Ken's Tour Ratings
Where Should I Go?
. .

This has the makings of a controversial page, because fans of a country can say with justice "how can you say it's a bad country when you were only there a few days?", and people who come from the locations I've mentioned can be offended. So buyer beware. It's just my unscientific opinions about some of the places I've been, and some of my advice for potential tourists.

Rating system: The more stars in each category, the better! (Up to four)
You can click on each country's picture to see more pictures.


1. Bali, Indonesia


/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

I really liked Bali. The beaches are nice, there's lots of varieties of food, and unusual culture. The atmosphere of interesting temples, practises, and the flowers and greenery everywhere are very welcoming. The Balinese seem comfortable with tourists and it's easy to communicate or to get around. The only strong irritants in Bali are the crooks who run the airports (hang on to your departure card or you'll be asked for a bribe), dishonest taxi drivers, and the constant hawkers who pester you to buy junk on the beaches. If I could watch the sunset without fighting off someone selling surfboard keychains, it would be perfect. Kuta is great for nightlife but it's not very family-friendly anymore. It seems to have been taken over by hard-partying Australians.

Tourist convenience, low costs, great dining, culture Corrupt officials, pestiferous hawkers, crowds
Hot: Jimbaron for seafood; highlands for scenery Not: Dirty ferry to Lombok; dull Sanur; noisy Kuta

2. Belgium



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Belgium seems like every European cliché come true– Lego houses, narrow lanes, bicycles riding on cobblestone roads past sheep, etc. Still, Bruges is the cutest town in the world. It's easy to get around; people speak English; prices are reasonable; the beer, chocolate, and waffles are fantastic. I wouldn't call Bruges a nightlife destination, and if you want to party go to Paris, but if you want to relax by swans on canals Belgium is highly underrated as a European destination.

Medieval architecture, canals, crafts, beer A little rainy; Bruges isn't easy to get to by train
Hot: Waffles, chocolate, Begijnhof nunnery Not: Not really much for nightlife!

3. Canada



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

It's hard to rate your own country objectively as a tourist destination. Canada has beautiful natural scenery, lots of interesting buildings and art, and it's relatively safe and stable. Negatives must include our pricey transportation and spread-out population (rent a car, take a snail-paced bus, or take an overpriced airplane across the country), as well as Canada's zeal for overtaxation which makes vacations expensive. And only a masochist would visit outside of summer months, when it can be bitingly cold. And all that nature and peacefulness, combined with a little too much politically-correct holier-than-thouness in places can make things a little tame. Have fun, but God forbid you smoke or drink or park in the wrong place. One of my Korean students called Canada 'boring heaven.'

Safe, clean, beautiful scenery & nature Costs, general anti-fun social overregulation
Hot: Rocky Mountains, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax Not: Anywhere in winter unless you're skiing

4. England



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

If you like old buildings and museums (I do) and the England mystique, it's a fascinating country. Everywhere you go there's some interesting old building or castle! The transportation system isn't perfect, but it's fairly easy to get around to see the sights. There's something worth a photograph everywhere, it seems. The worst blight is the ridiculous cost of almost everything. Travelling across London on the subway can cost over $10. This would be $1 in Korea, for a cleaner and better subway. And then there's that famous English "food."

Museums, architecture, British atmosphere Costs, gloomy weather, bad food
Hot: London, British Museum, Oxford Not: Stonehenge. It's a pile of rocks.

5. France



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Others can disagree, and I can only report my experience. I thought Paris has an undeservedly bad reputation. Waiters aren't there to be your buddy, but to do their job, and they do it with politeness. If you don't dress like a slobby tourist and try to speak some minimal French, most people are helpful and friendly. The museums and architecture are gorgeous, and it's a wonderful place to wander and explore and eat bread and coffee in a cafe. I of course can't speak for southern France, but Paris is exciting and beautiful by day or night, and it's definitely a party place.

Museums, architecture, cafes, nightlife Costs, language barrier; if you don't like French food there's not much else.
Hot: Louvre, Left Bank, Eiffel at night Not: Dirty, seedy subway. Try to walk or take taxis.

6. Guam



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

The worst you can say about Guam is that it's a place for creature comforts such as shopping, swimming, beaches, and food and drink... and not much else. It's not really a locale for culture or scenery, not out of any fault of its own but because Guam is so tiny. It's also expensive to ship everything to a remote Pacific island. But for a short stay, it was one of the simplest vacations I've ever had: everything works; people are friendly and speak perfect English; you can do pretty well everything in the Tumon area in a ten-minute walk; everything is American comfort food (TGIF-style chains and breakfast / fish eateries). Once you get past the normal U.S. psycho-hassles to enter, it's all very easy.

Shopping, Swimming, Food. Period. High cost of food and transportation; U.S. border hassles
Hot: Tumon Area Not: Not much nightlife, and just not much to do after a few days.

7. Hong Kong



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

I liked the energy and vitality of downtown Hong Kong, but it's probably best for shorter trips, and Hong Kong is not for the faint of heart. It simply has a vibe of constant hurrying. Buy! Buy! Shop! Shop! If you do like nightlife, eating, and shopping it's an exciting place. There are, however, some nice "chill" areas such as the island beaches and pretty Stanley Bay. Victoria Peak is nice, but, well, it's a peak. I am told that Hong Kong is a bit cold in winter, so it might not fit the bill for a beach getaway at that time.

Shopping, harborfront, beaches, partying Frenetic, materialistic pace; can be crowded and a little dirty in places
Hot: Tsim Tsa Tsui, Stanley Bay Not: Filthy harbor cruise; baking summer heat, chill winter

8. Ireland (Dublin)



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

A caveat that I've only been to Dublin, but so far there's little to dislike about Ireland. The people are friendly and talkative and there's great energy and nightlife in the pub districts (which covers pretty much all of downtown Dublin anyway). The university campus is pretty; the museums are interesting; if you're into James Joyce you can see historic sights and architecture everywhere. And Guinness. Good times. My only minor quibbles are that it can be pricey, and you probably shouldn't be the sort of person who needs constant sunshine.

Museums, university campuses, friendly people, nightlife Some areas of Dublin are seedy; cool, rainy weather
Hot: Liffey, Guinness Tour, Temple Bar District, Chester Beatty Not: Dublin flights always seem to be at strange times!

9. Italy (Venice)



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Again, a caveat that by "Italy" I mean only Venice so far. But man, I want to go back if Venice is any indication: it's goooorgeous. Eye-popping architecture, great food and wine, beautiful culture and scenery everywhere. Like Bali, it's a little frustrating to see the press of tourists ruining it in August, but the people were nice nonetheless and will help when you're lost, which will happen often in those little alleyways. As small complaints, Venice isn't big, and so a short stay is probably enough. As well, as wonderful as Italian food is, it's all you're getting.

Architecture, food, wine, cheese, gelato, music, culture... where do I stop? Sadly, everyone else likes Venice too; avoid high season; food is great but it's really Italian only.
Hot: Accademia bridge, San Marco, Boat rides, Vaporetti service Not: Confusing alleys; Ripoff tourist gondola rides

10. Japan



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

My comments on Japan will be short and tentative, as I've only been there twice, and on short stays. True to the stereotype, it's expensive and everything is small; but it's also true that the country is orderly, polite, and clean. The country's a little more used to tourists than Korea is and is more accommodating for them. I hope to go back and have more to say.

Culture, shopping, architecture; food Expensive; English use is low
Hot: Downtown Osaka Not: Northern islands can get cold!

11. Korea



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Korea is a nice place to live, but being a tourist is not the same as being an English teacher. It's a generally safe and orderly country with good public transportation. But frankly, there's not so much to see and perhaps it's best as a layover trip. The architecture is either grey concrete or restorations of interchangeable temples burned down by the Japanese. Koreans can be surprisingly kind and helpful, but quite often their English is minimal. And you'd better like Korean food; that's all you're getting. Also note that costs in pricey Seoul are no better than in Singapore. But Korea is more than Seoul; the smaller cities have their quirky charms, and the mountain hiking trails can be gorgeous in the fall. The beaches are not generally warm enough for swimming but can be fun.

Authentic culture, shopping, mountain hiking; very few hawkers Little English, Seoul prices, monotonous food
Hot: Seoul, Busan Not: Beaches outside of June to September

12. Malaysia



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Malaysia usually isn't considered a tourist destination for westerners, but it should be. Because I went there with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. Georgetown has interesting Sino-Portugese architecture, good roads and transportation, decent hotels, and the costs are quite low. To me it's Singapore without the million rules and the high prices. Malaysians, at least those in Penang, are cosmopolitan and most people were a little brusque but helpful. I'd go back—but not during Chinese New Year's, when every hotel is full and restaurants and shops close!

Keep in mind that I didn't go anywhere else except for a stop through Kuala Lumpur, a bustling city with wide roads and skyscrapers, and gritty Johor Bahru, which borders Singapore. Malaysia is a Muslim country, but in the more touristy areas it's fairly relaxed— I saw many women wearing a headscarf with a t-shirt!—and people seem to co-exist fine.

Multicultural people, low prices, architecture Not always very clean, noisy
Hot: Georgetown, Penang Not: Dirty Johor Bahru

13. Mexico



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

I loved living in Mexico: vibrant street life, friendly, easygoing people, gorgeous Spanish architecture, beaches, carnivals, tasty, interesting food.. wonderful. It's the least xenophobic country I've ever been to in my life, and still one of my favorite destinations. My only warning is that Mexico is pricier in the more Americanized tourist areas, particularly in the Baja peninsula. It can also be difficult to get by without learning a little Spanish outside of the main and resort cities. And watch your stuff—petty theft is a problem. AVOID dangerous and dirty Mexico City, where I was attacked on the subway and had friends robbed, and stay with the smaller cities. I would also avoid taking a car through Tijuana because of the giant traffic jams at the border crossing back into San Diego.

Friendly people, stunning architecture, pleasant beaches, great food, pro-fun atmosphere Minor theft, bad water, beggars, insane traffic jams near border crossings
Hot: Puerto Vallerta, Queretero, Cancun, Acapulco, Veracruz Not: Mexico City, border towns (Tijuana, Ensenada)

14. Netherlands



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Everyone wants to hear about the marijuana and the girls in the windows, but I wasn't interested, and to Amsterdam's credit, if you don't want to see that part of life you won't. There's much more to Amsterdam: pretty canals, great shopping, a compact, easy to navigate city center, and better food than I expected. The people are exceptionally nice. It's not Paris-sized in its amenities (it doesn't take very long for you to have seen most of the attractions), but for a shorter stay Amsterdam is very pleasant and low-stress.

Very walkable, friendly locals, shopping Expensive lodging, some mosquitos from canals
Hot: Downtown square, pancakes Not: Just give up on ever getting into the Anne Frank museum.

15. Newfoundland



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Again, I lived there, and being a tourist is different. But to me there's a rugged, rude charm to the place that makes Newfoundland lovable. It's clean and beautiful, and the food, beer, Irish music, nightclubs, and old-world architecture make you want to stay. Minuses include even-worse-than-usual Canadian prices, the awful weather, and the townie-outport rivalry; the chasm between the hospitable kindness of rural Newfies and the pretentiousness and coldness of St. John's dwellers can be amazing.

Natural beauty, Irish charm & music, party attitude Costs, weather, townie arrogance
Hot: St. John's, Signal Hill, George Street Not: Wintertime

16. New Zealand



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

My comments about New Zealand will also be brief as I've only had one short stay in Auckland. My impression was that it was a lot like Vancouver Island, and Auckland a lot like Victoria: friendly, compact, and more British than the British. Australia would certainly be livelier at night, but I've rarely met a Kiwi I didn't like.

Peacefulness, cleanliness, kind people It's a long, long ways away from anywhere

17. Philippines



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

I liked the Philippines. Manila is seedy but has some interesting areas, and Puerto Galera has its charms. Boracay has beautiful sunsets, sandy bungalows, and tourist conveniences, and more pleasant people than the all-business Balinese or the psycho-mercantile Vietnamese. Value is excellent. Another plus is that, if the roads wear you out, flying within the country is quite cheap. You might even get to sing karaoke on the airplane (really). Downsides include rough transportation on Filipino goat trails roads and the two pounds of sugar that seem to be poured on every restaurant meal. Boracay is great for beaches, but the nightlife is tame compared to Bali; it's a place to go for rest, not for action.

Spanish architecture, friendly people, low prices Bad local food, rough transportation
Hot: Boracay, Puerto Galera area Not: Be careful where you go in Manila

18. Scotland (Edinburgh)



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Ditto with Scotland, where I only spent a few days as a penniless grad student in Edinburgh. While the British are a little standoffish in public I found the Scottish more easygoing. In the evening walking around the main downtown streets was annoying because of the hordes of beggars, but Edinburgh was overall a beautiful walk (and you'll walk a lot; it's big).

Natural beauty, interesting food Persistent panhandlers

19. Singapore



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I'm lukewarm on Singapore, "the Switzerland of Asia." It has some culture and shopping but also all the bad things it's famed for—high hotel prices, over-regulation, and boring nightlife. The people were impatient and not particularly warm. Escalators run at double speed; is your time that important? Georgetown does it all better, cheaper, and friendlier. I will admit that the zoo and bird park are spectacular and the night-time skyline is snazzy. Singapore is a little like Apple: it's expensive and you'll do it their way, but once you are used to the city it works very well.

Attractive architecture & shopping malls, great airport, clean & orderly High costs; it always seems impossible to get a taxi
Hot: Harbor area Not: Geyland is billed as a night market; it's a night market, all right...

20. St. Pierre-Miquelon



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

St. Pierre-Miquelon is a duo of small fishing islands off the coast of Newfoundland. It remains a colony of France, and so you need to enter as a foreign citizen from Canada. On the islands, it's a tribute to perseverance that everything— food, culture, language, cars, sports, music— is French. As the islands are difficult to get to and are reached by ferry from Newfoundland, it's a little isolated and the weather even in summer is chilly. The homestay we stayed in was not impressive but the locals were welcoming in the pubs at night. Somehow alcohol always improves foreign language skills.

Interesting French culture; fishing village ambience Expensive to eat; isolated from mainland Canada

21. Taipei, Taiwan



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Admittedly, I was only in Taiwan three days, but I left wondering why China wants it. Unceasing rain in Taipei, cold weather, dirty streets, high prices, tiny hotel rooms, no English spoken. Other than a good subway and passably interesting architecture, I'm not sure I would want to go back. Some of my flights stop in Taipei. I always know when we're there because it's raining.

Ummm... let me get back to you on it...  

22. Thailand



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Thailand is Asia on training wheels for tourists. The Grand Palace in Bangkok is beautiful, the beaches are nice, and you can generally travel in peace as life isn't a constant sales pitch. Transportation is good and roads are decent; it's perhaps the least xenophobic country I've seen in Asia. Some find Thailand overcommercialized, but I'm getting lazy in my old age. Bring on the Dunkin' Donuts.

There's nothing really objectionable in Thailand, other than the rip-off taxi drivers with their offers for 'special tours' and the sleazy go-go clubs and prostitutes. I suppose my only complaint is that it can be a little too tourist friendly, and the ever-present 7-11s can make the culture feel a little inauthentic. Another consideration is that because Thailand is so popular, it's getting expensive in comparison to other hotspots; hotel costs are double what you'd expect to pay in the Philippines for similar rooms.

Tourist friendly, easy to get around, low stress Prices a little greedy; ever-present prostitutes
Hot: Phuket, Ko Phi-Phi, Jomtien (south of Pattaya) Not: Sleazy Pattaya, overpriced Krabi

23. U.S.A.



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Well, it's hard to rate the U.S.A., as we're talking about a large country with a wide variety of sights and peoples. West coast: L.A. traffic would make Mother Teresa swear like a truck driver, but northern California has funky San Francisco and the beautiful redwood forests. Las Vegas: If you like the gambling culture, it's for you; otherwise there's not much there. Midwest: My favorite part of the country. Skyscrapers, parks, lower prices, friendly people. This is a part of the country best explored on a road trip. Hawaii: I used to like Hawaii, but it's so over-touristed and over-priced now that it's no longer fun.

In general, America is, well, America—big, fast, brash, and turned up to eleven. It can be a real hassle to get here because of the crummy airports, the nickel-and-diming airlines, the psycho-paranoid security procedures, and the expense of travelling in a vast, giant country. To me customer service of any kind has deteriorated, and there are parts of major cities which aren't safe. Get past all that and the people are still generally very kind, again particularly the midwesterners. You generally know where you stand with Americans. I am writing nothing about the east or the south only because I haven't been there yet.

Architecture, shopping, nightlife Poor transportation unless you're driving, security hassles
Hot: Chicago, Northern California, Midwest Not: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Hawaii

24. Vietnam



/4 Costs (more stars better)
/4 Sanity

Vietnam is opening up as a tourist destination, and it's nice to see real traditional culture before it's boxed up for the masses. Beaches are nice, and food is surprisingly multicultural and cheap. Some Vietnamese work hard for $50 a month, and they show surprisingly little animosity toward westerners. So why so few stars?

Vietnam still has a way to go to become tourist-friendly. Transportation is rough—your choice is a molasses-slow tour bus or a grubby train—but the people do try, and things are improving. Less forgiveable is the never-ending sales pitch. It's impossible to stop in a public place without being hassled by people trying to sell you souvenirs and cyclo-rides. On tours, the bus will stop for half-hour 'rest stops' at souvenir shops which reward the driver. Restaurants, frustratingly, are the opposite; wait staff are often indifferent to the customer. I wanted to tip well but service was so bad that I was too angry to. And then there's the noise. The Vietnamese seem so used to it that hotel staff blink at you when you complain about the racket, but lack of sleep takes away from your vacation. And again, stay away during that damned Chinese New Year's, when prices rocket and everything closes.

Authentic culture, low prices, natural wonders Feeling like a plucked goose everyday, rough roads
Hot: Hoi An, Nha Trang beach, Tam Coc Not: Earbusting Hanoi, boring Hue

 

. So, Ken, do you like anything?

Of course. Here's my best-of list. It's just my 2¢.

Top 10

1 Best Beach Phuket, Thailand; Boracay, Philippines
2 Best Sunset Boracay, Indonesia
3 Best Food Mexico, Vietnam
4 Best Local Culture Newfoundland, Mexico
5 Best History & Architecture England, Mexico, Belgium, Paris, Venice
6 Best People Philippines, Mexico, Amsterdam
7 Best Shopping Hong Kong, Malaysia, Amsterdam
8 Best Natural Scenery Canada, Vietnam
9 Best Partying Veracruz, Mexico; Kuta, Bali; Paris; Dublin
10 Best Low Stress Holiday Guam, Belgium

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