As for Costa Rica, I think it would be ideal for what you have in mind. It’s by far the most tourist-friendly (and English speaking friendly) country in that area, so it’s a great starting point. Belize is pretty easy as well, although there is far less nature to enjoy. Panama and Nicaragua are a bit cheaper and have similar things to offer, but Costa Rica has the best infrastructure and nature parks, so it’s less stressful for a first-timer. The snorkeling is better on the Caribbean coast, I believe, but the better tourist beaches are on the Pacific. The country is pretty quick to get across, so you could easily spend a few days on both sides, plus another few exploring the rain forests and volcanoes and such.
As for Malaysia, I’m a big fan, and with your friend there it should be easy. Interestingly, I was just in China myself recently and a few days ago I published a long article on my advice for whether to go yourself to China or go on a group tour. I also discuss the most popular and best places to visit when you are there in the bottom part of the article. One tricky thing for many of us is that you have to get a China travel visa and some of us can only get that visa issued in our home country, at least according to their rules. I literally spent years traveling around Asia but I was never able to visit China because they required that I get a visa issued in the US and I had to show my flights booked from the US to China and then from China back to the US. If I could have gotten a visa issued at a Chinese embassy in Bangkok or Singapore, I would have done it years ago.

I know Italy is the world’s top wine producer and they obviously make a lot of olive oil as well. I’ve seen on many travel shows how it’s fairly easy to visit the olive oil places, and of course most wineries have places where you can see the process and taste it. The thing is though, that even Sicily is quite chilly in December so they might close down for the season. You definitely won’t get sunbathing weather in December at all. I would say you are best off in May, June, September, and October to get good weather and not have to deal with the insane crowds in July or August. Tuscany is the easiest to reach of the 3, but because of that its beach towns are most likely to be crowded in those warm months. I hope this helps and let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger
If you are going for one week I wouldn’t go all the way to Thailand, but if it’s two weeks I think it’s worth it. It takes most of a day in each direction, but flights are often reasonably priced, and everything there is cheap once you get there. I’ve actually lived in Thailand for 6 months and have visited many more times and it’s actually very easy and stress free once you are there. All the important signs are in English and nearly everyone you’ll encounter as a tourist will speak enough English to help you as well. You can get around by train or VIP bus for cheap, or fly to the islands for cheap. It’s very safe there as well. You could spend a few days in Bangkok and then head to one of the islands or take a train up to Chiang Mai.
Traveling in December means you either fully lean into the holiday season, or else escape it entirely and flee to somewhere warm. Personally, I try to appreciate the cold weather while we have it and max out on warm seasonal beverages, colorful lights, soft snow, and good company. True, some places are overwhelmed by the capitalist engine that powers Christmas, but you can still get a non-denominational-winter-wonderland fix, if you know where to look. No matter your travel preference, there’s a perfect place in this world for you to bask in those final sunsets of 2018.
Southeast Asia is easier to deal with, and there are cheap flights connecting in the Middle East and landing in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Each of those is a very interesting city, and there are many smaller places to go in the same region. In Malaysia there is Penang and Melaka. In Thailand there is Chiang Mai and quite a few others in that area. In Laos you can visit Luang Prabang, which sounds like it could be a winner for you. And there is also Siem Reap, which is home to the amazing Angkor Wat temple complex.
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