-= Amazing ancient historical sites =-
"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land."-G.K. Chesterton
Take a good look at the photo at the top of the page, and then check out the aerial shot above. Angkor Wat is basically a large city carved out of stone. Walking around the ancient monuments and temples there, and nearby Angkor Thom, is awe inspiring. If you are a fan of architecture, art, and/or history then you need to see this place in person. In history class and textbooks I would hear about the huge, powerful empires of the Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Rome, and of course the Mongol hordes of Genghis and later Kublai Khan, and yet nothing at all about the 12th century Khmer Empire. After touring what they have left behind in Siem Reap, I promise that you will have a healthy respect and a newfound interest in the history behind this civilization and its overall power, art, culture, and engineering prowess.
There are various Great Walls built by different dynasties scattered throughout China. I strongly recommend that you see unrestored sections of the Wall in-and-around Beijing. It was a night-and-day difference between visiting a crowded, touristy restored section in Badaling (complete w/ giant view-spoiling Olympic rings) and the unrestored section where I was basically alone with the Wall. In the unrestored areas, I was able to walk around peacefully and take in the scale and majesty of the greatest defensive fortification ever built by man. It might sound corny, but for fun while walking on the Wall I would sometimes imagine a lone guard standing around bored flipping a zhua claw like a baton, or a Mongol invader trying to climb up a rampart.
Ok, this is not a true historic area like the other spots I mention. But this museum does have a collection of artifacts that are second to none and if you walk through it in the proper chronological order, you will learn not only about the histories and cultures (both ancient and modern day) of each country, but also how each country's history intersects and intertwines with the other. The majority of history museums I've come across to tend to range from nationalistic to jingoistic, and yet this one seems to not play favorites and strictly focuses on teaching you about regions, people, and their histories from Neolithic to present. I'm not a museum buff, but on the handful of occasions that I've been to this one I stayed until the place closed each time.
Kyoto as a whole is great, and I especially liked the area around the Kinkakuji temple and Arashiyama. Despite everything being expensive, it is just so nice to not worry about scammers and basically have the ability to comfortably wander around amongst nice people who don't bother you by shoving plastic replicas of Kyoto in your face or try to drag you to a rip-off gem store. The history of the old capital is long and certainly worth looking into; what I couldn't get over was the landscaping. It seemed like all of the flora, and I mean right down to every single blade of grass, had been meticulously trimmed to perfection. If you have the budget, this is the perfect place for a safe family trip.
This huge temple was built in the 8th century and must be the most physically impressive Buddhist temple in the World. The scale, and take into account the time when it was built, is nothing short of amazing. Looking into the history behind it will give you some intriguing insight into the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam throughout Southeast Asia. Borobudur was constructed in a time and place where people of different religions mostly got along; consider that this was a Buddhist temple built in the lands governed by a Hindu king! The lone drawback to visiting the area is that it is loaded with scammers and aggressive salesman. Despite that, if you happen to be in Java and are a history or religious studies buff then you must take a one or two-day detour to visit Borobudur.
My visit to the Shaolin temple was awesome because it combined historical monuments (Pagoda Forest), nature (picturesque Songshan mountain range), and a Kung Fu exhibition. The history is fascinating due to how many times this place was attacked, destroyed, and rebuilt over the centuries to finally outlast all of the Chinese dynasties that came and went. Most of the locations at the temple have been featured in Chinese martial arts movies, and the whole place just gave me a familiar feeling. You know how in the 70s and 80s martial arts flicks there is a huge fortress where the old master with the huge Fu Manchu moustache leads his students in morning exercises? Yea I saw EXACTLY that there, and it wasn't artificially staged for tourists. I wanted to ask if they were expecting an attack from a rival school, but I wisely kept my mouth shut and walked around in awe. And I'm pleased to report that the grounds of the temple and martial arts school are very comfortable and easy to walk around. This is the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu and arguably martial arts period, so go visit. Now.
-= Natural wonders =-
"I would feel more optimistic about a bright future for man if he spent less time proving that he can outwit Nature and more time tasting her sweetness and respecting her seniority."-E.B. White
Really all of the islands near Koh Samui (or more officially, in the Chumphon Archipelago) are stunning getaways. Koh Tao happened to be my favorite due to the cheap prices, relatively quiet chillout beaches, nighttime partying (fun for a bit, but can easily be avoided when you tire of smelly Euro-stoner backpackers hitting on your significant other), and a wide array of sports options including snorkeling/diving, hiking, rock climbing, sailing, sea kayaking, fishing, and of course water skiing/tubing. Rather than ferrying around all of the islands off the Thailand coast, you can save time and hassle by just plopping down there in a cheap bungalow, do everything you could want to do at a tropical paradise, ferry back to Koh Samui, and fly out. Hopefully the continued increase in popularity and inevitable development won't spoil what must be the best semi-inhabited tropical island I've ever had the pleasure to visit.
Borneo itself is such a uniquely cool place in terms of both nature and culture that I promise you would not regret a trip. I happened to check out Ulu Temburong National Park rain forest in the Brunei section of the island, and despite being a jaded rain forest hiker even I was blown away. The journey out to the rainforest is itself a fun jaunt via water taxi and Jeep. The forest is largely untouched, with only a few huts and shacks here and there, outside of the rainforest canopy which allows stunning views both near and far. I'm used to seeing Jurassically gigantor lizards and insects from past rainforest treks, but I swear I saw an ant clambering around near a rope bridge that was as big as my index finger. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I didn't get to see the World's largest crocodile which is known to hang around in the marshes. Brunei doesn't really see tourism as compared to other nearby spots, so it is a big bonus not battle throngs of tourists and the scammers that they attract.
One the first things that a newly crowned Ancient Chinese emperor did was climb Mount Tai Shan. After catching e. coli food poisoning bad enough for me to need eight hours of IVs (that's me looking sickly thin in the above photo) in Shandong University Hospital, quite bafflingly one of the first things I did was climb Mount Tai Shan. I was told that this place is one of the best combinations of history and nature in ALL of China, and despite my debilitated state I was going to check it out. Traces of human habitation date back to the Neolithic period, and the first recorded dynasties (roughly 3,000 years ago) performed religious rituals in the area. There are all kinds of interesting plants and trees around the temples and ancient ruins, some of which had ancestors put in the ground by the Han Dynasty. Keep in mind that this mountain range is huge, and requires several days of hikes and camping to fully appreciate. Alternatively you can take a rickety, rusty cable car ride that will have you simultaneously loving the stunning vistas and updating your will.
Climbing and hiking around Taal Volcano and sailing Taal Lake is a blast and can feel slightly risky due to the volcano being so active. The air is hot, dusty, and smells of sulphur. You will need to hire a trustworthy guide, possibly with horses or donkeys, to navigate the area. Admittedly I didn't get the full experience because I wandered around the outskirts with a local friend, yet I still loved the view and of course the fact that it was my first volcano hike. Technically, the area is known as an island within a lake on another island within another lake on yet another island. If you are in good shape, already on a visit to the Philippines, and have a local friend then you absolutely MUST check this place out.
The Batu Caves earns a spot here because it combines history, nature, and culture all in one. I also contend that in the nature arena, this place is unique because you don't usually see huge limestone caves like this in Southeast Asia. It is a bit special culturally as well in that these caves house one of the largest and most popular Hindu shrines outside of India. There are some cool animals running around including the usual suspects like macaque monkeys (veteran Asia travelers know that there is no escape from these mischievous guys) and more rarely seen creatures like kooky looking spiders and fruit bats. Much like Kuala Lumpur itself, be prepared for the many scammers that lurk around and prey on the newbie tourists like a fruit bat on - uhh - fruit.
Nha Trang's clean beaches are surrounded by picturesque mountains and is overall a great area for chillin' and/or watersports, but this isn't too hard to find in Asia and not why I felt compelled to put it on the list. You know how the baseball movie "Moneyball" shined a light on undervalued statistics such as highest "slugging percentage" and most "defensive runs saved"? Well Nha Trang leads Asia's beach resort cities in least "annoying tourist percentage" and most "seafood bill dollars saved". I've heard there are scammers abound near the beach, but in my couple of visits I never saw any and very much enjoyed my strolls along the water. Many hotels and resorts are on the beach, so accessibility isn't a problem.
-= Cultural, arts, resorts, bars/restaurants, shopping and/or otherwise intriguing spots =-
"I haven't been Everywhere, but it's on my list."-Susan Sontag
I've been to Tai O a few times, and during each visit I walked around the place with a grin on my face because, while I don't know exactly what "old Hong Kong" is like, it just feels like what "old Hong Kong" is in my mind. The place is a small community of fisherman living mainly in houses built on stilts along with vendors who sell what they catch - in addition to a variety of other merchandise. Its a dash touristy, but not so much as to put off a veteran traveler. The merchants are pretty mellow and you can walk around comfortably to catch a glimpse of what a Hong Kong fishing village was like back in the '40s. If you are travelling in Hong Kong, then get away from the city for day to Tai O and you can also go hiking nearby afterwards.
Everyone has their own preference for shopping; so I'm choosing a place that literally has EVERYTHING. It is one of the World's largest markets with fifteen thousand stalls that run the gamut of wares from truly high-end handmade goods all the way to el cheapo mass produced junk. Just be sure to bring your haggling A game and try not to get lost amongst the rat maze of stalls.
Having chilled out at many beach resorts over the years, I was quite jaded prior to stepping foot onto the grounds of this 445 acre monster of fun and relaxation. The highlight is a huge pool that nestles right up against the South China Sea. You can head down to the beach for a variety of watersports (owned/managed by the hotel), go see movie at the theater, chill out one of the many pools, play a round of golf, get a beachside massage, and do pretty much anything you can think of that a resort should have available. During my visit the cost was reasonable and the facilities were underutilized due to a lack of crowds, and so therefore it wins as the best overall resort that I've ever seen. I can't think of a drawback, except for perhaps the fact that alcohol is prohibited in Brunei. The Empire Resort Hotel is a perfect easy getaway for a couple or family.
Perhaps years ago I would have gone with Lan Kwai Fung in Hong Kong or maybe Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, but I just can't because I've had more fun at the bars, pubs, and discos in Clarke Quay than anywhere else in the World. You can meet all kinds of folks hailing from any part of planet Earth, and then proceed to have an absolute blast in any one of the cool spots in Clarke Quay. Hell you can pass out drunk in the street, and wake up in the morning with your wallet still in your pocket. Places come and go, but the staple spots are Attica, China One, and Pump Room. Whoever refers to Singapore as boring or "stale", is either boring themselves or never knew who to hang with in Clarke Quay.
I'm a seafood fanatic who especially enjoys scarfing down anything that swims at the amazing restaurants and hawker centers throughout Thailand and the rest of South Asia. It was hard to choose, but the one single meal that I can't get out of my head was at the Seryna restaurant in Tokyo. I happened to be there on a business meeting, had some of the thinly sliced shabu-shabu beef, and it was love at the first taste. There was some kind of primal instinct that kicked in, and I ate like an animal that couldn't detect when it has had too much to eat. The menu has a solid variety of other options, including my favorite seafood dishes, but I didn't care because my drug of choice that night was shabu-shabu and so I voraciously tore into the beef and shoveled it in like Grog the Barbarian. Later I learned that many A list celebrities hailing from both the West and East frequent the place for the same dish that I consider as probably the best meal of my life.
The fights and equally furious betting will have you swiveling your head back-and-forth from the upper stands to the ring. A front row seat is cheap and while the boxing is fierce, the fighters obviously respect each other. Sadly the crap attractions like riding mistreated elephants, buying pirated shaky cam quality movies, or watching ping-pong shows get top billing for things to do in downtown Bangkok...Forget that nonsense, and stop in to check out the matches at either Rajadamnern or Lumpinee stadium.