Asia’s beauty is as old as time. From the silk road and its legendary trading trails through deserts and over mountains to ancient traditions, pristine beaches and irresistible cuisine.
Work up an appetite, bring plenty of sunscreen and delve into the culture, natural beauty and mystical arts of the largest continent on Earth.
Grand Old India
Lucknow, Udaipur & Hyderabad
India shows the vivid, lively, and at times paralysingly hectic face of Asia. Despite the abundant scent of spices, traffic, and crowded food stalls with roaring tandoor ovens there are pristine, serene places in this vast country. Echos of nawabs and mighty rulers can be discovered in Lucknow, a majestic metropolis in northern India. Dig into Lucknow’s soil, fertile with rich history, guided by a knowledgeable local during a private tour. Bara Imambara is an excellent example of late 18th-century Islamic architecture, with superior arches and a dazzling labyrinth that requires reliable guidance from a local expert. While cruising around Lucknow, take time to absorb the presence of the Tombs of Saadat Ali Khan and Khurshid Zadi. These twin tombs reside in a lush garden bathing in golden sunlight at dawn giving their cathedral-like appearance an even more impressive countenance.
Further west, the state of Rajasthan showcases the staggering variety India has to offer. The Mewar Festival is an ancient fair celebrated in Udaipur with processions, markets filled with handicrafts, and people wearing traditional Mewari costumes. One of the natural crown jewels in Rajasthan is Ranthambore National Park. On a private safari, all eyes quietly search for wildlife, particularly the tiger, a glorious predator whose appearance will make your nature-loving heart skip a beat or two.
A train ride on the ‘Palace on Wheels’ is a different way to explore this vast state. The rocking rhythm of the rails leads you through imperial cities like Jaipur and Udaipur, as you indulge in a nirvana of superb cuisine and personalized care.
Hyderabad, positioned in the central spine of the country, has developed into an energetic and versatile municipality. Boasting multiple lavish hotels and resorts, Hyderabad is an unwinding getaway with unique, cultural architecture and festivals. Take a walk up to the historic Golkonda Fort, or witness the eye-popping dance performances during Deccan Festival, an annual event dedicated to the Deccan area in the state of Telangana.
Into the wild
Cambodia, Thailand & Sri Lanka
On Asia’s steppes––in wetlands, on mountain ridges, and deep into the lush jungles––creatures crawl, jump, fly, run, shy away and sing with an ethereal voice. Cambodia is a nation blessed with unique wildlife, although some of the native species are critically endangered.
Hire a boat in Kratie, sail away on the glistening Mekong River, and keep an eye open to spot the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. Harder to find are pygmy slow loris and sun bears, who inhabit the cloud forests of Mondulkiri, an area in eastern Cambodia. Trekking with a local expert leads to awareness, unforgettable encounters with Asian elephants, and perhaps a serendipitous encounter with the nocturnal clouded leopard.
Despite booming tourism and ongoing deforestation, Thailand is still home to ecosystems teeming with flora and fauna. Leave the busy lanes of Bangkok behind for a private tour in Kaeng Krachan National Park, the densely green habitat of over 400 bird species and more than 50 different mammals. Malayan tapirs, Indochinese tigers, and clouded leopards are some of the most elusive kinds of animals in Thailand’s largest national park. Probably the most eye-popping sights won’t be found by land lovers, but rather to those who take to the seat, carry an oxygen tank and jump into the fertile waters of Mu KoSurin National Park. Floating with sea turtles, surrounded by vibrant coral reefs, you realize the spectacle under the sea is perhaps one of Thailand’s most precious sights.
For a relatively small island nation, Sri Lanka never fails to impress with its diverse animal kingdom. Feel like part of a painting in the tea plantations of Hill Country and climb up to the legendary Sigiriya Rock, before joining a comfortable jeep safari in Udawalawa National Park. All eyes are fixed on the bushes from where buffalos and elephant families may appear. Even curious leopards might cross your path, or try spotting them where larger populations roam in Yala National Park. White herons, crocodiles, and deer occupy the fertile wetlands and ponds of Sri Lanka’s beautiful reserves.
Thailand for foodies
Michelin & street food in Bangkok, from turmeric to chilli pastes
Thailand’s beaches and the underwater world are praised and well-admired globally, but its the cuisine that drives travellers to this Southeast Asian gem. Prepared on burning hot grills, in flaming woks, under the grinder in the hands of an experienced chef, eaten under banana trees, on stools in the street, or in the soft fauteuils in world-class restaurants Thailand’s cuisine is a recipe of tradition, passion, knowledge and love.
Start in Bangkok, the buzzing capital with hundreds of markets, street food stalls, and lovely eateries. ‘Elegance, balance, and high quality’ undoubtedly appear on the menu of Michelin-starred Paste, on the list of ‘Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2019’. Paste plates dishes with a modern twist and beloved Thai ingredients, like chargrilled pork, river fish, and prawns.
Don’t forget to feast on tom yum goong. This fragrant shrimp soup is a stable in Thailand’s food bible with chilis, fish paste, galangal, lemongrass, kefir lime juice, and an incredibly flavourful shrimp broth. Another award-winner amongst locals and travellers alike is green papaya salad, called som tam in Thai. A concoction of green papaya, palm sugar, tamarind, dried shrimp, garlic, chilis, lime juice, and tomatoes will burn like an addictive fire, but flames the desire to come back for more.
More is what you’ll find in Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok, with its expansive display of freshly prepared dishes, as well as snacks, sweets, and grocery staples like raw meat and vegetables. Those initiated in the ‘club of spice-lovers’ are fond of Southern Thai food. Dishes here tend to be heavy on the chilis. Entering a Southern Thai establishment is like walking into curry heaven, where coconut milk, turmeric, chilis, and fish are the principal saints. When in Bangkok, sample some of the fiery food from the South in Prai Raya, a cosy restaurant that’s been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand title. The same applies to Khua Kling + Pak Sod, a diner devoted to old family recipes and spices.
The Central Thai kitchen has famous classics like tom yum soup, pad thai noodles, and red and green curry. Going north to the fairytale-like hills and resort towns such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, spices are still omnipresent, and so are fresh vegetables in dishes like yum moo yor (steamed pork salad), and small snacks wrapped in banana leaves. It’s almost like a tragedy that every single soul travelling to Thailand will leave without sampling every Thai cuisine.
Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand & Vietnam
Glazing golden stretches, secluded coves, and volcanic stone beaches; Asia has thousands of kilometres of coastline and countless complementary beaches.
A stone-throw away from buzzing Singapore lies an oasis that blazes under the sun, where the long stretch of sand is cradled by the currents of the South China Sea. Beachgoers can test their golf skills on the nearby 45-hole golf course. Desaru, on the East coast of Peninsular Malaysia, mixes luxurious resorts, comforting amenities with lush swimming pools, and a brilliant strip of white sand.
Intrepid beach bums unwind further north to Lanting Village Beach on Tioman Island, where the waves and whispering leaf-covered roof of beach huts are all that break the silence.
Neighbouring Indonesia flaunts with gorgeous seafronts, most popular on Bali. Indonesia’s rustic shores seem to be off-the-beaten path, despite their flawless beauty. Grab your flip flops, pour a generous amount of sunscreen and hop on a plane to Sumba Island. Near Madala, take a break from your seaside spa-treatment with a swim. On Tarimbang Beach, embrace the feeling of being stranded in paradise.
The Komodo National Park can’t be missed. Not only because of its storied dragons and exotic marine life, but also because of Pink Beach, a unique little-visited natural wonder boasting pink-red coral sand and an overwhelming underwater world teaming with sealife. Could this be one of the last pristine marine experiences on Earth? Indeed. One can almost envision Neptune rising from the sea.
With so much exquisite experiences in Thailand including her wildlife and cuisine, its easy to take her incredible beaches for granted because there are simply so many of them. Enjoy stumbling upon jam-packed shores with long-tail boat taxis waiting to motor you to your next island destination. Afterwards, enjoy the hard rocking beats of local beach clubs. And if partying hard isn’t your style Koh Kradan will provide the solitude you seek with plenty of deserted shorelines and lots of ways to enjoy exploring the rich marine life under the sea. Paradise Beach and Ao Niang offer snorkelling and diving opportunities; private experiences you’ll enjoy in peace far from the crowds.
Think of fresh spring rolls and rich pho soup on an exquisite table, with a salty sea breeze caressing your face. It won’t get any better, will it? Open your eyes after a nap in an elegant deckchair to the sound of gently rolling waves, and you’ll see Long Beach on Vietnam’s Phu Quoc. The island is perfect for chartering a deep-sea excursion or simply visit Star Beach to stand-up paddle above sapphire blue waters and fantastic creatures of the deep.
Mongolia, Iran & Kyrgyzstan
Centuries ago, horses trod over dusty trails, dunes, and razor-sharp mountain ridges bearing animal furs, fruits, weapons, and textiles to the East, and silk, tea, spices, and precious stones to the West. The Silk Route was a network of highways for merchants and ancient nomads, yet there’s plenty to be discovered today. A quest to follow an old road through barren landscapes and ancient cities leads to Iran, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirgizstan, China, and Mongolia. Step into history in the footsteps of old traders and ride a horse in the Mongolian Gobi Desert to experience sweeping vistas of sand and barren hills and feel the serene spirit of solitude. The Naadam Festival displays the traditional trading and warfare culture where men show their skill at wrestling, archery and horse racing.
While time has marched on, The Silk Route is still a road of exploration for many travellers. The choices are endless including exquisite train travel in Iran, one of the key players during the time when the intercontinental trading route flourished. Perfect for those who love to dream as gorgeous panoramic landscapes slowly pass by romantic stories about Iran and Persia may come to mind. Fine onboard dining at The Persian Caravan provides just the romantic venue for your evening meal as the sun sets on your fantastic voyage. A nine-day tour around Iran finds you hopping off to see grand mosques in Isfahan, elegant Shiraz, and Persepolis, the home of the once mighty ruler Darius the Great. Onboard chefs serve up exotic all-inclusive culinary experiences.
Kyrgyzstan; a barren land occupied by sheepherders, hunters, and ever-moving nomads. Defined by lakes, sky-rising peaks, and lush valleys with grazing horses. Kyrgyzstan receives so few tourists that most experiences here never made it to any bucket list. Spend the night in a traditional yurt, a cosy and comfortable tent. Or go local and dip in glacial lakes, join a hunter on an excursion, or relax from a day of adventure in a natural hot spring near the town of Karakol.
Exploring gorgeous Bhutan
Heavenly mountains and green valleys sandwich happiness
Surreal serenity lies upon the rolling pastoral landscapes of Bhutan. Visitors are instantly transported from their noisy, cramped worlds to a spiritual oasis, where the breath of nature and temple services define the rhythm of life. To preserve the century-old culture, this mountainous kingdom has been flying under the tourist radar. Nowadays though the compelling beauty of Bhutan is more open to visitors.
Enjoy a hike or ride a horse to the gracious Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a sacred Buddhist sanctum glued to a rock wall and embraced by the ever-floating clouds. There’s plenty of time to stop, unwind and stare at the snow-capped giants of the Himalayas at the Dochu La Pass. Cruising to the nearby Druk Wangyal Lhakhang temple with a private driver feels like you are floating on air, for the clouds and snowy summits stretch unto the eternal horizon. Ascend the stairs to soak up the story of Buddha’s life, passionately told through 108 paintings created by monks. As the road swings and cuts through phenomenal cliffs, Punakha Dzong comes into view at 50 kilometres east of Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. Two thundering rivers, green alps, and a wealth of trees surround this palace giving it a hint of illusion. But the fantasy becomes reality once you set foot in this old chateau. Until 1955, this residence was the magnificent seat of the government.
Bhutan has an astonishing range of wildlife, including tigers, snow leopards, red pandas, and musk deers. The Bhutanese government spreads its protective wings over the non-human inhabitants of this nation and decided to keep many conservation areas closed until further notice. Bhutan is a pearl visitors will want to discover. Enjoy a deep dive into traditional Buddhist culture, untouched forests, and sharp alpine peaks. Hiding from the masses of tourists it lies safely behind the natural walls and a strict organized-tour-only policy. Few countries are as charming and blessed with the quiet, natural beauty of Bhutan.
Japan Temple Stays
In search of privacy & exclusivity
Japan is an intricate marriage between ancient culture and undeniable modernisation with vending machines, cubic-styled cars with great fuel economy, and lightning-fast trains represent the contemporary appearance of the East Asian nation. Get to the heart of authentic Japan with a serene temple stay. Unplug from modern material goods and rushed city life and instead enjoy the peace of mind that comes from sleeping like a monk. Unwind, forget about office hassles, everyday annoyances and participate in meditation sessions and Buddhist ceremonies. Epic views of Mount Hakusan and the Japan Sea are a reward for your adventure into monk-life at the Natadera Temple in Ishikawa Prefecture. An enchanting moss woodland and the utterly charming wooden bell tower envelop visitors in timeless beauty.
The road to peace leads 200 miles south, through zigzagging alpine lanes, rolling hills, and congested cities. Don’t stop until you reach Eko-in temple in Koyasan. Hidden within thick forests and inspired by the traditions of ancient Japanese Buddhism, this tranquil retreat offers beautiful rooms with an authentic floor mattress a delightful vegetarian breakfast, and a deeper understanding of Buddhism through meditation classes. To immerse in the local culture, chilled sake can be enjoyed on the patio which overlooks a delightful Zen garden.
Although simplicity, harmony and peace of mind are vital in Japanese temples, some stays go beyond basic necessities. Miidera Temple is a sanctum of great significance, for this complex is at the top of the Tendai-jimon Buddhism’s most important places of worship. Getting here is a breeze; the staff can offer a pick-up service from anywhere in Shiga Prefecture, Kyoto or Osaka. Exotic experiences include being baptised into temple life with a dip into an onsen-style bath made of polished wood. Breakfast is provided, but if you prefer a private chef can also give you a cooking session in your lavish living room. The marriage of modesty and soothing comfort are a joy to in Japan.
Learning Asian art
The arts of the Samurai, Batik prints & ancient dances
A conception of traditions, tribal life, and trading roots that have run through ancient Asia have given humanity many crafts and delicate arts to enjoy. Become part of a fictional travel experience, with a journey to defensive strongholds, brave warriors, and the rural charm of feudal Japan during a Samurai sword class at Tokyo Samurai Kembu. Dress up in authentic costumes of the mighty military, learn how to master the ‘katana’ sword, and take photos to forever memorise your culture trip into enriching art classes and a brief moment of time travel.
Of all the regional traditions, Batik printmaking might have one of the deepest roots in Southeast Asia. An appropriate spot to meet the textile masters and their century-old craftsmanship is Yogyakarta, Indonesia’s capital of culture and creativity. Batik Winotosastro workshop hosts private classes for groups, ranging from 3 hours to 6 days if you wish to dig deeper in the region’s arts. Afterwards, enjoy bringing home several pieces of batik cloth, or just a deeper understanding of the rich history of its process.
It might seem nearly impossible to capture the spirit and stories of a grand continent within a single art performance. But one story has roots deep within Asia’s soil, and can be found in the DNA of all Asian nations––The Ramayana saga. Originally written in Sanskrit, this saga is seen as ‘the first poem’ in Hindu tradition, but its significance reaching beyond India’s borders. The echo of Ramayana lingered on, over the Himalaya, to the Thai highlands, the Malaysian cloud forests, and sailed on the wind to the Philippines and Indonesia. It has ascended above religious values, and it’s an inspiration for folk dances across the continent.
A marvellous spot to get to know the Emperor of Dances is Bali, where you can follow Kecak lessons organised by Kelana DMC. The story of the Balinese Kecak performing style is inspired from a Ramayana verse. By Huub Lakerveld ◼
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© This article was first published in Aug-Sept 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.