Splendors for all: the best of Asia

by Jeff Kingston

It’s all subjective of course, but read on for this traveler’s picks of the places to go for (almost) anything you might choose to do in this splendiferous and ever-fascinating part of the world.

Best beach

Well, who would want to give it away — and last year’s paradise is ever at risk of becoming next year’s overrun oasis. Thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio, the search intensifies, but Thailand still boasts many of the best ones. Ko Tarutao is a good place to look, but if you really like to get away from it all, check out western Sumba.

Best snorkeling / diving

Bunaken Island off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia offers perhaps the most stunning coral, arrays of tropical fish and clear water in the region. The coastal reefs of East Timor are a worthy of an honorable mention.

Best reclining Buddha

There are certainly many contenders, but the 14-meter recumbent Buddha caved out of granite at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, is awe inspiring. This is one of the region’s most magnificent sacred sites, where full-moon ceremonies offer little in the way of contemplation, but much in terms of exuberant celebration.

Best one-day hiking

Bumthang in central Bhutan is surrounded by peaks and mountain monasteries that reward those able to battle the altitude and steep trails with exhilarating views and monastic retreats in idyllic settings seemingly untouched by the scourges of globalization.

Best lake

Lake Issyk Kul, at 1,600 meters in Kyrgyzstan, is a stunning and massive expanse of water with an alluring alpine backdrop of 4,000-meter snowcapped peaks. It is also a pleasant journey from Bishkek, the leafy capital. I have twice tried to see the renowned Keli Mutu crater lakes at 1,600 meters in Flores in eastern Indonesia, but on both occasions clouds prevented me viewing these multicolor wonders. However, if the postcards are to be believed, they are truly wondrous — but only slightly more so than Lake Maninjau in the Batak highlands of Sumatra.

Best sacred sites

Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Bagan (Burma) and Borobodur (Indonesia) are perhaps the grandest and most enthralling of Asia’s many sacred wonders, and shouldn’t be missed. Mrauk U in western Burma, despite some unfortunate restoration, and Aukana in Sri Lanka, are also magnificent.

Best Disney-like site

The Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is about as over the top as you can get, with elaborate interiors featuring the divine one-eye motif and a wedding-cake style of architecture. Adding to the spectacle, the faithful come in white robes and red hats. This syncretic religion draws on Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Best off-the-beaten-track locale

Sumba Island in eastern Indonesia is like a time machine where ancient traditions remain vibrant, especially in the west. The stone carvings and ikat weavings are the finest in the archipelago, although the roads have a lot to answer for. Surfers swear by its waves.

Best desert

The sandy Talamakan Desert (whose name means “go in and you’ll never come out”) stretches 1,000 km from Kashgar to Korla in Xinjiang, China, and boasts some of the most haunting desertscapes in Asia, with scenery reminiscent of Monument Valley straddling the Utah/Arizona state lines. There are timeless vistas of shepherds tending their flocks in this cold, weather-beaten zone inhabited by the Uighur, living lives seemingly untouched by the frantic pace of Han China.

Best opera house

In Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a wondrous structure built with Japanese POW labor exudes a faded grandeur with its high ceilings, massive chandeliers, gilded mirrors and marble stairways leading to a hall where the opulence obscures neither the neglect nor the amateurish productions.

Best outdoor theater

Prambanan in central Java, near Borobodur, where the staging of the “Ramayana” on full-moon nights with a cast of hundreds scampering about the lovely 10th-century ruin that serves as a stage is incomparable. Alas, since a recent earthquake, the site has been closed for repair, and alongside there is a large modern outdoor theater with cushioned seating that reminds you just how hard the stone benches were. Occasionally, there are cultural events at Angkor Wat that are nearly as magical.

Best aerie

Kelbourne Estates in Sri Lanka boasts three colonial-era bungalows with working fireplaces perched on a 1,000-meter cliff in the heart of undulating tea plantations, and with a view stretching to the distant ocean. This charming lodging near Haputale and Lipton’s Rock is not for those with acrophobia.

Best remote lodge

Though it’s operating under a ruthless military junta, Malikha Lodge in Putao (Fort Hertz in the British era), in the northern Burmese state of Kachin, is surrounded by jungle but features five-star facilities, fireplaces and superb views of mountains in this far-flung outpost. Travel in the area requires special permits, but also offers fine hiking and rafting.

Best meditation center

Well, who can really say, since it is all in the eye of the beholder, and it is all about a state of mind. However, the Pemayangtse monastery in Sikkim, India is certainly a wonderful place to meditate and get away from it all amid beautiful, remote mountains where numerous trekking opportunities beckon.

Best development agenda

Bhutan wins hands down, doing its utmost to slow globalization, and only recently allowing television and the Internet, while prioritizing Gross National Happiness — which includes banning cigarettes.

Best ancient capital

Luang Prabang is the alluring former capital of Laos nestled along the banks of the Mekong River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its ancient temples and French-colonial edifices are well preserved and renovated. It is a charming town, compact enough to walk around, but encouraging a languorous pace. It is captivating to watch the early morning procession of monks begging for alms, then later to attend the ceremonies at the temples. Occasional longboat races are wonderful spectacles, as exuberant spectators urge on their champions paddling brightly decorated boats. The waterfalls nearby are well worth visiting and are quite spectacular after a good rain. Stop by the atmospheric Ca Lao Hotel, a gorgeously restored colonial mansion, and enjoy some noodles or a drink on the terrace overlooking the Mekong.

Best house ornamentation

In Sumba, the dead are buried in swathes of ikat cloth in large stone coffins with beautifully carved lids right in front of the houses, while homes in Bali have their own altars for offerings to the gods, and there are similar adornments throughout the region. However, these all pale in comparison to the exuberant paintings that adorn houses throughout Bhutan. Of course it’s not to everyone’s taste, but if you like large (think a meter or two), brightly colored, sperm-spewing, vein-popping phalluses flanking the entrance (to ward off evil spirits), then you are in for a treat. Keep an eye out for regional variations.

Best fish market

The port of Sittwe in western Burma, formerly known as Akyab, is a lively, ramshackle and beguiling place soon to be modernized into yet another charmless depot. Early in the morning down near the docks, the fisherman display their abundant catches to the accompaniment of a cacophony of hawking and haggling. Boats pull up to the mudflats and boys carry baskets of fish to the pier and lounge around watching the frenetic commerce that fizzles down as the sun rises. Old ladies sit on their haunches smoking cheroots as they watch over baskets of dried fish, while young men gather around piles of glistening fish on the cement floor, sealing deals and getting the pulse of the feverish market and throngs of shoppers. Steering between the crowds, wiry men haul carts laden high with produce off to the neighborhood stalls. Its not quite Tsukiji, but it has a great vibe with a rich visual display and the smell of the sea never far away.

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