The attractions of Asia are so many and varied it is easy to see why it can become so sublimely addictive for travellers. Amazing landscapes; incredible history; inspiring art and architecture; and such a diverse range of cultures it is mind-blowing. Coming up with a top 30 things to see and do in Asia was obviously quite a challenge as there are so many to choose from.
I’ve done a quick count and I have visited 17 countries in Asia – so still a few to cover – and here are my top 30 experiences while travelling in Asia. Where possible I have tried to offer ways to avoid from the tourist hordes while still including the very best of Asia travel. I have also included a mix of monuments and natural attractions.
It proved too much of a challenge to put them in any line of preference so here they are in no particular order, my top 30 things to see in Asia:
1. India: The coloured cities of Rajasthan
Take a tour (on trains and buses of course) through the coloured cities of Rajasthan in India. The spectacle of the wars, honour and extravagance of the Rajputs (now bewilderingly reduced to commoners) is something else. There’s romantic Udaipur the white city, Jodhpur the blue city, Jaisalmer the golden city and Jaipur the pink city.
2. Tajikistan: The Pamir Highway
The Pamir Highway is a high altitude road in Tajikistan that is one of the world’s great journeys. The lush Wakhan valley features fortresses built to guard the silk road, monastic caves, ancient petroglyphs and Zoroastrian fire platforms. Then it’s up, up, up with views of the Hind Kush and across hundreds of miles of high altitude landscape, at or around 4000 metres, with a few brilliantly blue lakes, tumble-weed villages and herds of yaks.
3. Nepal: The Gokyo Valley trek
Forget the Everest Base Camp trek – that’s a highway of group trekkers and expedition trains. Take the path less travelled in Nepal’s Khumbu region and do the Gokyo Valley trek. Tranquil villages, good teahouses, spectacular alpine scenery and a view of Mt Everest from the Gokyo Ri peak that is better than that from Kala Patar. Another day trip from Gokyo village up the valley towards Cho Oyu is another wonderful day.
4. Cambodia: Siem Reap and the Angkor temples
Siem Reap is the gateway to the famed temple complex of the ancient Khmer kingdom at Angkor. From the enigmatic and serene stone faces of the Bayon to pageants on the Terrace of the Elephants, from the temple mountains to the ruined jungle monasteries entwined with tree roots, you will need several days to do the site justice.
5. Malaysia: The Ancient Town of Malacca
Down on the tip of Peninsula Malaysia, the little town of Malacca (Melaka in Malay) was one of the highlights of my holidays in Malaysia. The Straits of Malacca were a vital commercial shipping route in the period of European colonial expansion and Malacca revels in a variety of rulers and influences. Apart from the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed colonial town centre and Portuguese fort, there’s a colourful Chinatown, brightly painted wooden shophouses and delicious Nyonya food.
6. Laos: Sultry Luang Phabang
Luang Phabang in Laos was the historical royal capital of an ancient 14-15th century kingdom and rejoices in both this and its French colonial legacy. Built around a wooded hill it is full of temples and hundreds of saffron robed novices and monks. There are some very romantic guesthouses and restaurants.
7. Thailand: The Ang Thong Marine Park
This marine sanctuary near Koh Samui was the original inspiration for Alex Garland’s novel The Beach. I know the film was shot around Koh Phi Phi on the opposite coast but Ang Thong is where you’ll find the island with the emerald lagoon in the middle. You can catch daytripper ferries to the Ang Thong Marine Park from the docks at Koh Samui. It takes about an hour to walk over the hill from the outer beach to the secret lagoon.
8. Uzbekistan: The Golden City of Samarkand
The history and architecture of Samarkand in Uzbekistan will knock your indie travel socks off. Even if you’ve never read James Elroy Flecker or Oscar Wilde, heard of Alexander the Great or Timur, the beauty of the massive Islamic architectural set pieces here will impress.
9. Vietnam: Sa Pa and the northern hill country
The hill country of northern Vietnam was the favourite part of my sojourn in Vietnam. The colourful costumes of the different tribes, trekking through the steeply terraced paddy fields and the cacophonous markets are all easy to see and explore from the hill town of Sa Pa.
10. Sri Lanka: The Cultural Capital of Kandy
I fell in love with the Sri Lankan city of Kandy within minutes of arriving. Yes it is a busy, traffic clogged Asian city but it somehow manages to retain its lush, green environment and bucket loads of laid-back charm. Read about my favourite things to do in Kandy…
11. Kyrgyzstan: Trekking from Karakol
The opportunities for trekking in Kyrgyzstan are legion – with 93 per cent of the country sitting at over 1,000m the possibilities are pretty much endless. The town of Karakol is a great base for a trekking holiday in the eastern end of the beautiful Terskei Alu mountain range of Kyrgyzstan. Either independently or with a local guide, you can do a number of easy day treks, overnight trips or more extensive expeditions into the mountains. To find out more about hiking and travelling in Kyrgyzstan take a look at my ebook ‘Travels in Kyrgyzstan’.
12. Hong Kong: Victoria Harbour cruise
There are lots of ‘classic’ things to do in Hong Kong but my favourite is the Victoria Harbour cruise at night. After strolling along the Avenue of Stars and watching the Hong Kong skyline light show, catch a wooden, red-sailed Chinese junk – the Acqua Luna – and enjoy the views from the water over an Asian-style cocktail or two.
13. India: The Golden Temple in Amritsar
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the most holy place for the Sikh religion and the beauty of the temple as it seems to float in the surrounding water is really something. It is a serene place with thousands of pilgrims flocking to worship in the tanks. The atmosphere is both colourful and inspiring.
14. Vietnam: Charming Hoi An
Hoi An is a highly romantic small town in central Vietnam with markets, charming Chinese shop houses and a pretty riverside setting. Enjoy a delicious bowl of Pho at one of the riverfront restaurants, watch life going on beside the river and have a new suit of clothes made at one of the many tailor shops.
15. Thailand: The Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi
So close to Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is a great little town. You can pet tigers, bathe with baby elephants, walk a section of the infamous ‘Death Railway’ where so many Allied POWs and Asian forced labourers died, visit the WWII cemetery and the excellent museum. And of course cross the famous bridge on the train, keeping Alec Guinness in mind. It is Thailand tourist heaven.
16. India: Old and New Delhi
From the magnificence of the Red Fort to the bustle of Connaught Place, Delhi does not disappoint. The clash or great wealth and deepest poverty are everywhere, alongside ancient and modern examples of grandiosity such as the Qutb Minar and the India Gate. You could spend a lifetime discovering this city. My absolutely favourite Delhi site is Hamayum’s tomb, a lovely instance of early Mughal architecture and a quiet place to wander in the late afternoon.
17. Malaysia: Bustling Penang
Penang is a must-visit in Malaysia even if just to eat and eat the to-die-for street stall food. But it also has colonial-era architecture on the waterfront, a fascinating built-over-the-water village and impressive temples in Chinatown, including the magnificent Khong Si temple.
18. Uzbekistan: Ancient Bukhara
Another fabulous Silk Road city, dripping with history and beauty. The ancient buildings of Bukhara rest in soft golden splendour around serene tanks of green water. Magnificent medressahs covered with majolica tiles in every shade of blue feature unusual (in Islamic art) pictures of swooping birds and a golden phoenix. There are treasures on every quiet street.
19. India: Himchal Pradesh and the toy trains
Maybe it’s cheating to include a whole state but this is my favourite part of India. Take the ‘toy’ narrow gauge train up to colonial Simla and mingle with the Punjabi tourists enjoying the fresh air in their cardigans along the Mall. Look for Kipling’s Kim in the bazaar tumbling down the hillside. Then catch a bus to Kalka and for a true indie travel experience take a journey on the Kangra Valley train, stopping off in Dharamasala/McLeod Ganj for a few days trekking in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas.
20. Laos: The Four Thousand Islands
Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands in Laos is a landlocked archipelago where the Mekong River spreads out into a 14-kilometre-wide area before crashing through some enormous rapids and becoming a normal river again in Cambodia. Rent a hut with a hammock and relax on the verandah overlooking the river before taking a stroll through the paddy fields and villages of this delightful backwater.
21. Nepal: The Annapurna region
From the loveliness of Pokhara beside it’s jewel-like lake, the trekking in Nepal’s Annapurna region is some of the most famous in the world. I did the Annapurna Base Camp trek (10 days) for the most spectacular mountain scenery of the Annapurna Sanctuary. Highlights included lush valleys strewn with bright rhododendrons, sleepy villages and the exquisite Macchupucchre – Fishtail Mountain.
22. Sri Lanka: Talalla Beach
I searched long and hard for the perfect beach on Sri Lanka’s popular south coast. A beach that is not over developed, or thronged with tourists and bars and rubbish. A proper beach: stunningly beautiful, serenely quiet, unspoilt and almost undiscovered. After all you do want some accommodation and maybe a place to enjoy a sundowner. So forget Bentota, Hikkaduwa and Mirissa, the best beach in Sri Lanka is Talalla Beach. Quick, while it’s still unspoilt!
22. Malaysia: The Perhentian Islands
I’m not so much of a beach holiday person but the best ‘paradise islands’ I’ve visited in the sense of white sand, water like pale green glass, lush jungle and a laid-backpacker beach scene was on the Perhentian Islands off the east coast of Malaysia. There is wonderful diving (and diving schools available). It’s quite out of the way and you have to catch a little boat from Kota Bharu to get to the Perhentians so Koh Samui this is not.
23. Kyrgyzstan: Stay in a Yurt with the Nomads
Many of Kyrgyzstan’s people still live a semi-nomadic lifestyle, caring for their flocks of fat-bottomed sheep, goats and horses in the high pastures all summer. They live in transportable yurts, tent-like structures made of a thin willow frame covered with thick felt. Staying with a family in a yurt is one of the essential experiences in Kyrgyzstan.
24. India: The Taj Mahal
A tourist cliche that deserves all the accolades it gets, Agra’s Mughal architecture is a highlight of India. Make sure you see the Taj Mahal at dawn and leave by 10am as the tour buses from Delhi arrive. And don’t forget to go across the river to see the ‘baby Taj’ and view Nur Jahan’s mausoleum across the fields from a different angle.
25. Vietnam: Old Hanoi
Hanoi, the ancient capital of Vietnam is quite a contrast to the bustling, developed south . The serenity of its lakes and tree-lined boulevards partners with the cramped streets of the old quarter, which is full of traditional shops and workrooms. You could wander here for days and see something bizarre or wonderful every few minutes.
26. China: The Misty Peaks of Yangshuo
In the south of China, the landscape surrounding the town of Yangshuo is home to legendary karst mountain scenery and the misty beauty of the River Li. Rent a bamboo raft to float down the river and maybe even try a bit of rock climbing. We avoided the overcrowded area around the town by staying at an idyllic eco lodge – the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat (this is the view from the garden).
27. Bali: The Central Highlands
Get out of the overdeveloped south of Bali as soon as you can and head for the hills. The Central Highlands of Bali are simply gorgeous and a real antidote to the boring resorts. Base yourself in the village of Munduk and enjoy gorgeous scenery, jungle treks, wonderful food, interaction with friendly locals and the famous Jatiluwah rice terraces.
28. Vietnam: Ha Long Bay
I admit was a bit put off by the touristy nature of getting to see Ha Long Bay in Vietnam but cannot deny that it is one of the most beautiful places on the globe. That incredible limestone karst scenery, the golden sunsets, the little floating villages and fruit selling boat people. Make sure you stay a night or two out there to enjoy the sunset/sunrise and feel the peace.
29. Sri Lanka: The Fortress of Galle
The fortress of Galle is a many layered beast, with multiple levels of architecture adding up to a mysteriously beautiful scrap of urbanity perched upon Sri Lanka’s south coast. It has a history that stretches back a thousand years and a mixture of glamour and dilapidation that is irresistible.
30. Vietnam: Hue and the Perfume River
The Nguyen dynasty built their Forbidden Purple City during the 17th to 19th centuries but now only shattered remains sit peacefully in a grass-grown garden, surrounded by a teeming, nearly million-strong Vietnamese city of Hue. From these exquisite and evocative ruins take a boat down the Perfume River to the pleasure grounds and mausoleum of the poet emperor Tu Duc.
The Top 30 Things to do in Asia
So there it is, my list of the top 50 things to see in Asia. Do you agree with my selection; have more suggestions? It’s a work in progress so let me know. No doubt I’ll think of more I desperately want to add to the list tomorrow. And I’m constantly being inspired to see more. It’s incredible, Asia.
By Natasha von Geldern