Asia travel guide: The best things to do and see

Asia is a continent of geographical and cultural superlatives: a population of 4.5 billion people, 12,000 years of settlement, the world's oldest continuous civilisation and the largest temple complex, and the planet's deepest lake and highest mountains.

Ancient towns groan with temples and palaces, and glittering megacities sprout with the world's tallest skyscrapers and flash with neon lights. Sandy deserts are covered in snow, orchids flourish in steaming rainforests, gorges plunge and volcanos rumble.

True, some of these things you can find if you travel elsewhere, but many wonderful sights and experiences are particular to Asia: mountain-top Buddhist temples reached up heart-thumping flights of steps; ladies clad in saris or kimonos; chopsticks and sitars; ancient Shinto pilgrim trails through whispering forests; fabulously ruined Hindu temples.

There's nowhere else on the planet you can spot orang-utans, snow leopards, tigers or komodo dragons in the wild. Nowhere else can you find pachinko parlours, sliding paper walls, green tea, potato-flavoured Kit Kats or vending machines that sell you underwear and coffee in cans – and that's just in Japan.

Exhilaratingly for the inquisitive traveller, it sometimes seems that everything in Asia is different, from the dates of New Year to entire writing systems, from spiky tropical fruits to the pentatonic scale that makes oriental music sound so dissonant to the western ear. Here, though, is just a titillating taste of some of the things you can enjoy in Asia – and nowhere else.

SHADOW PUPPETRY IN INDONESIA

Even in the era of cinema and cable TV, wayang (shadow-puppet) performances are held in every town and village in Indonesia, entertaining vast crowds with Indian epics and Arabian folktales. Performances can last up to five hours, but thankfully for the uninitiated, many tourist destinations host truncated versions using mythological figures (wayang golek) carved from wood and dressed in dazzling Hindu finery. Accompanied by traditional gamelan orchestras, the puppet shows are a delightful introduction to living Indonesian culture. See indonesia.travel

HINDU RITUALS IN INDIA

Asia is home to spectacular Hindu temples, but nowhere will you see Hinduism in more extraordinary, bemusing and confronting action than in the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges River, where Hindus hope to have their ashes scattered. Pilgrims pray and wash themselves in river water. Sadhus wander, priests chant, and vast world-record crowds surge during festivals. Beyond the spiritual, more challenges to the senses are provided by wandering cows, burning bodies and cremation rituals, and incredible pollution. See varanasi.nic.in

SUMO WRESTLING IN JAPAN

To outsiders, sumo can seem the strangest of activities: two fat men engaged in ritualised pushing and shoving. In fact, this ancient Japanese sport requires years of training and self-sacrifice, and is rooted in mystical Shinto tradition. Some wrestlers charge right away in bouts that last seconds, others stare each other down and pace around for several minutes before clashing. With no weight divisions, sheer mass is an enormous advantage, but skilful smaller wrestlers can still prevail. See sumo.or.jp

RICE TERRACES IN VIETNAM

Few things typify the Asian countryside more than tiers of contoured rice terraces, and surely among the most beautiful are those in Sapa in northwest Vietnam, where rice paddies plunge down the valley. Surrounding mountains are often wreathed in atmospheric mist. Mount Fansipan, South-east Asia's tallest mountain, rises to 3143 metres. Sapa was developed in the 1920s as a French-colonial hill resort and today is a market town for surrounding hill tribes and a base for adventurous eco-travellers. See vietnamtourism.com

Advertisement

KICK BOXING IN THAILAND

Head to Bangkok's Rajadamnern Stadium for a display of muay thai. Speed and power are the important elements of a kick-boxing match: bouts last five three-minute rounds and become increasingly explosive as the fight progresses. Feet, hands, elbows and knees are used to deliver blows. The audience becomes highly excited, shouting encouragement and laying huge bets. A phipat band plays traditional Thai instruments throughout. The music tempo increases as the match becomes more frenzied, adding to the tension. See rajadamnern.com

PANDA SPOTTING IN CHINA

Giant pandas are rare and elusive, making a sighting of one in the wild a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Trek into the dense bamboo forests of Foping National Nature Reserve in central China's rugged Qinling Mountains, accompanied by local trackers and porters. Winter is easier, since pandas descend to lower altitudes and leave tracks in the snow. The reward is an up-close and thrilling glimpse of a wild creature that has become the symbol of endangered species everywhere. See fpnr.org

MAN-MADE TREES IN SINGAPORE

If a delight in the artificial and futuristic seems especially Asian, then the soaring 50-metre Supertrees on the waterfront at Marina Bay are the epitome of Asian contemporary urban cool, and have been seen by 30 million people. The tree-like structures, linked by an elevated walkway, support a vertical garden of bromeliads, ferns and vines, and harness solar energy and use their own rainwater. At night, they form part of a sound-and-light show against the backdrop of Singapore's skyscrapers. See gardensbythebay.com.sg

CHERRY-BLOSSOM SEASON IN KOREA

Nobody gets as enthused about flowering cherry trees as the Koreans and Japanese. In Seoul, Mount Namsan features 2000 trees in bloom, spectacularly illuminated at night and accompanied by musical performances from classical to hip-hop. Along the river at Yeouido, huge crowds picnic beneath a six-kilometre stretch of cherry trees. Lotte World amusement park has a blossom festival with costumed actors and musicians. For more tranquillity, the gardens of Seoul's royal palaces also erupt in springtime pink. See visitkorea.or.kr

BIRD MARKETS IN HONG KONG

Part market and part social venue, tiny Yuen Po Street is a taste of rural China in Hong Kong's urban jungle. Elderly gentlemen congregate to show off their songbirds and discuss their warbling voices. The operatic competition is reason enough to linger, but you can also inspect birds for sale, including spectacular (non-singing) species such as cockatoos and macaws. Shops also sell porcelain feeding bowls, toasted seeds in little glass vials, and traditional bamboo cages. See bird-garden.hk

BULLET TRAINS IN JAPAN

The shinkansen has surely been the world's most famous regular train service since launching in the 1960s, and today carries over 150 million passengers a year, yet it still feels futuristic. Passengers are wafted aboard the sleek, bullet-nosed trains by bowing ladies in white gloves and are soon hurtling through Japan with barely a sound. Travelling at 300 kilometres per hour, the best route is perhaps the Tokyo to Kyoto run, where the train flashes past Mount Fuji. See jr-central.co.jp

KITE-FLYING IN MALAYSIA

The Malaysian city of Kota Bharu is the centre for traditional Malay sports such as kite flying, top spinning, silat self-defence, shadow puppetry and competitions on drums called rebana. Watch teams whacking bare-handed at these massive drums, points being awarded for time, rhythm, style and tone. The noise is thrilling. Top spinning is another exciting spectacle. The solid metal gazing or top is the size of a dinner plate and weighs 5.5 kilograms, and, if expertly launched, might spin for two hours. See tourism.gov.my

ICE FESTIVALS IN CHINA

Only Asia does ice festivals on a huge scale, and in January in frigid Harbin you'll see the best. Hundreds of ice and snow sculptures glitter under twinkling lights, and visitors warm themselves by skating and snacking under frosty skies. The world's biggest ice festival features a park of ice lanterns in the shapes of dragons and mythological figures, but most staggering are the building-sized recreations of famous sights such as the Great Wall, Statue of Liberty and Taj Mahal. See icefestivalharbin.com

MY "ONLY IN ASIA" MOMENT

Gaynor Reid, Accor Hotels

BOUN BANG ROCKET FESTIVAL, LAOS

"I love that there are so many weird and wonderful festivals in Asia. One of my favourites is this May festival during which Laotians fire giant hand-made rockets to anger the sky god, so that he sends plentiful rain to irrigate the rice fields. It starts with tranquil morning scenes of alms-giving to monks but, as the day progresses, things get rowdy as teams of a dozen carry their huge rockets onto scaffolding, from which they're fired. Teams sing and dance as they compete to get their rockets the highest, and the crowd gets more than a little excited."

Gaynor Reid is Accor Hotels' Singapore-based vice-president of communications (Asia–Pacific). See accorhotels.com

MY "ONLY IN ASIA" MOMENT

Jennifer Gallen, Beyond Travel

LEOPARD SPOTTING, SRI LANKA

"While on safari in Sri Lankan national parks I saw crocodiles, elephants, buffalo, deer, boar and hundreds of beautiful birds, but spotting a leopard was the highlight. The day started well before dawn, and it wasn't long before our guide glimpsed a speck on a distant rock that turned out to be a leopard. This breed is native to Sri Lanka, with dark spots and a rust-coloured coat distinguishing it from the African leopard, and the driver was able to get close enough to watch the creature's chest rise and fall as it took deep, sleepy breaths."

Jennifer Gallen is sales and reservation manager at Beyond Travel, operating small-group tours in India and Sri Lanka. See sri-lanka-and-beyond.com.au

MY "ONLY IN ASIA" MOMENT

Sujata Raman, Abercrombie & Kent

GOLDEN EAGLE FESTIVAL, MONGOLIA

"The art of eagle hunting is an ancient tradition in the Bayan-Olgii frontier region in northwest Mongolia, where eagle hunters live in an incredibly harsh mountain environment. There's a grace and skill involved in the capture and training of eagles, which are released after years of living with the hunter so that the breeding cycle continues. This festival is held each October and hunters travel a great distance to participate amid desolate terrain, surrounded by just a few hundred visitors. I walked among these magnificent horsemen and their eagles in unrelenting cold and bracing winds, and will never forget the experience."

Sujata Raman is managing director (Asia-Pacific) of Abercrombie & Kent which operates bespoke tours across Asia. See abercrombiekent.com.au

MY "ONLY IN ASIA" MOMENT

Matthew Cameron-Smith, Trafalgar Australia

MEETING FREE DIVERS, JAPAN

"If you want to get beyond the beaten track and connect with locals, then head to the coast of the Kii Peninsula south-west of Osaka, which is home to the legendary female free divers known as the ama, who you might remember from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. They're working women of the region who dress all in white and dive in the sea without any diving equipment in order to catch shellfish and collect seaweed. They're truly incredible. Enjoy their catch of the day as you listen to the fascinating stories told by these remarkable women."

Matthew Cameron-Smith is managing director of Trafalgar Australia which operates tours in 12 countries across Asia. See trafalgar.com/aus

MY "ONLY IN ASIA" MOMENT

Neil Rodgers, Adventure World

RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES, BHUTAN

"In Bhutan, attend one of the spectacular tsechus or annual Buddhist religious ceremonies held in major towns and monasteries. They attract thousands of local people in their finest traditional dress and are a great way to discover Bhutan's rich cultural heritage. Some of the best involve dances with elaborate costumes and masks, which are mesmerising. Also featured is the unfurling of a sacred thongdrol or giant religious tapestry which is often draped down the side of a monastery's walls. Associated fairs and markets feature food and activities like archery, darts and shopping for new traditional clothes."

Neil Rodgers is managing director of Adventure World which operates culinary, walking, cycling, wildlife and other tours across Asia. See adventureworld.com.au

SAME-SAME ONLY DIFFERENT: WHEN IN ASIA

A MASSAGE IN CHINA

While western massages tend to knead out the knots in muscles, Chinese massages concentrate on energy lines and pressure points – which is why frail old ladies can inflict such agony on sightseeing-weary feet, and why blind masseurs will press your legs to relieve stomach pain or boost circulation. Chopping, pressing, pinching and stretching are all used, often with all the vigour of a Red Guard punishing an evil landlord – though you'll feel great afterwards. See cnto.org

A HOT SPRINGS IN JAPAN

This isn't just a wallow in hot water but part ritual bath, part traditional philosophical pursuit. Hit Japan's biggest onsen centre Beppu for 3000 hot springs gushing up within the city confines, serviced by 168 bathhouses. Wend your way from one to the other with frequent stops at the city's innumerable bars and restaurants for refreshment. At Suginoi Palace you can float in bubbling pools surrounded by tanks of goldfish and statues of Buddhist goddesses. See visit-oita.jp

A SKIING HOLIDAY IN KOREA

Certainly, you can ski the world over, but Korea has a distinctive ski culture that features fast, energetic skiing – many slopes are open far into the night – followed by wallows in spas and visits to soju bars and rustic barbecue restaurants before finishing in karaoke lounges. Head to Pyeongchang, which merges Yongpyong, one of north-east Asia's best ski resorts, with nearby Alpensia, where you'll find the Olympic village, sporting venues and luxury hotels. See pc.go.kr

A BIG-GAME FISHING IN THAILAND

Thailand is on the September-to-December migration route of big-game fish such as tuna, swordfish, trevally, and marlin, allowing you to wrestle with these denizens of the deep in a competition of brute strength and cunning. Various types of shark also tempt anglers, and sailfish are common off Racha Yai island. Novices can use lighter tackle for juvenile black marlin off Thailand's west coast. Charter boats are available in Phuket, which hosts an international November sport-fish tournament. See tourismthailand.org

A HORSE RACING MEETING IN HONG KONG

You haven't really experienced a horse race until you've been to one in racing-mad Hong Kong. Races are run from September to mid-June on both the original Happy Valley track, established in 1841, and the contemporary track at Sha Tin, which has stands for 90,000 roaring spectators and an electric atmosphere. Mid-December's Hong Kong International Races are the top event, and include the Hong Kong Cup, the world's richest turf race over 2000 metres. See racing.hkjc.com

Comments