Top 12 Asia travel bucket list destinations

The 12 best Asia travel destinations

Sometimes I think we’ve seen so much of Asia we just must have seen it all … but then I see somewhere we haven’t been yet and I just have to add it to my list of top Asia travel destinations. So here are my current Top 12 Asia travel bucket list destinations …

1. Cruising Ha Long Bay (Vietnam)

Ha Long Bay is easily reached by road from Hanoi, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay is located about 150 km west of Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. In the local language, Ha Long means “dragon in the sea” which is a reference to the visual of what appear to be huge scales of a sea monster rising up out of the water, but in fact are stunning limestone (karst) mountains. Declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1994, I would compare Ha Long Bay to Yangshuo or Jingxi in China, like something that’s climbed out of a Chinese water color painting.

We stayed at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi hotel, a colonial charmer in the centre of Hanoi built in 1901, and booked our cruise of Ha Long Bay with the “real” Kangaroo Cafe in Hanoi and we were not disappointed. We slept on the deck of a beautifully-appointed Chinese wooden junk in what the captain described as “the 1000 star hotel” with a seemingly infinite sky of bright stars and the waters full of luminous algae. It was amazing!

2. Exploring the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces (China)

The Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces are near Guilin in China.

Located about 100 kilometres north of Guilin in Guangxi Province, the Longji Rice Terraces (translates literally as the Dragon’s Backbone) are cultivated rice terraces that wind their way up from the valley floor to about 800 meters above sea level. At the floor of the valley it’s typically warm and wet, but at the top of the terraces it can be cool and frosty. Most of the terraces were built over 600 years ago and are still being cultivated today.

Visit the Dragon’s Backbone in the early morning or the late afternoon in the middle of the year when the sun shimmers off the flooded rice paddies for the best experience. You can hire a car and driver in Guilin and it takes about 2.5 hours to drive the 100 km of mostly mountain roads.

We stayed at the Guilinyi Royal Palace Hotel in Guilin and booked a car from the hotel to visit the rice fields. There are three rice fields around Longsheng – the Jinkeng Red Yao Terraced Fields and the Ping’An Zhuang Terraced Fields are the most popular with visitors, but the Longji Anchient Zhuang Terraced Fields are the oldest. Take time to also visit the Longji Old Village where the locals still dry corn cobs under the eaves of their houses.

3. Climbing the Great Wall in the snow (China)

The Great Wall of China is best climbed from Simitai, 120 km NE of Beijing Depending on who you believe, the Great Wall of China runs for maybe as much as 20,000 km from just north of Pyongyang in modern-day North Korea to the Jade Gate in the western Gobi Desert where the Silk Road splits into its summer and winter routes. But the best place to view the wall is at Simatai and the best time to climb the wall is in late winter (January/February). The Great Wall at Simatai is the most intact, most spectacular and most original section of the wall, winding over mountain tops and down steep ridges through 34 intact beacon towers and past Mandarin Duck Lake and Gubei Water Town. You can climb the Great Wall at various locations near Beijing but be aware that these sections have been rebuilt for tourists. We stayed at the Hutongren Courtyard Hotel in Beijing and booked a car from there to Simatai. Getting to Simatai is a day trip from Beijing. You can either buy a ticket on an organised tour or just take the 980 bus from the Beijing long distance bus station (Dongzhimen) to Miyun County (West Bridge Station) and then change to the 38 or 51 local bus to “Miyun-Simatai”. Walk to the edge of the Gubei Water Town and you’ll find shuttle buses running to the Great Wall.

4. Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat (Cambodia)

Angkor Wat temple complex is just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Angkor Wat is an amazing complex of temples and administrative buildings covering an area of some 400 square kilometres near the town of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. It was built over hundreds of years starting in the 9th century and has now been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Watching the sunrise over the main temple complex is an absolute must-do and thousands of people trek there about 6AM every day to do just that.

We flew to Siem Reap from Chiang Mai in Thailand and stayed at Motherhome Inn Guest House which sounds like a quaint little bed and breakfast but is actually a really quirky 4 star hotel with incredible service.

5. Watching the sunset over Wat Arun in Bangkok (Thailand)

Wat Arun is on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun is known in Thailand as the “Temple of the Dawn” but it’s also a fantastic place to watch the sun set over Bangkok. The easiest way to get there is to hail a water taxi on the Chao Phraya River around 4 o’clock and ask to go to Pier 8 (also called Ta Tien). You can then choose to either climb the stairs to to top of Wat Arun and watch the sun set over Bangkok or, as I prefer, settle yourself in the small bar on the right side of the walkway near the pier, grab a cold beer, and watch the sun set over the temple on the other side of the river.
We stay at the New Siam Riverside Hotel when we are in Bangkok. Wat Arun is worth visiting any time just for the amazing detail and the prangs (towers) decorated with sea shells and porcelain. It’s a long and steep climb to the top but well worth it for the views from the top terrace. Make sure you hang on to the railings on the way back down!

6. Taking a boat ride up the Li River in Yangshuo (China)

Access the Li River tour boats from Yangshuo Pier near Guilin, China.

The Li River winds its way through the stunning limestone karst mountain landscape around Yangshuo in southern China. As you drift down the mirror smooth river in bamboo house boats with the mountains reflected in the water and fishermen punting up river standing on slender bamboo rafts, you really can believe you’ve fallen into another time and place.

Get to Yangshuo on a bus from nearby Guilin, which is easily reached by commercial flights from Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. In Yangshuo we stay at the Yangshuo Tea Cozy guest house. Take the time to explore Guilin and Yangshuo too. There’s a saying in China that “Guilin in the most beautiful place in China … and Yangshuo is even more beautiful than Guilin”. And it’s true.

7. Explore the amazing White Temple in Chiang Rai (Thailand)

The White Temple (also known as Wat Rong Khun) is located just outside the town of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.
To call this a temple or even a work of art is to sadly discount the lifetime of passion and devotion put into this amazing temple by local artist  Chalermchai Kositpipat who turned a run down regional temple into an unrivaled assessment of the evils of the world and the cycle of birth and rebirth so central to Buddhist belief.

For while it appeared it might be too late for others to see this bucket list attraction as an earthquake in 2014 badly damaged the White Temple and it was announced the temple would be demolished, never to be rebuilt. But now it’s coming back to life after engineers decided it could be rebuilt and Chalermchai announced the re-opening of the temple in May 2015.

Take time to walk slowly across the bridge of rebirth where hands reach up out of the ground to represent the desire of a material world. Over the bridge, cross into the “Gate of Heaven” where mythical creatures decide the fate of the dead. Then enter Ubosot, the central temple decorated in mirrored glass and prepare to be flabbergasted by one of the most detailed and extensive murals anywhere in the world, depicting everything from western pop idols to terrorist attacks on New York and even pop cult movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars. It’s Chalermchai’s statement about the wickedness of the world. Just go there!

In Chiang Rai we stay at the River Rai Resort because even luxury accommodation is cheap in Chiang Rai.

8. Feeding the orangutans in Borneo (Malaysia)

The Orangatan Sanctuary Borneo is in Sandakan, Malaysia.

Deep in the jungles of Borneo in East Malaysia, an intrepid band of volunteers and a few paid employees are caring for some of the few remaining “orang utan”, the jungle people of the Borneo rainforests. These large but gentle apes are mostly orphaned and unable to fend for themselves in the wild. The 45 square kilometer reserve at Sepilok provides a safe haven where they can be cared for and helped until they can eventually be returned to the wild.

It’s not an easy place to get to, but the best places rarely are. You need to take a two hour boat ride from Sandakan to the village of Sukau where the accommodations are a bit primitive, but in keeping with the purpose of this rehabilitation reserve. If it was good enough for Sir David Attenborough, then I reckon the rest of us can manage it.

10. Riding a tram to Victoria Peak (Hong Kong)

The tram to Victoria Peak leaves from Garden Road, Hong Kong.

The tram ride to Victoria Peak in Hong Kong is the best way to enjoy the scenic views over this otherwise dense and highly-populated metropolis. The funicular (chain driven) railway that runs up the peak from Gardens Road is over 120 years old and carries both visitors and locals up and down the upper levels of Hong Kong.

The 1.4 kilometre line takes you up about 400 metres above the harbor to the upper terminal at The Peak where you can enjoy 360 degree panoramic views from the viewing platform and shop at Peak Tower Shopping Centre. For the best value, buy a Peak Tram Sky Pass from the Garden Road terminus, which will also give you discounts at restaurants and shops at The Peak.

11. Snorkeling in Bali (Indonesia)

Blue Lagoon, five minutes from Padang Bai, has the best snorkeling in Bali.

There are lots of amazing places to go snorkeling or scuba diving around Asia but one of the most spectacular and accessible places is Paradise Blue Lagoon in Eastern Bali near Padang Bay Harbour. It sounds a long way to go, but it’s only a 1.5 hour drive from downtown Kuta and a million miles away.

Make sure to take a waterproof camera because the fish in these crystal clear waters are just spectacular! Book a day trip from your Bali hotel for around 1,000,000 Rp including equipment hire. Once you’re tired of snorkeling, wander into the warong near the beach for a delicious lunch (buy lunch for your guides, it’s cheap and they’ll love you for it). After lunch, climb the hill to find why they call this Paradise Blue Lagoon!

12. Taking a cable car to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (China)

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain rises 4500 meters above Lijiang in China.

When you fly into Lijiang, in Yunnan province of Western China, you can’t help but notice the snow capped mountains that frame the city. The tallest of these mountains is called Julong (translates as Jade Dragon) Snow Mountains because it is almost always covered in snow.

Rising to around 5600 meters, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain offers some of the best hiking in China, but we cheated and took the Swiss-built cable car to the peak at Glacier Park. It’s a hair-raising ride on a windy day but the views are incomparable and when you get to the top you have the rare opportunity to climb a mountain-top glacier!

The Glacier Park cable car was once the highest cable car ride in the world, but I think it’s now about number 3. If you’re up for it, hike down the western side of the mountain on the “high path” for spectacular views of the Yangtze River as it cuts its way through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

13. Long-tail boat ride to the Floating Markets (Thailand)

Take a long tail boat to Damnoen Saduak, near Bangkok in Thailand.

OK, my number 12 is a bit touristy, but we loved it. The Floating Markets at Damnoen Saduak are one of the most popular tours out of Bangkok in Thailand, but the best tours will not take you directly to the markets. Instead they’ll take you to the village of Damnoen Saduak where you’ll take a fast long-tailed boat up the canal to the market, past homes, rice paddies and small villages.

The market itself is crazy busy most of the year and you’ll be switched out of your fast boat into a paddle boat where you’ll bump along against hundreds of other paddle boats full of tourists and market vendors trying to navigate this narrow waterway with market stalls on both sides.

But you’ll soon forget the other tourists as you sample all kinds of fresh treats cooked by boat-bound vendors and take in the bustling markets and the vibrant atmosphere. You can book a tour from your Bangkok hotel for around 600 Bt per person, but don’t be scammed into using a taxi!
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