Burmese woman holding traditional red umbrella looking at Hot air balloon over Bagan in misty morning, Myanmar

Things to Do on an Asia Vacation That You Can Boast About When You Return

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There are experiences on an Asia trip you can enjoy which are different and unusual… and you don’t have to climb Mount Everest.

If you are like me, you love to tell your friends about the places you visited where you had a unique experience. Asia is definitely a destination for this without having to go mountain climbing, go whitewater rafting, or traverse dense jungle. All of the following ideas are for the average traveller on a trip to Asia.

Hot Air Ballooning Over a Temple Complex

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world and is located just north of the town of Siem Reap. This complex was built in the early 12th century AD using Khmer architecture. On land, it can take up to 3 or 4 days to see everything, it is so extensive. Hot air balloon rides are available in the early morning or at sunset, both excellent times for this on Angkor Wat tours. To simply view the vastness of the main temple of Angkor Wat on Cambodia tours would be reason enough to undertake this ride. Add the other temple areas and you will have a full and satisfactory experience.

Colourful sunrise in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Colourful sunrise in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Another temple complex in Asia is in Bagan in Myanmar. Rather than a complex of different temple sites, Bagan has one enormous area of Buddhist temples and pagodas varying in size and style. On a hot air balloon ride on a Myanmar tour, not only will you truly view thousands of temples but also the Irrawaddy River, which flows from Yangon all the way to Mandalay and beyond, and is Myanmar’s principal waterway. Also, you will catch a glimpse of the volcanic Mt. Popa in the distance. The breathtaking site of temple after temple, in their hundreds, appearing through the delicate mist is quite unforgettable.

Colourful hot air balloons flying over Bagan Archaeological zone, Myanmar
Colourful hot air balloons flying over Bagan archaeological zone, Myanmar

Stay in a Japanese Ryokan

What is a ryokan? It is a type of traditional Japanese inn and a place to stay on Japan tours for anyone wishing to experience Japanese culture and enjoy the comforts of Japanese hospitality and service. It is not like staying at a Western-style hotel. Rooms have tatami (reed matting) floors, futon beds, and Japanese style baths. You will also probably eat local cuisine and enter your room through a sliding parchment door having taken off your shoes and donning a pair of provided slippers. You will be encouraged to wear a yukata, a casual version of the kimono made of cotton wrapped around the body and fastened with a sash (obi). Many ryokans are located next to hot springs that occur naturally close to Japan’s many volcanoes. For this reason, a communal bath in the hot springs (onsen) has become a traditional activity at a ryokan. In a nutshell, a ryokan is not just accommodation but an experience. They are found all over Japan. Two good places to find them are Kyoto and Hakone.

Ryokan, traditional Japanese accommodation, Japan
Ryokan, traditional accommodation in Japan

Stay on a Houseboat in India

In the south of India is a region called the Backwaters of Kerala. It is a network of 1500 kilometres/900 miles of canals, both manmade and natural, 38 rivers, and 5 large lakes. The Backwaters can be explored on India tours by renting a boat for one day, but I suggest taking a trip for several days to gain the real experience. The boat usually comes with a navigator and a cook. Boats vary in style and run to luxurious houseboats. This network of lagoons, lakes, canals, estuaries, and deltas flows into the Arabian Sea. The backwaters are one of the largest fresh-water sources and are rich in marine life as well being known for their natural beauty. One big attraction is the sights and sounds of local village life as you pass by authentic communities. The Backwaters are also great for bird watchers as you are able to spot some magnificent native birds like kites and kingfishers. Overall, imagine how relaxing this experience can be.

Cruising Kerala backwaters, India
Cruising Kerala backwaters, India

Spend Time with Head Hunters in Borneo

Are there still head hunters in Borneo? Not really. The ancestors of inhabitants in certain parts of Malaysian Borneo were once just that. However, you can certainly stay in a remote Iban tribe Longhouse in Sarawak which will give you a glimpse into the daily lives of indigenous people. Whichever Longhouse visit you choose, the further it is from the city the better. The concept of a Longhouse is where families live together under one roof. The Iban people can be shy but offer a very warm welcome to outsiders. You will sleep in separate quarters but nothing fancy, sleeping on a mattress with a mosquito net. On arrival, after introductions, you will have dinner followed by a short performance of local dance and music. You can expect an invitation to join in. You will be shown around the Longhouse and given small demonstrations of daily life. The evening usually includes tuak, a local rice whiskey.

The next morning may include a short hike into the jungle, a tour of their garden and a chance to learn how to shoot the blowpipe gun. If you want something more upscale on Malaysia vacations, you can stay at a Hilton-run lodge in Borneo and take advantage of the village activities mentioned above, but I highly recommend, for the real thing, to stay at a Longhouse.

Iban longhouse in Sarawak cultural village, Malaysian Borneo
Iban Longhouse in Sarawak cultural village, Borneo

One Day Trek in the Himalayas

There are all kinds of treks in Nepal which take you high into the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains as well as a trek to Mount Everest base camp. As this is not for everyone on an Asia trip, let’s look at something much less strenuous. You can do this from Kathmandu or Pokhara. My preference, on Nepal vacations, is from Pokhara, which is a picturesque lakeside resort town nestled under the mountain range surrounded by forests and snow-capped mountains which can easily be seen.

A day trek (or hike) will give you panoramic mountain views of the Annapurna range as well as an insight into local lives, history, and culture, together with wonderful scenic views. Just outside of Pokhara is the World Peace Pagoda on top of a hill which is a good place to watch the sunset or the sunrise.

View of Annapurna mountain range and its reflection in Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal
View of Annapurna mountain range and its reflection in Phewa Lake in Pokhara, Nepal

A Cruise on a Chinese Junk in Beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam

Not to be missed on Vietnam tours is Halong Bay, a beautiful natural wonder dotted with 1600 limestone islands and islets which covers a large area stretching along the coast for 120 kilometres/75 miles. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is breathtakingly beautiful with pristine beaches, limestone caves, inland lakes, and floating villages. It is enhanced by towering limestone pillars and tiny islets on top of which is forest. One way of really enjoying Halong Bay on an Asia trip is to take a short 2, 3, or 4-day cruise on a Chinese junk. These boats cater to a small number of passengers and accommodation is comfortable. During your cruise, you can explore the islands, discover floating villages, go walking to the top of one of the peaks for a panoramic view of the area, sail on a sampan through lagoons and into caves, and visit excellent sandy beaches with time to swim. Another enjoyment will be to watch the dramatic sunsets from your cruise boat.

Aerial view of floating fishing village and rock island, Halong Bay, Vietnam
Aerial view of Halong Bay, Vietnam

Feed the Monks in Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang in northern Laos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must on a Laos tour. One of the tidiest and cleanest cities in Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is also considered one of the most charming. One highlight in Luang Prabang is to watch the parade of a long line of saffron-clad monks who each morning walk the length of the main street accepting food and provisions from the locals. This is a highly revered Lao tradition and visitors are encouraged to watch or even get involved. This takes place at sunrise beginning on the main street before heading down the side streets. You should buy your offerings (usually food) in advance and arrive with plenty of time to spare, as it is considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has begun. Do as the locals do by kneeling down ready to give your offering to the monks. The most common gifts include rice, fresh fruit, and traditional sweet snacks. For these Buddhist monks, this is their one meal of a day.

Buddhist monks in a line in Luang Prabang, Laos
Buddhist monks in a line in Luang Prabang, Laos

Visiting with Hill Tribes

A visit to a hill tribe can be done in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The term “hill tribe” is used for various ethnic groups who mostly inhabit the mountainous regions. They often wear colourful clothes which distinguish their particular tribe. You can pay a visit to one of these tribes’ villages on an organized tour. However, my suggestion is to endeavour to find the most authentic village you can for the real experience. There are many hill tribes to be found on Asia tours. Some of the best known include the following.

The Hmong who live in the Mekong River region are known for their embroidered indigo-dyed clothing and their ornate silver jewellery. The Cham who are found in Vietnam and Cambodia, all practice a flexible form of Islam. The Dzao (also known as Yao or Dao) are mainly found in Vietnam but also in Laos, Thailand, and Yunnan Province in China. They practice ancestor worship of spirits and hold elaborate rituals with sacrifices of pigs and chickens. They are famous for their elaborate dress. Women’s clothing usually features intricate weaving and silver-coloured beads and coins. The Karen is the largest hill tribe in Thailand, and one distinct feature is most all the women wear a number of rings around their elongated necks and the unmarried women wear white. If in Luang Prabang on a Laos vacation, you can enjoy the night market in the main street where the local hill tribes come down from the mountains to sell their handicrafts, clothes etc.

Karen Hill Tribe Woman Making Scarves in Long Neck Village, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Karen tribe woman making scarves in Long Neck Village, Chiang Mai

Loi Krathong Festival, Thailand

If you happen to visit Thailand in November, Loi Krathong is a festival not to be missed. Known as the Thai Festival of Lights, Loi Krathong is held annually all over the country. What happens is, at nightfall, a piece of a banana tree trunk is decorated with flowers, banana leaves, a lit candle and incense sticks. Individuals take turns to float their Krathong down the river so that eventually the river is totally lit up with these, creating a magnificent sight. Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar. In the western calendar, this usually falls in November. On a Thailand trip, it is suggested to go to Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, or Bangkok where the festival is on a much larger scale than other places. My favourite places to watch it are in Chiang Mai, where the festival lasts 3 days when you can also see incredible parades, a firework display, and some traditional art performances, and Sukhothai, where it is celebrated for 5 days. In Sukhothai, there is also a beauty contest, parades, folk music performances, and sound and light shows.

Father and son tourists celebrating Loy Krathong, Thailand
Father and son tourists celebrating Loy Krathong, Thailand

Water Splashing Festival, Yunnan Province, China

The Water Splashing Festival takes place in China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. It is so called because people splash or pour water over one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome in the Chinese New Year. Everyone, including foreigners, gets doused in this boisterous celebration. The act of pouring water is also a show of blessings and good wishes. One of the best places to get involved while on a China trip is in Xishuangbanna, in Yunnan province. It is celebrated by the Dai ethnic group, which is one of the 55 ethnic minorities in China. The celebration usually starts in April and lasts 3 to 7 days. It attracts thousands of visitors every year.

Revelers enjoy water splashing during Water Splashing (Songkran) Festival in Ayutthaya, Thailand
Revelers enjoy water splashing during Water Splashing (Songkran) Festival in Ayutthaya, Thailand
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Robert Glazier
Robert Glazier

Contributing Writer - With over 40 years experience in the travel industry, and working for Goway for the last 19 years, British-born Robert Glazier has travelled to over 80 countries. “I have never met a destination which didn’t have something to interest me,” he says. His first foray abroad was from England to Switzerland on a school trip at the age of 14, and that was the start of a long journey. An avid runner, Robert’s favourite way of exploring a destination, is to don his running shoes and really get to know it on foot, even if it means sometimes getting lost! His advice to other travellers? Always wonder what is around the next corner!

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