Every year brings its list of recommended destinations. Some get hot, then cool off after travelers start flooding in. Others were always gems waiting to be discovered (see, Iceland?). Over the past decade the world has grappled with the rise of Instagram tourism. This has led to a visitor boom in destinations such as Antelope Canyon, Arizona, where visitors have boomed to nearly 4 million a year since it became a famous place for selfies.
Antelope Canyon is remote, and soon we must begin to consider how preserve the sandstone against the wear and tear of 8 million feet. But there is no arguing with its beauty, nor with the fact that nearby Page, Arizona (population 8,000) has benefited from the tourism.
Then there are the destinations which we, as travelers, have nearly destroyed. Outside the gates of Angkor Wat, little is left of the dusty city that Siem Reap, Cambodia used to be. Piece by piece we have taken it over. While bars no longer post guards to keep out local Khmer, inflation has largely taken their place. What was once a city of low-slung buildings and temples has now almost completely transformed into a place of clubs, bars and luxury hotels with a downtown almost exclusively inhabited by self-indulgent expats and the wealthy. There is much to love about this city on the Tonle Sap, but it is almost unrecognizable compared to the place I moved out of in 2010.
All this means that making annual lists of travel destinations is complicated. As a travel writer, you end up torn between the selfish impulse to hoard beautiful places and the thrill of getting to share the world with your readers. I’d like to think that my most generous impulses have won out in making this list of six places you should see in 2020.
Top Travel Destinations For 2020
There is much to be said about social media. Little of it good. With that in mind, here is one destination that I hope will make for terrible Instagram photos but spectacular memories.
Penang/Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia
Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur is located a few streets away from the city bus station. Take a left turn on the wrong street and you’ll find yourself face to face with a speedway whisking commuters away from the city’s banks and law offices. Take a right and you’ll find yourself in a two-story, all night McDonald’s (MCD) - Get Report.
Another street will take you to a flea market that can compete with the best corn mazes. Hardware stores and luggage compete for space with, for some reason, heavy winter coats in this tropical climate. Pubs that cater to Australian weekenders try to drown out the wailing Marley-themed reggae joints ubiquitous to this part of the world. Down the center of it all is Chinatown’s food street, a glorious two lane strip of some of the best food Asia has to offer south of Chiang Mai.
Some of the best food. For the very best, catch a flight the next day up to Georgetown on the island of Penang. Here you’ll find the city’s infamous food gardens, a place where Malay, Chinese, Indian and British culture mix to turn 300 years of history into stew. Literally, Indian stew in a Chinese pot made of clay spiced to Malay tastes served with an Imperial pint.
While beautiful, neither of these cities are the most photogenic you’ll ever visit and that’s a feature, not a bug. By the time you get home you won’t just have forgotten your Facebook password. You’ll wonder why you ever needed it in the first place.
Vieques, Puerto Rico
Vieques feels like one of the most oddly remote places I have ever visited, yet at the same time the most plugged-in. The island is littered with the bones of failed estates. Rusted out sugar railroads, with the remaining train engines, compete for space with former U.S. Army bunkers today used to store old TVs and party supplies. A mile-long pier is all that’s left of an abandoned project to connect Vieques with Puerto Rico proper and a sprawling W Resort remains shuttered after being abandoned to Hurricane Maria.
Yet the general stores stock sushi rice and green curry next to the toilet paper and toothpaste. A waterfront pub serves Oberon Beer (born of Kalamazoo, Michigan) poured by a bartender who once wrote for my college paper, and while AT&T (T) - Get Report constantly drops my calls in Boston they delivered crystal-clear service in Isabel Segunda.
None of which is why Vieques made our list.
The reason you should go to this small island is a pool called Mosquito Bay. There you will find the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, bacteria that shimmer with a blue firefly’s glow at every ripple of the water. As a traveler and travel writer I have been to more than three dozen countries on four continents, and I can say with great honesty: There is nothing else like it on Earth.
Archeology and History
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap – Cambodia
I spent a paragraph down on Siem Reap at the top of this article, so now I’ll tell you exactly why you have to go: Angkor Wat is one of the greatest living monuments on the planet, and someday you will not get to see it as easily as you can today.
The Angkor park is a collection of temples and monuments spread out over an area roughly the size of Manhattan, with still more temples and shrines flung as far out as the border with Thailand. This makes more sense once you realize that what is today a section of jungle and public roads was, once, a city teeming with life. The Khmer Empire ruled most of Southeast Asia, and they invested the riches of their rule into their capital.
It is more than that, though. The temples of Angkor make up an immense religious tableau, with towers and bridges laying out the legend of the Sea of Milk and the nectar of immortality. They are active sites of prayer where monks tending to the Buddhas of each temple, and thriving communities, with villages and homes scattered between and even within the temples themselves.
Angkor Wat is more than old stones, and Siem Reap is more than a simple tourist boomtown. It is a chance to see a country that most people disregard, when they remember it even exists. It’s a place to see where your money builds roads and to meet the men and women for whom genocide remains a living memory. This is a place to visit because, if you let it, Cambodia will give you an experience unlike any other.
And because Angkor War is a revelation told in old stones.
Kathmandu/Pokhara – Nepal
Getting to Nepal is a struggle. Getting around Nepal is an adventure. A terrifying adventure in which you rocket along narrow roads in ancient buses, looking out the window as the driver takes you so close to the edge of the cliff that you can literally look straight down the edge of the mountain.
After my trip back from Pokhara in 2018, I often find myself wondering if I’m living out the last season of Lost. Did I actually die in a fiery bus crash high in the Himalayas? And is this all just a long, pre-afterlife dream?
Now that I’ve told you why you shouldn’t go to Nepal, you should go to Nepal.
Kathmandu is a city on the rooftop of the world, to borrow the phrase most probably coined by British explorer John Wood. It is a place of brick and wood, where carved faces leer down at you from latticed windows. Alleys wander off in every direction, often with little purpose and even less sense of loyalty to geometry or the Pauli exclusion principle. Shrines dot most corners, and every street eventually opens onto a stupa. On a clear day you can see Mount Everest.
Pokhara, on the other hand, is a city where you feel the mountains. Built on the shores of a lake in the Himalayas, this is the city to visit if you want to live as an adventurer. Travelers here take treks that last for days, hiking through the mountains and sleeping at trailside lodges. You should fly when you visit, unless you would like a lifetime of existential uncertainty, but by all means you should go.
Yerevan – Armenia
Whenever I write these lists I try to add one destination that I have never visited. This year, that honor belongs to Armenia, its capital city of Yerevan and a basement originally meant to store potatoes.
The story, according to Atlas Obscura, goes something like this. When he was 44 years old Lyova Arakelyan’s wife asked him to dig them a root cellar. He began to do so. But then, in a move that honors every house-husband who has looked at a project and said “let’s build it bigger,” Arakelyan did not stop. He continued to dig, carving stairwells and tunnels out of the solid rock underneath their home. By the time he passed away in 2008, Arakelyan had dug a labyrinth as deep as 70 feet underground in places, populated throughout with shrines and carvings that he felt suited this mystical place.
This is how I would like to welcome you, and myself, to Armenia. This is a land of people who have spent millennia building something, often out of nothing. As a country on the crossroads of the world Armenia has been traded back and forth by virtually every empire to march west out of Asia or east out of Europe. To endure, the Armenians have carved churches into the sides of their cliffs and built villages in sprawling caves. They developed a food culture around apricots, a fruit I’m not sure I’d even recognize, and the skyline of their capital city is the Biblical volcano Mount Ararat.
Now, freed form the rule of the Soviet state, Armenia has spent the past 30 years rebuilding its place in the world. South of Russia and north of Iran, geography remains unkind to this small nation. That doesn’t mean the 21st century will be, though, and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.
The Cyclades Islands – Greece
If you have the means and the opportunity to visit Greece, by all means do so.
I would like to end this article with something inspiring, a quote that might help nudge you out the door or that would at least justify my otherwise ridiculous professional choices. Parents, you have every right to be concerned when your child announces “I would like to travel for a living, and then I’m going to make money by telling people about it.” Ideally you would not post this quote on Instagram, in case I have not yet made my feelings clear about social media. (Actually, I do kind of like Instagram. And Twitter has WeRateDogs. So that’s something.)
I don’t have inspiration to offer you though. To find that, you should watch the sun set over the Greek islands.