I always heard that the last semester of college is the best one, filled with making irreplaceable memories before you step into the "real world." I guess I’ll never really know if that’s true, because I graduated college early to travel the world with the money I saved on tuition.
Thanks to AP classes in high school and a summer semester, I had enough credits to wrap up my college career early. But alas, I felt torn between two different directions. There was still so much more to learn, see, and do around campus… but my wanderlust awaited.
Even though it was a tough decision, I realized that the fun I’d have during my spring semester of senior year wasn’t worth $33,897 or passing on a trip of a lifetime. It took months to map everything out, but all of the effort paid off.
In five weeks, I visited five countries and traveled to 12 cities, with my parents by my side for some of it. All the flights and lodging cost just under $7,000, or about 20% of the cost of a semester of tuition. I ditched the spring semester I dreamed about since I was a freshman, but I couldn’t imagine doing anything differently.
On a sunny afternoon in late January, after two layovers and over 20 hours in the air, we touched down in Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island. We explored the city for a few days, then rented a car and drove to Queenstown, stopping at Lake Tekapo along the way.
It was all so surreal — every time I turned a corner, I was faced with views even more breathtaking than the last. The drive took a full day, but it felt like a grand adventure rather than simply getting from point A to B.
From Queenstown, it was a short flight to Auckland on the North Island. While there, we explored Waiheke Island and Rotorua. Waiheke Island is accessible via a ferry from Auckland, but it feels worlds away. The cliff-lined beaches reminded me of Hawaii, while the hilltop vineyards transported me to Tuscany.
We then flew to Singapore on a huge, double-decker plane. Singapore was one of the most impressive cities I’ve ever seen. We saw a lot of the major sights in just a few days, but my favorite by far was the Gardens by the Bay light show. Sitting under the Supertree Grove while the sculptures lit up in sync with the music to tell a story felt like I was on another planet.
I also have to give an honorable shoutout to the Kaya toast I had for breakfast every morning, which is toast topped with coconut jam and dipped into a mixture of soft eggs and soy sauce. I even bought some Kaya spread at the Mustafa Centre, a sprawling mall in Little India, to bring home with me.
Next up was Hanoi, Vietnam. Stepping off the plane, the cool air was a welcomed relief after Singapore’s stifling heat.
We hired a local guide to show us around the sights during the day and take us on a street food tour at night. Hanoi can be difficult to navigate, so this turned out to be a stress-free way to see the city’s old quarter and try some of the iconic dishes, like bun cha — noodles and grilled pork — and egg coffee.
We also spent a night on a cruise in Hạ Long Bay. Even with cloudy weather, it was beyond stunning. Our cruise had activities lined up, like kayaking, a cooking demonstration, and nighttime squid fishing.
After Vietnam, we flew to Bangkok, Thailand. At this point, we were burned out from exploring huge cities, so we biked around the city’s “Green Lung.” Our guide helped us navigate the island’s system of elevated sidewalks that weave into the jungle, and brought us to a roadside stand that had the best mango sticky rice made with mangoes grown on the Green Lung.
I said goodbye to my parents in Bangkok and flew to Osaka, Japan, where I caught a train to Kyoto for the solo portion of my adventure. I didn’t have to plan for anyone except myself, which was liberating in a country with so many options. I fell in love with the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city, and the iconic Fushimi Inari Shrine, which, according to japan-guide.com, has thousands of bright orange gates.
My adventure wasn’t quite over yet. From Kyoto, I took a bullet train to Nagoya. I spent the day exploring the houses, shopping on the Main Street, and trying food made with locally-sourced ingredients. Then, for some much-needed relaxation, I took a train to Hakone-Machi and checked into an onsen (Japanese hot spring) resort. I was there for less than 24 hours, but I made the most of my private onsen.
Finally, I caught another train bound for my last stop: Tokyo. From the top of the SkyTree tower, I saw buildings sprawling in every direction and realized how immense the city really is. I ate my fill of ramen and sushi, explored the mind-boggling food floor at an Isetan department store, and visited the Sensō-ji Temple.
If I had decided to stay on campus for my last semester of college, I would have made some pretty special memories. This trip, however, allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and have once-in-a-lifetime experiences on the daily. This trip was exhilarating, breathtaking, and challenging all at once. I learned so much more about myself than I ever could have in a classroom — and I would do it all over again.
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