EASY TRIPS INTO ASIA
A friend of Margo’s son, Brad, recently asked for some tips in going for the first time to Asia. So this is what I told him.
If I were to go to Asia for the first time I would go to SE Asia. It has the most diverse set of cultural elements, many of which are truly SPECTACULAR, is easy to get around it, has the best distribution of European language speaking (English & French), and access to all the creature comforts. This is especially true if you plan to go for an extended period like 4 to 8 weeks. The Lonely Planet guides per country give the novice Asia traveler pretty much all the info you will need. In such a trip I would target Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and finally Burma (Myanmar). THIS IS HOW I WOULD GO:
Hong Kong: great flights from US; stay 4 nights; lots of reasonably priced hotel choices in either “The Island Center” and Kowloon/Tsim Tsai Tsui. I prefer to stay on the island and then take the greatest sightseeing bargain on the planet – The Star Ferry from Island to Kowloon. Get rid of your jet lag; eat the best Chinese food anywhere, shop for diamonds, sapphires and rubies at Satellite Jewelers in Kowloon, go to several museums; take tram to Victoria Peak; go gamble in Macau; find a great hotel spa for soaking baths and massages (they are always coming and going – the TTT Holiday Inn used to have a great one); buy last minute necessities. Then move out! (I have been to HK over 40 times – our favorite hotel is The Mandarin – expensive)
Vietnam: Hanoi is only a short flight (90 minutes) from HK. Allow 10-14+ days for all of the country;
Hanoi – 3-4 nights MINIMUM; lots of hotels in the small streets around the markets just north of Ho Guom Lake and the Ngoc Son island temple.
Explore the wonderful street food markets; drink local beers; go to a Europe rugby or soccer at the Correspondents Press club; shop for lacquer ware; go to the excellent “Minorities (Montagnard) Museum; Ho’s tomb, War/Military Museum; water puppets show; eat like a king, especially Pho. (I have been to Hanoi 10 times – our favorite hotel is The Sofitel Metropole – expensive).
SaPa – 4 nights including train travel night – center of hill tribe culture only accessible by sleeper train. Hang out with the tribes people one day; take a long hike thru the lush forest/mountain land and villages a second. There is a big hotel there called Victoria Sapa; another option is small village inns a short walk from town (we have not stayed there but many friends have and love it.) Return train to Hanoi and either spend another night or catch DaNang train directly depending on preference and schedules.
Train to DaNang – about 24 hours – lovely way to see the lush rice bowl lowlands of this gorgeous country (extra credit – stop over in Hue for one night)
DaNang – 3 nights; go to China beach where the luxury hotels are pretty good values. soak in the warm South China Sea and recharge; spend a morning and an evening in the restored town of HoiAn (20 minutes by taxi) with lunch break back at hotel in the sea or pool; see a couple of temples in HoiAn and shop to you full delight. (I have been to DaNang twice; our favorite hotel is Furama Beach Resort on “China Beach” – ~200/night)
Saigon (HCM City) – flights throughout the day from DaNang; 3 -4 nights; Stay in the vicinity of Dong Khoi Street; lots of hotel options; go to 3-4 temples and make incense offerings; go to both the markets (main market near Opera House and Cholon food market); eat like a king; one evening go to the rooftop bar of theREX Hotel and drink cold beer (extra credit – take another day and go visit the American War tunnels – I haven’t – not my bag; or the Delta) ( I have been to Saigon about 15 times – our favorite hotel is The Renaissance on the Saigon River)
(extra credit – the only missing piece is DaLat. This is the old french colonial hill resort where the families were sent during Saigon’s hot dry season. nice market and a fine train ride to a crazy temple partially made with beer bottle glass. You should only go if you stay in the Sofitel Hotel; it is a treasure of old Indochina Colonial days.)
MeKong River Cruise to PhnomPenh, Cambodia; 2 nights; I have never done this but is on my bucket list. The 2700 mile long river is aswarm with life one hour and peaceful green jungle banks the next. Boats are comfortable and plentiful. You need to get to Phnom Penh anyway so why not do something unique?
Cambodia: about 6-7 nights; if you don’t take the boat you can fly from Saigon to either of the recommended towns. You are now moving into a more significantly underdeveloped part of Asia and therefore more interesting in many ways.
Phnom Penh – the capital; (2 nights) has my favorite food market – go there at dawn and sit with the mama-sans drinking their thick coffee with canned sweet milk; 2 other old markets may have good baskets;
the Pol Pot genocide museums; quite good main temple. There are several good temples and restaurants along the riverfront. (We have been to PP 3 times – my favorite hotel is the Raffles Hotel Le Royal – I woke my first morning there and looked out the window to a parade of timber working elephants on the road in front. good pool!)
Siem Reap & Angkor Wat complex: 4 nights minimum; you can get there 3 ways: boat, bus, or plane – take the boat if you can afford the time. Plenty of inexpensive hotels in town and luxury ones near the outskirts on the way to Angkor. This is one of the great wonders of the world and arguably the most impactful ancient cultural place to go in all Asia. Angkor is the overall name for 30 some temple complexes, over 1000 years old, which stretch from the lake some 30 miles inland. Most of the best ones are in a 5-8 mile radius.
There are at least 5 which must be seen and you should devote 2-3 hours to each; many you will want to return to at different times if you are a sketcher or photographer. The best drill is to hire a moto-buggy, head out as soon they open (about 0800) spend the morning, return to hotel for lunch/swim/nap for 3 hours, then back for the 4 pm to sundown shift. Evening has lots of casual things going on in the cafes and bars. There is a neat water festival in mid-November. (we’ve been here several times – our favorite hotel is one of the most atmospheric in SE Asia – the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor)
Thailand: good flights to the centerpiece of SE Asia – Bangkok. Spend at least 1 week and preferably two.
Bangkok: There is so many guides to this great city that there is no need to describe various itinerary’s..just riding up and down the ChaoPhraya River on the waterbus is a blast. That river is the main artery for this enormous city and you can and should use it to move around the town as much as possible; 70% of the things to do are within a 5-15 minute walk of the closest river landing and the boats are 3 times as fast as the buses and taxi’s. The temples are fabulous
– while the Emerald Buddha and Reclining Buddha are world treasures, our favorite after many visits is Wat Arun. Get plenty of massages, take boat tours, hit the bars and Soi Cowboy and PatPong joints, do some shopping, eat some street food enjoy. 4 nights MINIMUM and shortchanging the experience at that. (We’ve been here 20+ times and love The Oriental, often rated the Best Hotel in the World – expensive)
The Beaches..There are 2 sets of water spots. Phuket, on the West Coast of the Peninsula on the lovely Andaman Sea is big and developed and full of nightlife; but you can head north for a 40 mile stretch of isolated beach camps, resorts, and bays to soak up the rural beauty. Then there are the Gulf of Thailand, East side Islands like Ko Samui, famed for all night rave parties and pop up music festivals. The important thing is to know that the two different monsoons rage and will spoil a holiday if you don’t follow the rule: Go East side in American Summer, Go West Side in American winter. – Google for rain patterns to make sure you pick the right location.
Up Country: many places of interest. The old exotic and mysterious tribal cities on ChangMai and ChangRai are well developed but still interesting with numerous bike and foot trekking, cooking school, and jeep travel opportunities; Sukothai – an ancient set of ruins
with a heritage equivalent to Angkor and Bagan; Ayutthaya – the original kingdom of Siam. You gotta study a bit and fit the broad array of opportunities to your time and budget.
Laos: This beautiful jungle country up the Mekong River about 600 miles from Saigon is legendary in CIA lore for its position in the American-Vietnam War. Flights are straightforward out of Bangkok to both major cities.
Luang Prabang: 3-4 nights: this way out there town is probably the single most dense complex of magnificent Buddhist Architecture and art, of the “Lanna” type, in the world.
Thick with monks and local tribespeople it has a unique evening market and morning rice bowl collection ceremony. Great overlay of french culture and super beer. It would be a shame to go to SE Asia and miss this place. By the time you get here you’ll be a pro and finding a good B&B. There are even more “out there” river trips you can take deep up into the mountains between it and Vietnam. Safety has NOT been a big concern but go with a reputable company. My friend Rich Bader provided me with an internet connection to a biking adventure company that runs mountain bike tours (tough ones) between LP and Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi.
Vientiane: the capital is a nice jungle town. It has less to offer than LP but I ran into some american 20 somethings who were hanging out up river in some town where there were lots of euro travelers and yanks doing river riding and local smoke..sounded like an interesting scene, but might have been heavy into hard opiates – don’t know.
Myanmar/Burma: extra credit for this one. Plan 2 weeks to see what’s listed. Margo has been there but not I. My impression is there are only a few years left until this country becomes overrun with tour groups. If you intend to go here sans big tour group, which is the best way, you will have to do a deep dive on setting all up. Not difficult however – we used a local Yangon based tour company we found on-line to set it up and the girls took along a private guide. You will want to go in this fashion, spending about 3 nights in each place minimum: Into Rangoon/Yangon, fly up to Mandalay, go out to Inle Lake, and then by boat to
Bagan(Pagan), (take a ferry – 12 hours to save $$’s), then by plane or boat down the rest of the Irrawaddy to Yangon. I understand the Khmer territories are open once again and people are going in there – that would be a treat. No special recommendations on hotels – your Yangon based company will set you up.
YOU ARE NOW FINISHED- YEH!! ..you are officially an “Asian hand”, (Novice Level). All these countries have much, much more to offer than I have described. There is ok transportation, hotels, internet all over, generally safe if you watch yourself.
OH, hold on..”what about Bali”? you ask. Well I have purposely left out Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia.
Malaysia because it is somewhat dangerous and, while replete with beautiful areas, has little over Thailand. There are several nice island resorts on the east side for scuba diving and a couple of luxury islands in the Straits of Malacca. I’ve done both and would go back to Thailand and Cambodia a dozen times before returning to Malaysia.
Philippines just because I’ve never been out of Manila which is not worth going to except on business. There are lovely island resorts. If it weren’t so dangerous it would be a great country to ride bus’ through for 4 or 6 weeks. Maybe if you have a robust buddy who’s packing and has relatives all over but otherwise, why bother?
Indonesia is truly a wonderful country BUT it would take a post on its own and besides I’ve not done too much. Java’s Borobudur Buddhist ruin is exquisite, and there’s an Aman resort there which is beautiful. Yogyakarta is a good base for that and Hindu ruins and we enjoyed a few days in Solo as well. The Gili Islands off Lombok are fun Trawangan has some entry level scuba and nice snorkeling. Nice place to hang out and rest. If you get a chance go there but not at the expense of the other places in SE Asia
BALI: you should go to Bali and go as soon as the rainy season lets up which is about June.
Stay for 10 days and split it between the beach areas ( we prefer Seminyak beach), up country Ubud, and one other place on either the eastern coast or the northern coast. There are lots of places to stay. In Ubud try one of the “health and wellbeing” based small B&B’s out in the rice paddies. There are 3 hotels we would put in the “best in the world” class: In Ubud, our “soul hotel” The Ibah, or where our friends stayed The Arma. In the beach area The Oberoi, with one of the villa’s overlooking the beach is, IMHO, the best hotel in the world. There are a couple of Aman resorts in Bali as well)
OK THAT’S IT..SE Asia is the most bang for the buck for easy traveling in Asia. India, Sri Lanka and the Himalaya’s are more interesting but take a determined traveler who is willing to maintain a good sense of humor while dealing occasionally with complete chaos and confusion. China is OK but the sense of ancient culture is much harder to find. Japan is arguably the best but, unless deep into Buddhism culture and art and architecture might get old quickly and can be expensive.
Go soon and go often!!