On the top of almost every travel bucket list, there are a few choice Asian destinations that made it there thanks to a particular landmark. We book our journeys through each of them with our metaphorical pens at the ready, eager to put a tick next to our must-see spots. Before we’ve even finished our pen stroke, we’re up and off to the next item on our bucket list.
But in Asia, the bucket list landmarks are just the beginning. Spending an extra day in some of the region’s most visited locations means the opportunity to explore the cultures and people behind the tourist sites. Before you book your whirlwind Asian excursion, plan a little extra time in each of these bucket list destinations for a real taste of the world’s most fascinating region.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Take one look at the Siem Reap skyline and you’ll spot what entices droves of tourists to this Cambodian city every year. So iconic is Angkor Wat – the largest religious complex in the world and testament to the mighty Angkor empire – that the magnificent structure is emblazoned on the nation’s flag.
But beyond the enormous religious complex are some of the most intriguing opportunities to see traditional Khmer lifestyles up close. Siem Reap is surrounded by sleepy villages and flanked by the enormous Tonle Sap Lake, which remains dotted with traditional stilted houses that hover above the lake’s annual flood pulse. A few extra days spent here means the chance to discover both by bicycle and boat.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Vietnam’s buzzing southern metropolis is a perfect place to soak in the energy of modern Vietnam. Whizzing motorbikes, delicious food and vibrant urban charm makes the city a must-see for visitors in the country. But Ho Chi Minh City (which is sometimes still referred to as Saigon) is also the gateway to one of the most intriguing regions of Vietnam – the Mekong Delta.
Still fairly untouched by tourism and right on the Saigon’s doorstep, the sleepy Mekong region sways with the ebb and flow of the mighty Mekong River. Floating markets, ethnic agricultural villages and the surreal Tra Su Flooded Forest make the region an up-and-coming destination that’s still just far enough off of the tourist track – without being more than a stone’s throw from a travel hub.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The grisly past of Cambodia’s capital city is usually what draws visitors to Phnom Penh – the Killing Fields and S21 Prison Museum are still the main destination for tourists who can still recall witnessing the dark era of Pol Pot on television. But not to be overshadowed by the city’s tragic former life, Phnom Penh is now one of the best places to experience modern Cambodia and the reemergence of Khmer arts and culture nearly lost during a decade of genocide.
History buffs shouldn’t miss a wander through the glittering Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, not to mention the ancient Tonle Bati and Phnom Chisor temples just outside city limits. Lovers of urban exploration will find something to love about Phnom Penh, too, where the legacy of famous architect Vann Molyvann is immortalized in iconic 1950-60s architecture. Do it all by traditional tuk-tuk for a real taste of Khmer culture and for an exciting twist on the commute.
Singapore’s futuristic skyline makes it difficult to believe that only 50 years ago, this economic powerhouse was once a sleepy fishing village. The city-state is a dizzying combination of soaring skyscrapers, megamalls and some of the most impressive theme parks that Asia has to offer. But beyond this glittering façade remain remnants of Singapore’s not-so-distant past.
Singapore’s past life as a major maritime trade hub contributed to its rise into economic superiority, but also its cultural diversity. For a real taste of Singapore, visitors should make plenty of time to depart the wide shopping boulevards and head for its ethnic enclaves instead – namely Chinatown, Kampong Glam (the ethnic Malay district), Joo Chiat (home to Singapore’s unique Peranakan culture and pastel buildings) and Little India. Each enclave boasts its own unique flavours, architecture and history that are well worth exploring.
Vietnam’s capital city is proud of its 1000-year history and heritage, so it’s surprising how few visitors here ever scratch the surface of Hanoi’s story. Beyond the landmarks like Hoan Kiem Lake, the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi is a fascinating destination to discover what makes modern Vietnamese society tick.
A departure from the well-tread Old Quarter and into districts further afield like the areas surrounding Truc Bach and West Lake means the chance to walk (or cycle) the roads less travelled here. Skipping the bus or taxi for a pair of good walking shoes is your best bet to wander these areas and their countless winding streets. Don’t forget to stop for some Pho Cuon – a local specialty that’s best served in the alleyways behind Truc Bach Lake.
It’s hard to imagine a single thing that the buzzing city of Bangkok doesn’t have. Great food, lively bars, towering palaces and dazzling temples are never far from your front door, and its easy to get caught up in the excitement and never make it beyond the city limits.
But a short cruise down the Chao Phraya River brings you to the ancient capital of Siam that’s got enough history in its crumbling Buddhas and temple spires to make your head spin. The ancient city of Ayutthaya was once filled with gold and the site of lavish ceremonies and decorative monasteries – and is now a perfect place to depart the frenetic Bangkok streets for a day.
Have you been to Asia? Which countries? What was your favourite part? If not, where would you like to go? Tell us in the comments below.