Best places to visit in Asia
1. Be awed by the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is the longest structure ever created by man, and the ultimate expression of China’s engineering genius – an awe-inspiring stone and brick fortification powering across some 5,500km.
Its sinuous form took over a millennia to build, with emperor after emperor connecting sections which stretch from the lower reaches of Yellow River to the wind-whipped Gobi Desert in Mongolia to mountainous Dadong in North Korea and frontier forts on the snowy edges of Russia.
2. Voyage along the Mekong
From its source high in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River courses through six countries – China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam – bestowing life on tens of millions of people along the way.
Cruise its amber-coloured tributaries and sink into views of colourful floating markets, playful fresh-water dolphins, fantastical limestone karsts and pleats of lime green rice fields – scenes given an added sense of nostalgia with the knowledge of how quickly this region is changing.
3. Hang out with Borneo’s orangutans
The critically-endangered orangutan, native to Borneo and Sumatra, is the only genus of great ape to be found in Asia. Pot-bellied, auburn-haired, with round faces and long arms, their name in Malay means ‘person of the forest’.
Cruise the Kinabatangan River, said to have the highest concentration of wildlife in Malaysia, to spot huddles of orangutans dozing in trees. Or visit the Sir Attenborough-endorsed Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre for up-close interactions with rescued primates.
4. Marvel at Angkor Wat
No other archeological site in Southeast Asia comes close to the majesty of the vast jungle-tangled Angkor Wat complex, one of the largest religious monuments in the world.
The seat of the Khmer dynasty from the 9th century until the early 13th century, its towers, stupas, temples and beautiful bas-reliefs were dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. See it in all its glory at sunrise, with its spectacular silhouette framed against raspberry ripple skies.
5. Feel the love for the Taj Mahal
India is blessed with dozens of beautiful temples but the country’s masterpiece is the Taj Mahal, an immense mausoleum of gleaming white marble, overblown domes and perfect symmetry.
Built in the 17th century, on the orders of the Mugal king Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, it is the world’s greatest monument to love. The crowds, though, are less adorable – get there for sunrise for unfettered views of the memorial bathed in lilac light.
6. Admire the cherry blossoms in Japan
For a few brief weeks every spring, Japan turns into a giant pink snow globe. It’s known as sakura, the Japanese term for the annual blooming of ornamental cherry blossom trees; a time for celebration, family, and reflection on the ephemeral nature of life.
There are a multitude of wonderful spots to join in the hanami (flower viewing parties), from the pristine lawns of Tokyo’s Imperial Park to the glittering rivers of Hiroshima and the atmospheric temple complexes of Kyoto.
7. Live it up at the Singapore Grand Prix
The Singapore Grand Prix is the only night race in the F1 calendar, and unlike any other race on earth. Its figure-of-eight-shaped circuit sweeps along the neon-washed waterfront and between futuristic-feeling streets lined with mirrored skyscrapers and glow-in-the-dark robo-trees.
The track is tight and fraught with danger and there’s plenty of drama post-race too, with musical performances from A-list stars, lively street parties and champagne-fuelled celeb-filled get-togethers at rooftop bars. Va va vroom.
8. Roam the Silk Road cities of Uzbekistan
Flamboyant mosques, glittering minarets, spellbinding mosaics, time-worn fortresses, hectic bazaars, ancient ruins and shimmering silks – landlocked Uzbekistan is home to a captivating array of attractions, all infused with the rich and bloody history of the Silk Road. Despite its beauty, it’s not yet a popular tourist spot, so now is the ideal time to pay a visit.
Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are three of the most riveting cities along the country’s Silk Road route – and direct flights, road and train links, along with piece-of-cake e-visas, are making it simpler than ever to visit.
9. Fly and cruise Halong Bay
To defend the Vietnamese people from northern invaders, a great mother dragon descended from the sky raining down a shower of fiery emeralds which incinerated the enemy; so goes the legend of Halong Bay.
Its fantastical landscape of jagged peacock-green sea karsts dipping and rising in an ocean of pale jade water is a sight to behold. Arrive by seaplane to view it emerging from the clouds and then sail to secret corners of the UNESCO World Heritage Site on a traditional wooden junk. Don’t forget about the rest of Vietnam, though.
10. Climb into the Tiger’s Nest
Taktsang Palphug, or Tiger’s Nest, was first built in 1692 but its spiritual history dates back to the eight century, when it is written that a Buddhist guru flew to the location on the back of a demon tiger.
The working monastery clings to the sheer cliff-side like a golden barnacle suspended at 3,120 metres above sea level and 900 metres above the Paro Valley floor. Inside, butter lamps flicker on sacred scriptures, intricate frescos and ancient idols.
11. Be wowed by blue whales in Sri Lanka
They may be the world’s largest mammal, growing up to 30 metres in length and 180 metric tonnes in weight, but there are only a few places in the world where you can guarantee a sighting of blue whales – unless you go to Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka, where whole pods surface, feed, swim and play.
For the best chances, come between May and September when the leviathans migrate around the island from the south coast.
12. Laze on a Kerala houseboat
Go full Rudyard Kipling floating through glassy backwaters, canals and lagoons under a palm-thatched shade on the bow of a hand-built houseboat. This is slow – downright lazy – travel at its very best.
Mornings awakening to the lilt of birdsong; afternoons tucked into a rattan lounger watching fishing villages and coconut groves glide by, perhaps with a G&T in hand; and sunsets so rich and red.
13. Chill at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival
Who doesn’t want to frolic in snowy psychedelic wonderland? Located in China’s nippy northeastern Heilongjiang province, every winter the city of Harbin transforms into a magical landscape of mythical animals, fearsome gods, fairytale palaces and crystalline pagodas, all washed in a rainbow of coloured lights by night.
You’ll find it’s essential to wrap up warm – temperatures during festival-time regularly dip to below minus-20 degrees Celsius – or strip down for a dip in the swimming pool cut from the ice.
14. Ethically meet with elephants in northern Thailand
There are few experiences in life more magical than making eye contact with an elephant – but with inadequate, often cruel and neglectful animal welfare practices across Southeast Asia, it’s important to seek out sanctuaries that offer ethical interactions.
Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park is a pioneer in the field: a retirement home and medical centre for rescue eles, where visitors are given the opportunity to learn about the animals in their natural habitat as they join the herd on a forest walk.
If you’ve got time to spend in Thailand, don’t overlook Bangkok. While it’s not one of the world’s largest cities, it’s colour popping street markets and glittering Buddhist temples such as Wat Arun are more than worth a week to explore.
15. Walk through Bali’s rice terraces
Tri Hita Karana is the Balinese philosophy which teaches humans how to live in harmony with god and nature. Put thought into practice with a peace-inducing walk through the vivid greenery of the island’s best natural beauty: rippling mountain rice terraces.
Tegallalang’s ruffled ridges, located just outside of Ubud, are the most well known on the island but other (less touristy) top spots include Jatiluwih in Talaban Regency and Gobleg and Gesing in northern Munduk.