You’ve finally planned the vacation of your dreams to Asia, but you’re going to be pressed for time, traveling quickly from one country to the next. If you have time to do just one thing in each, what should you plan on to make your Asian vacation as memorable as possible? Here are 13 of the most exciting, spectacular things to do in 13 different countries throughout your Asian odyssey.
1. Cambodia: View Angkor Wat from a helicopter.
Looking for a way to behold the splendor and majesty of the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat without having to deal with crowds during peak season? Board a helicopter and take a flight over the ancient temple complex. This is the experience of a lifetime, one which quite literally provides you with a different perspective on Cambodia’s most famous historical site.
From there, fly along the Siem Reap river and proceed to the Tonle Sap floating village. Along the way, you will behold Angkor Wat, the tranquil waters of the Srah Srang Basin, the 10th century ruins of East Mebon, the beautiful early ruins of Pre Rup, and the magnificent Ta Keo temple mountain.
2. Laos: Witness the Giving Alms morning ceremony in Luang Prabang.
At 5:30 in the morning, there is a sense of utter serenity at the heart of the world heritage city of Luang Prabang. As the sun rises, the Giving Alms ceremony takes place. During this time-honored ritual, something on the order of two hundred monks pour out of their temples and sanctuaries and gather together to receive their daily meal from the locals. Sometimes children in need will also appear with baskets, and the monks will share their offerings so that the children can take some food home. You can take part in the Giving Alms ceremony, but there are a number of important etiquette rules to observe. Read about them in detail here so that you can share in this uplifting spiritual ritual.
3. Vietnam: Explore the incredible Củ Chi tunnels in Saigon.
For those with an interest in the Vietnam war, the Củ Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) are not to be missed. These tunnels served as the base of operations for the Viet Cong during the Tết Offensive in 1968. This is a wonderful opportunity for solo travelers as well as families to understand what life was like for Viet Cong soldiers. Explore the tunnels and emerge through a secret exit in the middle of the jungle. Those who have an interest in firearms can also give the M16 assault rifle a try at the shooting range along with other Vietnam era weapons such as the M60 light machine gun.
4. Burma: Take a hot air balloon ride over thousands of temples in Bagan.
Bagan in Burma is truly one of the most magical sites in the world with more than 10,000 ancient temple ruins. These beautiful structures were erected between the 11th and 13th centuries and are in astonishingly good condition, despite the devastation wrought by a recent earthquake. In a hot air balloon, you can get away from the crowds and cover a much more expansive area than you can on foot. The best time to fly over the Bagan temples is around sunrise. The lighting is spectacular at dawn, blanketing the world below in a warm golden glow. The contrasts with the deep retreating shadows offer the best photography opportunities.
5. Thailand: Join in a water fight during the Songkran Festival.
Traveling with children or simply young at heart? Visit Thailand from April 13th-15th and you will have a chance to participate in Thai New Year, known as the Songkran Festival. While there are a number of traditions involved with the festival, none are more famous than Songkran’s water fights. During the Songkran period, major thoroughfares in cities and towns throughout Thailand are closed to vehicular traffic. Children, young adults, and occasionally older adults run out into the streets to blast each other with water guns and throw buckets of water on each other. This is the biggest water fight on the planet every year—so gear up and soak in the fun!
6. China: Discover the Taoist legends and martial arts history of the isolated Wudang Mountains.
For those who want to learn more about Taoism and martial arts, a hike into the Wudang Mountains in northwestern Hubei is a spiritual journey unlike any other. Here you will find a temple complex dedicated to the god Xuan Wu, known as the “Dark Warrior.” The original Five Dragons Temple located at Wudang was built on the orders of Emperor Taizong of Tang, the second emperor of the ancient Tang dynasty. Since then, a number of additional temples and monasteries have been added to the site, each contributing to the collective history, knowledge and wisdom of the Wudang Mountains. Some of the greatest martial arts masters in the world practice and teach Tai Chi and Kung Fu at Wudang. Whether you venture here on your own Taoist pilgrimage, are seeking to add to your knowledge of martial arts, or you simply are looking for a breathtaking hike, the Wudang Mountains are an incredible destination in all four seasons.
7. Sri Lanka: Take a safari at night through the country’s largest national parks.
Sri Lanka is home to some wonderful national parks which in turn are inhabited by extraordinary creatures. Hop in a jeep and head out on a nighttime safari to behold elephants, leopards and bears in their natural habitat. A great place to start is Yala West (Ruhuna) National Park, which hosts about 30 leopards. Usually leopards are quite shy of humans, but those which live in the park have a reputation for boldness, so you should be able to get a great look at them. At Yala West, you will also encounter spotted deer, wild pigs, golden jackals and a couple different kinds of monkeys. Another park you won’t want to miss is Uda Walawe. Here you can roam among 500 or so wild elephants in their natural grassland habitat. In fact, they are so prevalent that it is almost a guarantee that you will encounter at least one, and probably more. If you are looking for encounters with rare creatures, consider dropping by Wilpattu National Park. The scenery is similar to Yala West, and likewise is home to more than a few leopards. But in Wilpattu, you might also encounter a reclusive sloth bear or even a muntjac, colloquially known as a “barking deer.” This is the oldest known species of deer, recognizable from its distinctive and unusual antlers as well as its “tusks” (which are simply long downward-pointing canines). And if you drive along the coast, particularly near Mirissa or Trincomalee, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the spout of a blue whale out on the horizon. Sri Lanka is considered to be the destination for whale watching, with sightings abounding throughout the year. Aim to visit Mirissa between November and April, or drop by Trincomalee between May and September for prime whale watching opportunities.
8. Maldives: Enjoy a private dinner over the water.
Underwater restaurant in Maldives (source: Alexander Waltner, flickr.com)
Maldives is one of the most inimitable destinations in the world, one which is unique in time as well as space. In fact, time to visit Maldives is running out. Because of the 2004 tsunami along the coast of Thailand, Maldives is sinking into the ocean. In 30 years, no one will be able to visit these mesmerizing coral islands ever again. They will be underwater. For now, Maldives remains an idyllic, tranquil destination for those who want to surround themselves in the crystalline waters of the Indian ocean. And what better way to do that than to reserve a romantic dinner for two over the water? Imagine your own private platform, surrounded on all sides by the sparkling waves. A sailor will take you on a private boat from the shore to your table. Watch as the sun sinks below the horizon, painting the sky and the waves with the dazzling hues of sunset. Dine on delicious delicacies by candlelight, totally secluded from the crowds. This is one of the most exclusive experiences you can have while traveling in Asia!
9. United Arab Emirates: Stay in the iconic Burj al-Arab hotel in Dubai.
If there is one famous sight in Dubai, it is the Burj al-Arab luxury hotel in the shape of a sail. As the fourth tallest hotel on earth, it is situated on an artificial island near the Jumeirah beach. A private bridge connects it to the mainland, along with its own private helipad. The Burj al-Arab is sometimes referred to by reviewers and publications as “the world’s only seven-star hotel.” Here you can indulge yourself in the lap of luxury, enjoying impeccable views from every room and suite. Look out over the Dubai Marina, the expansive ocean and the city of Dubai. Start your evening with a gourmet meal at the hotel’s restaurant. Later in the night, enjoy a drink at the 27th floor bar. There is so much to see and do in and around Dubai, but the Burj al-Arab is so amazing that you probably will have a hard time leaving for the day. The stay alone is something that you will remember for the rest of your life. You will find yourself dreaming often about the beautiful ocean views and the luxurious sheets over the years to come!
10. Bhutan: Take a spiritual hike up to visit the Tiger Monastery.
If there is just one activity you are going to do when visiting Bhutan, it should be to take a climb up to Paro Taktsang, also known as the “Tiger Monastery” or “Tiger’s Nest.” This is one of the most famous Buddhist sites in the world, drawing such famous visitors as Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2016. Along the way, you will behold the awe-inspiring scenery of the Paro valley and surrounding mountains. The temple complex itself is perched right on the edge of a steep precipice. It was built in the late 17th century near the site of the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where the legendary Guru Padmasambhava was believed to have meditated for a period of three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours exactly. According to lore, he was the one who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. To this day, he is revered as a tutelary deity. On bright, clear days, the golden and red rooftops of the monastery shine, reflecting the brilliance of the sun. On days where clouds shroud the mountains, the monastery is often cloaked in a dense fog. When there is a gap in the fog, it appears as if the structure it is floating among the clouds.
11. Japan: Experience “Washoku”: traditional Japanese cuisine.
Photo by: Westin Tokyo
“Washoku” is the word for all traditional forms of Japanese cuisine. If you have eaten Japanese food in your native country, you already know how mouthwateringly delicious it can be. But you haven’t really tasted Japanese food until you have tried it in Japan. Japanese food is so recognized worldwide that UNESCO has designated it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage alongside French and Mexican food. Whether you visit a traditional restaurant or a small local bistro, you will have the chance to try all kinds of Washoku. If you aren’t sure how to read the menu or what to order, don’t worry! Many Japanese restaurants display realistic plastic food replicas at the counter, a trend which started in the late 1920s and which continues to this day. Using these models, you can simply point at what you want and enjoy sushi, soba, onigiri and other Washoku delights!
12. Oman: Take a trek on a camel through Wahiba Sands.
Oman is an arid world of contrasts, where hot desert sands meet refreshing turquoise seas. If you want the ultimate desert experience, visit Wahiba Sands, also known as Sharqiya Sands. Among these windswept dunes, you can get a feel for traditional Bedouin life and get to know the friendly nomadic peoples who call this region home. For an experience that you will cherish for the rest of your life, take a trek on a camel across the dunes. Then join a desert camp in the evening, watching as the sun sets over the dunes. Enjoy music, the warmth of a fire, and party with locals and tourists long into the night. The only thing warmer than the desert sands is the company you’ll keep.
13. India: Take a boat ride on the Ganges River through Varanasi.
In the western religious world, Jerusalem is a capital for several faiths. The same is true of Varanasi in India, a city sacred to Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. As the birthplace of Hinduism, it may actually be the oldest inhabited city anywhere on earth. Varanasi is referred to as the “City of Lights.” The best way to immerse yourself in the spirituality and ambiance of this unique city is to take a boat ride along the Ganges, which runs right through the city. The lights of the city are mesmerizing as they reflect in the river, and around you, you will see thousands of people bathing themselves and performing rituals and prayers in the river, which they recognize as providing the water of life. Be sure to behold the extraordinary Ceremony of Light. During this ritual, priests give their thanks to the river.
Asia is a world of unparalleled beauty, culture and wonder. Even if you have only a day to spend in each country on your Asia tour, you can make the most of each leg of your journey by taking in these spectacular sights, sounds and flavours. From the temple ruins of Angkor Wat to the modern luxury of Dubai, Asia offers a cultural and spiritual journey like no other.