In Hong Kong, they like to point out that within a five-hour flight of their dazzling international airport, lives half the world’s population. In many ways all other parts of the world are mere suburbs of Asia. And almost everyone who travels there for the first time is overcome with a feeling of discovery that must be at least a little like the feeling that Marco Polo had when he arrived in the great city of Xian, China. Whether you’re exploring the gardens of Kyoto, Japan, trekking to monasteries in the high Himalayas of Tibet, on a tiger safari in central India or diving in Thailand’s Andaman Sea, you will find in Asia a region that surpasses your expectations in almost every circumstance.
The simple truth is that there is no typical Asian journey, as your experience will vary greatly depending on the region or the country you’re traveling in. Culturally, China and India stand as the two giant mother cultures of Asia, but in almost every country cultural touchstones such as religion, art, literature and architecture have followed a specific course. Southeast Asian culture, with its ring of historic kingdoms and empires, its cross-pollinating trade, and its multitude of islands and port cities, is reminiscent of the Eastern Mediterranean.
While India’s topography varies from tropical to alpine and from the most densely populated cities to the empty expanses of the Thar Desert, most visitors come to India to explore the saga-like culture in its great monuments in Rajasthan, the dreamlike Taj Mahal or the pristine backwaters of Kerala. China offers a radically different set of experiences highlighted by the majesty of a Yangtze River cruise and the winding trail of the Great Wall. Such cities as Beijing and Shanghai have led the country into the 21st century even as they’ve preserved a classical past.
In Northeast Asia, Japan and the Koreas carry on other traditions. With its temple-topped hills and the changing colors of their foliation, the countryside in Northeast Asia is a beautiful place for nature lovers. Bhutan and Nepal offer yet another slice of Asia that’s characterized by the highest mountain peaks in the world and some of the most devout religious culture.
Just as you begin to think of Asia as a repository of age-old traditions, Hong Kong; Mumbai, India; Taipei, Taiwan; Tokyo; Bangkok, Thailand; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Manila, the Philippines, put a modern global face on the region. If you’re more of an island-resort person, you can sample a tropical beach on one of Indonesia’s 13,000 islands or one of the roughly 7,000 islands of the Philippines. Too tame? Maybe you’d prefer a Sepik River cruise into the stone-age cultures of Papua New Guinea or an eco-trek through Malaysian Borneo. Whatever you’re looking for from a journey, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll find it in Asia.