Ten Iconic Sites to See on an Asia Vacation

Landmarks & Icons

Three Buddhist monks walking in temple, Bagan, Myanmar

The most outstanding sites to visit on an Asia vacation are numerous and should not be missed. What’s on your bucket list?

My intention here is to highlight the top 10 iconic sites in Asia – natural or otherwise – that are my favourites and which I have personally experienced on Asia tours, and have what I call the “wow factor.” Over time, I have visited over 80 countries in the world and, by the way, there are officially 195 altogether. I am sure you will agree that to whittle down the choice to 10 sites is bordering on the insane. However, after giving this some thought, I have made selections (in no particular preferential order) that are generally known and cherished… let’s see if they coincide with yours.

1. Hong Kong Skyline

The skyline of Hong Kong is like no other. It may be made up of a huge number of skyscrapers strung along the harbourfront, but with Hong Kong Island’s mountain backdrop, it has a unique charm. When undertaking a Hong Kong vacation, I am going to first recommend something I never get tired of doing, and that is taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour between Kowloon (Tsim Sha Tsui) and Hong Kong Island (Central). They are the two principal parts that make up a large chunk of the city. It is the cheapest entertainment in Hong Kong, as it costs around 25 cents US/35 cents Canadian one way. You get spectacular views of the skyline of Hong Kong and a glimpse of the harbour activity all in one 15-minute journey. If you want a slightly longer ride, you can catch a ferry between Kowloon and Wan Chai, further along Hong Kong Island. If you are really looking for a longer more leisurely experience, there is the harbour cruise.

Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak and blue skies
Hong Kong skyline from Victoria Peak

Hong Kong Island is dominated by Victoria Peak, which can be seen from the harbour and almost everywhere else. There are several ways to reach the summit – by road, bus, or if you are energetic, on foot. Then there is the iconic Peak Tramway. Once on top of the peak, you will be rewarded with spectacular views once again of the harbour and the Hong Kong skyline. The Symphony of Lights is a nightly multimedia show involving more than 40 buildings on both sides of the harbour. For 13 minutes you can watch the skyline being lit up. This is done with coloured lights, laser beams and searchlights, all synchronized to music.

Symphony of Lights show, Hong Kong
Symphony of Lights show

2. The Great Wall of China – Beijing, China

The amazing Great Wall of China is a must, naturally, on your China vacation. I say amazing because of its location in the mountains and because, even though I have visited it on many occasions, I never tire of coming back to it. It is only 80 kilometres/50 miles due north of Beijing. Although the complete wall, which is 2000 years old and thousands of kilometres/miles long, is mainly in a state of disrepair, certain sections have been preserved/restored so that you see the wall as it was in its early times. The most popular and possibly the best part of the wall are at Badaling, which is a very popular spot. The wall snakes over undulating and steep mountain ranges, somehow disappearing into eternity. If you decide to walk on the wall, it involves climbing steps, some of which are quite steep. However, the view from the wall across the mountains is very rewarding. Another nearby section is at Mutianyu, which is less crowded usually and very scenic. It has a cable car to allow you to get onto the wall from below without climbing steps. There are other places in the vicinity to see the wall but these two are the principal ones.

Great Wall of China in Badaling, Beijing, China
Great Wall of China in Badaling

3. The Forbidden City – Beijing, China

At the north end of Tian’An Men Square is the entrance to the Forbidden City, also known as the Imperial Palace. The name comes from the fact that it was forbidden to enter without the permission of the Emperor. The Forbidden City is a vast complex and is ringed by a moat and a wall. It is something that takes up a complete half day to cover. The moment you enter, you are immediately transported back over the centuries, as you find yourself standing at the edge of a very large square or courtyard unchanged for centuries. You can visit a number of highlights within the Forbidden City before finding yourself at the far end and the exit. The buildings or quarters of the emperors have delightful names such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the most important building, the Hall of Middle Harmony, where visitors were received, and the Hall of Preserving Harmony, used for banquets. Another one is the Pavilion of Cheerful Melodies (don’t you just love it), a three-storey wooden opera house, which was the palace’s largest theatre. There is the Hall of Clocks and Watches (also known as Museum of Clocks and Watches), an exhibition of wonderful clocks from the 18th to the 20th century, gifts from both the Chinese and foreigners. Finally, there is the Imperial Garden, a classical landscaped garden with pavillions, rockeries, and paths to stroll along on your Asia vacation.

Forbidden City, Beijing, China
Forbidden City in Beijing

4. Angkor Wat – Cambodia

Angkor Wat is as important as Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and the Great Wall of China. It is actually the largest religious monument in the world. Because of its size and vastness, this is an archaeological site that needs plenty of time to really explore on Cambodia tours. However, even if time is limited, you can still enjoy the magnificence of the Angkor Wat Temples complex, you just have to choose which parts of the site you want to visit.  Experts say 2 to 3 days are required to cover all aspects. Angkor Wat was also an ancient city as well as a temple complex, and the centre of the Khmer civilization which once ruled South East Asia from the 9th to the 13th century. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the god, Vishnu and was transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century.

Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap

When you arrive at the entrance gates, on your Asia vacation, you will immediately be struck by the immense size and grandeur of the main temple (called Angkor Wat) surrounded by a moat. Other important temples are Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire with its Bayon Temple and Terraces of the Elephants, Ta Prohm, a temple complex that fascinates many people because it is still for the most part covered in jungle vines which envelop the buildings, and Banteay, also known as the Citadel of the Women because of the delicacy of the pink stone carvings indicating that the work was done by women.

Related Article:
Visit the Angkor Wat Temples – a “Must-See” Cambodia Tour Gem

Ta Promh temple, Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Ta Promh Temple in Angkor, Siem Reap

5. Taj Mahal – Agra, India

When in Agra, on a trip to India, you are in the city with the best-known site in the country, the magnificent Taj Mahal. This awesome white marble structure built in the 1600s is not a palace nor a temple but a memorial authorized by the Emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife who died in childbirth. His own tomb rests beside hers. You will experience a magical calm as you stand in the middle of the exquisite gardens and marvel at this iconic structure. It was built between 1631 and 1648 and took 22 years and 20,000 workmen to complete. It is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history. It is carved out of white marble and is an outstandingly beautiful structure. It not only changes colour according to the time of the day but also with every change in the season. The semi-precious inlaid stones reflect the glow of the moon. Dawn and dusk are especially attractive times to view the Taj, which is also surrounded by landscaped formal gardens.

Taj Mahal under blue skies, Agra, India
Taj Mahal in Agra

6. Potala Palace – Lhasa, Tibet

The absolutely stunning Potala Palace in the capital, Lhasa, was the residence of the Dalai Lamas until 1959. It stands on top of a hill towering over the city, and is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to be experienced on an Asia vacation. You will be hard-pressed to find a more dazzling and imposing edifice anywhere. It is the highest palace in the world and consists of an amazing 13 storeys, 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines and around 200,000 statues. The Palace consists of two parts, the Red Palace and the White Palace. The beautiful murals inside the palace are not only attractive but also tell the story of Tibet. The Red Palace was the house of prayer and contains several mausoleums of previous Dalai Lamas. The White Palace was home to ten successive Dalai Lamas and their courts. Also located here are the offices of the Tibetan government, governmental assembly halls, and other official offices.

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet
Potala Palace in Lhasa

7. Bagan – Myanmar

Bagan is one of the richest archaeological sites in south-east Asia. It is situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and is the perfect stop on an Irrawaddy cruise. This ancient city was, from the 9th to the 13th century, the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan. An amazing 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built during this time. Today, though, there are around 2200 surviving temples and pagodas which are spread out over a vast area and are a truly awe-inspiring sight. The shapes and sizes are extremely varied. One of my favourite times in Bagan was at sunset gazing down from one of the taller temples and watching the glinting sun beat down on the area, creating not just a very special serene moment but a wonderful sight of the temples emanating a magical hue.

Ancient temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Ancient temples in Bagan

It is very difficult to pick out just a few major temples to visit on a Myanmar vacation, as you would need several days to view even the most interesting. The holiest temple is the Ananda Temple, built in 1091 AD, which contains four Buddhas. The Bupaya Stupa is a golden gourd-shaped structure sitting on top of a complex temple. The Shwesandaw Temple is also known as the “Sunset Temple,” as this is one of the more popular places where, every evening, when the sun sets, people gather to watch the spectacle.

Shwezigon Paya Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar
Shwezigon Paya Pagoda in Bagan

8. Banaue Rice Terraces – The Philippines

The spectacular Banaue Rice Terraces are 2,000-year-old terraces that were carved into the mountains by ancestors of the indigenous people. They are frequently called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and are a national cultural treasure of the Philippines. It is commonly thought that the terraces were built largely by hand. The terraces are fed by an ancient irrigation system from the rainforests above the terraces. It is said that if the steps were put end to end, it would encircle half the globe. Today, locals still plant rice and vegetables on the terraces. The most popular place to view the rice terraces on a Philippines vacation is called the Sunrise Viewpoint, where local tribes people pose for photographs and sell wood carvings. It is also possible to set out on foot along the pathways across the rice paddies, their banks scattered with scarlet wildflowers that contrast spectacularly with the vivid green of the rice plantings.

Banaue Rice Terraces, Ifugao, Philippines
Banaue Rice Terraces

9. The Li River – Guilin, China

The one must-do excursion when in Guilin, on a China vacation, is to take a 4-hour cruise down the Li River to Yangshuo, a beautiful town. Cruises leave first thing in the morning and pass by some of the most amazing scenery anywhere. Absolutely spectacular, the scenery along this stretch of the river is like sailing past a painted landscape. Pinnacles of karst rock seem to rise dramatically out of the ground one after the other on the banks of the river as you glide past rice paddies and rural life. You can watch fishermen float by on bamboo rafts and see water buffalo working in the fields. Occasionally, you will come across a small riverside village.

Landscape of Guilin, Li River and Karst mountains located near Xingping, Yangshuo County, Guangxi Province, China
Landscape of Guilin, Li River and karst mountains located near Xingping in Yangshuo County

10. Mount Everest – Nepal

Now I am not suggesting you attempt to climb the highest peak in the world on your Asia vacation. Mount Everest can be viewed in two different ways. One is from an advantage point just outside Kathmandu, from a village called Nagarkot, which has a reputation for being the best place to view the Himalayas around Kathmandu. It is a village with hotels from whose balconies you can take in the wonderful mountain vistas. A visit to Nagarkot is best between October and March when you will nearly always be rewarded with mountain views, but be warned that the mountains are notorious for suddenly disappearing behind clouds at any time. The other way to view Mount Everest is to take the 45-minute flight excursion from Kathmandu airport. You will experience breathtaking views, on Nepal vacations, of not only this mountain peak but of the surrounding Himalayan range.

Sunrise in Nagarkot in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
Sunrise in Nagarkot in the Kathmandu Valley

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