Top Ten Destinations in Asia
What are the Top Destinations in Asia?
China this, Thailand that. See Malaysia, Truly Asia! Incredible India. Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder. More Fun in the Philippines! Where do you start when you get the first whiff of the Asia bug?
Top Places to Go in Asia
Well, I can't say I have the answer. But for the last 20 years, we have wandered around Asia and have not seen it all. It is really not possible unless you just devote your time to travelling. But we have trudged through enough disasters to know what works for us. We are not young trekkers nor older retirees.
My husband and I work in Asia as consultants and have had a chance to dig into the cities and the rural areas where our work is often centred. We like to learn but we love to have a bit of fun.
We know the highlights, the ahhhhhhhh lower lights, the fakes, stretched truth and tomorrow's hopes expressed at today's realities. So, based on our experience, here are the top destinations in our Asia list. I have included more than 10. None of them will disappoint you and we don't get a dime out of the sharing.
- Cambodia: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
- China: Shanghai
- Indonesia: Bali and Ubud
- Sri Lanka: Sigiriya
- Laos: Luang Prabang
- Japan: Kumano
- The Philippines: Concepcion, Iloilo
- South Korea: Jeju Island
Singapore is the best place to try out Asia for the first time. The culture shock is not as hard on the psyche. You can also experience a city leading in urban solutions from transport to traffic management, waste management and security.
Singapore has really made a good decision around its ethnic centers. It has protected each one and made it into something they are proud of, not hide in today's modern world. We can't really escape from our own history, we can only cherish and enhance it. This is what Singapore has done.
Beyond culture, Singapore has consciously made its development green. There are many green spaces inside the city and one you should not miss is the Botanical Garden. Use the Hop On-Hop Off buses and this is one of the stops. From here, you can go shopping in Orchard Road and then take the river cruise which is included in your bus ticket. Or just stay in the bus and be amazed at Singapore's architecture. Of course, if you have kids, Sentosa is the place to be.
Have you visited Singapore?
Myanmar has been in the news lately with the government showing signs of change. The US government has removed sanctions and opened its embassy in the country. Several other countries have also done the same, others even earlier. Aung San Suu Kyi is now actively involved in government. And to top this all, the ASEAN has given Myanmar the chairmanship for 2014, a move that will further intensify reforms.
Myanmar has to deal with its own political problems but it is a must see place in Southeast Asia especially if you love temples in misty mountains, old colonial buildings and gems. You must have read Kipling's The Road to Mandalay.
This is what Myanmar promises: fog covered hills and mountains, beaches and nature, temples and pagodas on the hills especially in Bagan and unspoilt villages hard to find nowadays.
Been to Bagan in Myanmar? - Have you?
Have you visited Bagan in Myanmar?
We worked in Vietnam immediately after it opened its doors to the West. We were based in Hanoi but traveled to Than Hoa and Haiphong. Now, we are back again in Hanoi and once again, are amazed at how much there is to enjoy in this city.
The tree lined Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter are my favourites as I can easily walk from where we live and explore its nooks and corners. There is so much to discover about the place.
We also visited Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An and Hue. Vietnam has the most hardworking people I have ever seen. This accounts for the development the country experienced recently. There are many interesting places to visit with Ha Long Bay as the top in my list. Hoi An and Hue are superb destinations in Vietnam. You have the beaches in Hoi An and in Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, some of the relics of the past.
We booked the Caravelle Hotel in Ho Chi Minh, featured in several movies on Saigon, and the center of Saigon in pre-Vietnam War times to just relive the history of that era. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and experienced first hand the fast pace of development in Ho Chi Minh.
But there is nothing like Sapa. The colorful ethnic costumes in the green background of the mountains is breath taking.
Sapa is indeed worth visiting. With so many of Vietnam's ethnic minorities living in this area, your visit will give you a glimpse of their varied interesting cultures. The customs and ways of the minorities as well as the products they offer all contribute to the colourful life in this area.
The place is cooler with its captivating mountains sometimes capped with snow or mist. Walking through the paths and meeting the locals really make for a very interesting experience.
For hundreds of years, Siem Reap has been welcoming visitors to the temples of Angkor. Yet, it is not much known as a destination. It has an international airport with flights from Singapore,South Korea, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Cambodian visas are available upon arrival. Make sure you have your passport with at least 6-month validity, a 4x6 photo and US$30 (tourist) or US$35 (business) for a 30-day visa. Tourist visas can be extended for another month but only once whereas business visas can be renewed indefinitely.
There are border crossings from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. You can also fly from Phnom Penh, take the bus, or rent a car with a driver. For six hours, you can enjoy Cambodia`s rural villages and the life it offers. It is a very interesting drive especially for those who have not been to Asia before. The tourist infrastructure in Siem Reap is well in place. I particularly admire the latest improvement of the internet infrastructure as now surfing the web even in your hotel room is a much more pleasant experience.
There are excellent choices for hotels based on whatever budget from $10 to whatever luxury you require. The restaurants and pubs are world class. The Pub Street is not just pubs but art, boutiques and culture. Don`t forget to get yourself to an Apsara theater where you can watch traditional Khmer dance and the Khmer interpretation of the Ramayana. Another thing not to be missed is the bustling floating village in the Tonle Sap, the biggest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia. It is something you have not imagined. I know I'm exaggerating a bit but even the boat trip can be exciting.
But, of course, the biggest draw are the Temples of Angkor considered by many to be one of the best examples of architecture from the distant past. They are monuments to the power and influence of the Khmer Empire that dominated the area from 9th to the 12th centuries AD. At its height, Khmer kings constructed waterworks and grand temples which now represent the pinnacle of Khmer art and civilization. But do not limit your visit to Angkor Wat. Go and explore the other temples like Banteay Srei. I love the intricate red sandstone carvings in this temple. 16 kms. more and you will reach The River of a Thousand Lingas, a riverbed with Hindu sculptures. Come now when you still can come close to authenticity.
Situated at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, Phnom Penh is a fresh travel destination that is developing its own personality with its little boutique hotels in the river front, its restaurants and bistros, art galleries and its little silk shops all over the city. Historical sites such as the old temples, the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, and the Choung Ek Memorial.
Phnom Penh's phsars or markets are shopping destinations you should not miss. Take a tuktuk and go to Russian market through its packed aisles lined with hand loomed silk and silk bags, silk scarves, silver jewelry, fabrics, DVDs, ceramics and wood carvings. Other markets including Central Market, Olympic and O'Russei are still the traditional ones found in many countries in Asia years ago and to go shopping to these places is quite an experience. It is still free of super malls so it has a charm that delights those who have never seen some of these old market places.
Have you been to the Penh? - Let us know
Have you been to Phnom Penh?
A Visit to Shanghai
Have you visited Shanghai?
Shanghai just recently finished hosting the 2010 World Expo, the most attended expo ever. For this major event, Shanghai has changed tremendously. The city has renovated most of its historical landmarks. The spectacular trip to and from the airport through the Maglev, the only one in the world is an experience. It takes you as fast as 301 kms. per hour.
The Bund has been renovated and its old buildings, when Shanghai was a famous international port in the past, declared heritage properties. Go in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the former Shanghai Club, and try out The Long Bar restored to its former glory. The evening walks and river cruises are spectacular.
Do you recommend a visit to Shanghai?
Which is your top destination in Asia?
Indonesia: Bali and Ubud
Bali has, of course, been a favorite since. What is amazing, however, is how Bali has maintained if not reinvented itself to continue as a major holiday destination.
The gods must be happy here as people offer daily beautifully arranged baskets of flowers, food and other symbols of worship. Everyday, women with their beautifully crafted baskets line the streets to the temple. This is one traffic stopping spectacle. I wish as a tourist that I understood better what they were doing so I could join in their worship.
In front of stores and restaurants, women place flowers daintily on the front steps or the spirit houses or shrines that intermix with stores and houses making Bali communities unique than other places in Asia. One can't help but behold this scene and breathe in the smell of the flowers partaking in what is offered to the gods.
There is, of course, the ocean where one can enjoy not only a swim, a snorkel, a dive or a surf but also fresh seafood dinners on long beaches most especially on the shores of Jimbaran. Or the rice fields and fishponds that hide some of the amazing restaurants you can find. One of these is Sakti, a vegan restaurant in a healing center, Fivelements Puri Ahimsa located right on the Ayung River. There you can sample some of the culinary delights from its chef, Made Runatha, a Balinese who trained in the world's best raw vegan cuisine school, California's Living Light Culinary Arts Institute.
Shopping is a delight in Seminyak and Ubud where stores offer beautifully designed and crafted items. One can also visit villages where weavers and wood carvers as well as basket weavers show their craft and how these are made.
The Temple of Besakih and the Holy Spring Temple are a must see as well as the Court of Justice of the old Kingdom of Klungkung. Mount Agung, Mount Batur and Lake Beratan offer scenic views of springs and creeks and rice terraces in various hues of green. It is also interesting to see the ancient village of Bali Aga in Tenganan. Here you can walk around the original village and watch Ikat and basket weavers. The Ikat weavers do a sarong with the map of the community, a very interesting sociological feature.
If you love neon lights and some nightlife fun, go to Kuta.
Have you visited Bali?
Have you been to Bali?
What a great place to be in. Chosen by Conde Nast patrons as the top city in 2010, it certainly fits the bill. We were lucky to have decided to spend half of our Bali holidays in Nusa Dua and half in Ubud. From Ubud, it was easy for us to drive to some of the places we wanted to see in the first place. These places included Mt. Agung, Mt. Batur and Lake Beratan, KlungKung, Gianyar, Besakih and Tenganan.
Aside from these trips, our resort though in the middle of the ricefields is close to Ubud center. We had our own villa with its own private pool. The resort is also a museum, the ARMA Museum and Resort. Right in our hotel, there are traditional Balinese cultural presentations and guided participation in some of the rituals and ceremonies called yadnya. What an enhancing cultural experience. There are also cultural workshops in which one can learn traditional Bali dances and arts from the Bali masters themselves. One evening, we tried the Madibong, a traditional Balinese cuisine and we truly enjoyed it.
The whole stay in Ubud was a living experience of Balinese culture. There are galleries and artisans all over the place. There is so much to give the senses its delight as one walks through the streets, some natural and others beautifully crafted and presented.
Visit to Ubud
Have you visited Ubud?
Bangkok, Resort and Shopping Destination in Asia
Bangkok is still the favourite destination in Asia for many people. As their national airlines say, "Sawasdee", smooth as silk. It is easy to go to Bangkok. There are many flights, free entry upon arrival, no more departure fee to line up for, and all kinds of choices for transport: air, rail, water or ground.
Bangkok has also evolved to become the shopping destination of the world. Upscale shopping malls outdo each other in size and quality. Other local markets like Chatuchak, Pratunam and Sampheng compete for space in the shoppers' bags and suitcases. Arrive in the weekend so you can enjoy Chatuchak market. But if that is not possible, go to the night market. Even if you are a committed shopper, you will find yourself unable to go through the goods offered in so many stalls. Many are the same sellers at Chatuchak. The design has really improved and also the quality of the goods especially in women's fashion and accessories. You can also check out the Bang Lamphu Market, Sam Phaeng and the Bo Bae Wholesale Clothing Market.
You can see foreigners from various countries walk through the streets of Bangkok. The favourite for the younger ones and backpackers is Khao San Road. But don't forget that Bangkok is also the gateway to so many other beautiful places in Thailand. You can go for day trips to Ayudhaya, the ancient capital. Or, if you love the hills and mountains, go to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. If you are a history buff, visit the Bridge in the River Kwai. If you prefer the beaches, choices are plenty: Phuket, Koh Samui, Rayong, Hua Hin, Surathani, Trang and many more.
Been to Bangkok?
Have you been to Bangkok?
Nepal, Top South Asian Destination
As you approach Nepal, the Himalayas seem to transport you into another world, the world of magic and dungeons and dragons as the mountains reveal itself through the clouds. And as you get nearer, the mustard yellow fields add color to the blues and the grays and the greens of the landscape and it is just mystifying to someone who sees it for the first time. You think Switzerland but no. It has its own unique beauty. The Himalayas are so different from the Alps of Switzerland, Italy and Austria or the Pyrenees of France and Spain. Does this comparison hold?
Kathmandu, its capital has its history of trend. Freak Street in the 60s. Maybe, you, younger ones have not heard of this place so check it out. Now, Thamel has taken over. If you want fun and excitement, this is where you stay. But even for those who like the quiet, there is a little nook in Thamel you can stay in:The Courtyard Hotel. Most people found this hotel in one of their walks around Thamel and they could not believe how far it is from the hazzz and buzz of Thamel though it is right there. To hear interesting stories from fellow travellers, go to the Library in the evening. The Courtyard's Library is full of guests at around this time enjoying their drinks from the bar adjacent to it. The owners are there, too. So you can bug them about your room. There is a good collection of books but also of guests. And I tell you, you won't regret it. The stories are from all over the world and the people, too.
Of course, Kathmandu has 7 UNESCO heritage sites which will take up much of your time after your trek. Boudanath is still untouched by cosmopolitanism so you can enjoy much of the Buddhist traditions and culture when you visit this stupa. For those who want to explore more the Hindu influence on Nepal, go to Changu Narayan. There is Patan, the Durbar Square, Pashupatinath Temple, Swayambunath Temple, and Bhaktapur.
In these places, you will see the intriguing mix of Hinduism and Buddhism which perplexes only foreigners, not the Nepalese. This adds to the color and mystery and age old forms of worship taking place every day in many nooks and corners of the city or in temples and homes.
Maldives: A Beach Paradise
Maldives is the sure winner for beach resorts. Yes, it is paradise. No other beach holiday destination can beat Maldives. The water is crystal clear that diving and snorkeling are utterly enjoyable. The visibility is almost perfect. And not only that. You can also see so many species of fish and corals and other sea creatures as the Maldivians generally only eat tuna. As they use spears not nets to catch these tuna, this is a safe haven for sea creatures. The fish and turtles (even the sharks given so much food to target) are so friendly that sometimes, they enjoy swimming along with you.
Almost all the resorts have their own in-house reefs so diving and snorkeling are within easy reach. You can laze in the beach and then go for a snorkel any time you want. What more can you ask for? The sand is powdery white. The resort is usually the only inhabitant of the whole island so the guests enjoy their privacy especially when you have your own bungalow from where you can swim, snorkel or dive in the ocean, wade in your own pool, and have your butler deliver all your food and drinks. With a staff-guest ratio of 4-1, this is the holiday of a lifetime. Enjoy the pampering.
Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was called in the past is truly a garden. From the cities with beautiful old trees to its tea plantations and rice fields, green is Sri Lanka's color. Sri Lankahas one of the world's greatest botanical gardens flooded in the songs of birds. And its beaches are worth idling in. Head to the beaches in Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Its pristine beauty is there to enjoy but only for a short time as tourists are flocking to the newly opened places. The price is right.
Don't miss Kandy, Sri Lanka's ancient capital as it has its own charm and mystique. Worship with the locals in Sri Dalada Maligawa, a sacred Buddhist shrine set on a lake. And, of course, Sigiriya with its ancient water systems that was one of the best at its time.
The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage especially when you go right when the elephants go for their daily bath in the river is quite an experience. It is fun to watch some of those naughty elephants stunting for the tourists.
Add history and culture to all these and you certainly have a holiday worth remembering. And don't forget, if you want to get your hands into Buddhism and Ayurvedic healing, this is the place to go. But plan more days if this is your interest.
Sri Lanka Visit
Have you been to Sri Lanka?
India is really developing as a political and economic power in Asia but because of the old civilization that developed in the Indus River Valley, there is so much to see there not only in terms of places but also what they have accomplished through centuries like in textiles, food, architecture, film and more.
For me, the Taj Mahal in Agra is worth a visit and also Jaipur.
Laos: Luang Prabang
Laos as a whole is pretty laid back even Vientiane, its capital city. But this is the charm of the country. The European Union Council on Tourism and Trade awarded it The World's Best Tourist Destination for 2013. This Land of a Million Elephants won the title largely because of its effort in community based tourism and its protection of its heritage sites such as Vat Phou and the Plain of Jars.
You can walk the streets and ride through the countryside and see many Asian cities in the same shape in the 50s and 60s. It typifies a life not ruled by targets and deadlines. One can just enjoy life and savour it.
You can enjoy a walk along the banks of the Mekong and sample some French food as there are still French restaurants around. You can shop for some Laos fabric and scarves and some of the Hmong handicrafts. Or maybe enjoy interacting with the locals in the market and the streets. I enjoy its rural setting as it reminds me of the places when I was growing up in Asia.
But if there is one place to visit in Laos, Luang Prabang is at the top of my list. Believe me, it is not short on adventure. You can go tubing, cave hunting, or trekking.
Nestled where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong in north-central Laos, Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos until the Communist take-over in 1975. This wonderful history is laid out and totally accessible. Believe me, this is one of the winners.
Luang Prabang Visit
Have you visited Luang Prabang?
Japan: The UNESCO Heritage Pilgrimage Route in Asia - Kumano
Japan is one place I love to visit. It is a mix of modernity and tradition. But what I like most are its natural landscape which for me is spiritually invigorating. The Japanese seem to always go out to their countryside to seek spiritual communion in its luxuriance and sacred shrines dotting these places. A favourite is the old Kumano passage where one can take sort of a pilgrimage as one visits the sacred shrines and temples built as early as the 9th century surrounded by rivers, streams and water falls. It is one of only two pilgrimage routes dubbed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The recent earthquake and tsunami has terribly damaged Japan and it will take time for the country to be on its feet again. It is, however, very efficient in facing the challenge so before you know it Japan will be again as strong as it has been.
The Philippines has one of the best beaches in the world. Its over 7 thousand islands will always ensure beaches that are as yet not tourist trodden. Its dive sites attract divers over and over again to come and enjoy a dive. But over and beyond this, the hospitality of the Filipinos is unrivalled. They will take you in as part of the family the very moment they meet you.
I don't have to write much about the Philippines as so many lensmasters have already done a marvelous job. Just do your search and you will be surprised how many lenses will turn up.
South Korea: Jeju Island
Its recent hosting of the G20 has indeed placed South Korea in the international map. Its fast advancing companies now leading internationally in a number of sectors are in itself a fascinating study and a good reason to visit.
We visited Seoul one weekend and enjoyed going around the city. It is a very easy city to go on your own using public transport. But once you're there, make sure you go to Jeju.
Have you been to Asia?
Will you go back again to Asia?
Fresh Destinations in Asia
I have already been to Asia so many times. Why should I go again? Well, Agoda after analyzing bookings and customer reviews have released the top 10 fresh destinations. I can say, after years of working in Asia, I can claim to have visited only one. I had been to those countries where they are located but in the past some of these places were not in radar screen of travellers.
What about you?Which of these places have you visited? Tell us what you think if you have been to these places.
Which of these fresh destinations in Asia have you visited?
© 2010 Mary Norton