An Insider’s Guide To The Top 10 Destinations In Asia

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eating Your Way Through London

Looking for some ideas for your next trip? Here are 10 must-see spots in Asia as revealed by an insider.

Asia is the ultimate travel destination for the summer: easily accessible, endlessly diverse and comfortably affordable. With exciting cities, scenic splendor, fascinating wildlife, towering monuments and unique festivals, all of your best travel stories are likely to originate here. Just some of the highlights of this incomparable region, from India to Japan, are covered in this short but comprehensive guide.

1) India: Jaisalmer

The interminable bus journey to reach this dauntingly remote corner of India is amply rewarded by the spectacle of Jaisalmer’s vast city wall, with its 99 circular turrets rising dramatically out of the Thar Desert. Once inside the Golden City, look for the havelis, the former mansion houses of rich merchants, with their glorious honeycomb balconies and lattice-work parapets. This is a place to lose yourself in twisting medieval streets, then explore beyond the surrounding sand dunes on a camel trek.

Don’t miss: The ornate gate, complete with Krishna temple, leading to the Gadi Sagar Lake at sunset.

2) Japan: Snow Festivals

top10asia2The gigantic snow buildings of Sapporo are the best known, but for a true winter wonderland, seek out the smaller festivals taking place between January and March. At nearby Asahikawa, dozens of dazzling ice sculptures shine with ghostly luminescence in the frigid air; farther south at Yokote, the locals construct 10,000 candlelit kamakura igloos throughout the town. In the highlands of Daisetsuzan National Park, the psychedelic snowscape of Sounkyo is easily the strangest thing you’ll see on your travels.

Don’t miss: The chance to chisel your own ice block at Tokiwa Park in Asahikawa.

3) Thailand: Ko Samui

Samui may be sneered at by purist travelers, but on its own terms the island is great fun. The beachfront bungalows suit all budgets, and you can stock up on western luxuries before heading up-country to more “authentic” destinations. The nightlife hotspots of Lamai and Chaweng are offset by the tranquil resorts of Maenam and Choeng Mon, the interior is rich with waterfalls and tropical forest, and it’s not every day you get the chance to pray to a mummified monk at Wat Kunaram. Samui is also the jumping-off point for the 42 islands of Angthong marine park.

Don’t miss: The airport — surprising but true: one of the most beautiful in the world.

4) Cambodia: Bokor National Park

While the vast majority of travelers head straight to Angkor Wat, Bokor offers the chance for physically fit (and endlessly patient) jungle trekkers to spot Malayan sun bears, huge hornbills and rhesus monkeys. The flora, including pitcher plants and Venus flytraps, is equally enticing. On the high ground sits the blackened, burnt-out shell of the abandoned Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino (a filming location for many horror flicks). Once the playground of French colonialists, this eerie structure still smolders to this day. Treks from one day to one week are available. For a less demanding adventure, neighboring Ream National Park offers languid long-tail boat rides through miles of mangrove.

Don’t miss: The sound of the jungle by night from a bunk at the National Park Research and Training Facility.

5) Hong Kong

One of the world’s most exciting cities — comprising Hong Kong Island, mainland Kowloon, the New Territories and the outlying islands — is best appreciated in all its illuminated glory from Victoria Peak. Temple Street night market is an intoxicating, if sometimes harrowing experience: think pirate DVDs and fake designer clothes alongside buckets of doomed toads. Find your Taoist fortune at Wong Tai Sin Temple (with its resident soothsayers), gaze up at futuristic architecture and enjoy sensational street food wherever you are.

Don’t miss: The colossal bronze Buddha dominating Lantau Island.

6) Indonesia: Borobudur

top10asia3Dramatically ringed by mountains on the island of Java, the monumental temple of Borobudur — the world’s largest Buddhist structure — was swallowed by dense jungle for close to a thousand years. Now restored, the massive, multi-terraced monument reveals to visitors the path to enlightenment: the base section symbolizes the earthly world of desire, the middle division is the transitional sphere and the circular summit symbolizes formless nirvana. At the center of the upper platform stands a mysterious hollow dome, surrounded by 72 stupas in three concentric tiers. Plenty to think about.

Don’t miss: The view of smoking volcanoes from the Sphere of Formlessness.

7) Malaysia: Perhentian Islands

Pulau Pangkor on the west coast may have the loveliest sunsets, but the two Perhentian Islands — Besar (Big Island) and Kecil (Small Island) — are the quintessential textbook paradise. With few permanent residents, there are no roads, no nightclubs and you can forget about checking your e-mail. Instead, devote your time to swimming in crystal-clear seas, then eat whatever the fishermen catch that day as your table slowly sinks into the sand. After dark, turtle watching at Three Coves Bay is also worthwhile.

Don’t miss: Scuba diving — there’s no better place to learn.

8) Philippines: Batanes

Closer to Taiwan than Manila, the Philippines’ final frontier is a windswept world unto itself: an island with its own ivatan language, dress and customs, and velvety highlands more reminiscent of Scotland than Asia. The rumble of the ocean is everywhere: this is where the Pacific meets the South China Sea, with churning green waves crashing over serrated volcanic rocks. Ride a motorbike around the grandly named National Road to experience one of the world’s loveliest coastlines, then meet the locals at the Port karaoke bar, the only entertainment for nautical miles.

Don’t miss: The timeless neighboring island of Sabtang, 45 queasy minutes away by falowa boat.

9) Vietnam: Halong Bay

The 2,000-plus limestone outcrops soaring from the emerald waters of Halong Bay form a seascape of otherworldly beauty: 600 square miles of secret coves and echoing grottoes with names like Pelican Cave and Cave of Awe. The islands vary greatly in size; some are mere rocks, others, like Dau Be, have six enclosed lakes. A languid trip around the Bay of the Descending Dragon aboard a traditional junk is the perfect counterpoint to the frenetic pleasures of nearby Hanoi.

Don’t miss: The chance to kayak around your very own island — at least temporarily.

10) Singapore

Sultry Singapore has a reputation for oppressive orderliness — even chewing gum was famously banned — but look closer and a microcosm of the best of Asia emerges. Little India is a heady assault on the senses, Chinatown has streets largely unchanged since the 19th century, the Arab Quarter is an evocative place to haggle for textiles and the Zoological Gardens is a fantastic collection of 240 species separated by moats rather than cages. After that, you’ve earned a Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel.

Don’t miss: An evening on Boat Quay, a curving neon strip of thriving restaurants and bars.

By Carl Thompson


About the Author

Carl Thompson has been writing for travel publications and guidebooks for many years, mainly with the intention of avoiding a proper job. For the full story of a misspent decade, please visit

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