Travel to Asia: Top 10 Asian Countries to Visit
As economic recession begins to spiral worldwide, tourism in Asia is taking a hit in tsunami-like figures, according to the latest news reported by Reuters. However, recession isn’t delaying travelers, who have been planning a trip of a lifetime. “In terms of airfare, it is as affordable to travel to some international destinations as it is to travel from coast to coast in the U.S.,” said Brian T. Mullis, President of Sustainable Travel International, headquartered in Denver. “In addition, the exchange rates in some countries are still favorable, so your costs will be significantly less in international bargain destinations than they are in the U.S.”
Asia offers a wide variety of exotic places, a blend and fusion of aromatic food and out of-this-word hospitality. From the glittering neon lights of Tokyo to the untouched beauty of the rice terraces in the Philippines and the floating villages of Thailand-Asia expands the traveler’s sensibility in ways that are difficult to describe. One simply must experience in order to understand.
Tours versus Solo
Instead of bogging down with the intricacies of planning and plotting the detailed minute-by-minute itinerary, first time travelers should take advantage of the available tours. Denver tour operators recommend using good and reputable travel agents when planning for travel within Asia, according to Jane Yale, destination specialist at Cherry Creek Travel & Cruises in Denver. Yale believes working closely with a
knowledgeable tour guide will alleviate the complication of planning logistics in a foreign country. Some specialize in specific activities such as culinary tours, biking excursions, or rafting trips.
Some airlines offer packaged tours that include hotels, one meal a day and transportation between cities, while other travel agencies partner with tour operators to provide a slew of schedules. “I’ve seen
special rates as well as at least one free night at some of the hotels,” Yale said.
Airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, offer tours as low as $1,499 for round-trip travel to Hong Kong, plus two Asian cities listed in their basic selection. Such tours usually depart from major U.S. coastal cities. For an extra $200 a person, Denver is offered as a departure location. Restrictions often exist on departure dates and airports, even though 21 choices of destinations are available.
Tour groups aren’t for everyone. The adventurous types may enjoy traveling by the seat of their pants instead. For example, those on a tight budget may take a chance on finding lodging in hostels once they arrive at their destination. In Vietnam, smaller hotels operate as family enterprises, offering a room for $30 a night complete with air conditioning, beds, shower, and of course, satellite television broadcasting international channels such as CNN.
Even the intrepid traveler might not want to take the risk of leaving communication up to destiny. First-time travelers may find dealing with a foreign language daunting and intimidating. During our visit to Vietnam last April, my husband confessed he wouldn’t travel to the country without a translator. Fortunately, the family we visited guided us during our shopping expeditions, restaurant visits and sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh (the capital city formerly known as Saigon).
Some Asian countries, such as Japan and the Philippines, are accustomed to dealing with English-speaking tourists. For example, English is taught as a second language in the Philippines. Metropolitan cities, like Tokyo and Hong Kong, are common location for many international corporations. As a result, English is familiar language of commerce in these cities. Timothy and Pam Cokeley, who traveled with their son Jim, from Denver to China last June, strongly recommend enlisting the help of a translator. Tourists must contend with getting directions to popular attractions, bargaining souvenir prices down with vendors, and making sure meals served at restaurant is what was ordered. “All the menus were written in Chinese. No one had English menus at all,” said Pam Cokeley.
Truth be told, a large majority of Asians do not speak English. American travelers should attempt to learn key phrases in the native language, such as “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Thank you” and “Where is the bathroom?”. From the natives’ perspective, when tourists make an effort to keep an open mind about cultural diversity and differences, it goes a long way.
“Trying out just a few words of the local language will win you favor with most people you encounter. Even
knowing how to say, ‘Excuse me, do you speak English?’ in the local language can turn a frustrated train ticket agent into a new friend.” said Mullis, who provides programs that help travelers and travel-related companies protect the environmental, socio-cultural and economic values of the places they visit, through a Washington-based company called Sustainable Travel International.
Before checking out books about the country, securing flights, or reviewing tour packages, you should examine your passport and verify whether it is still valid or in need of renewal. Also confirm whether or not your destination country requires visas. Countries such as Japan, India and the Philippines only require
passports for entry, while other countries such as Vietnam and China require travel visas issued by U.S. based-consulates and embassies before one can gain entry.
Travelers should begin a “To Do” list in preparation for travel to Asia. A good rule of thumb is to contact the
companies of credit cards you plan to use during the trip. Taking a few minutes to notify each company of your pending travel plans will alleviate the hassle of unexpected declines during transactions while abroad.
Credit cards, shopping and packing go together in planning. Travelers should pack light, in order to have enough room to fit all the treasures to bring home. Shopping can be a fascinating experience, but before letting loose, remember that most people end up buying more than planned and are subsequently saddled with the problem of carrying everything home.
Insurance plays a pivotal role in travel plans. Check with your homeowner’s policy for coverage. Insurance agents can provide referrals to companies that specialize in travel insurance, which covers lost luggage, currency and even trip cancellation due to sudden illness or death in the family. A good travel agent will also provide you with a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for your destination, said Yale.
Besides learning key phrases in the native language, tourists should learn the cultural idiosyncrasies and rules of social etiquette of the country.
Mullis reiterates the importance of recognizing and following the code of modesty of a particular culture by saying, “Observe local standards of dress. Be respectful and aware of how you present yourself. In many cultures, women are required to cover up most or all of their bodies. Be sure to know the cultural norms so as not to offend anyone. The locals will appreciate your efforts. As a general guideline, dress modestly, especially at any religious sites. Loose, long clothing is appropriate anywhere in cool and hot weather.”
Along the same lines of modesty, refrain from public displays of affection. In countries such as India, the Philippines, Japan and China, public displays of affection are considered inappropriate.
Foreigners are still a curiosity in many parts of Asia. In fact, I met a Caucasian woman in her early 20s, who shared with me that she had posed for several photographs with Chinese families and groups while visiting the Great Wall of China, because she was considered a unique and rare visitor.
Carrying a guidebook and camera makes tourists an easy target for beggars, scam artists and muggers. Although reading the guidebook is necessary part of preparation, visitors should leave the book in their hotel room or keep it discreetly tucked away in a handbag.
“Use your guidebook, but also know when to put it away,” said Mullis. “Remember that your guidebook is just that-a guide. Read it before you leave home and at the hotel while you plan your schedule.
Don’t be afraid to leave it in your room. If you want to truly experience a place, head off the beaten path; talk with the locals, eat at a restaurant that’s not listed in your guidebook, wander into a museum you’ve never heard of, sip coffee at any café, hike with a new friend that knows a trail that you don’t. Put your map in your backpack and explore.”
As a keepsake, photographs are the best way to capture unforgettable memories. Be sure to get permission ahead of time. In order to avoid unpleasant reactions, like guards taking your equipment away in an abrasive manner. As a rule, photography should be limited around places of worship, shrines and temples. Most places prohibit cameras.
“Be a respectful photographer. Ask for permission before taking pictures of people,” said Mullis, who has over 20 years of experience in travel and tourism. “Some people do not want to be photographed. Good travel photo-graphers are sensitive to the desires of their subjects and accommodate refusals gracefully. Sometimes choosing not to take photographs can bring you a more genuine experience because you don’t have a camera separating you from the local culture.”
In addition to cameras, be aware of local tipping customs. In some instances gratuity can be a “no-no.” In places such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, $1 tip is sufficient. In cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo, Beijing and Manila, tipping is required and is often included in most dining bills.
With all the details, don’t forget it’s a trip of a lifetime. Don’t be afraid to embrace the culture and endure sensory overload. “Celebrate like a local, stay local, shop at local markets and make friends,” said Mullis. “Be bold. Engage in conversation with the person next to you on the bus or at the bar.”
“Bucket List” of Asian Cities
Spinning the globe, one can pinpoint travel destinations galore. Asia fascinates me because of my Filipino heritage. Or, maybe it’s my deep-rooted love of rice and fish. Or, it’s just the idea of experiencing tropical weather and leaving Colorado snow behind.
Here is my “bucket list”, my top choices of Asian cities to consider for your next trip:
Wat Pho, or Wat Phra Chetuphon as it is known by the Thai people, is famous for the huge Reclining Buddha statue it houses. At a total of 20 acres, it is the largest Wat (or temple) in Bangkok, Thailand and is the oldest too, built 200 years before Bangkok became Thailand’s official capital. It holds dual honors for having both Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha image and the most number of Buddha images inside (more than 1,000).
Damoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand, where fruits, spices, flowers, sweets and vegetables are sold, is one of the most photographed markets in the world.
Phra Pathom Chedi, considered the world’s tallest Buddhist stupa (a mound-like monument) and oldest structure, dates back to 300 B.C.
Located in the center of Beijing, China, the Forbidden City is a 200-acre walled maze of a compound, which once housed the emperor, royal family and their multitude of servants during the 15th century.
The Great Wall of China, about one hour away from Beijing, China, offers a variety of hiking trails for both the novice and pro.
In Singapore, tourists can experience Asia’s first and largest cabaret theater, the Crazy Horse Paris Cabaret Show.
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India is considered one of the eight wonders of the world, and showcases a former king’s undying love for his dearly departed wife.
Japan, Tokyo has bragging rights for the largest fish market in the world. Housed in a modern hangar at Tsukiji the Tokyo Central Wholesale market auctions over 450 types seafood daily, to more than 15,000 restaurateurs and food sellers.
The Cu Chi Tunnels, located two hours away from Ho Chin Minh, Vietnam, serve as a reminder of the atrocities of war during the American conflict in the 1970s.
The Old Market in Hanoi, lies the nostalgic dying glory of the Old Quarter. Located at the intersection of Yen Thai and Hang Da Street, Hang Da Market is a three-story indoor market, selling everything from clothing to produce.
A even larger attraction in Hanoi is the resting place of Grandfather Ho at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The lines are longer than those found at Disneyland, as natives frequently travel there as a pilgrimage.
In Cambodia, the temples of Angkor showcase one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. Hollywood producers have used this landmark as the backdrop for productions such as Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Raiders of the Lost Ark and TV reality show, The Amazing Race.
In the Philippines, the Banaue rice terraces are listed as one of the eight natural wonders of the world. About 3,000 years ago, the indigenous natives of the Ifugao tribes painstakingly carved these terraces out of the hillside by hand, without the aid of modern machinery, in order to provide level steps where the natives still plant rice to this day.
By Mary Jeneverre Schultz
Mary Jeneverre Schultz has traveled to several Asian cities and is planning her multi-destination trip to Asia in 2011 to celebrate her 10-year wedding anniversary with her husband, Frank. Contact her at [email protected] if you have any trip suggestions.