The countries of Asia have rich cultures, complex histories and incredible landscapes, so travellers who have a nose for discovery are sure to find something fascinating to experience wherever they go. That said, there are some truly world-class things to do that deserve a place on every wish list and, hopefully, on your next itinerary. These are our picks of the best of the best.
View the sunrise or sunset at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is a magical place at any time of day, but it’s especially stunning at sunrise and sunset when the ancient sandstone buildings glow in the soft rosy pink or golden light. This sprawling, jungle-wrapped temple complex in the north-west of Cambodia is rightly one of the superstars of UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, and a trip here should be on everyone’s bucket list. Not surprisingly, it attracts millions of visitors a year, so if you want to escape the crowds it pays to skip the standard tours and opt for something more imaginative. A day-long cycle tour led by a local expert ticks a lot of boxes. It’s eco-friendly, fun and means you can see highlights such as Ta Prohm, aka the Tomb Raider Temple – held together by massive tree roots – along with less well-trodden parts of the site that are just made for an away-from-it-all sunset moment.
Set out on an overnight cruise in Halong Bay or Lan Ha Bay
When it comes to otherworldly landscapes, it would be hard to imagine anywhere more incredible than Halong Bay, another UNESCO-listed must-see. This vast bay in northern Vietnam is studded with jagged limestone karsts and islands that rise out of the turquoise sea like dragon spines, and a boat trip to explore this stunning area is very much on travellers’ to-do lists. Just to the south, you’ll find Lan Ha Bay, smaller and less visited but with similarly stunning, ethereal scenery. Boat cruises only started operating here in 2017, and the focus is very much on sustainable tourism and eco-friendly vessels. It’s worth spending a night or two out on the water, preferably on a stylish boat that’s an experience in itself, soaking up the authentic atmosphere and enjoying the unspoiled environment. You’ll see everything from floating villages of pearl divers to colourful fishing boats and maybe even the occasional playful dolphin as you glide along.
Stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan
One of the things that makes Japan such an enjoyable place to travel is the country’s incredible culture of hospitality. The word for it, omotenashi, means ‘to wholeheartedly look after guests’ and helps to explain the lack of tipping – because making the customer happy is reward enough. You’ll encounter it everywhere you go, whether you’re dining in an upmarket restaurant or just buying a train ticket and a snack to take with you. One of the best ways to experience it is to spend a few nights in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. You’ll discover some of the most atmospheric in Takayama, Yudanaka and, of course, Kyoto. Here, you’ll sleep on cosy futons – set out each evening by your nakai-san, your personal member of the hospitality team – in rooms simply furnished with paper screens and tatami matting, and sample the delights of a formal kaiseki dinner that’s as much a work of art as a meal.
Enjoy a foodie experience or cooking class
A country’s food is as much a part of its culture as its history, arts and crafts, and wherever you go in Asia there are people eager to share their passion for their local, regional and national specialities with foreign visitors. You’ll find a host of street-food tours at all times of the day and night, from breakfast on the go in Shanghai to after-dark grazing in Hanoi – and if you don’t fancy walking, you could perhaps cycle, ride pillion on a Vespa or travel by cycle rickshaw. For an adventure you get to take home with you afterwards, though, we recommend a cooking class. The best, such as Chef Nak’s Khmer cuisine class in Cambodia, include shopping at a local market, lessons in how to choose and prepare the ingredients and recipes that you’ll be able to recreate at home. You’ll be having so much fun, you won’t even realise how much you’re learning about the local way of life at the same time!
Experience an ethical visit to an elephant conservation sanctuary
Elephants have long had a special place in the culture of south-east Asia, where they crop up in zodiacs, illuminated manuscripts and the decorations of buildings. Because of their strength and stamina, they’ve also been used for transport, including on the battlefield, and for hauling heavy loads, most recently by the logging industry. Sadly, the population of Asian elephants in the wild has fallen to a worryingly low level in the past 60 years – they’re now officially endangered – and people have also started to think carefully about the treatment of those in captivity. Fortunately, recent years have seen the creation of elephant sanctuaries run on ethical lines where the welfare of the animals is the top priority. Come to one of these and you’re not just supporting their work, you’ll also get to see happy, healthy elephants in a natural environment and interact with them in a way that works for them: feeding them and walking with them, rather than sitting on their backs.
Your journey will start with one of our UK team – someone like Malcolm, who's travelled extensively in your chosen destination. They’ll shape your ideas into the trip of a lifetime. But they won't do it alone. They'll draw on the expertise of our contacts on the ground, connecting you to the people who'll make your holiday one you'll always remember - guides who can give you genuine insights into local life and culture, chefs who can teach you how to rustle up the local cuisine and safari rangers who'll ensure you'll spot the best wildlife.
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