While we often associate Asia with big cities, mighty monuments and economic booms, this vast and diverse continent has some of the world's top natural attractions. What's more, many of them are far from remote, and offer not just spectacular landscapes but equally spectacular cultures, religious observances and historic monuments too. Whether you're travelling by road, rail or cruise ship, you can soak up truly amazing scenery while still enjoying all the colour and bustle that Asia's varied societies have to offer. Here are six natural wonders sure to provide an awe-inspiring backdrop to an unforgettable holiday.
Mt Fuji, Japan
WHY WE LOVE IT Mt Fuji is a stunning sight, its perfect cone rising in isolated splendour from central Japan's plains, often shimmering like a snow-capped mirage. On a clear day you can see it from Tokyo skyscrapers. This isn't only Japan's highest mountain but is sacred to Shintoism and celebrated in a millennium of painting and poetry.
DON'T MISS The Hakone region southwest of Tokyo is a delight of verdant hills and hot springs, and has magnificent views of Mt Fuji. APT guests take the Hakone Ropeway aerial lift for great outlooks towards the volcano, which casts a beautiful silhouette against the sky. Mt Fuji is also perfectly framed from Hakone town, especially from the terraces of the Imperial Palace Gardens.
INSIDER TIP The ambition of many Japanese is to hike to the 3,776-metre summit of this challenging volcano. However, the mystery and beauty of the legendary mountain is really best appreciated from a distance – even from the window of a bullet train as it passes Fuji city.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
WHY WE LOVE IT Ha Long Bay, 175 kilometres east of Hanoi, has one of the world's most remarkable coastal landscapes. Some 3,000 karst islands, whose soft limestone is riddled with caves and eroded into humped shapes, rise vertically from the sea. Most are draped in jungle, and some sport precarious Buddhist temples. The water is green and smooth as jade, copper-tinted at sunset.
DON'T MISS Set aside time for kayaking, which is easy on the bay's glassy waters and a great way to get an intimate experience of this World Heritage wonder. The only sounds are the splash of your paddle, the rumble of distant boats and the knock-knock of a woodpecker as you drift past magical grottoes and islands.
INSIDER TIP Floating villages are roped to some outcrops, bobbing red or green houses whose washing lines are strung with singlets and drying squid. Linger and meet the locals; a gold-toothed woman in her shop, schoolkids from a floating school, fishermen mending nets.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
WHY WE LOVE IT Ever wondered where the Garden of Eden is located? According to local tradition, Adam was created in central Sri Lanka – his footprint is embedded atop Adam's Peak. Certainly the cool, mist-shrouded landscape looks suitably Edenic. Undulating mountains are flanked by cloud forest and the sensuous contours of vivid tea plantations, while waterfalls such as the famous Ramboda Falls and Lover's Leap tumble and foam.
DON'T MISS Despite the rugged, forest-clad topography, you'll find a touch of domesticity in the highland town of Nuwara Eliya, developed by British colonials looking to escape Sri Lanka's lowland heat. Its cottage's rose gardens, neo-Gothic churches, pink post office – and yes, even red telephone boxes – are misplaced pieces of country England amid wild surrounding scenery.
INSIDER TIP The beautiful, flower-filled town is great for bird spotting. Keep an eye out for lovely hill-country birds in this part of Sri Lanka, including red-breasted Kashmir flycatchers, multi-coloured Indian pittas and strutting egrets and herons.
Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)
WHY WE LOVE IT This gorgeous lake in central Myanmar is like something from an Asian fairy tale, not just wonderfully scenic with its fringe of marshlands and backdrop of blue hills, but with a shoreline glimmering with golden Buddhist spires and dense with monasteries and rickety wooden villages built on stilts, which are home to a colourfully-dressed array of ethnic minorities.
DON'T MISS The extraordinary floating gardens that cover almost a quarter of this large lake's surface. Created from floating clumps of reeds and water hyacinths anchored to the lake bottom by local farmers, the gardens burst with garlic, cucumbers, gourds and tomatoes – Inle tomatoes are famed as the best in Myanmar. Farmers get to their gardens by boat, famously rowed using a single, foot-operated oar.
INSIDER TIP Visit Shwe Indein Pagoda complex at the south of the lake which, though not in good repair, provides a romantically overgrown array of delicate, almost ethereal pagodas and stupas, crowded together in a forest of gold and brick spires.
Three Gorges Region, China
WHY WE LOVE IT Travel the 250-kilometre stretch of gorges on the Yangtze River in central China with APT and you sail through a fabulous landscape of plunging cliffs and misty mountains dotted with temples and shrines and rock-carved with poetic inscriptions. The tributary Lesser Three Gorges are smaller in scale but stunningly beautiful, with jungle-covered peaks and emerald-green water.
DON'T MISS Three Gorges Dam was the world's largest construction project when completed in 2009. It generates 15 per cent of China's electricity and controls flooding, though at the cost of two million relocated locals and environmental impacts. Whatever your views on the controversial mega-project, seeing it up close (and pondering its engineering challenges) is simply astonishing.
INSIDER TIP The three gorges are all quite different, so stay on the deck of your river-cruise ship for the duration. Xiling Gorge has a deep majesty, spectacular Wu Gorge is narrow and twisting, but short Qutang Gorge (last if you're heading upstream) is perhaps the most dramatic, and often atmospherically misty.
Mekong River, Cambodia
WHY WE LOVE IT The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers and surely Cambodia's top natural attraction. The wide, brown sluggish waterway impresses with its seasonally fluctuating size, and provides a changing spectacle of everyday life, whether it's passing villages and cities, rambutan and mango orchards where locals toil, or a passing flotilla of public ferries, rice barges and fishing boats.
DON'T MISS Be on your ship's deck for arrival into Phnom Penh. You'll be rewarded with a splendid outlook over multiple pagoda spires glittering with gold leaf and backed by the skyscrapers of the Cambodian capital's recent economic boom. Promenades along Sisowath Quay are lined with fluttering flags. Retirees practice tai chi here, and it's a great place for a stroll.
INSIDER TIP As APT Ambassador, acclaimed chef and TV personality Luke Nguyen has created exclusive culinary experiences onboard APT's RV AmaLotus river ship that highlight Vietnamese produce and recipes.
Bik – APT Tour Guide
Bik graduated from Hanoi Open University with a degree in tour guiding, initially thinking that the tourism industry would just be a vehicle to improve her English. She soon discovered she enjoyed meeting people from around the world, and the cultural exchanges this allowed. 'Most importantly, I enjoy showing people my beautiful Vietnam,' she says. 'I'm very appreciative to belong to a generation born in peace, and proud to live in such a small but heroic country.' Bik has worked as a guide for 17 years, the last six as one of APT's local Hanoi guides.
This article is produced in association with APT. From ever-expanding cities to rural wonders, explore the spiritual heart of Asia on an unforgettable luxury journey by river and land with APT. For more information visit www.aptouring.com.au/traveller, call 1300 290 669 or contact your local travel agent.