The 10 Best Places to Visit in Asia

by Jun 23, 2018Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam

My 10 Best Places to Visit in Asia

Asia is one of the most diverse, beautiful, fascinating, easiest, and affordable places to travel in the world. There is so much to see and do and eat on this amazing continent that you could spend a life time seeing everything. Most countries in Asia are perfect for any kind of traveler, even for solo travelers and first-time travelers. But where should you go? What should you see? In my opinion, these are the 10 best places to visit in Asia.

1. The Silk Road, China

My all-time favorite place to travel to in Asia is the Silk Road. It took me nearly 2 months to do the trip by train and broken down buses. Today, the trains are faster and more comfortable than when I first did the route. I traveled all the way from Xian, the ancient capital of China, to the border of China and Pakistan to little-known lake surrounded by deserts and snow-capped mountains called Karakul Lake.

What is the Silk Road?

A long, long time ago (300 BCE-1300 CE), when travelers and merchants needed to get from East to West and vice versa they would travel on a network of roads called the Silk Road, named after one of the most sought after products to trade at that time. Buddhism and Marco Polo both traveled the this road on their way to China. There were several routes at that time, but one route, the Chang’an Tianshan route, which is the one I traveled on, is the only one considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Why visit?

There is so much history, culture, and natural beauty to see along this route. There is everything from deserts like the aptly named the Desert-of-No-Return (the Taklamakan) to snow-capped mountains like at Tianchi. You can visit the end of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan and Labrang Monastery, one of the 6 great monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. You can also see the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian and the ancient ruined cities of the Silk Road in Turpan.

Another good reason to visit is that you can find some of the most interesting foods in China along this route. You can eat watermelon that’s just been picked a few minutes ago from a field along the side of a road in Xinjiang, delicious naan bread and roast chicken in Kashgar, the best Lanzhou noodles in the world, and the Chinese version of a hamburger called roujiamo.

However, the best reason to visit the Silk Road is to see the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang. The Mogao Caves are a group of over 400 caves containing breathtakingly beautiful and intricate Buddhist art including 2,000 statues and 45,000 square meters of murals. The caves and the art inside were constructed by Buddhist monks over a period of 1,000 years from 400 to 1400 AD. During that time, Dunhuang oasis  was an important crossroads on the Silk Road. It was there where merchants and travelers stopped to trade goods, take a rest, and pray before continuing their journey either east or west.

How to see the Silk Road

I spent nearly 2 months traveling along the Silk Road, but you can probably see it in 4 weeks. If you have less time, cut out some stops.

The usual route is like this: Xian – Lanzhou – Labrang Monastery in Xiahe – Jiayuguan – Dunhuang (Mogao Caves) – Turpan – Urumqi – Tianchi – Kashgar – Karakul Lake.

Take a train or plane to Xian. Then from there you will need to take a combination of planes and/or buses and trains.

You can get detailed information on the Silk Road in the Lonely Planet China Guide. 

2. The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia

Some of my favorite movies growing up were the Indiana Jones’ movies. From the moment I saw those movies, I wanted to be an archaeologist and travel around the world, visiting ancient temples, and uncovering hidden treasures. When I got older, I learned that real archaeologists don’t live lives anything like Indiana Jones’s. I decided instead to pursue something else, but my fascination with ancient ruins never subsided. So my second best place to visit in Asia list is the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Angkor Archaeological Park contains the ancient ruins of the capital of the Khmer Empire that lasted from around 802 to 1432 AD. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. The most famous of the Buddhist and Hindu temples is Angkor Wat. However, there are countless other even more stunning temples surrounding Angkor Wat and extending all the way into Thailand.

Why visit?

Simply put. The temples are breathtaking in their grandeur, number, and detail. There’s mysterious Bayon with the 200 mysterious faces of some unknown figure, intricately carved pink-colored Banteay Srei, and the atmospheric Ta Prohm which was made famous in Lara Craft Tomb Raider. If you are like me and you are a big fan of Indiana Jones’ movie, then you’ll love climbing over the crumbling stones and tangled vines of Beng Mealea. And there are many more fascinating temples to explore.

How to see the temples

Take a bus or plane to Siem Reap. The temples are just outside the city. You can see all of the main temples near Siem Reap in 3 days. Most people hire a tuk tuk driver to take them around the sites. It’s relatively affordable. However, you can also go by car or go to most of the ruins by bicycle.

If you want to see the ruins near the Thai border, you’ll need to hire a car and driver.

You can get a one-day, three-day, or one-week pass at the Angkor ticket checkpoint on the way to the temples from Siem Reap. This allows you into all the temples in the park.

You can find more information on Angkor in the Lonely Planet Cambodia guidebook.

3. The Islands of Southern Thailand

I  will never forget the first time I visited the islands of Thailand. My first island was Ko Lanta. It was 1996 and  at that time, few people visited that island. You could walk along a beach of white sand or swim in an ocean of blue crystal clear water and not a soul would be in sight–all for $5 a night. It’s much harder to find such an experience nowadays on Ko Lanta.

However, since then more islands have opened up to tourism. You can still find deserted beaches and plenty of soft white sand, clear blue-green water, incredible food, and affordable prices somewhere. You can island hop much more easily than before as there are more transportation services between islands. There are other beach destinations in Southeast Asia like Phu Quoc in Vietnam, Ngapali in Myanmar, and Bali in Indonesia, but I don’t think anything beats Thailand for both its numbers, beauty, and affordability.

How to visit the islands

There are over 300 islands in Thailand. They can be divided into 4 regions: the eastern and southern Gulf islands on the east side of Thailand and the northern and southern Andaman islands on the west side of Thailand.

Some of the islands like Ko Samui and Phuket can be visited by plane, while for other smaller islands, you need to get to southern Thailand first by bus, train, or plane and then take a boat to the islands.

For information on ticket prices and departure times for transportation to the islands and between islands, visit the website https://12go.asia/en

For more information about visiting the islands, you can purchase the Lonely Planet Thailand guide book. 

4. The Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Number 4 on my list of best places to visit in Asia is the temples of Bagan. Bagan is another fantasy world for would-be Indiana Joneses. It went beyond my expectations. Bagan was the capital of the First Burmese Empire lasting from 850 to 1300 CE. At the height of the empire, there were over 10,000 Buddhist religious structures. Now there are officially 2,000 temples still standing in Bagan over an area of 40 square miles or 104 square kilometers.

Why visit?

The reason Bagan is one of the best places to visit in Asia is the beauty of seeing the tops of hundreds of temples spread out across the plains of Bagan. And to see them from a hot air balloon at sunrise is unforgettable.

The other thing that makes Bagan one of the best places to visit in Asia is the ease and freedom in getting from one temple to the next.  Although they are spread out over a wide area, you can easily rent an ebike or scooter and visit them at your leisure. You don’t need to bother with a tuk tuk driver like at Angkor. Sometimes you can happen to come across a temple with no other living soul around even during high season.

How to see the temples of Bagan

The best way to get from Yangon to Bagan is by night bus, but you can also take a plane (faster) or train (slower).

As mentioned above, the temples are spread out from each other, so the best way to see them is by ebike (very safe and easy to ride) or motor scooter.

It costs K25,000 ($25) for one week.

For more information on the temples of Bagan and where to stay and eat, click here to read my post on a 4-week Myanmar itinerary.

Click here for a detailed travel guide on Bagan. 

For or more information, click here to purchase the Lonely Planet Myanmar guide book and click here to purchase a wonderful detailed guide to the temples. 

5. Beijing and the Great Wall, China

Number 5 on my list of best places to visit in Asia is Beijing and the Great Wall. The Chinese have a saying that a man is not great until they have visited the Great Wall. I don’t know about that one. But the Great Wall is pretty spectacular.

I’ve been to Beijing many times over a span of 20 years and in that time, some parts of the city have remained the same while other parts have become unrecognizable. But if you’ve ever lived in China, those words start to sound like a cliche.

Why visit?

Although Beijing is a large, noisy, and incredibly polluted city, it has so many historical sites and such great food that in my opinion, it is one of the best places to visit in Asia. You’ve got the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, and many more places. There are still some hutongs left where you can wander around and imagine you are back in old Beijing.

But Beijing also has some spectacular modern architecture, too. The food is also another reason to visit. Beijing food is not as famous as Sichuan and Cantonese food, but in my opinion, it is just as delicious. I actually prefer Beijing hot pot to Sichuan hot pot. There are other dishes like the well-known Beijing duck but also others like a dish made up of potatoes, eggplant, and green peppers. One of my favorite things to do is to visit a dumpling restaurant and gorge myself on Beijing dumplings, the best in China.

Finally, I would say that the most interesting people in China are those from Beijing. I’ve had more interesting conversations with people from Beijing than from any other province in my nearly 8 years of living in China. They’re more down-to-earth, better well-read, and more interested in just making a buck, I mean yuan.

How to visit Beijng and the Great Wall

Fly into Beijing from outside China or take a train or plane from other parts of China.

You can get around Beijing by subway, bus, or taxi. You can also go by bike. Traffic is horrendous.

You can get to the Great Wall by bus.

I’d stay at least 5-7 days to see everything and to get a good feel of the city. For more information on Beijing and the Great Wall, click here to purchase the Lonely Planet China guide.

6. Hong Kong

I first fell in love with Asia on my first visit to Hong Kong. It was 1994, and I was living in Guangzhou, China. China of 1994 is nothing like China of 2018. Although I loved living in China, it was at times really hard. China was this  dingy, grey-colored place that smelled of coal, car fumes, and humidity and where people would stare at me and whisper “laowai” behind my back as I walked down the street, while Hong Kong was this bright, shiny, electric, and modern but still exotic metropolis where I was not seen as something weird and exotic. There were also coffee shops, bookstores, music stores, and food from all over the world that I couldn’t get in China.

But what really stole my heart was the night view of Hong Kong island. I loved that view. I loved to just sit on the Kowloon side and look over the bay at the lights of the skyline or to take the Star Ferry from one side to the other with the lights of Hong Kong Island behind me or go to the top of Victoria Peak and look down upon the skyscrapers of the island. Even after being to Hong Kong over 20 times, I still can’t get enough of it.

Why visit?

Besides the views of the Hong Kong skyline, there are many other reasons to visit. Some of the best Chinese food in Asia can be found in Hong Kong especially if you like dim sum or seafood. There’s great shopping and nightlife. Hong Kong has that energy and drive that you can find in a lot of Asian cities.

How to visit Hong Kong

You can get to Hong Kong easily from any country by air. From China, you can take plane, train, or bus.

Getting around Hong Kong is a cinch. There’s a great public transportation system including subway, bus, and ferry.

You can spend 2 or 3 days in Hong Kong. Try to make it out to the outer islands.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here to purchase Lonely Planet, Hong Kong.

7. Yangshuo, China

The 7th best place to go in Asia is the small city of Yangshuo on the Li River in southern China. I like big cities, but I especially love visiting smaller towns with a laid back atmosphere where you can rest, unwind, and enjoy nature. Yangshuo and its surrounding area are perfect for that.

Why visit?

Yangshuo’s scenery is spectacular. The countryside around Yangshuo is dotted with these karst mountains or hills and in between them are fields. If you’re lucky to be there at the right time of the year (February), the fields become covered in yellow flowers. And snaking its way between the fields and limestone mountains is this winding river, the Li River.

The best things to do in Yangshuo are to bike around the countryside on a bike, visit the many caves in the area, float down the Li River on a bamboo raft, or hike around the area. Finally, you can also just hang out in one of the backpacker cafes relaxing with some food and drink. There are other towns in the area that are not as touristy as Yangshuo but they are also not as relaxing and unpolluted as Yangshuo is.

How to visit Yangshuo

You can get to Yangshuo by taking a train or plane to Guiln and then a bus or boat to Yangshuo. There is a train station also in Xinping where you can catch a bus to Yangshuo.

The best way to get around Yangshuo is by bike.

For more information about Yangshuo, click here to purchase the Lonely Planet China guide book.

8. Hanoi, Vietnam

I never thought I would like Hanoi so much as I did. After Hong Kong, it is my 2nd favorite city in Asia. I just had a really good time in Hanoi, met some great people, and had great food. I love looking at beautiful architecture (I used to want to be an architect), and Hanoi has plenty of it.

Why visit?

It’s not as westernized and organized as Hong Kong is, but the Old Quarter has got lots of charm and character. Its charm is mainly due to its mixture of French and Vietnamese architecture, its narrow winding lanes in the old part of the city, and the local businesses that are still making things by hand and selling them in their corner shops. It still feels traditional.

The other reason that makes Hanoi one of the best places to visit in Asia is its food. Some of the best food in Vietnam can be found in Hanoi. For instance, you must try Bun Cha Hanoi, the same noodles that former President Obama had with Anthony Bourdain. However, the best thing to do is to go on a food tour to get a better understanding of the city’s cuisine. I went on the Hanoi Street Food Tour. 

At night on the weekends, some of the streets in the Old Quarter are closed down to traffic so that restaurants and bars can put out plastic chairs and tables for people to sit on and drink beer. It turns into one giant outdoor party.

Hanoi is also really affordable. You can stay in a relatively nice hotel for a reasonable price. You can also eat for a very good price.

How to visit Hanoi

You can spend around 3 or 4 days in Hanoi walking around the Old Quarter and sampling the different foods.

You can get around in the Old Quarter by foot or motorbike taxi. Outside of the quarter, taxi and motorbike taxi are convenient options. A cheaper option is the local bus.

For more information on Hanoi, click here to purchase a Lonely Planet Vietnam guide book.

9. Halong Bay, Vietnam

I had always wanted to visit Halong Bay ever since I saw the French movie, The Lover. Vietnam seemed like such a romantic place and Halong Bay was the epitome of hat romance. In reality, there are parts of Halong Bay that are pretty unromantic. The main reason is the boats that clog the bay with tourists. However, if you pick the right cruise, you can find a part of the bay where you are on the only boat as far as the eye can see.

Why visit?

Halong Bay is similar to Yangshuo. Both are covered with karst mountains. However, the main difference is that Yangshuo is on land, while Halong Bay is on water. Both are unique and stunningly beautiful. Because it’s in the water, Halong Bay is generally visited on a tourist boat. This mode of transport has its advantages and disadvantages. It can be a very comfortable and relaxing trip for a couple of days. On the other hand, you can’t very well go exploring off on your own. You’re sort of stuck on the boat and stuck with whatever is on the tour schedule. An alternative is to stay on Cat Ba island and take trips to Lan Ha Bay.

How to see Halong Bay

You can purchase a Halong Bay cruise online at Booking.com or Agoda or you can purchase them from a travel agent in Hanoi. During the high season from December to February you should buy them ahead of time.

There are so many companies offering boat tours, so finding one can be challenging especially if you dreamed of seeing the bay like me. I found a great overview of the different cruise categories and information on their routes through the website of the hotel I stayed at in Honoi (Meracus 2).That’s how I decided to go on Signature Cruises. Their description said that their cruises go to 2 areas of the bay, one touristy area into a non-touristy area.  Click here to get that information.

I suggest taking a 3-day rather than a 2-day cruise. When I did the 3-day cruise, we went to the touristy crowded places on the 1st and 2nd day and the less touristy part, where we were the only boat, on the 3rd day.

If you want more information on Halong Bay, click here to purchase the Lonely Planet Vietnam guide book.

10. Shwedagong Paya, Myanmar

No 10 on my top 10 best places to visit is Shwedagon Pagoda (the Golden Pagoda) in Yangon, Myanmar. I didn’t expect to like Shwedagon as much as I did. In my opinion, Shwedagon Paya is the most impressive religious monument in all of Asia. It’s just incredibly beautiful.

It is also considered Myanmar’s holiest religious structure, having 8 strands of the Buddha’s hairs  and other important sacred relics. Archaeologists say that the structure was built between the 6th and 10th century, but according to the organization that manages the pagoda, it was built 2,500 years ago. Actually, the original structure is buried deep under the present day structure as the pagoda has burned down several times over the years.

The area includes a central stupa surrounded by pavilions and worship halls with Buddha images. There are 12 posts circling the central stupa. Each post represents a day of the week and locals pray at the post that corresponds to the day they were born by pouring water over the head of a Buddha statue.

Why visit?

Shwedagon is just so stunningly beautiful. It’s completely covered in gold plates and topped with hundreds of diamonds. The gold covering is especially impressive when it’s against a blue sky. Then when the sun sets the pagoda becomes even more stunning.

Shwedagon is also a great place to spend at least 2 hours sitting back and doing some people watching. Even though it’s a religious structure, it’s quite a lively place.

How to see the pagoda

If you’re staying near the pagoda like I did (Merchant Art Boutique Hotel), you can walk to it, but if you aren’t in the area, take a taxi.

It costs US$8, and it’s open from 4am to 10 pm. The best time to go is at dawn or dusk for better photos.

Make sure to bring a small backpack to carry your shoes in. You can’t wear your shoes in Buddhist temples and there are no places to store them.

For more information on seeing Shwedagon and the rest of Myanmar, you can visit my 4-week itinerary post by clicking here.

For more information, click here to purchase the Lonely Planet travel guide.

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This list is based on the countries I have visited so far.  I’d love to hear what you think and what your favorite places in Asia are. Leave a comment below.

3 Comments

  1. I am so happy to have found your blog, it’s a great list! Most of them I have been to myself, having grown up in Asia- except Myanmar (never been but someday (not so soon though) hopefully!) 😀

    Reply
    • Thanks!

      Reply
  2. We went to Siem Reap as a family and enjoyed it very much. Excellent resorts, the temples are amazing, the lake tour is fun and the night market is unique.
    We took amazing pictures during this holiday.

    Reply

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