysia.

Read about my Bukit Kutu hiking expedition here and fellow bloggers Five Foot Traveler, Devi da Lil’ Devil and Kaki Jalans.

5. When Life Gives You A Second Chance, Hike A Volcano At 2:00 In The Morning

The last time I visited Bali was about a decade ago with my family and we hired a guide to take us around the northern part of the island. After visiting the coffee farms, we stopped by the village of Kintamani for lunch overlooking a humongous crater and the volcanic Gunung Batur.

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I was mesmerized with the view and our guide told us it is possible to hike the mountain but it is usually done in the wee hours of the morning to catch the sunrise. We didn’t have time to that so I kept a promise to myself that I will hike this mountain the next time I step foot in Bali.

Fast forward to July 2015. I was needlessly standing outside in the cold while keeping my fingers warm by holding a cup of hot tea, waiting for the sunrise to come out amidst the thick clouds enveloping the region. I was finally at the peak of Gunung Batur enjoying the vista of an ancient caldera as dawn slowly lifts her veil for the entire world to see.

A 10-year wait worth waiting for.

View Gunung Batur in its splendor and my hiking in the dark experience here.

6. Environmental Degradation Is No Longer A National Issue

The recent haze catastrophe in Sumatera and Kalimantan brought untold damage not only to Indonesia but neighbors like Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei were badly affected as well. There were times when Kuala Lumpur felt like an end-of-days movie as more and more people fell sick from the smog.

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I thought the situation would be different in Sabah. I was hoping to run away from the haze but turned out the haze was already there to greet me once I landed in Kota Kinabalu. This means no famed sunset over the KK waterfront. No majestic view of Mount Kinabalu from the rice fields of Kota Belud. No bright azure skies and crystal clear waters.

Environmental disasters can no longer be labeled a national problem once it starts affecting shared spaces with neighboring countries. Although I did enjoy my time in Sabah, I still felt a bit disappointed not being able to fully “see” the state’s beauty just because land needed to be burned for more oil palms to be planted.

I did had a wonderful overnight stay at Mañana Borneo Resort though. Read my review here.

7. Bangkok’s Market Mania

In my many ways, Bangkok does feel a lot like Kuala Lumpur. High-end shopping districts, delectable street food, burgeoning art and café scenes ensconced in a marriage of tradition and modernity makes Bangkok feel a lot more like home.

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However, Bangkok trumps my home city when it comes to markets. I’m talking about big, bustling markets selling all kinds of fresh produce and authentic wears. Chatuchak Weekend Market is a budget shopper’s haven for clothes and crafts while Khlong Toei farmer’s market is a good introduction to knowing the origins of Thai cuisine.

There seems to be hundreds of markets, some even specialized, in every nook and corner of Bangkok. I would have to save up a huge pile of Bahts on my “confirmed” future trip to Thailand because the bazaars ticks all the boxes for a Malaysian shopper like me – it’s cheap, it looks nice and it’s of good quality.

What can you find at Chatuchak Weekend Market? Read about it here.

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