In this tribute to the delights of travel in Asia, five Traveller writers reveal their favourite places, people and experiences.
THE THRILL OF A TRAIN RIDE IN INDIA
Vendors stalk the aisles, hundreds of them bustling through the crowded carriages day and night, yelling out their wares: spiced potato cakes, samosas, biryanis, sweets, chai and coffee. There are passengers on seats, in aisles, on beds, hanging out of doors and staring through windows. There's a buzz of life, a charge of energy as the trains rattle on through India's seemingly never-ending rail system, these tracks that criss-cross the country from north to south, east to west. Every carriage is a microcosm of sub-continental life, and every journey an experience that goes far beyond mere transportation.
A COLD COFFEE ON A HOT MORNING IN VIETNAM
Coffee snobs rejoice, for Vietnam is the home of a good brew. Not just good - great. Think about a puddle of sweet condensed milk resting in the bottom of your glass. Think about ice cubes on top, already melting in the morning sun. Think about the little metal filter atop your glass, and the drip, drip, drip of rich coffee, an aromatic brew that will be mixed with the milk and the ice to form the perfect cold drink for a hot morning in Vietnam. Your day has begun.
THE CONSTANT POWER TO SURPRISE
There's a restaurant in Tokyo called Kagaya, and it's run by a madman. He's the owner, waiter and chef. He delivers the menu to you as if it were a child's rocket ship, complete with sound effects. He draws caricatures of his diners. He serves drinks in costume, backed by theme music, from a country of your choice. He dresses as a frog. He sings. He dances. Occasionally, he even makes food. In a continent where pigs ride on scooters and scorpions are served for breakfast, it's refreshing to find that you still haven't seen it all.
FINDING THE BEST XIAO LONG BAO IN SHANGHAI
You probably won't find the definitive best xiao long bao in Shanghai but boy, you'll have some tasty fun trying. Xiao long bao is a tiny parcel of Chinese perfection. It's a delicate wonton wrapper encasing pork mince and a rich broth. It's an explosion of piping-hot flavour as you shovel it into your mouth. We'd recommend beginning your search in Shanghai at Fu Chun, a local favourite, and then hitting the streets.
STAYING IN A RYOKAN IN KYOTO
In a continent that bustles and hums, that seems to engulf you and force its will upon you at every turn, this is the antidote. Ancient Kyoto is dotted with ryokans, the traditional inns that have perfected the art of tranquillity and peace. From the perfectly manicured gardens to the neat, spartan rooms - simple affairs with tatami mats and futon beds - a stay at a ryokan is all about quiet appreciation. Soak in the bathhouse, slip into your yukata (Japanese robe) and then enjoy a meticulously prepared meal in the privacy of your room. See japaneseguesthouses.com.
CATCHING THE STAR FERRY IN HONG KONG
It's far from the most practical or the fastest way to travel from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, but there remains magic in the ride across the harbour aboard the Star Ferry. Purposeful and gruff, the deckhands slip the mooring ropes and you're off, shuddering with the vigour of the engines. The upper deck offers the prime view of Hong Kong's towering banks, the props of commerce in a city that was founded on the opium trade, a British lever to prise open the riches of China.
WATCHING THE RAIN FROM INSIDE A DRY WARUNG, BALI
As luck would have it, I'm just passing a warung outside Ubud when the rain comes, lashing down in bullets that explode and dissolve the road in a soft-focus haze. A farmer emerges from the glistening rice field across the road with water sluicing from the banana leaf over his head. Inside, it's dark enough that a gecko has emerged, chattering and chasing insects. From somewhere comes the clash of a gamelan orchestra practising. "Another Bali kopi?" the waiter asks. The rain isn't stopping but there's nowhere I'd rather be.
SOAKING UP THE ATMOSPHERE IN BANDA
A sleepy backwater it might be but wars were once fought over the spice island of Banda, in Indonesia's Maluku province. The jewel in the crown of the Dutch East India Company, Banda is hot, lethargic, beautiful beyond words and bitter-sweet with a cruel history. It's also gorgeously endowed with crumbling forts, colonial buildings and a brooding live volcano on its doorstep. One for the connoisseur of colonial relics, Banda's to-do list includes night viewing of the mandarin fish, spectacular diving and shopping for pearls in the main town.
TUCKING INTO STREET FOOD IN BANGKOK
It's pot luck when I set out to eat street food in Bangkok. Look for a suitably delicious dish in front of another diner, point and make eating motions. The mime act never fails. I won't have a clue what the dish might be called - and I'll probably never eat it again - but if I have got it even half right, I will be rewarded with flavours that play a jangly tune on my taste buds, sour, salt and heat, with culture and culinary pride in every mouthful.
RIDING A MOTORBIKE ON THE BACKROADS OF GOA
I am whizzing along a narrow road lined with coconut palms, 150cc's between my thighs, threading through rice fields dotted with farmers winnowing their rice. Every now and again, the road slinks into a village with a whitewashed church and houses with shady verandahs that hint at a Portuguese heritage, while I steer a slalom course among water buffalos, cows, goats and monkeys. Most visitors travel to Goa for the beaches but for me it's the countryside, and on two wheels. It's windblown heaven, served with sunshine, throbbing heat and ecstasy in the simple pleasure of getting completely lost on a journey to nowhere in particular.
SLEEPING IN THE JUNGLE IN THAILAND
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts is a cross between a kids' cubby house and something Tom Sawyer would build. Comprising a series of timber rafts lashed together on a bend of the River Kwai, this floating hotel is the place to run to when the pace and polish of Asia gets too much. It's rough (no electricity or hot water) and remote (access by longtail boat) but the magic comes from the river; jumping in and floating along Mowgli-style, watching elephants bathe each morning, enjoying the sunset from a hammock. See riverkwaijunglerafts.com.
COOKING UP A STORM IN LAOS
If there's one thing better than feasting on fresh, fragrant Asian food it's learning how to prepare it. From Malaysia to Myanmar, Bhutan to Bali, there is a veritable banquet of cooking classes to tempt the hungry traveller. One of the loveliest is run by Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos. Classes are held outdoors beside a small lotus-filled pond where participants learn to cook lemongrass with chicken, steam fish in banana leaves and pound char-grilled tomatoes into savoury dips. See tamarindlaos.com.
HELPING TO SAVE ENDANGERED WILDLIFE
While poaching and population pressures continue to take their toll on Asia's wildlife, many sanctuaries are doing their bit to rehabilitate endangered species, with some offering programs to involve travellers. Elephant lovers should head to the Elephant Nature Park or Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort, both in northern Thailand. If you'd prefer to hang out with some red-headed cousins, try the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah or for Asiatic black bears there's Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre in Laos. See elephantnaturepark.org; freethebears.org.au; goldentriangle.anantara.com.
EXPLORING A RIVER BY BOAT
There's a wild beauty about a river cruise that a beach holiday can't match. The constant movement and ever-changing sights and sensations satisfy wanderlust like nothing else. Consider the meandering Yangtze, with its gorges and ghouls and dirty-big dam, or the impetuous Mekong, which rollicks along at a cracking pace past gleaming temples and fishermen tossing nets at the sun. Whether you travel the Irrawaddy River by grand colonial steamer or the Kerala backwaters by restored rice barge, the misty mornings and fireball sunsets are all yours. See travelindochina.com.au; wendywutours.com.au.
BEING HUMBLED BY THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS
Given the list of crusades, conflicts and crackpot dictators Asia has seen, the biggest surprise for any traveller is the warmth and grace of the people. From the novice Laos monk who asks for help with English to the Indian guide who tells you "but madam, all guests are God", or the street kids in Cambodia who invite you to join in a game of soccer and then pass the ball gently because they can tell you are hopeless. If you travel not just to see the world but to feel the world, Asia is for you.
-Kerry van der Jagt
SLEEPING CHIC AND BOUTIQUE IN SINGAPORE
Singapore was once known for blandness but hunters of the small and perfectly formed are now spoilt for choice for truly boutique, design-led hotels. Book a luminous Yellow Submarine room in the quirky Wanderlust in Singapore's Little India or check into its big sister, the 30-room New Majestic. Expect fabulously fun design in both, or go all white in the 22-room Club Hotel. Everything just works in the 41-room Wangz, a gentle business option in Tiong Bahru, and at tiny Klapsons, in the city centre with a can't-miss-it reception encased in a silver sphere. See wanderlusthotel.com; newmajestichotel.com; theclub.com.sg; wangzhotel.com; klapsons.com.
POPPING OCTOPUS BALLS IN OSAKA
Come 11am in downtown Osaka, workers down tools to hoover up takoyaki, a street snack the city claims as its own. The hot, deep-fried balls of batter and minced octopus are best eaten straight out of the hot fat, dressed with that weirdly addictive Japanese mayonnaise and garnished with flakes of seaweed and bonito.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH BALI'S NANNIES
Strung-out parents know the key to a good holiday is affordable, competent childcare, and Bali obliges. Don't expect diplomas but do expect years of hands-on experience. You'll pay about $10 an hour for babysitters in hotels, with lower day and even weekly rates available. Book through your hotel, or I recommend Indie & Friends Bali Nanny Service.
DASHING FROM FLASH TO TRASH FASH IN BANGKOK
I love Bangkok for enabling you to walk from haute couture to super-budget fashion without getting your hair wet. The beating heart of the retail strip on Rama 1 Road is MBK, where foreigners haunt the bustling phone stalls on Level 4 and bargain-loving Thais scoop up cheap fashion, make-up and bags. Psst, Wednesday nights is fight night, with free muay Thai from 6pm (mbk-center.co.th). If your taste is more refined, skip across the covered overpasses to Siam Square, the newly renovated Siam Discovery, and onward to the hallowed international labels in Siam Centre and Siam Paragon.
BUNKING DOWN IN A BALINESE VILLA
For group getaways, you can't beat Bali's luxe villa lifestyle. Great for families travelling with kids and grandparents, or a group of friends who don't want to worry about waking up the guests next door, villas usually work out cheaper than hotel rooms, particularly on longer stays. Most have their own pool (or three) and include a chef, housekeeper and driver. Staff can shop at the markets daily for an affordable dining option. See marketingvillas.com; roomorama.com.
INDULGING IN THE PLEASURE OF HEALING HANDS
You can keep your ornate Buddhist temples and your sticky rice: to my mind, Asia's greatest gift to humanity is the street corner massage. Across much of the continent, you can get a foot massage for $15 or less - a price that makes it possible to live the dream of enjoying a massage every single day. I love every moment, from the bathing of the feet before to the cup of tea afterwards. Sure, the massage itself might be painful but the feeling afterwards is amazing.
CRUISING BANGKOK'S CHAOTIC CHAO PRAYA
Yes, it's a disgusting shade of brown, and only in the direst circumstances could you convince me to swim in it, but a hotel on the river gives you a ringside seat to life in this metropolis. From cargo boats to ramshackle ferries to royal barges, the everchanging traffic is mesmerising. Whether you're sitting on the breakfast terrace at the Mandarin-Oriental or lying by the pool at the Siam, you'll be entranced. And did I mention that river shuttles are the best way to avoid those Bangkok traffic jams?
A WALK IN THE 'WILD WEST' WOODS IN XISHUANGBANNA
Take a walk in the woods in Xishuangbanna and you might stumble across anything from wild elephants to ancient tea trails trodden by merchants for centuries. This is China's wild west, closer to Bangkok than Shanghai or Beijing and a place dominated by hill tribes such as the Dai and the Hani. It's utterly beautiful, unlike anywhere else in China and, thanks to the new Anantara Xishuangbanna resort, with its pool villas and gourmet meals, a wonderful place to get away from it all.
EXPLORING JAPAN'S AMAZING FOOD HALLS
A word of warning: if you are on a diet, under no circumstance enter a Japanese food hall. Lying in wait beneath the city's department stores, these shrines to gluttony will rob you of every vestige of self control. Imagine a space the size of an aircraft hangar, filled with more types of food than you can imagine, beautifully packaged, just begging to be eaten. From super-fresh sushi to the most elaborate patisserie displays ever, it's all here.
PRETENDING TO BE A 007 EXTRA IN THAILAND
Southern Thailand has plenty of luxury resorts, but Rayavadee might be the only one that makes you feel like you're in a James Bond film. Tucked away in a sheltered bay, surrounded by soaring cliffs and thick forest, this resort can only be accessed by boat. Once you're there, the restaurant carved into a cliff, the round two-storey villas tucked into the lush jungle setting, and the spectacular views across the Andaman Sea all make you feel as though you're on a movie set. See rayavadee.com.