Why now is the perfect time to visit Asia
Asia is back in the game. Flight and ferry services are being restored; airports are buzzing again; and taxi ranks are jostling to keep up. The continent is very much on the move once more, looking out instead of looking in.
Curiously, of all the regions of the world, it is Asia – the whizz-bang, fast-forward, future-facing continent – that has been slowest to get going since the pandemic. But now, with the exception of China and Hong Kong, almost the whole of Asia is fully open to inbound travellers, without the need for tests or masks, and India has finally reinstated its e-visa option for British travellers.
All things considered, this is the ideal moment to take that big splashy trip to one or more of the unique countries that make up this diverse, spectacular chunk of the globe – not least because tourist arrivals are not yet back to their usual levels, and travel experiences may be all the richer for it.
For example, until the pandemic struck, more than 2.5 million tourists per year were visiting the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor, in Cambodia, and the most popular temples had become overcrowded, even unpleasant, as a result. Last year, that number fell by 90 per cent – which makes for a much more tranquil and intimate experience, wandering sometimes entirely alone among those stone towers and cruciform terraces.
Yet the situation also feels bittersweet, as I listen to locals who are struggling to make ends meet. For the past year or so, I have been zigzagging the continent and witnessing the effects of the pandemic on the tourism industry. I have met tour guides in Thimphu, Bhutan, who have switched to farming rice; chefs in Hoi An who have closed down three or four restaurants and laid off 100 staff; and walked the main street in Koh Samui, so neglected it looks like it has been hit by a typhoon.
Another bruised destination, Bali, usually welcomes six million overseas tourists a year, but in 2021 that number plummeted to just 50. When I visited a few months ago, traffic was light and beaches were empty.
Bali will bounce back, of course, and the signs are promising: recently, tourism growth has been averaging more than 40 per cent per month. Nevertheless, it will not be an instant recovery – and travellers choosing Asia for their next trip may still get to see the region in an alluring, almost sepia-tinted light, evocative of halcyon times gone by.
This long, lanky country has a run of neatly spaced destinations north to south. In the capital, Hanoi, explore the winding lanes around Hoan Kiem Lake and take in a traditional water puppet show, then join the Reunification Express train, which courses the length of Vietnam. Overnight in a bunk and wake up in the former imperial capital, Hue, to explore the ancient ruins of the royal palace, then head south to the pretty port of Hoi An, with its latticed streets of old merchants’ houses, markets and eateries, some of which run cooking classes.
It is a short tuk-tuk ride to An Bang beach for seafront restaurants and chill-out bars on the sand. Back on the train, it’s on to Ho Chi Minh City for some of Asia’s best shopping, dining and the War Remnants Museum, documenting the Vietnam War.
Abercrombie & Kent (03301 734712) offers an 11-night trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City from £4,999pp sharing, including flights, transfers, accommodation and guiding. Included are a street-food tour, a Vespa tour and a Vietnam War Veteran tour
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
One of the world’s greatest scuba diving and snorkelling destinations, Raja Ampat consists of four large islands and hundreds of smaller ones scattered like confetti across the Ceram Sea. There are exceptional sites to spot manta rays, schooling hammerhead sharks and quivers of sea snakes, amongst a profusion of coral and a multitude of tropical endemic fish. It is here, in fact, that the highest number of species have been counted on a single dive: 374, at Cape Kri.
Above the waterline the seascape is equally stunning, particularly Wayag with its karst outcrops of towering rainforest, limestone caves and aquamarine lagoons filled with (harmless) golden jellyfish, not to mention sea eagles, tree kangaroos and magnificent birds of paradise.
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 4525 2788) offers a 16-night trip from £13,250pp sharing, including flights, transfers, seven nights all-inclusive on the cruise yacht Aqua Blu (category III suite), seven nights’ full board at the Misool Resort, and two nights at airport hotels
Singapore and Bali
Fly into Singapore for a perfect pause: sharing breakfast with the orang-utans at Singapore Zoo, seeing the thousands of species of orchids at the Botanic Gardens and cooling off at the water fountains at Gardens by the Bay.
Then from here you fly to Bali. If there were one place in the world to fix mind, body and soul, it would be this spiritual island, home to some of the original wellbeing destinations, built along traditional Balinese lines with architecture in stone, wood and thatch, and set among tropical garden courtyards and frangipani trees. There is an array of resorts here, focusing on mindfulness, emotional balance or good sleep, with classes in meditation, yoga and pilates, and healthy menus using local organic ingredients.
Healing Holidays (020 3372 6945) offers a nine-night Singapore and Bali trip from £5,189pp sharing. This includes flights, two nights’ B&B at the Raffles hotel in Singapore, and seven nights’ full board at the Revivo Wellness Resort in Bali, including transfers and a seven-night De-stress & Relax programme
Luang Prabang, Laos
Explore the former royal capital with its dozens of gilded temples, monasteries and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre showcasing ethnic handicrafts. Spend afternoons by the river, try one of the stilted restaurants, and take a cruise on a longtail boat or a converted rice barge to see the mountainous landscape and farmers ploughing the rice fields.
One morning, wake early to take part in the touching dawn ritual of tak bat, or alms-giving. Buy sticky rice from street-sellers and copy the locals kneeling on the pavement awaiting the procession of monks trailing down from the monasteries.
As the monks pass, barefoot in their distinctive orange robes, they clatter open metal bowls hung about their necks, and locals and tourists alike scoop handfuls of rice to put into them.
Scott Dunn (020 8682 5060) offers a 10-night Ultimate Laos trip from £5,300pp sharing, including flights and transfers, taking in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, the hill tribes of Muang La and the landscapes of Nong Khiaw
The world’s third largest island is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. Sabah is known for its indigenous traditions, tropical beaches, coral reefs and biodiverse rainforest. It is one of the best places to see orphaned orangutans at the rehabilitation centre at Sepilok, where there are usually a couple of hundred animals living in the reserve, a small number of which regularly visit the feeding platform.
Orangutans can also be seen around the Kinabatangan River and in the Danum Valley, both areas that offer guided walks, bird-watching and river trips. If you are really serious about wildlife spotting, it is also possible to see pot-bellied proboscis monkeys, Sunda clouded leopards, western tarsiers, Borneo elephants and tropical hornbills. Off the north-east coast, there is excellent diving at Sipadan Island, and also in this region is 13,435ft Mount Kinabalu, which can be climbed in two days, through lowland rainforest and alpine scrub, eventually emerging onto its vast granite spires.
Cox & Kings (03330 603303) offers a 12-night bespoke Splendours of Borneo trip from £5,595pp, including flights, transfers and guiding. The holiday includes seven nights at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria, and other accommodation across Sabah and Sarawak, including breakfast
Angkor Wat, the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer empire, is one of the largest religious monuments in the world – and there are hundreds more Hindu and Buddhist temples from this era. Some are restored, flanked by reflecting pools and bound by moats, others lie hauntingly in ruins.
Banteay Srei has intricate carvings of celestial dancers; Ta Prohm has been intentionally left mostly unrestored and tangled in spectacular jungle undergrowth; and the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom has Bodhisattva faces etched into its towers. The gateway to Angkor is the lively town of Siem Reap, with its colourful market, quirky bars and galleries. Nearby, Tonlé Sap is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, dotted with stilted villages and floating markets.
One hour’s flight from Siem Reap is Phnom Penh, the laid-back capital with French colonial architecture, a riverside boardwalk and a fabulous thriving café culture. This is also the focal point of Cambodia’s recent painful history, witnessed in the museums and mausoleums marking the genocide which occurred at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
AboutAsia Travel (00 855 92 12159) offers a six-night Cambodia’s Ancient and Modern Capitals trip from £1,952pp, including regional (but not international) flights, accommodation at Phum Baitang and Raffles Le Royal, transfers, private guides, walking with elephants in the Kulen Forest, and dining experiences at the temples, in the countryside and at the home of celebrity chef Nak
Home to the highest peaks on the planet, Nepal is a landscape of majestic mountains (dominated by Mount Everest, known here as Sagarmatha), and offers a variety of treks to suit ability and altitude, either camping or using teahouse accommodation. Some treks focus on witnessing traditional village life, others might be to see the flowering forests of rhododendrons and azaleas, or the snowcapped peaks.
You will land in Kathmandu, a valley that has some of the world’s densest collections of Unesco World Heritage sites, and from here there is good access to the mountains, such as at Lamjung Himal, or one of the most popular treks up to Everest Base Camp (18,200ft).
There is also Mustang, in the north, where high-altitude desert meets the snowcapped peaks of the Annapurna massif and Dhaulagiri range, with its glaciers and moraines. Here are Buddhist monasteries and temples dotted along the fertile valleys, apple orchards watered by glacial run-off, as well as manmade caves in the cliffs, which for centuries have sheltered wandering ascetics.
Daunt Travel (020 3870 5150) offers the 11-night Indulgent Nepal from East to West trip from £18,600pp, including all domestic (but not international) flights, accommodation, meals and activities, taking in Kathmandu, Phaplu, Mustang and Everest
The Japanese capital smashes together the modern with the timeless: in the Harajuku district, it is a fashion show of cosplayers, rockabilly dancers and visual kei fans, yet there is also Sensoji temple with its five-storey pagoda, completed in AD 645. From Tokyo, take the bullet train past the perfect silhouette of Mount Fuji to the Shima peninsula, a rugged coastline of coves, inlets and islands on the Pacific.
This region offers an insight into Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism, as well as the nation’s remarkable cuisine. It is home to the revered pilgrimage site of the Ise Jingu Shrine, built beside the Isuzu River. Finally, there is the imperial city of Kyoto, with its clutch of temples and shrines. Stroll along the Philosopher’s Path alongside a burbling stream and in the shade of cherry trees, exploring the higgledy-piggledy neighbourhoods between Ginkakuji and Nanzenji.
Wondertrunk & co offers a nine-night trip from £7,900pp (excluding flights), with a mix of private and public transportation, and accommodation in four-star hotels, taking in Tokyo, Kyoto and Ise-Shima. The trip includes some activities; guests can select from a private sushi class with a professional chef, a private geisha dinner, a kimono experience and a tea ceremony
Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand
One of the greatest cities in Asia, Bangkok is built around the Chao Phraya River, where skyscrapers tower above the vernacular shophouse architecture, converted into design studios, contemporary art spaces and retro bars playing live music. Take day trips to the former capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both Unesco World Heritage cities.
Ayutthaya is reached by river boat, and is home to the 14th-century Wat Phra Mahathat with its cob-shaped turrets and the colonnaded ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet. From here, it is a short train trip to Sukhothai, Thailand’s first capital, to see the Wat Mahathat temple, an assembly of spires, columns and detailed bas-reliefs.
Then head south to the beaches in the Gulf of Thailand. There is Koh Samui with its yoga schools and wellness resorts, gilded pagodas and beach bars. There are also quieter islands, such as Koh Kood, with fishing villages, mangroves and waterfalls.
Ampersand Travel (020 7819 9770) offers a 12-night private guided tour of Thailand’s highlights from £7,850pp sharing, including flights, transfers, and B&B stays at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, Sala in Ayutthaya, Sriwilai in Sukhothai, and the Four Seasons in Koh Samui
Wedged between the behemoths of China and India, this mountainous kingdom is a beguiling place to learn about Himalayan culture and Buddhist traditions. Most visitors explore one of three valleys: Paro, Thimphu or Punakha, to see the cliffside temples and active monasteries.
Last year, the Trans-Bhutan Trail opened, a 250-mile route that runs from Haa in the west to Trashigang in the east, taking trekkers through forest glades, along the banks of streams and over mountain passes. Trekkers can cherrypick individual sections, for either day trips or overnight camping.
Bhutan has a high-value, low-volume tourism model, which imposes a tax on overseas visitors of £162pp per day. By doing this, it is hoping to avoid the perils of mass tourism and uses the income to offset the carbon footprints of visitors and to electrify Bhutan’s transportation network.
G Adventures (020 7313 6953) offers the 13-day Highlights of the Trans-Bhutan Trail trip from £4,299pp (excluding flights), including all meals, eight nights in hotels, two nights at homestays and one night camping. The trip takes in Thimphu Dzong, or Tiger’s Nest, a traditional cooking demonstration and four days hiking the Trans-Bhutan Trail
Explore the Unesco World Heritage sites in and around the Cultural Triangle, with its ancient cities, cave temples and rock fortresses. Then, continue exploring by train from Kandy, with its gardens of coffee, cinnamon, cacao and cardamom, to the Nuwara Eliya hill station, 6,000ft above sea level.
There are exceptional opportunities for wildlife sightings across Sri Lanka, especially for birders, with some of the world’s highest levels of endemism. In the national parks, there are sightings of leopards, Asian elephants and sloth bears, whether in Wilpattu in the remote north-west, or Yala on the south coast.
Offshore, there are boat excursions to spot blue whales and sperm whales, as well as the opportunity to see turtles, including hawksbill, loggerhead and leatherbacks, either laying their eggs, or when the hatchlings are scrambling to the sea. Surfers will find year-round waves, points and beach breaks, and there are also some wonderful chill-out beaches around the colonial town of Galle.
Red Savannah (01242 787800) offers a nine-night Essential Sri Lanka trip from £3,244pp, including flights, nine nights’ accommodation including breakfast (with full board at Camellia Hills, and one dinner at Vil Uyana), transfer, tours with a driver-guide, and entrance fees. Highlights include the Cultural Triangle, cycling through tea plantations and time at the beach
This is the perfect time to go, given that China remains inaccessible, in practice, to most tourists. The capital Taipei is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of Chinese antiquities, brought here more than 70 years ago from Beijing’s Forbidden City in an effort to save them from the ravages of war.
The 650,000 pieces include ceramics, calligraphy scrolls and jade jewellery dating back 8,000 years. The museum is one of the world’s busiest, typically attracting millions of tourists from China; however, due to restrictions on inbound Chinese travellers, and with China-Taiwan relations currently at a low, it is decidedly quieter than usual.
The Taiwanese capital has also just opened a new Performing Arts Centre, with a great theatre, dance and music programme, close to the Shilin Night Market, one of the region’s best foodie destinations. Beyond the city are forested mountains and tea plantations, which can be explored by high-speed train or go-slow bicycle. First travel to Hualien, wedged between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, then on to the Taroko Gorge and the Sun Moon Lake, ringed by pagodas and temples.
Black Tomato (020 7426 9888) offers a 10-day trip to Taiwan from £7,800pp, including flights, B&B accommodation, transfers and tours, taking in Taipei, the Sun Moon Lake by boat and Kenting National Park
India’s Golden Triangle
It goes without saying that this is a vast subcontinent all of its own, and a single trip can never fully uncover its charms. Nevertheless, the Golden Triangle – a popular travel circuit in northern India – is a notable highlight. Begin in Delhi to explore the capital’s bustling streets amidst idling traffic, weaving cycle-rickshaws and meandering cows, then visit the Red Fort, and Humayun’s Tomb, one of the earliest examples of Mogul architecture.
This mausoleum of sandstone and marble has geometric irrigated gardens of neem and sacred fig, with water channels representing the four rivers of Koranic paradise. It is a perfect precursor to the Taj Mahal, at Agra, before you journey to Jaipur, with its palaces, forts and bazaars.
Then, leave the hum of India’s cities to discover the region’s wildlife, from the leopards in Jawai, Rajasthan, to the tigers in the forests of Ranthambore National Park.
Natural World Safaris (01273 691642) offers a 12-day trip from £11,640pp sharing, including B&B, taking in the Taj Mahal, and two full-board safaris to track leopards at Sujan Jawai Camp and tigers at Sujan Sher Bagh
Penang and Malaysia
Connected to the mainland by an eight-mile bridge, the island’s multicultural city of George Town feels like an emergent Hong Kong with its waterfront skyscrapers alongside colonial architecture. The downtown area, a Unesco World Heritage site, reflects its mercantile history with the 19th-century mansion of Cheong Fatt Tze, a shipping magnate, and the clan house Khoo Kongsi, as well as Buddhist temples, mosques and churches. Penang has Malaysia’s best street food, such as roti canai (spicy lentils in flaky bread), Assam laksa (sour fish soup) and char kuey teow (stir-fried seafood noodles).
Afterwards, head north to the island of Langkawi, with its limestone cliffs, mangroves and beaches, as well as hot springs, rubber plantations and co-operative craft centres.
Audley Travel (01993 838130) offers a 14-night Malaysia’s Unspoilt Beaches & Kuala Lumpur trip from £4,260pp, including flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, and excursions, taking in Langkawi, Penang, Tioman and Kuala Lumpur
Take advantage of the current visa-free conditions for UK passport-holders, as the country tries to revive its tourism industry. Travellers will first pass through the capital, Ulaanbaatar, gateway to the vast steppe grasslands and communities of nomadic herders, with wildlife such as Mongolian gazelle, grey wolves, lynx, Pallas’s cat and black stork, and with petroglyphs tucked away in rock formations.
There are homestay opportunities in gers, the traditional circular canvas and felt tents, and to spend time with families to experience a herder’s way of life, from horse-riding to fermenting mare’s milk and making dumplings. There are adventures, travelling by yak cart to see monasteries, stupas and ancient ruined cities destroyed by the Manchurians, and other activities such as watching archery and wrestling matches, camel trekking, biking across the grasslands, fly-fishing and stargazing.
Panoramic Journeys (01608 676821) offers the 10-night Eagle Hunter Immersion Journey from £3,980pp, including international and domestic flights, accommodation, food, and the gift of your own deel (the traditional warm Mongolian clothing)