Incredible places to visit in Asia

by Jim Byers

Flights from North America to Asia have been added at a dizzying pace the past few years, partly due to the growth of the Chinese market but also in response to a demand from Canadians and Americans who want to visit great Asian destinations.

Here’s a list of some of my favourites:

HONG KONG

This is a great introduction to Asia, made up largely of folks with an ethnic Chinese background but with a veneer of British manners and style that many Canadians find appealing. The food scene is truly spectacular, with great options at every price point, and the shopping ranges from elegant to cheap and cheerful. Be sure to take a rattling ride in one of the city’s trams to get a feel for various neighbourhoods, but don’t miss the walk around Victoria Peak for spectacular views. There’s also surprisingly great hiking on Hong Kong Island (especially the Dragon’s Back trail, which ends at a nice surfing beach) and in the New Territories. Don’t miss a chance to explore some of the outlying islands, where you’ll find cool fishing villages and, on Lantau, one of the world’s largest Buddha statues.

Perfect for: First-timers in Asia who aren’t quite sure about the idea. If you love it, then fire up your miles and start exploring.

BANGKOK

This is a city that young people really enjoy, with wonderful and inexpensive street food, stunning waterfront temples like the gold-domed Wat Arun, bustling day and night markets, and more. Boat rides along the Chao Phraya River are just a few dollars, or you can try a tour of quiet canals on a “James Bond” boat to see how ordinary folks live in this massive city. Hotel prices here are far less than what you’d pay in one of the great cities of Europe or North America. You’ll probably find three-star hotels like Holiday Inn for about $100 CAD, while hostels are often $10 or less per night. I’ve often spotted five-star properties, such as the Shangri-La, for around $200.

Perfect for: Luxury lovers looking to save on a great hotel stay. Or anyone searching for a bargain.

DELHI

The capital of Delhi features a wealth of incredible sights and tremendous history. It’s a bulging, sprawling, cacophonous city, but it all somehow works. I’d advise hiring a guide to show you around some of the top sights, including Humayun’s Tomb, India Gate and the pretty Lotus Temple. The Spice Market is filled with magical and mysterious aromas, crowded alleyways and tasty food that won’t break the bank. The Red Fort, dating back to the 17thcentury, is marvellous example of Mughal architecture. Folks looking for a quiet respite will enjoy the old buildings and green space around Lodhi Gardens.

Perfect for: True adventurers who want to get a taste of life in India.

SHANGHAI

A remarkable city for so many reasons, including its European architecture and the famous Shanghai dumplings. The Bund is probably the most photographed area of the city; a series of stately, solid buildings (many are former western banks) that line the Huangpu River and look more like London or Edinburgh than anything you’d expect in China. It’s a wonderful spot for a stroll. Across the river is an architectural plan gone mad: the wild and sometimes wacky Pudong region, with its pointy, space-ship style skyscrapers and posh hotels. The French Concession is another area heavily influenced by westerners, with cool cafes and old homes with tons of atmosphere. The Shanghai Museum is free and is said to be the best in China. Old Town features intricate pavilions carved with warriors and dragons. It’s also home to the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant, where you can watch them make and fill the glorious, soup-filled dumplings that might be the best lunch you’ll ever eat.

Perfect for: History loving folks eager to explore one of China’s most extraordinary cities.

SINGAPORE

I was a tad wary of visiting here a few years ago. I had heard about the tight rules regarding chewing gum and littering, and I was just wondering if this city state would be too much like Disney World. My fears were quickly assuaged, as I discovered a vibrant, eclectic place with a much more casual and cosmopolitan feel than I had expected. Among intricately carved Indian temples and Chinese pagodas, you’ll find wonderful cuisine – laksa, for example, is a spicy, deeply-flavoured soup with noodles, veggies, shrimp or chicken, lime, cilantro and coconut milk. I Ioved the shophouses in shades of vivid orange and periwinkle. Try a night cruise on the Singapore River, and don’t miss the rooftop bar and pool at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Raffles Hotel is the legendary home of the Singapore Sling, which I find too fruity but is a drink with legions of fans. The city’s subway system is a marvel, and clean as a proverbial whistle.

Perfect for: Fans of old-time glamour mixed with cutting-edge hotels.

TWO MORE IN BRIEF

Hanoi is another bargain city in Asia. A booming metropolis in the north part of Vietnam with great street food, it boasts a pretty central garden and can accommodate more motorbikes than you think any one place could. Tons of fun. Luxury hotel seekers should check out the intimate and striking Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

George Town is a fun, artsy city at the northern tip of the Malaysian island of Penang. Check out the ornate, 19thcentury Buddhist temple of Kek Lok Si and don’t miss a meal from one of the sidewalk vendors selling laksa or a fabulous noodle dish called char kway teow. You’ll also find colonial British buildings and a quaint fishing village built on piers in the water.