9 Life-Changing Trips to Take in Asia
Planning a trip to Asia—a continent four times larger than the second-largest on Earth—can be overwhelming. With 48 countries to choose from, you have your work cut out for you. Island or city? Beach or mountain? History or adventure? We narrowed it down to nine key bucket-list experiences that will leave you changed forever.
Diving in the Maldives
Serious divers, and anyone star-struck by the incredible world that lives beneath the water’s surface, know there’s few better sites in the world to spot rare aquatic wildlife than the Maldives. The atoll nation’s clear, warm waters and stunning coral reefs are home to some of the sport’s most treasured—and elusive—encounters, including giant manta rays, eagle rays, hammerhead sharks, and whale sharks. You’ll find great diving centers right on site at local luxury resorts like Constance Moofushi and Soneva Fushi, where PADI instructors lead excursions to no less than 23 local dive sites.
Horseback riding in Mongolia
To gallop across Mongolia’s sweeping steppes, desolate deserts, and rugged mountains on horseback is to follow in Genghis Khan’s footsteps as he rode across Asia and built the largest empire in world history. Tours with outfitters like Nomadic Expeditions keep the experience as authentic as possible, so you can really feel how people back in the 12th-century—and even now, in the present day—lived a life in such a place. Hike Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve to spot endangered musk deer, journey through the Gobi Desert to see petroglyphs and meet Kazkh hunters, and bed down in traditional gers—canvas yurts equipped with wood-burning stoves, camel-hair blankets, and hand-carved furniture.
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Trekking in Bhutan
Only after securing a tour with an official operator, a visa, and a seat on one of only two airlines that fly here are visitors able to enter Bhutan. For many, the headaches are worth experiencing this incredibly spiritual and naturally diverse country. Hiking the Himalayan landscapes here is one of the only ways you’ll be able to take in the true majesty of Bhutan’s glacial mountain peaks, subtropical forests, alpine valleys, and snow-fed rivers. If you’re up for the challenge, tours with operators like Abercrombie & Kent can get you up to Paro Taktsang (more known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery), the region’s most impressive (not to mention photogenic) cliffside temple. If you’re not, Six Senses is poised to debut a five-resort collective around the country later this year.
Solo trip to Bali
Say what you will about Eat, Pray, Love, but the transformative power of a solo trip to Bali is undeniable. Whether you’re here to unplug, unwind, meditate, pray, or simply be, this is the place to do it. Ubud is known for its yoga scene, but you’ll find just as much peace simply walking through the countless Hindu temples (at Tirta Empul, they worship in the water) and terraced rice paddies that blanket the rain-forested region. At Puri Wulandari, private villas have private pools and valley views (so you never have to encounter another soul) and yoga classes and spa treatments if you’d rather share the experience.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
We understand wanting to avoid the tourist crowds that pack into Siem Reap, but it’s just that popular for a reason. This is the gateway to Angkor Wat, the most famous temple within the larger 9th-century former capital of the Khmer Empire that’s become the symbol of Cambodia. Its sheer size is impressive: covering 400 acres, it took 30 years to build and stands as the largest religious building on the planet. Other highlights include the smaller Ta Prohm, where immense tree roots have taken over the ruins, and Bayon, whose sandstone towers are made up of 200 carved faces.
The country formerly known as Burma is finally opening up to the world. Among the most magical ways to take in its astounding beauty and cultural heritage is during a hot air balloon ride over Bagan, whose maze of ancient temples and pagodas numbers into the thousands.
Beaches of Thailand
From the palm-fringed shores of Koh Samui to Phuket, Thailand’s beaches are the stuff of castaway fantasies. The sugar-fine golden sands, the impossibly blue surf, the iconic long-tail boats that shuttle guests between the sandstone karsts that rise up from water’s edge… It’s impossible to choose just one, but we have our favorites. Despite the camera-toting tourists that clog Maya Bay in Koh Phi Phi, this cliff-sheltered bay and its silky white sands is still too beautiful believe. (Film scouts for The Beach chose wisely.) For something more low-key, Phra Nang, along the Andaman Sea, is reachable only by boat, which keeps it especially quiet during low season—perfect for sunbathing on the velvety sand and snorkeling the offshore coral reefs in peace.
Eating through Japan
"If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it," Anthony Bourdain famously wrote in a blog recounting yet another trip he took to Japan for an episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown. Many chefs and foodies would agree with him—Japan is many things, but most of all, it’s about the food. The first order of business is getting up at the crack of dawn to see the famous tuna auctions at Tsukiji Market before diving into a sushi breakfast or soba noodle-making class. Tokyo invented sushi, and remains a melting pot of Japanese cuisine, but you could always head right to the source: Osaka for street food, Fukuoka for ramen, Kyoto for kaiseki-ryōri, Kawagoe for yakitori, and Kobe for beef (and hot springs)—all washed down with only the best sake.
RELATED: 7 Tours of Japan You Need to Take
China's Forbidden City and the Great Wall
China’s ancient dynasties have mystified travelers for centuries—and it’s worth a trip just to see them. Base yourself in Beijing, home to the Forbidden City—a complex of 980 buildings now open to the public that once housed the Emperor and acted as the city’s cultural, political, and religious epicenter. The Palace Museum, among its 180 acres, houses some of China’s most precious porcelain, ceramic, and bronze objects. From here, it’s only a two-hour drive outside the city before you reach the Great Wall. Measuring in at some 5,500 miles, the world’s largest man-made structure—built to protect the Ming dynasty—has survived for more than 2,000 years.
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