Best places to go in Asia for a holiday: Why this is the region to head to right now

In Asia, you can encounter orang-utans and snow leopards, plunge into raucous cities or escape to tranquil islands, immerse yourself in wilderness or in old and sophisticated cultures. You can find balmy climates and warm waters, world-class hotels and bargain resorts, outrageous festivals and nightlife. Who hasn't missed the restaurants, the street stalls and the food markets?

While tourists have charged back to Europe, there appears to have been no similar rush to Asia. Perhaps our hesitation may be partly due to some lingering pandemic restrictions across the region and because indoor mask-wearing remains mandatory in most places, unlike in a more laissez-faire Europe.

True, tourism in big ticket Asian nations like China and Japan remains restricted, casting a misleading shadow over perceptions of Asian tourism as a whole. There has, after all, been a significant return of visitors to south-east Asia and, across Asia, borders have reopened and health requirements and restrictions relaxed.

As well as the destinations featured in our guide, below, to travel in Asia, countries like Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, the Maldives and Mongolia are also now open, with Bhutan having announced that tourists can return from September.

Asia is closer and cheaper than most other destinations and, sans Chinese and Russian tourists, agreeably uncrowded. It remains a continent Australians love, and for persuasive reasons. It's high time to reacquaint ourselves and here's how.

THE DESTINATION: VIETNAM

sunjul24spotlight spotlight ; text by Julietta Jameson
(handout image supplied for use in Traveller, no credit, no syndication)
Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City Fusion Original Saigon Centresataug6cover

Fusion Original Saigon Centre. 

THE LOWDOWN

Vietnam abandoned health requirements on May 15 except that you must have a minimum $US10,000 travel insurance covering COVID-19. Australian citizens need a regular e-visa (evisa.xuatnhapcanh.gov.vn). Mask wearing isn't mandatory but you need an app (vietnam.travel) to enter most venues.

WHAT'S NEW

The new Fusion Original Saigon Centre (saigoncentre.fusionoriginals.com) ups hotel luxury levels in Ho Chi Minh City this year. In Phu Quoc, VinWonders (vinwonders.com) opened in mid-2020 but has only really got going. Perfect for families, the theme park has six zones, a water park and more than 100 entertainment activities.

TOP SPOTS

Long a staid domestic destination, beautiful beach-flanked Quy Nhon has acquired hipster mojo and is tipped as the next Da Nang. Also becoming better known is Ninh Binh, which has terrific limestone outcrops and World Heritage grottoes amid lush rice paddies. Dalat, former colonial summer retreat of the French, has elegant architecture amid pleasing scenery and attracts Vietnamese honeymooners and is also excellent for adventure sports such as trekking, mountain biking and rafting. In north-west Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is developing eco-tourism and offering indigenous village homestays amid stunning forested landscapes and Hmong culture.

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ESSENTIALS

Mild, dry March-April is ideal, December-March still good for sightseeing, but chillier on the beach. See vietnam.travel

THE DESTINATION: THAILAND

High mountains in the plains and fields in the morning, the misty and beautiful maple leaf in Khao No Nakhon Sawan Thailand sataug6cover asia major cover story ; text by Brian Johnstoncr: iStock (reuse permitted, no syndication) 

Khao No Nakhon Sawan, Thailand. Photo: iStock

THE LOWDOWN

More than 1.6 million tourists have visited Thailand this year, and that's likely to jump since on July 1, Thailand Pass and health-insurance requirements for entry were abandoned, as were colour-coded regional zones and mask-wearing. Dining and entertainment venues have returned to normal. Travellers must have proof of vaccination (14 days beforehand) or a negative PCR test (72 hours beforehand).

WHAT'S NEW

Among new hotels that opened last year are Hyatt Regency Koh Samui (hyatt.com), Pullman Khao Lak Resort (all.accor.com) and V Villas Phuket (vvillasphuket.com). This year saw the opening of Melia Chiang Mai (melioa.com) and The Standard Bangkok Mahanakhon (standardhotels.com) with InterContinental Khao Yai Resort (ihg.com) opening soon. Thailand also has 12 new, recently announced dark-sky destinations for stargazers spread throughout the kingdom.

TOP SPOTS

It's all about nature getaways, with the appearance of lodges such as Taloh Cabin (no website) and Lau Mul Prai retreat (no website) outside Chiang Mai and Thunwa The Campsite (no website) in central Thailand. Nan Province is getting better known for hiking and farm stays on coffee plantations. Go alternative and head to hilly, riverine Nakhon Sawan, about a three-hour drive north of Bangkok, for its slower pace and highly regarded food scene.

ESSENTIALS

November-April is the dry season except in the southern islands. April-June is agreeable on the coast but not in cities. See amazingthailand.com.au

THE DESTINATION: INDIA

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Ahmedabad Gujarat India sataug6cover

Law Garden Night Market in Ahmedabad. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

THE LOWDOWN

India reopened to tourists last November but only reintroduced international commercial flights on March 27. You must produce evidence of vaccination or a negative PCR test and complete an Air Suvidha form (newdelhiairport.in). Good news: you can now apply for visas online (indianvisaonline.gov.in). Beware expensive visa-processing websites. Mask-wearing isn't mandatory but strongly advised.

WHAT'S NEW

Qantas (qantas.com) now flies Melbourne-Delhi, with Sydney-Bengaluru (Bangalore) starting from September 14. There's been no shortage of luxe hotel openings including Hilton Goa Resort (hilton.com), The Connaught in Delhi (www.seleqtionshotels.com), Raajkutir in Kolkata (seleqtionshotels.com) and, in Rajasthan, the Hyatt Regency Jaipur Mansarovar (hyatt.com) and Six Senses Fort Barwara (sixsenses.com). Indian Railways (indianrailways.gov.in) first introduced glass top Vistadome tourist trains in 2018 and there are now 45 in the fleet, the most recent being the Shatabdi Express from Mumbai. India's newest World Heritage site is Dholavira in the state of Gujarat (www.gujarattourism.com). It was inscribed by UNESCO last year and preserves 5000-year-old ruins of the Indus Valley civilisation. Elsewhere, a recently opened bridge to Pamban Island, located between Peninsular India and Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu makes this water-sports centre more easily accessible.

TOP SPOTS

Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat (www.gujarattourism.com) is attracting attention for its old town, architecture, cultural festivals and excellent museums; its Science City has added a new interactive robot gallery, aquarium and nature park. Elsewhere, the picturesque Konkan Coast (maharashtratourism.gov.in), south of Mumbai and blessed with beautiful beaches, offers a tranquil alternative to Goa.

ESSENTIALS

December-March avoids heat and monsoon. See incredibleindia.org

THE DESTINATION: SOUTH KOREA

Seoul, Korea - June 8th, 2019: Hikers taking a break on Baekundae, top of Bukhansan Mountain in Seoul Korea. 북한산 백운대 sataug6cover asia major cover story ; text by Brian Johnstoncr: iStock (reuse permitted, no syndication) 

Baekundae, Bukhansan National Park outside Seoul. Photo: iStock

THE LOWDOWN

Korea reopened to tourists on April 1. Travellers must fill in an ETA (k-eta.go.kr) and obtain a negative PCR test and QR code (cov19ent.kdca.go.kr) 48 hours before departure. A further PCR test is required within a day of arrival, plus a RAT test (day six). Mask wearing is mandatory indoors and on transport.

WHAT'S NEW

Jetstar (jetstar.com) flies direct to Incheon (Seoul) from November 2 and Qantas (qantas.com) from December 10. Over the last year, the trendy Seoul district Gangnam (visitseoul.net) has acquired a new hotel style with the opening of the opulent Josun Palace, a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel (marriott.com), Hilton Garden Inn (hilton.com) and Voco Seoul Gangnam (ihg.com). Seoul has revamped the historical landmark Gwanghwamun Square with a new park, light show and media-art displays, transformed the traditional residences of historical Ikseondong district into hipster cafes and restaurants, and turned Nodeul Island in the Han River into an arts hub. Bukhansan National Park outside Seoul has a just-opened hiking tourism centre to provide detailed English-language information and free rental of hiking gear.

TOP SPOTS

It's time to look beyond Seoul. The rollicking port city Busan (visitbusan.net) has a renowned foodie scene, historical temples and scenic beaches, Gangneung is a cultural hotspot, Jeonju has heritage architecture and great street food (it's the hometown of bibimbap, a famous Korean rice dish) while the city of Andong has an excellent folk village.

ESSENTIALS

March to May brings spring blossoms, September-November autumn colours. See visitkorea.or.kr

THE DESTINATION: SINGAPORE

THE LOWDOWN

Singapore lifted COVID-19 restrictions in April except for mask-wearing, which remains mandatory indoors and on transport. Fully-vaccinated travellers should verify their digital certificate and must complete an SG Arrival Card three days before departure (both at eservices.ica.gov.sg) and use the TraceTogether app (tracetogether.gov.sg) during their stay. Unvaccinated tourists are denied entry.

WHAT'S NEW

Among hotels are the sleek, Chinese guild-themed Clan Hotel (theclanhotel.com.sg) in lively Telok Ayer, the giant Hilton Singapore Orchard (hilton.com) and in late 2022 the Raffles Resort & Spa Sentosa (raffles.com). For families, the last year has seen the opening of new attractions including open-air panoramic ride SkyHelix Sentosa (sentosa.com.sg), the addition of Hell's Museum at upgraded Haw Par Villa (hawparvilla.sg), and the Museum of Ice Cream (museumoficecream.com) with unlimited samples). Train enthusiasts should check out the newly restored Bukit Timah railway station and its heritage gallery (nparks.gov.sg). From the station walkers can tackle the 24-kilometre Rail Corridor, a continuous green trail fashioned from a disused goods line linking Malaysia. For family fun, Singapore also has a new KF1 Karting Circuit (kf1karting.com) and Mud Krank (mudkrank.com), an all-terrain-vehicle circuit for kids.

TOP SPOTS

Gardens By the Bay (gardensbythebay.sg) has Kingfisher Wetlands showcasing a mangrove environment and the Active Garden with an outdoor gym and sensory trail. ArtScience Museum (marinabaysands.com) now has a cinema with free screenings and a new virtual-reality gallery that gives you the feel of an astronaut in space.

ESSENTIALS

Any time but December-January is coolest and February-April driest. See visitsingapore.com

THE DESTINATION: INDONESIA

Men aerial view to paddy field at Bukit Persaudaraan Waingapu Sumba Island, East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia sataug6cover asia major cover story ; text by Brian Johnstoncr: iStock (reuse permitted, no syndication) 

Bukit Persaudaraan Waingapu, Sumba Island, Indonesia. Photo: iStock

THE LOWDOWN

While there's a shadow over Indonesia due to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak there, our neighbour lifted pandemic-related quarantine requirements as long ago as March 22. The fully vaccinated (14 days beforehand) can enter Indonesia freely. Unvaccinated travellers must undergo an airport PCR test on arrival and another on day four; test positive and you'll be quarantined. Mask-wearing is mandatory indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. Expect strict baggage screening for foot-and-mouth disease on return to Australia.

WHAT'S NEW

Belitong and surrounding islets off eastern Sumatra last year became a UNESCO Global Geopark for its geology, biology and culture. Virgin Australia (virginaustralia.com) resumed flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Denpasar in June. Visitor numbers at Borobudur in Central Java are now limited; the entrance fee has soared to a whopping $136. Bali has a slew of just-opened hotels including Raffles Bali (raffles.com), Andaz Bali (hyatt.com), and the all-villa Nirjhara (nirjhara.com) and Kimpton Naranta Bali (ihg.com).

TOP SPOTS

Rugged, scenically beautiful Flores is attracting increasing attention, with Labuan Bajo (a short sail from Komodo National Park) emerging as its tourist epicentre. Former backpacker haunts the Madalika region of Lombok, Lake Toba in Sumatra and dive destination Likupang in North Sulawesi are tipped as the "new Bali". For another alternative getaway, consider Sumba island, where the opening of wellness resort Alamayah and soon-to-open Cap Karoso signal new comforts.

ESSENTIALS

May-August is best in Bali and western Indonesia, October perfect further east. See indonesia.travel

THE DESTINATION: MALAYSIA

THE LOWDOWN

Borders reopened to tourists on April 1. Fully-vaccinated travellers (three doses for those over 60) must install an app to verify their digital certificate and provide other information at mysafetravel.gov.my a week before arrival. The unvaccinated must take pre-departure and arrival tests and quarantine for five days. Mask wearing is mandatory indoors and on transport.

WHAT'S NEW

AirAsia X (airasia.com) launches flights from Melbourne, Sydney and Perth to Kuala Lumpur from November. Kuala Lumpur's new Le Meridien Petaling Jaya (le-meridien.marriott.com) will soon be joined by other luxe brands such as Kempinski (kempinski.com), Park Hyatt (hyatt.com) and Fairmont. (fairmont.com). One of KL's newest attractions, the Tower Walk 100, is an outdoor skyscraper walk around a glass ledge.

TOP SPOTS

The Desaru Coast, which has four big-brand stays including the exclusive One & Only Resort (oneandonlyresorts.com) is the up-and-coming beach getaway; a new ferry makes connections with Singapore easier. A new flight connection with Singapore also makes north-east resort island Palau Redang more accessible. The state of Sabah, (sabahtourism.com) on the island of Borneo, is getting into its stride as an eco-destination for wildlife and adventure sports; Alila Dalit Bay Sabah is its glamorous new resort. The 833-metre Penang Hill (penanghill.gov.my) has been recently designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with a fantastic rainforest experience. Australians don't often consider Malaysia for national parks such as Taman Negara, Mount Kinabalu and Gunung Mulu, which are all outstanding.

ESSENTIALS

The weather doesn't vary hugely but March-May avoids the worst humidity. See malaysia.travel

THE DESTINATION: THE PHILIPPINES

Aerial view of Puka beach in Boracay Island, Western Visayas, Philippines. sataug6cover asia major cover story ; text by Brian Johnstoncr: iStock (reuse permitted, no syndication) 

Boracay Island. Photo: iStock

THE LOWDOWN

The Philippines reopened to fully-vaccinated tourists on February 10. You must show a negative PCR test 24 hours before departure unless you've had a booster. You'll also need to register (onehealthpass.com.ph) three days before departure and obtain a QR code. Masks are mandatory indoors and outdoors, although the outdoor ordinance is disputed by some regional governors.

WHAT'S NEW

Low-cost Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com) resumed its Sydney-Manila route on July 1. Manila has several new hotels such as the Novotel Suites Manila At Acqua (all.accor.com), Westin Manila Sonata Place (westin.marriott.com) and Admiral Hotel Manila (admiralhotelmanila.com).

TOP SPOTS

TIME magazine chose Boracay as one of its World's Greatest Places for 2022 following several years of environmental regeneration. Central Luzon – which features rice paddies, cocoa plantations and mountainous landscapes – is becoming known for farm stays, glamping and eco-resorts. Masungi Georeserve (masungigeoreserve.com) near Manila is a top sustainable-tourism destination for its karst landscape; Pinto Art Museum (pintoart.org) nearby is excellent. Siargao island, despite increasing tourism infrastructure, retains its low-key surfer and beach nightlife appeal. Head to Palawan for outstanding reef and wreck diving.

ESSENTIALS

November-April is dry and cool but May and October shoulder seasons are a good choice. See philippines.travel

Please note that national COVID-19 rules constantly change and airlines may have additional requirements. The Australian government's Smart Traveller website has country-by-country updates on entry and local regulations, with useful links for details. See smartraveller.gov.au. Also check your destination country's definition of "fully vaccinated".

THE WATCH LIST

CHINA

Flights from Australia are limited and tourist visas aren't issued. Other travellers are subject to seven-day quarantine on arrival and rigorous testing, and risk being caught up in regional lockdowns and travel disruptions. China is pursuing a zero-case policy, so don't expect this to change soon. See au.china-embassy.gov.cn

TAIWAN

Tourists still aren't allowed into Taiwan. Unlike mainland China, however, Taiwan is slowly abandoning its zero-case policy and has reopened to some other types of travellers. President Tsai recently called for a tourist reopening, without specifying when, so watch this space. See www.boca.gov.tw

HONG KONG

Although Hong Kong reopened to fully-vaccinated travellers on May 1, you must have a negative PCR test 48 hours before departure and another on arrival. Irrespective, you'll have to isolate for seven days and undergo stringent testing. At the time of writing, there was no indication when borders will fully reopen. See coronavirus.gov.hk

JAPAN

Restricted numbers of tourists on authorised package tours have been allowed in since June 1. You must have a negative PCR result 72 hours before departure, an e-visa and travel insurance, and wear a mask indoors and outdoors. Speculation is that individual travel may resume later this year. See www.mofa.go.jp

SRI LANKA

Borders have been open since January 21; tourists have specific conditions and designated hotels during the first two weeks of travel. However, recent political unrest has seen the declaration of a public emergency and imposition of curfews. Sri Lanka is also experiencing severe shortages of food and fuel. See srilanka.travel