In the heyday of the British Empire, young Englishmen of privilege would customarily round off their educations with a lengthy peregrination around the Continent—attending opera in Vienna, roaming the Accademia, sketching the Acropolis. The premise of the Grand Tour, as defined in Thomas Nugent's 1749 book of the same name, was "to enrich the mind to rectify the judgment...and [to] form the complete gentleman."
Today, those same leisured gentlemen, should any exist, might instead set a course farther east. Asia is to the 21st century what Europe was to the previous three, and its influence touches every aspect of life in the West—culturally, politically, demographically, not least economically. Asian design, cinema, fine art, fashion, cuisine, medicine, and even spirituality have come to permeate and (re)define our own.
This goes way beyond the rage for manga, soup dumplings, yoga, and bubble tea. For many Americans—particularly those under 30—the allure of the East now rivals that of Europe. I've met college students from the Midwest, some of whom don't yet have passports, who are more eager to see Tiananmen Square than Trafalgar, more entranced by Angkor than the Colosseum. (I assume this isn't just a Lara Croft thing.) And why not?Europe isn't nearly so foreign nowadays. Traveling around the Continent's major cities can often feel like traveling around America, albeit with smaller cars, more Benettons, and worse music. It's still entirely worth it, of course—good Lord, I'd never imply otherwise. But is it as transporting, as eye-openingly exotic, as it was for Thomas Nugent and his fellow travelers?Is it still truly Someplace Else?
Hardly any place is—not on this little planet, not now. And Asia, too, for all its persistent Otherness, comes off as far less alien to a Western visitor today. For as the East has informed the West, so has the West informed (nay, saturated) the East. No surprise there—but in Asia this symbiosis crackles with a particular intensity. At times the Orient resembles an exaggerated, parallel-universe incarnation of our own culture. Think of the best and the worst impulses of America, and you'll find them multiplied tenfold in Asia: the can-do industriousness, the insistent sociability, the rampant sprawl, the alarming disregard for the poor, the fervent religiosity, the ubiquity of KFC and Baywatch. To anyone curious about where our culture may be headed (and where much of it originated), a journey east offers compelling clues.
In 2006, to be well-traveled is to know Asia. So why, then, are relatively few Americans actually going?This year, more than 40 million of us will travel to Western Europe; fewer than 3 million will visit Southeast Asia.
There's the distance, certainly. And the jet lag, the vaccinations, the language issue, the visa hassles, and oh, forget it, Gladys, let's just go to Barbados. But in fact Asia is not so daunting. Communication poses no more of a problem than it does in, say, rural Spain; in larger Asian cities, the majority of people a traveler will encounter speak English. Vaccinations aren't necessary for the average visitor sticking to urban areas. Visas, when required, are issued without fuss. And polar routes and a new slate of nonstop flights have cut travel time significantly. Now you can fly from New York to Hong Kong in less than 17 hours, from Chicago to Tokyo in 13. If that still sounds grueling, bear in mind that Asian airlines like Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Thai, and JAL are on a whole other level of comfort and class—I'd take 17 hours in Cathay coach over eight on any U.S. carrier.
Flying within Asia is easier now, as well. Airports are enviably advanced and efficient, and low-cost airlines, inspired by the European model, are popping up across the region. Asia even has its own equivalent to the Eurailpass, with several airlines now offering bargain "all-Asia" passes. Combine that with the fact that the dollar goes much, much further here, and a few weeks in Asia could cost you less than a week in, well, Barbados.
This is also why a two- to three-week, multicountry "Grand Tour" is the best way to see Asia for the first time, or even the fifth. Since flying there and back is (for most travelers) the major expense and time commitment, it makes sense to spend more than a week on the ground. One's first 72 hours in the East tend to be lost to jet lag and culture shock; it can take a few days to find your rhythm. Furthermore, traveling among several distinct cultures coaxes differences and similarities—among Asian countries and between East and West—into high relief. (By the way, we're talking here about East and Southeast Asia: Japan, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. These are the "Big Nine," the customary stops in a journey across the East.)
Travel of this sort was long the province of hippies, Australians, and your weird college roommate, who returned 40 pounds lighter (dysentery), head shaved (ashram), ranting nonsense (Siddhartha). And for most inductees, an Asian grand tour was anything but grand. I first traveled through Asia 14 years ago, visiting seven countries over four months. My impression then was that everything—everything outside of Japan—was either distressingly filthy or depressingly sanitized. From Beijing to Bangkok to Bali, life seemed to swing between these two poles, and the travel experience reflected that. You could either brave the bedlam of a street market to haggle over a 63-cent batik sarong that reeked of petroleum or shop at a frigid, morguelike "fashion emporium" and pay $63 for an unscented version of the same sarong. For dinner you could choose either a hushed, candlelit room where waitstaff in silk tunics offered overpriced plates of "not-so-spicy" lemongrass chicken or, just next door, a noisy canteen with plastic furniture that served the real deal for less than a buck. At night you could bed down in a $13-a-night guesthouse cooled by a single rattling fan; or, for several hundred dollars more, a palace of gilt guarded by men in monkey suits who saluted each arriving limousine.
For years, Asia mostly catered to backpackers or businessmen; there was very little in between. That's changed dramatically throughout the region, with the rise of a thriving middle class (and a concurrent spike in middle-class tourists from overseas). Gentrification, for all its drawbacks, has brought infinitely more choices for travelers. Today you'll find shopping streets in Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur, and Seminyak that recall Islington or NoLita; smartly casual restaurants and cafés (Asia's new generation dines out far more than the last one); and a boom in chic yet affordable hotels. All this has made a trek across Asia not just an acceptable voyage for, er, grown-ups, but a remarkably pleasant one.
Of course Asia can still be challenging and bewildering—which, to my mind, is sort of the point. When was the last time you were dumbfounded and exhilarated by the simple act of walking down the street?There you'll be, outside a Starbucks in Patpong, sipping the same house blend you get back in Westwood, when you spot a sidewalk maeng vendor with a cart full of roasted beetles, grasshoppers, and bee larvae. (Try one, they're delicious.)
But such daily shocks and titillations are easily absorbed. Genuine frustration awaits anyone expecting Asia to appear as some dourly reverent Land-out-of-Time, shrouded in mist and joss-stick smoke. There's a certain type of visitor who shields his eyes from glaring incursions of global culture; walks the other way at the sight of a mega-mall; gets a buzzy tingle when the Chinese shop lady fusses over an abacus, but feels his heart sink when the shop lady's daughter walks in dressed like Avril Lavigne. You can hardly blame him, I guess: American and European travelers have been conditioned to seek out the authentic, the endemic, the pure. But in Asia this insistence stands in the way of a complete encounter, ignoring a whole vibrant swath of Eastern culture that's no less genuine for having been informed by the West or by the 21st century.
It's often said that Asian cultures take particular pride in replicating things foreign, be it a Donna Karan shift in a Hong Kong market or a plate of linguine in Phnom Penh. And it's true: an instinct for pastiche and appropriation does imbue everything from entertainment to urban planning. Yet dismissing this as "Westernization" is inaccurate, for the strange conflations that result are nevertheless uniquely Eastern.
Take those mega-malls, for instance. I remember the first time I got sucked into one—a hospital-bright, arctically chilly, techno-thumping complex in K.L. that any rational American would reject outright as a soulless void. After my initial panic, I realized the place was far from soulless, and a far more compelling window on the culture than I'd allowed. Roving bands of entertainers performed on every floor. Every generation was represented, not just pubescent mall rats. And the food court—the food court!—served superb laksa and other home-style Malay dishes. Malls, by the way, are the unlikely setting for some great food in Asia: many of Tokyo's finest snacks can be found at depachika, subterranean food halls where the best stands might be marked by giant bunny rabbits, maniacally grinning octopuses, or cuddly dinosaurs. Globalization?Come on, you can't find that at the White Plains Galleria.
Don't get me wrong: you could still construct an Asian itinerary entirely around aesthetically pleasing, reassuringly timeless settings—places like Hoi An in Vietnam or Luang Prabang in Laos (see "Time Capsules," page 300). You could fashion your trip around stunning natural wonders and pastoral landscapes, regional cuisines, historic monuments, ancient art and architecture—and in each case you'd be carried far and rewarded. Because Asia, perhaps even more than Europe, can accommodate all manner of obsessions, all variations of travel. And frankly, there's never been a better time to go.
HOTELS AND RESORTS
JAPAN The views of Mount Fuji from the corner rooms at the Park Hyatt Tokyo (3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku; 800/233-1234 or 81-3/5322-1234; www.tokyo.park.hyatt.com; doubles from $450). • A night—including a kaiseki dinner served in your room—at the 145-year-old Hiiragiya ryokan in Kyoto (Anekoji-agaru, Fuyacho, Nakagyo-ku; 81-3/5368-0790; www.luxuryryokan.com; doubles from $1,000).
CHINA The triple-headed showers at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai (Jin Mao Tower, 88 Century Blvd., Pudong; 86-21/5049-1234; www.shanghai.grand.hyatt.com; doubles from $475). • A Rolls-Royce transfer from the Hong Kong airport to the Peninsula (Salisbury Rd., Kowloon; 866/ 382-8388 or 852/2920-2888; www.hongkong.peninsula.com; doubles from $410). • Silky-smooth butler service at Beijing's St. Regis (21 Jian Guomenwai Dajie; 86-10/6460-6688; www.starwoodhotels.com; doubles from $395), an oasis of old-world refinement.
VIETNAM Beachside yoga classes at Evason Hideaway at Ana Mandara (Ninh Van Bay, Nha Trang; 84-58/728-222; www.sixsenses.com; doubles from $315), accessible only by boat.
CAMBODIA A post-Angkor swim on a sticky afternoon in the gorgeous pool at Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor in Siem Reap (1 Charles de Gaulle St., Khum Svay Dang Kum; 855-63/963-888; www.siemreap.raffles.com; doubles from $360).
THAILAND Buffet breakfast at the Oriental, Bangkok (48 Oriental Ave.; 866/526-6567 or 66-2/659-9000; www.mandarinoriental.com; doubles from $350; breakfast for two $60). • The magnificent copper bathtubs at Chiang Rai's new Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (66-53/910-200; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $1,200). If this is jungle living, we're going native. • Ocean breezes rippling across open-air pavilions at Costa Lanta (Klong Dao Beach; 66-26/623-551; www.costalanta.com; doubles from $180), on the island of Koh Lanta. • Phuket's Amanpuri (Pansea Beach; 66-76/324-333; www.amanresorts.com; doubles from $680), the very first Amanresorts property, and still, we say, the loveliest.
MALAYSIA The beach at the Datai in Langkawi (Kedah; 60-4/959-2500; www.thedatai.com; doubles from $380), shielded on three sides by lush jungle.
SINGAPORE The mod style of the new Hotel 1929 (50 Keong Saik Rd.; 65/6347-1929; www.hotel1929.com; doubles from $110), with furniture by Panton, Eames, and Jacobsen.
INDONESIA Ayurvedic treatments at Christina Ong's new Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri (62-361/978-888; www.cse.comoshambhala.bz; doubles from $495), hidden in the forests near Ubud, Bali.
EVERYWHERE Graceful and attentive service at almost every hotel in Asia. No, it's not a myth.
JAPAN A pre-dawn visit to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market is as much a cultural as it is a culinary experience—an encapsulation of Japan's glorious obsession with seafood. Follow it up with breakfast at Daiwa Sushi (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3547-6807; breakfast for two $60). • Osaka, Japan's lustiest, most food-centric city, lives for kuidaore—literally, "eating oneself bankrupt." Street snacks here—like fried octopus balls (takoyaki)—are among the most addictive in Asia. • Superchef Yoshihiro Murata's fabulous kaiseki dinners at Kikunoi in Kyoto (459 Shimo Kawaramachi, Yasaki Torii Mae, Higashiyama-ku; 81-75/561-0015; dinner for two $250).
CHINA Hairy crab (a.k.a. mitten crab) is a national obsession. Chinese gourmands pay up to $100 a pound for these palm-sized delicacies. • Crisp, succulent Peking duck at Beijing's Li Qun restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Rd.; 86-10/6705-5578; dinner for two $25). • The superb chile crab served at Hong Kong's Hee Kee Fried Crab Expert (392 Jaffe Rd., Wan Chai; 852/2893-7565; dinner for two $60), one of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's favorites. • Soup dumplings (dainty, delicate parcels filled with steaming-hot broth) from the street stalls on Xiangyang Road.
VIETNAM The beloved banh mi sandwich: a plush-yet-crispy baguette layered with pork sausage, pâté, ham, pickled carrots and radishes, dried fish flakes, and spicy chile sauce. • Cha ca, luscious morsels of turmeric-dusted whitefish fried in oil and served with fresh dill, basil, cilantro, and chile sauce.
LAOS Spicy Lao sausage (sai ua) at the Luang Prabang roadhouse Park Houay Mixay (75-76 Ban Xieng Mouane; 856-71/212-260; dinner for two $20).
CAMBODIA The traditional Khmer specialties (stir-fried frogs, dried snake) being revived at Siem Reap's new Meric restaurant (Hôtel de la Paix, Sivutha Blvd.; 855-63/966-000; dinner for two $50).
THAILAND A cooking class with Pitak Srichan, at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (Mae Rim-Samoeng Old Rd.; 66-53/298-181; all-day lessons $150 per person). • Banana blossom, chicken, and shrimp salad at Bangkok's Celadon (Sukhothai Hotel, 13/3 South Sathorn Rd.; 66-2/344-8888; dinner for two $70).
MALAYSIA A typical Malay breakfast of roti canai: flaky, buttery bread to dunk in a spicy chickpea or lentil curry.
SINGAPORE The unbelievable variety of food—oyster omelettes, fried Hokkien noodles, mutton-bone stew, steamed fish heads—at the city's hawker centers. See www.makansutra.com for a guide to the best.
EVERYWHERE Fruit from the wondrous groves and orchards of Southeast Asia. Especially ethereal mangosteens. And spiny rambutan. And luscious jackfruit, and dragon fruit, and lychee, and
JAPAN The Shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet) train. Why, oh why, can't we have an equivalent in North America?• Ginkaku-ji, our favorite of Kyoto's countless temples, especially the surrounding gardens of sculpted sand. • Tokyo's Asakusa Kannon shrine, founded in the seventh century, where worshippers can "bathe" in the healing smoke from incense sticks.
CHINA Paul Andreu's delightfully zany China National Grand Theater, a.k.a. the Alien Egg, which will open its doors in Beijing later this year. • The vast terra-cotta army—some 8,000 life-size clay soldiers, horses, and chariots—guarding the tomb of Emperor Shi Huang Ti'in Xi'an. • The Great Wall—it really is that impressive. (Skip the overrun Badaling and Mutianyu sections in favor of the unrestored portions of Simatai.) • The entire city of Shanghai, one dazzling architectural confection after another. • And, of course, the Hong Kong skyline, as seen across the water from Kowloon. Is there a more thrilling view in all of Asia?
VIETNAM Minh Mang, the most stirringly beautiful of the Royal Tombs in Hué, Vietnam's most historic city.
CAMBODIA The magnificent, unrestored Ta Prohm ruins at Angkor, overgrown with the gnarly roots of strangler figs and silk cotton trees.
THAILAND Wat Phra Keo and the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. Nothing can prepare you for such an onslaught of riches.
SINGAPORE The Esplanade complex, called the Durian Building for its resemblance to the spiny-skinned fruit. Smells better, though.
INDONESIA On Java, Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist stupa, every bit as evocative as Angkor; and the equally magnificent Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, erected in the ninth century. • The emerald-glowing rice paddy terraces carved into the hillsides of Bali's interior.
ART, CULTURE, AND NIGHTLIFE
JAPAN Attending a Hanshin Tigers baseball game near Osaka, where the audience rivals Brazilian soccer fans and Bombay filmgoers in its sheer intensity and devotion: Tigers fans spend all nine innings going bonkers with organized chants, songs, and balloon-releases. • People-watching—or, wait, are those vampires?—in Tokyo's Harajuku, where the fashions are, in every stitch, as weird and wonderful as Gwen Stefani says they are. • Tokyo's excellent new Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills (81-3/5777-8600; www.moriartscenter.org), designed by Richard Gluckman.
CHINA The thriving 798 arts district in Beijing (4 Jiu Xian Qiao Rd.), a cluster of Bauhaus-style factory buildings, dating from the 1950's, that have been converted into artists' studios and experimental galleries. • The Shanghai Acrobatics Troupe (Shanghai Center Theatre, 1376 W. Nanjing Xi Rd.; 86-21/6279-8948). Touristy?Sure. Indescribably brilliant?That, too. • A nightcap at decadent Bar Rouge (18 Zhongshan Yi Rd.; 86-21/6339-1199), high above the Bund in Shanghai. • Hearing Chinese opera sung, not in a formal opera house but in its original folk settings: a tea house, a park, a village square. • An evening at Hong Kong's posh, arty, semiprivate Kee club (32 Wellington St., Central; 852/2810-9000; dinner for two from $130)—ask your concierge to finagle a reservation.
VIETNAM Art Vietnam Gallery (30 Hang Than St.; 84-4/927-2349; www.artvietnamgallery.com) showcases the leading edge of contemporary Vietnamese art. • The spontaneous nocturnal parade of young Vietnamese on motorbikes—think The Wild One times a thousand—that forms around Ho Chi Minh City's Lam Son Square on weekends.
LAOS Watching—no, gaping in amazement at—Lao kids playing takraw (a cross between soccer and volleyball, played with bare feet, a flimsy net, and a rattan ball).
CAMBODIA A tall, cool Angkor beer at "the F," Phnom Penh's Foreign Correspondents Club (363 Sisowath Quay; 855-23/724-014), an expat bar to beat them all. • The dazzling array of Khmer relics at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
THAILAND Grab a seat at a Thai boxing match—we guarantee you'll be transfixed. • The garish yet strangely beautiful murals and decorative motifs that cover buses and trucks in Thailand—Technicolor fantasies that recall the Furthur bus but are actually believed to protect passengers from harm. • Club-crawling along Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok's nightlife nexus—from the still-hot Bed Supperclub (26 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 11, Klongtoey; 66-2/651-3537) and legendary Q Bar (34 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 11, Klongtoey; 66-2/252-3274) to louche newcomer Face Bar (29 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 38, Klongtoey; 66-2/713-6048).
MALAYSIA At the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam—which takes place in January or February, depending on the year—males demonstrate their faith by piercing themselves with hooks, then using them to drag heavy objects for miles outside the city to the Batu caves.
SINGAPORE The city's surprisingly vibrant and edgy (!) nightlife, at clubs such as Zouk (17 Jiak Kim St.; 65/6738-2988) and the newer Ministry of Sound (River Valley Rd., Clarke Quay; 65/6235-2292).
INDONESIA Attending a performance of Balinese Kecak (ask your concierge for recommendations; many hotels feature performances): large ensembles singing and chanting a capella, mimicking drums, gamelans, and, well, monkeys. Ersatz, yes, but powerful all the same. • Lounging over twilight cocktails at Ku De Ta (9 Laksmana St.; 62-361/736-969), a sleek, sexy beach club in trendy Seminyak, Bali, then staying to dance until 3 a.m.
JAPAN The world-class fashions at Roppongi Hills, Tokyo's hottest new shopping mall—including Yohji Yamamoto's flagship Y store (Bldg. C, Keyakizaka St.; 81-3/5413-3434), outfitted with revolving floors. • The food halls at Tokyo's Isetan Department Store (3-14-1 Shinjuku; 81-3/3352-1111), which outpace Harrod's in polish and presentation.
CHINA Contemporary ceramics at Spin, in Shanghai's French Concession (Bldg. 3, 758 Julu Rd.; 86-21/6279-2545). • Antique Tibetan and Shandong carpets at Torana House, with branches in Shanghai and Beijing (www.toranahouse.com). • Scandinavian-Chinese designs at Chang & Biörck in Beijing (Bldg. 3, Sun City, 18 Xinzhong St.; 86-10/8447-2735; www.changbiorck.com). • Beijing's vast, mind-boggling Panjiayuan market, with more than 2,000 vendors. • Han Feng's wildly provocative couture, sold at her boutique at Shanghai's Three on the Bund (3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Rd.; 86-21/6472-7202; www.hanfeng.com).
VIETNAM Whimsical, flamboyant handbags at Ipa-Nima in Hanoi (34 Han Thuyen St., Hai Ba Trung; 84-4/933-4000; www.ipa-nima.com) for half the price you'd pay in London. • Bespoke clothing in Hoi An—dozens of tailors offer quick turnaround and reasonable prices. Try A-Dong Silk (40 Le Loi St.; 84-510/863-170; www.adongsilk.com) for faithful copies of Western styles. • Vietnamese ao dai (a woman's costume of tunic and flowing pants) reinvented by Minh Khoa (48 Nguyen Hue; 84-8/829-8934), Ho Chi Minh City's edgiest couturier.
LAOS Handwoven, natural-dyed textiles—especially the exquisite jewel-toned silks—at OckPopTok (73/5 Ban Vat Nong; 856-71/253-219; www.ockpoptok.com) in Luang Prabang.
THAILAND Celadon, lacquerware, and tabletop items at Living Space (276-278 Thapae Rd.; 66-53/874-299; www.livingspacedesigns.com), Chiang Mai's best-curated boutique. • The ingenious, inspired, and just plain nutty creations proferred by Propaganda (622 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 24.; 66-2/691-6331; www.propagandaonline.com), a design store at Bangkok's Emporium shopping center. • "Contemporary ethnic" jewelry at Kit-Ti's in Bangkok (659 Baan Silom, Soi Silom 19; 66-1/821-1275; www.kittijewelry.com). • Almeta (20/3 Sukhumvit Rd., Soi 23; 66-2/204-1413; www.almeta.com), which rivals Jim Thompson as Bangkok's best silk shop.
INDONESIA Bali's best: vintage and new teak furniture at Warisan (68 Raya Kerobokan St., Kuta; 62-361/730-710; www.warisan.com) and stylish tableware at Jenggala (Uluwatu II St., Jimbaran; 62-361/703-311; www.jenggala-bali.com).
Places that transport you to another era
The backstreets, canals, and elegant merchant houses of historic Takayama, one of Japan's best-preserved medieval towns. • Zhujiajiao, outside Shanghai, one of many "water towns" built along the extensive canal system created during the Tang dynasty. • Beijing's wonderfully evocative hutongs (narrow residential lanes), where residents gather to play mah-jongg or Chinese chess or sing folk songs. • The dusty lanes of Luang Prabang, Laos, a palimpsest of every century since the 14th. • The colorful, crumbling façades of Hoi An, still the most charming village in Vietnam. • Hanoi's Sofitel Metropole (15 Ngo Quyen St.; 800/763-4835 or 84-4/826-6919; www.sofitel.com; doubles from $248), a 1901 landmark straight out of a Graham Greene novel. • A long, languorous ride from Bangkok to Singapore on the luxury train Eastern & Oriental Express (800/524-2420; www.orient-express.com). • Stirring the ice in your Sling under the ceiling fans at the fabled Long Bar at Singapore's Raffles Hotel (1 Beach Rd.; 65/6337-1886).
For more up-to-the-minute, savvy and sassy advice on shopping (as well as restaurants, hotels, nightlife, art, and culture), pick up one of the 12 Asia titles published by Luxe City Guides (luxecityguides.com).
JAPAN The unfathomably beautiful landscape gardens at Kenrokuen, in historic Kanazawa. • Shiretoko National Park, in Hokkaido, a hikers paradise of pristine forests, lakes, rivers, and hot springs.
CHINA Majestic cliff scenery in the Three Gorges region, which may not be accessible or even here much longer. • The uncannily beautiful karst landscape along the Li River, a Chinese scroll painting come to life. For guided river journeys, contact the excellent outfitter Imperial Tours (imperialtours.net), with offices in Beijing (86-10/8440-7162) and the United States. (888/888-1970).
VIETNAM Hoan Kiem Lake, in Hanoi, perhaps the prettiest urban lake in Asiaespecially in the mornings, when mist hangs over the water and Hanoians gather on the shore to play badminton or practice tai chi. • The blinding white sands of Lang Co Beach, north of Danang. Best way to see this and other highlights of coastal Vietnam: by bicycle with Butterfield & Robinson (butterfield.com), whose indefatigable guides know the region as well as anyone.
LAOS A hazy sunset reflecting off the broad waters of the Mekong from the riverbanks in Luang Prabang.
SINGAPORE Jurong BirdPark: The parks 9,000 birds, representing 600 species, just minutes from the center of town.
MALAYSIA The cool, fresh air and spellbinding jungle vistas of the Cameron Highlands, where tea plantations and quaint old resorts still recall the regions colonial heyday.
EVERYWHERE Frangipani trees. Flame trees. Tamarind trees. Banyan trees. Good Lord, the trees.
JAPAN Everyone climbs Mount Fuji, jamming the trails from dawn to dusk. Instead, hike up nearby Mount Tenjo, which provides glorious views of Fuji and the surrounding lakes.
CHINA Explore the small fishing towns and mountain slopes of Lamma Island, just a short boat-ride from Hong Kong, but a world away in scenery and pace. • Watch trained cormorants dive for fish along the Li River (at night, when its usually done, by lantern light).
THAILAND Visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (Km 28, LampangChiang Mai Hwy.; changthai.com) in Lampang, which rehabilitates stray pachyderms rescued from the streets of Bangkok. • Kayak island-to-island on Phang Nga Baythe only way to access the hidden caves formed in the craggy limestone. Try the original and best outfitter, John Grays Sea Canoe (124/1, Yaowaraj Rd., Phuket; 66-76/254-505). • See Bangkok by bicycletours are offered by Real Asia (realasia.net)taking in villages and klongs (canals) rarely seen by visitors, from paths just wide enough for two wheels.
MALAYSIA Snorkel and dive in the limpid waters around the magnificent Perhentian islands, off the peninsulas eastern coast.
INDONESIA Climb Gunung Batur, a still active volcano at the heart of Bali. Then go white-water rafting in Balis spectacular Ayung gorge.
ONLY IN ASIA
17 of our favorite quirks and customs• Japans insanely advanced mobile phones—rolling out Stateside in, oh, 2017.
• The bright, gaudy devotional altars that festoon taxi dashboards throughout Southeast Asia.
• Plastic replicas of every conceivable food or dish in Japanese restaurant windows. Collect all 9,400!
• Curbside barber stalls.
• Sidewalk ear-cleaning stands.
• Families—two adults, up to five children—piled like circus clowns on a single puny motorbike.
• The pervasive smell of barbecue on the streets of Southeast Asia.
• The stubborn, strangely comforting ritual of exchanging business cards, always (always!) using both hands.
• Singapores enviably pleasant Changi Airport, complete with tropical gardens and an A&W root beer stand (?!?). Not to mention Singapore Airlines.
• Crossing the street in Saigon or Hanoi. Like fording a river but even more fun.
• Singlish, a Singaporean pidgin of English, Chinese, and Malay incomprehensible to foreigners but widely used among locals, to the chagrin of the government (which has launched the Speak Good English Movement to discourage it).
• The curious, seemingly infinite assortment of animal-based medicinal remediesdeer-antler extract, cobra bloodproffered around Asia.
• Construction scaffolding, fashioned entirely from bamboo, on high-rise office towers.
• The thousand—yes, thousand—variations on the simple theme of rice, from whiskey to dessert.
• The Vietnamese bia hoi, a sidewalk stand with minuscule stools better suited to a dollhouse, serving draft beer from plastic jugs.
• Random, nonsensical English phrases emblazoned across womens clothing in Japan, usually in frilly script. My favorite, from years ago: Fine mellow and ripens good wine, and as such, girls eternal longing for pretty have produced clothes. O-kay...
• Thai massage at Wat Pho temple, in the heart of Bangkok. The best $6 youll ever spend.