Planning for that future travel adventure?
This roundup of bucket list-worthy travel experiences is the ultimate checklist you may want to keep handy. While Covid is far from over and borders are still largely restricted, travel plans may be dashed…for now. With more people getting vaccinated, the future of cross-border travelling seems a little more hopeful. To help you plan for the ultimate travel getaway, we’ve listed down 20 must-try travel experiences in Asia worth putting on your bucket list.
1. Embark on an epic train journey from China to Russia using ancient caravan routes
There are plenty of epic train journeys around the world. But only in Asia can you ride from China to Russia, tracing the ancient caravan routes that used to transport tea to Europe. From Beijing, a Trans-Mongolian trip will take you past the Gobi Desert, Lake Baikal, and the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. With its range of landscapes and activities, the Trans-Mongolian is a train trip like no other.
2. Go big and scale the world’s largest mountain, Mount Everest
Everest hardly needs an introduction. While an attempt to ascend to its peak would be foolish for most of us, getting up to Everest Base Camp is achievable for most. You could hike to this legendary spot – which sits at 5,364 metres above sea level, but flying is also an option. Either way, you’ll get views of jaw-dropping panoramas of the Himalayas.
3. Visit Ulaanbaatar’s biggest sporting event
Alternatively, explore Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at its most vibrant during Naadam Festival, the country’s biggest sporting event, held in the National Sports Stadium every July. Drive to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park to gape at the Turtle Rock and 10-metre-tall, shiny steel Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. Or, splurge on a 10-day horse countryside trek – Stepperiders will take you past extinct volcanoes and Huvsgul Lake, and introduce you to a reindeer-herding family (from about $1,852 per person). For a true Mongolian experience, stay with a nomadic family in a ger, a round tent covered with animal skins. Book through eco-adventure company GER to GER.
4. Visit the Terracotta Army in Shaanxi, China
In the southern Chinese town of Xi’an lies one of the world’s most unique attractions. The Terracotta Army is a vast collection of some 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses (at last count), all created in the late third century BC and guarding the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first Qin Emperor. Fun fact: It’s also featured in the film The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) starring Brendan Fraser and Jet Li!
5. Freeze up in awe at the iconic Harbin Ice Festival in China
Harbin is infamous for its biting winters, but that simply makes it the best place for the iconic Harbin Ice Festival, the world’s biggest ice sculpture festival featuring life-sized ice buildings and slides and festival sports like ice rock-climbing and ice golf. Every December through February, millions of sparkly-eyed tourists brave the cold for this experience. And it gets even more spectacular after nightfall, with brightly illuminated sculptures adding a whole new dimension of magnificence.
6. Stay in a traditional Japanese inn
Ryokans have been part of Japan’s hospitality scene since the eighth century. At these traditional Japanese inns, guests sleep on mattresses laid out on tatami mats and feast on homey Japanese meals. Many even have access to onsens (hot spring baths). Popular favourites include Yoshimatsu, Gora Kadan and Kayotei.
7. Watch authentic sumo wrestling in Tokyo, Japan
To truly understand the history and traditions around sumo wrestling, head straight to Tokyo. The traditional home of the sport is Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium in Sumida, where you’ll join a crowd of 13,000 spectators, all there to watch authentic matches. For the full experience, visit in the morning to catch the wrestlers’ training sessions at their ‘stables’.
8. Experience a magical, sparkly winter at Kuwana City, Japan
Every January to March, winter illuminations captivatingly light up botanical park Nabana No Sato. While the vast flower gardens and giant greenhouses are a sight to behold by day, the night sees more than seven million LED lights running through the entire park grounds, creating gorgeous light scenes according to the year’s theme. Walk through the famous Tunnel Of Light, which completely envelops the reveller in a winding passage of sparkling lights.
9. Send your wishes up to the heavens at Taiwan’s Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival
Although the custom of releasing sky lanterns is observed elsewhere in Asia, the mountainous region of Pingxi, with its low light pollution in the sky, presents the sea of luminous lanterns more beautifully and distinctly. Write your well wishes and hopes on the paper lanterns and set it into the sky – symbolically sending them up to the heavens. The festival officially happens around March, at the beginning of the spring season as a prayer for the coming year.
10. Munch on some of Asia’s best street snacks at Taiwan’s largest night market
You haven’t seen night markets until you’ve been to Taiwan’s Shihlin Night Market, a dazzling maze of booths peddling street food, local and international merchandise, quirky trinkets, fashion items, and more. It’s also the largest night market in Taiwan! If nothing else, go there for the food, particularly the pepper pork buns, oyster omelettes, and, for the adventurous, stinky tofu. But if your kids are still little, hold tight, as it can get crowded – but that’s only testament to how amazing the market is!
11. Get a taste of heritage in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap’s Buddhist temple – Angkor Wat – is the largest religious monument in the world; it is also one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. It’s one of the most beautiful too, an experience worth adding to your travel bucket list. From its imposing grandeur down to each little detail carved in its walls, pictures do it no justice and you have to see it for yourself. You’ll easily find tour guides around the temple who can fill you in on the rich history behind the temple for a small fee. While in Siem Reap, explore the smaller temples and monuments as well, each brimming with its own history.
12. Retreat back to nature in Bali, Indonesia
If you’re amazed at how much rice the people of Asia eat as a staple in their diet, what’s even more amazing is where the rice comes from. Cue the stunning rice terraces in Bali. Retreat back to nature and take some time to appreciate the sublime beauty of nature that can’t be encompassed in pixels on a digital screen. Want to kick back and relax? We haven’t forgotten Bali’s beaches either, obviously!
13. Go island-hopping in the less-trodden area of Langkawi, Malaysia
Known as the Jewel of Kedah, the 99 islands that make up the Langkawi archipelago are the perfect base for island hopping, with impressive rock formations surrounded by powder-white beaches, ancient jungle, vast caves, wildlife, and waterfalls. This luxury yacht excursion sets sail from Langkawi to explore the outlying islands and nearby beaches, with a delicious barbecue lunch served onboard, complete with unlimited complimentary drinks.
14. Be enchanted by Bagan, Myanmar from above – in a hot air balloon!
Tourism to Bagan wasn’t possible until only recently, after a long travel boycott was finally lifted. This charming ancient city is home to more than 2,000 majestic temples and pagodas that stretch across the land. Most are amazingly preserved or have been restored by UNESCO, while the ruins sport their own kind of other-worldly beauty. Marvel at them from above in what’ll be the hot air balloon ride of your lifetime! Pro tip: Infrastructure may be a little poor, so either plan comprehensively or book a tour package.
**Note: Myanmar is a beautiful country with rich culture and history. However, given the recent socio-political climate in Myanmar, it is strongly advise to put off your travels here for safety concerns.
15. Visit a village in Luzon, Philippines to experience the native way of life
Experience out-of-city life like no other and add the Philippines to your travel bucket list. The Ifugao mountain people in Luzon, Philippines celebrate abundance and good harvest every April during what they call the Imbayah Festival, which tourists can attend. The festival begins with a ritual opening and street parade, after which the Ifugao, donning full ethnic costumes, participate in cultural activities, traditional games like tug-of-war and wooden scooter races and more. It’s quite a sight to behold!
16. Revel in the beauty of Chiang Mai, Thailand in another hot air balloon ride!
The beauty of northern Thailand is best experienced from the skies, with a hot air balloon ride for breath-taking vistas above the treetops. Nestled among the forested foothills of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains, colourful hill tribes and lush green rainforest. You can even book a private tour here. This private one-hour experience for two starts just as the sun begins to rise with a hot air balloon that gracefully drifts above the countryside for stunning panoramic views as far as the eye can see. The tour is finished off with a picnic-style breakfast and a glass of bubbly for the perfect start to a day.
17. Celebrate Songkran (a.k.a. Water Festival) in Thailand
Traditionally, Songkran is about seeking blessings from your elders and performing Buddhist merit-making rituals. These days, the Thai New Year has morphed into a fun-filled festival celebrated with spirited water fights. Join the action at Bangkok’s Kao Sahn Road or Chiang Mai’s Thapae Gate.
18. Explore the world’s largest cave in Vietnam
Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong is said to be the largest cave system in the world. Hidden in Phang Nha Ke Beng National Park, this cave was discovered in 1990, and visits are strictly limited for preservation. Local company Oxalis runs sustainable expeditions where you’ll embark on a tough two-day trek through dense jungle – overnighting at Hang En, the world’s third-largest cave – before spending two nights exploring Hang Son Doong.
19. Visit the world’s happiest – and first carbon-neutral – country, Bhutan!
Tucked between Chin and India, Bhutan is now a hot travel destination. (It gained serious exposure when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited in 2016!) There’s plenty to love here, including Himalayan hiking trails, iconic ‘dzong’ temples, snow-capped mountains, and surprising local cuisine. But this is also one of the world’s happiest countries, and the world’s first carbon-neutral country (you won’t find any traffic lights here).
20. Sing and dance at the Holi Festival of Colours in New Delhi, India
In this joyous celebration popular in and outside India, the ancient Hindu spring festival sees families, friends and strangers chase and adorn each other with brightly coloured powder or water in the streets. Join in the singing and dancing during the bonfire and share Holi delicacies such as Gujiya, a traditional sweet pastry with dry fruits, with the locals.
Text adapted from Pinky Chng, Gayatri Bhuamik, The Straits Times and The Peak + Additional Reporting by Willaine G. Tan / Images: Attributed to respective sources + 123RF.com.