15 amazing Asian travel experiences

Explore 15 of the hottest travel gems around Asia

From getting doused in paint in India to finding underwater pyramids in Japan and basking on East Timor’s pristine beaches, Time Out helps you explore the best of the continent
Wrestle 10,000 naked men
1/15

Wrestle 10,000 naked men

When it’s the height of winter, the snow’s falling and everything outside is frozen, what do some Japanese do? They get naked, of course. Nippon’s famous Hadaka Matsuri – literally meaning Naked Festival – sees men across the country strip down (though these days, they at least put on a small loin cloth) to battle for two sacred sticks. There are naked festivals across Japan but the most spectacular is held at Kannon-in Temple near Okayama, where close to 10,000 sake-and-beer-fuelled gents chant their way through the temple to the pulse of the aiko drum, all in pursuit of the sacred sticks. Too savage (and cold) for your taste? Then join the local women in pouring buckets of ice-cold water to purify these near-naked men.
When to go The third Saturday in February.
How to get there China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) flies to Okayama from 3,500RMB return.
Where to stay The Okayama Koraku Hotel (www. hotel.kooraku.co.jp) is a short walk from the JR Okayama train station and offers modern rooms from 530RMB/night.

Swim over Singapore
2/15

Swim over Singapore

Singapore has a reputation for being a bit of a cultural vacuum, but one look at the Marina Bay Sands’ (www.marinabaysands.com)spectacular infinity pool overlooking the city and you’ll forget all thoughts of trying to find an underground art exhibition. 57 stories up, the pool is the crowning glory of the Sky Park and stretches across the tops of the complex’s three main towers at a length greater than the Eiffel Tower laid on its side. The pool is only open to hotel guests, so you’ll have to fork out for a room here (from 1,800RMB/night) to gain access. A number of tour operators usually offer good flights and hotel packages that work out cheaper however – for 8,940RMB/person, Classic Travel (www.classictravel.net.cn) has a package that includes return flights and four nights’ stay at the Marina Bay Sands. If you do hit the streets, pick up a copy of Time Out Singapore to get the best out of the city. 

When to go Year-round. 
How to get there Return flights to Singapore on Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) start from 3,500RMB return.

Explore the world’s largest cave
3/15

Explore the world’s largest cave

With an individual cavern measuring almost 9km long, 200m wide and 150m high, a raging underground river, and incredible, otherworldly formations throughout its huge network, the Son Doong Cave in Vietnam is the world’s largest. Located in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, beside the Laos border, it was only officially discovered in 2009 and authorised tourist trips inside have only been taking place since May. They consist of seven-day excursions, with a one-day training and fitness test followed by six days inside the cave.
When to go Year-round.
How to get there Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) flies from Shanghai to Hanoi from 3,000RMB return and on to Dong Hoi City for a further 1,000RMB return. Cave tours can be arranged in Dong Hoi (see www.sondoongcave.org for details).
Where to stay The Phong Nha Farmstay (www.phong-nha-cave.com), a French colonial-styled rural retreat set in idyllic rice fields, is conveniently close to the National Park with rooms from 175RMB/night.

Unwind on the Perhentian Islands
4/15

Unwind on the Perhentian Islands

It’s difficult to talk about the Perhentian Islands without descending into holiday-cliché: two islands off the northern Malay coast edged with often-deserted white sand beaches, beside which a dazzling array of sea life teems around pristine coral in shallow, sun-streaked waters. True, nearly every beach destination claims most of these things, but the Perhentians do it better – and cheaper – than just about anywhere we’ve been. The sea is clearer and the beaches whiter than Koh Phi Phi or around the Great Barrier Reef; the travellers are less obnoxious than in Koh Phangan or Bali; the diving is cheaper than Koh Tao; food and accommodation are basic but cheap. 

When to go Year-round. 
How to get there Travelling is cheap, but it’s not that easy, involving buses, taxis and ferries. Air Asia (www.airasia.com) flies from Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur for as little as 3,000RMB return, with internal flights from Kuala Lumpur up to Kota Bharu from 240RMB return. Once you get to Kota Bharu, you have to jump in a cab to Kuala Besut, which is where the ferry to Perhentian leaves from – taxis take just over an hour for around 100RMB. Ferries leave for the islands at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 4.30pm, costing 60RMB each way, and will drop you at whichever beach or resort you want to go to. 
Where to stay The basic but friendly Moonlight Chalet (no individual website, but see www.perhentian.com.my for details)at the quieter north end of Long Beach on Small Island offers dorm beds for 40RMB or a double room with a hot shower and air con overlooking the sea for 320RMB. You can’t book here, but it’s worth turning up (ideally near the start of the week, as they’re often out of rooms around weekends). Attached to the hostel is the best dive school on the island, Sunlight Divers, and next door is the best restaurant, Bubu.

Cross the Torugart Pass
5/15

Cross the Torugart Pass

The remote Torugart Pass is one of China’s most incredible border crossings, sat atop mountain peaks between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan. On the Kyrgyz side, a single road winds its way past lonely yurt camps, herds of camels and bleak permafrost-covered landscapes to an isolated border posting that’s only accessible several months of the year. On the Xinjiang side, it’ll take you several hours of driving through remote villages before you even get to customs and passport control, let alone to the nearest large settlement, Kashgar. Although you can cross from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan in a day, the paucity of accomodation options awaiting you on the other side means you’re better off starting in the laidback Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and returning into China. Bishkek is a pleasant place to spend a couple of days – its ominous Soviet architecture is offset by friendly locals and streets that turn into mini-fairs at night – but it’s the largely unspoilt countryside between the capital and the Chinese border that provides the highlights of the journey. One of these is Lake Issyk-kul, the second largest saline lake in the world located in the eastern Tianshan Mountain, which boasts crystal clear waters that remain warm throughout the year despite being surrounded on all sides by beautiful snow-capped mountains (hence the water’s name, which means ‘hot lake’). You can stay here with local families in yurts – the most picturesque being in the foothills, but the most comfortable being near one of the shoreside towns – as a useful stopover en route to Torugart. 

When to go May or September are generally the best months for travel in Kyrgyzstan when temperatures are at their most bearable. The Torugart Pass is technically open all year, but in reality is only accessible from late May-September. 
How to get there One-way flights to Bishkek cost from 3,600RMB with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com). While the capital is easy enough to navigate independently, you’re best off arranging a tour to get around the rest of the country. See www.carivanistan.com for a good list of operators and for more essential information on the country. Kyrgyzstan removed visa restrictions for many foreign nationals last year, though you should still check ahead before travelling. 
Where to stay In Bishkek, the five star Hyatt Regency (bishkek.regency.hyatt.com) has rooms from 2,000RMB/night, while the Baikhan hotel offers more basic accomodation from 250RMB/night.

Roam the ancient ruins of Bagan
6/15

Roam the ancient ruins of Bagan

Established as the capital of the Pagan empire in the ninth century, Bagan in northern Burma features more than 3,000 stupas (Buddhist commemorative monuments) of varying ages on the eastern bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The expansive complex, covering an area of 67sq km, for the most part doesn’t require entrance fees and can be accessed by bike (rental is cheap and widespread in both Old Bagan and New Bagan towns). You could easily spend three or four days just roaming around the area on two wheels, but even more awe-inspiring is the view from above, most famously seen from the myriad hot-air balloons which form a spectacular vista at sunrise and sunset. Just bear in mind that hot-air balloon rides aren’t cheap here (from 1,500RMB for a 45 minute to one hour trip). 

When to go November to February. 
How to get there China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) fly from Shanghai to Mandalay with a stopover in Kunming from 3,000RMB return. From Mandalay, numerous airlines make the short flight to Bagan, but the best way to arrive is by boat. A number of tour operators offer all-day river cruises between Mandalay and Bagan; www.exoticmyanmartravel.com offer one of the cheapest at 233RMB. If you don’t want to limit your stay to just the north, Classic Travel (www.classictravel.net.cn) offer a six-day private tour that takes in Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon for 11,900RMB/person including air fares and five nights’ three or four star accommodation. 
Where to stay The Thiri Marlar Hotel Bagan (bagan-thirimarlar-hotel.yomatechnologies.com) is a cosy oasis after a day of temple exploring in the hot Burmese sun, with rooms from 185RMB/night.

Trek the world’s oldest rainforest
7/15

Trek the world’s oldest rainforest

Borneo’s 130-million-year-old rainforest is so rich and diverse in the treasures of nature that many visitors often fall into a deep Hamletic state of indecision. Should you go see the cheeky orangutans swinging and dancing from tree to tree at Sepilok? Or watch the carnivorous pitcher plants lure insects with their nectar and trap them with deeply cupped leaves? Or sniff out the bright red rafflesia, the world’s largest parasitic flower? Or try to catch a glimpse of a Sumatran rhinoceros and a clouded leopard? Or should you simply tiptoe through the canopy at 1,000ft, along the jungle’s treetop walk? 

When to go March to October. 
How to get there Dragon Air (www.dragonair.com) fly return to Khota Kinabalu via Hong Kong from 3,500RMB. 
Where to stay On-site chalets at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (www.borneonaturetours.com), make for a tranquil jungle retreat, with prices dependent on which of their various tour packages you opt for. Given that the best routes into the rainforest are all on tours, it’s worth considering booking all the way through. Classic Travel (www.classictravel.net.cn) offer a private nine-day tour including a jungle trek, visit to Selingan Turtle Island, five star accommodation and return flights for 11,780RMB/person.

Enjoy a colourful experience at Holi
8/15

Enjoy a colourful experience at Holi

Marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring (plus the triumph of good over evil), India’s annual Holi celebration has to be the most colourful festival on the continent, if not the planet. Named the ‘Festival of Colours’ for its tradition of coating faces in coloured powder and dumping buckets of water on each other, the exuberant festival also boasts the psychedelic tradition of eating bhang, or mush made from cannabis plants. The Holi Cow celebrations in New Delhi and Holi Moly festival in Mumbai are a Bollywood-like riot, complete with live music line-ups, graffiti artists and painters and, of course, mass dance performances. In Jaipur, a more traditional celebration of Holi includes elephant parades, elephant beauty contests and even an elephant tug-of-war. 

When to go The day after the full moon in March (March 17 in 2013). For a full guide to the festival and the best things to do in Mumbai, see www.timeout.com/mumbai. 
How to get there Return flights to Mumbai start from 4,000RMB with Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com), via Hong Kong. China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com) flies to Delhi from 3,500RMB/return. 
Where to stay Delhi’s boutique Bloomrooms Hotel (www.bloomroomshotel.com) is comfortable, accessible and, most importantly, very clean. After a day of powder paint-fighting you’ll appreciate the Grohe rain showers here. Rooms start from 134RMB/night. In Mumbai, if you really want to unwind after rinsing the dye out of your hair, The Westin Garden City (westin-mumbai-garden.hotel-rn.com) hotel has rooms from 830RMB/night.

Rock out in Ansan Valley
9/15

Rock out in Ansan Valley

If you can’t afford to go to this month’s Fuji Rock Festival in Japan (where a three-day pass will set you back over 2,500RMB), then South Korea’s Ansan Valley provides a cheaper alternative. Held over the same weekend (Friday 26-Sunday 28), you won’t get the full Fuji Rock line-up at the Jisan Forest park, but you will get to see main headliners The Cure alongside Foals, Yellowcard and a host of Korean acts for half the price of the Japanese festival.
How to get there At time of press, return flights over the weekend from Shanghai to Seoul were available from 2,500RMB on China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). Regular shuttle buses will run directly to the festival from Seoul Railway Station or you can take one of the regular buses from Dong Seoul Bus Terminal to Icheon and transfer there to local bus 12, which stops outside the festival site.
Where to stay Camping is available at the festival site, though pre-booking is advised. See valleyrockfestival.mnet.interest.me for details and to book.

Find paradise in East Timor
10/15

Find paradise in East Timor

East Timor (or the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) doesn’t make many must-see lists in Asia. The country – Asia’s newest – sits at the southern end of Indonesia and is isolated and near-inaccessible, as well as being home to Unmit, the largest UN peacekeeping mission on Earth. Emerging from decades of bloodshed and occupation with scarcely any infrastructure intact, war-ravaged Timor-Leste attracts just a few thousand tourists every year. But the fact that roads here are among the world’s worst, the humidity is oppressive, poverty is rampant and healthcare minimal doesn’t put us off finding out if reports from fellow travellers are true – namely, that East Timor is nothing short of paradise. The country has what everyone else in Southeast Asia is endlessly searching for: dreamy islands, pristine beaches, crystal-clear azure seas, some of the most diverse sea life on the planet and a queue of welcoming locals to show you the way. Adventurous tourists will come across incredible hiking, untouched lagoons and delicious seafood. And, more often than not, you’re the only traveller in town. For a full guide to this stunning country, see www.timeoutshanghai.com. 

When to go From late April to July. 
How to get there Singapore, Bali and Darwin remain the only ports of entry to Timor-Leste – flights are available from Air North, Air Timor, Batavia and Merpati. A return flight from Singapore starts at 5,700RMB with Air Timor. For flights to Singapore from Shanghai, see experience 1 above. 
Where to stay In Dili, we recommend East Timor Backpackers (www.easttimorbackpackers.com) from 80RMB/night. On Atauro Island, there’s the legendary Barry’s Place Eco-Lodge (+670 7723 6084), with rooms from 190RMB.

Join an elephant gathering
11/15

Join an elephant gathering

11Join an elephant gathering It’s the largest gathering of Asian elephants in the world. Known as the Great Gathering, this annual event sees hundreds of elephants migrate to Sri Lanka’s Minneriya reservoir to feast, drink and socialise. See the adult males flaunt their trunks to impress the females while baby elephants gleefully spray one another with muddy waters in what is, essentially, one enormous elephant pool party. Don’t leave without watching the sunset over the rich grassy marshes and lush evergreen grassland, with the mountains of Matale in the distance. Of course, it’s not all about elephants: wildlife abounds in this area, including plentiful macaques, sambar deers and leopards. 

When to go The elephants come here for the water as the dry season takes full effect from August to October. 
How to get there Sri Lankan Airlines fly from Shanghai to Colombo from 5,700RMB return. From there, travel overland to Polonnaruwa, the closest city to the Minneriya National Park. The best way to do this is by car (taxis charge around 400RMB one-way), but you can also take a seven-hour sleeper train with tickets from 20RMB. Alternatively, Classic Travel (www.classictravel.net.cn) offer an eight-day ‘Taste of Sri Lanka’ tour including visits to Minneriya for the elephant gathering, Polonnaruwa’s ancient ruins, beautiful beaches in the south of the country and a tea plantation for 11,800RMB/person. This price includes six nights’ stay in four star accommodation and return air fares with Sri Lankan Airlines. 
Where to stay The Cinnamon Lodge Habarana (www.cinnamonhotels.com) is an eco-friendly resort spread over 27 acres of forest land and organises Jeep tours to Minneriya. Rooms start at 950RMB.

Dive underwater pyramids
12/15

Dive underwater pyramids

The ruins of ‘underwater pyramids’, with steps and terraces resembling the Mayan temples, are part of the Yonaguni Monument lying deep underwater off the coast of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands (which you may know from a certain disputed territory at its southernmost tip). Since the underwater discovery was made in 1987, it has puzzled archaeologists and scholars alike. Some claim to have identified the ruins of a castle and five temples. Others argue that it is nothing but a natural formation of rocks fractured by geological forces. Either way, it makes for a fascinating trip, while the island of Ishigaki, the main transport hub for the smaller outlying isles, features some stunning beaches (Kabira Bay in particular) and is renowned for its kobe beef. For a full guide to Ishigaki and the nearby island of Okinawa, see www.timeoutshanghai.com. 

When to go December to March. The southern wind during summer makes it difficult to gain access to the site. 
How to get there Return flights from Shanghai to Naha are available from 2,250RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com). Onward flights from Naha to Ishigaki with JAL (www.jal.co.jp) cost around 1,160RMB one-way. Dive tours can be organised by Yonaguni Diving Service (www.yonaguniyds.com), who also run a small B&B on the island. 
Where to stay Hotel Nikko Yaeyama (www.nikko-yaeyama.com) provides a good base in the main town on Ishigaki, a 30-minute walk or a short taxi journey from the ferry port. Rooms start from 670RMB.

Meet with dragons
13/15

Meet with dragons

It’s not quite Game of Thrones, but it’s about as close as you’ll get in this realm. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, though they are an endangered species, existing in the wild on only a handful of Indonesian islands – including Komodo Island, a national park created especially to protect the dragons. Here, you can see the incredible 100kg reptiles before checking out some of the region’s best diving and some of the most pristine beaches in Asia, including a beautiful pink beach, one of only seven in the world. 

When to go April to June. Visit the dragons at the start of the dry season before they go off to mate and nest during summer. 
How to get there Malaysian Airlines (www.malaysianairlines.com) fly to Bali from 4,500RMB return with a stopover in KL. From Bali, several airlines fly to Labuan Bajo, the main jumping-off point for tours and ferries to Komodo Island. 
Where to stay Golo Hilltop Hotel & Restaurant (www. golohilltop.com) in Labuan Bajo, a property of small boutique bungalows run by two Dutch women, offers rooms from 200RMB/night.

Climb the holy Batu Caves
14/15

Climb the holy Batu Caves

One of the best times to visit Kuala Lumpur’s imposing Batu Caves, home to one of the world’s most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, is during the annual Tamil festival of Thaipusam. The colourful one-day festival, in celebration of Hindu God of War Lord Murugan (to whom the caves are dedicated), sees around a million worshippers make the midnight climb up 272 steps to lay offerings of fruit, coconuts and milk in the labyrinth of hanging limestone recesses at its peak. Among the worshippers are Kavadi carriers, staunch devotees from local temples who attempt the hike while in a trance and carrying huge decorated wooden altars complete with terrifying skin-piercing spikes on their backs. Fellow temple-goers sing, dance and chant their way to the top, encouraging each Kavadi carrier to the peak when they inevitably have to stop for a breather. Afterwards, everyone files back down and into the communal vegetarian canteen for huge slops of delicious daal and chapattis, while all around Kavadi carriers bring themselves out of their trances. 

When to go Thaipusam occurs in January or February. In 2014 the festival falls on February 15. 
How to get there Flights to Kuala Lumpur are available from 4,000RMB return with Malaysian Airlines (www.malaysianairlines.com). The Batu Caves are around a 30-minute drive outside of the city centre, but set off early as traffic moves very slowly in the hours before midnight. Alternatively, the KTM Kommuter train goes directly to the entrance from Sentral Station, but again, it’s best to head out around 8-9pm, or be prepared for packed carriages, or trains that are simply too full to stop. 
Where to stay The boutique, five star Hotel Maya, located close to the Petronas Towers, has rooms from 700RMB/night.

See Asia made up of little bricks
15/15

See Asia made up of little bricks

It might not quite have all of the experiences listed in this feature, but if you’re looking for a quick way to tick off some of the most famous sites on the continent, then a trip to Johor, near Singapore, may be just the ticket. There’s a slight catch of course, but in this case the catch is also the main reason you’re here: the sites are all made of Lego. Opened in September last year, Legoland Malaysia is home to 40 different rides and attractions and features including brick versions of the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall. 

When to go Year-round. 
How to get there For flights to Singapore, see experience 1 above. From Singapore, regular shuttle buses run to the park from the Jurong East Bus Interchange. Entrance tickets are 270RMB/adult, 210RMB/child (3-11 years old). You can also buy a combined shuttle bus and Legoland entrance ticket for 400RMB from tour operators, including Classic Travel (www.classictravel.net.cn) in China. 
Where to stay If you want to splash out, you can stay at the Marina Bay Sands with its spectacular roof-top pool (see experience 1).

Comments