Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Viator Travel Awards, an annual awards competition where we – along with our readers, travelers, and fans – select the top things to do and see in each of the major regions we serve, the top things to do in our most popular tour categories, and more.
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Welcome to the 2012 Viator Travel Awards: Asia Edition! In the past, we’ve focused on specific tours for each item on this list, but this year we thought we’d feature some of the top 25 things to do in the most exciting places to visit in Asia.
As the world’s largest and most populous continent, with more than 50 countries spread across six distinct regions, Asia offers a wealth of experiences. The cultural, geographical and ethnic diversity that exists within Asia ensures travelers with varied interests and levels of experience will find something to cross off their bucket list.
The tours and activities highlighted are chosen based on traveler reviews, data from the millions of people who check out Viator.com during the year, and information on which tours in the region travelers book most often. We think you’ll enjoy reading about the array of activities available in each of these places – it’s the little mental vacation we could all use right now – and we also think this list is a great place to start if you’re planning a trip to the Asian continent in 2013. Join us for this tour of the Top 25 Things to Do in Asia!
1. See majestic Mt Fuji
Snow-capped Mt Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain, has been worshipped by the devout and immortalized in works of art for centuries. It’s no wonder, as the near-perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone stands out from the surrounding landscape and can even be seen from Tokyo on a clear day. Peak-baggers from around the world flock to Mt Fuji during its short climbing season to summit the 12,388-foot (3776-meter) peak.
A visit to Mt Fuji is one of the most popular day trip options from Tokyo. Enjoy a picturesque drive up to the mountain’s fifth station, a cruise on Lake Ashi to see the mountain from afar and a ride on the Mt Komagatake aerial cableway for sweeping views over Hakone National Park via motor coach or bullet train. For a true escape from the big city, take a 2-day Mt Fuji tour, allowing for an evening soak in the Hakone onsen hot springs and a day to explore the national park at your leisure.
2. Learn about Japanese culture in Tokyo
Tokyo is unique among Asia’s major cities in that its modern culture is just as fascinating and different from its ancient culture. You can stroll through ancient temples and palaces in the morning and spend an afternoon watching the costumed youth shopping the boutiques of Harajuku.
If your time in Tokyo is limited, a Tokyo Tower, Tea Ceremony and Sumida River Cruise Day Tour packs in all the city’s best sights and experiences, including temples, palaces and shopping streets. If you’re like many travelers who come to Japan for the food, take a tour of the Tsukiji Fish Market followed by a sushi-making class where you can dine on our own creations. For an experience truly unique to Japan, attend a Tokyo Sumo Wrestling tournament complete with English audio commentary to help you understand the complex ceremonies involved in this traditional Japanese pastime.
3. Take a trip on the bullet train in Japan
It’s hard to beat Japan’s transportation system when it comes to comfort and convenience, and no visit would be complete without at least one ride on the Shinkansen Bullet Train. Sit back as the sleek, duck-nosed train shoots you across the countryside at speeds topping 180 miles (290 kilometers) per hour. No other form of transportation lets you see multiple cities in a single day without all the hassle of an airport.
From your base in Tokyo, you can experience the charms of Kyoto in a single day on quick Kyoto Rail Tour. If you have a little more time, the Shinkansen Bullet Train can take you on a Kyoto and Nara 2- or 3-day tour from Tokyo or a 3-day tour of Mt Fuji, Kyoto and Nara. No matter which option you choose, you’ll get a glimpse of life in the Japanese countryside and, if you’re lucky, spot Mt Fuji from the train window on a clear day.
4. Tour the floating markets and temples of Bangkok
Thanks to the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok has gained the nickname Venice of the East. Once you experience the charming temples, markets and palace complexes located along the river of Thailand’s capital city, you’ll soon see why. While Bangkok has largely modernized, life along the river has maintained a sense of rural, traditional life, and a river trip should be at the center of any Bangkok itinerary.
Learn about Thailand’s religious and cultural history on a tour of Thailand’s Ayutthaya Temples, a series of ruins and intact structures that once served as the capital of Siam. Another day trip will take you on a cruise of the Floating Markets of Damneon Saduak, where you’ll weave between stilted houses past vendors selling fresh exotic produce from canoes. For a history lesson without even leaving Bangkok, consider a tour of the Grand Palace Complex, once the home of Siam’s monarchs, and Wat Phra Keow (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). To see what daily life is like for Bangkok’s locals — and to fully appreciate the city’s nickname — cruise Bangkok’s canals before visiting the Grand Palace.
5. Explore the Thai Islands
For many, a mention of Thailand brings to mind clear waters gently lapping at white-sand beaches — an image fit for a calendar or postcard. Luckily, these imaginings are pretty close to the real thing. Thailand has been blessed with some of the most beautiful islands and beaches on the planet, all easily accessible from Phuket. Whether you’re looking for luxury, serenity or wild abandon under a full moon, the Thai Islands have it.
Ko Phi Phi, the location where the movie The Beach was filmed, tops the list of the most beautiful islands in the region, and you can see it for yourself with a trip to the Phi Phi Islands by speedboat from Phuket. Those who prefer the more easy-going atmosphere than Phuket to serve as a base of exploration can also tour the Phi Phi Islands by speedboat from Krabi, allowing for even more in the sun, sand and sea. For a little sandy seclusion, head out of Phuket on a tour of Phang Nga Bay, where you’ll see iconic James Bond Island, dine at a local floating village and have time to swim and relax on a secluded beach.
6. Get up-close with elephants in Thailand
The majestic elephant is a symbol of Thai royalty, and there’s no sensation quite like riding on top of one of these graceful animals. Whether you’re based in Bangkok or in the northern city of Chiang Mai, an up-close encounter with elephants deserves a prominent place on your must-do list.
From Bangkok, take a day trip to Khao Yai National Park for a trek through the jungle on the back of an elephant as you search for wild black bears, tigers and leopards and sample exotic Thai fruits. Just outside of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand sits Chiang Dao Elephant Camp on the banks of the Ping River. From here you can trek to a remote Lisu hilltribe village before rafting down the Ping River.
7. Explore Asia’s world city of Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s mix of ancient Chinese customs, British colonialism and modern business make it an international city like no other. Besides having one of the most stunning skylines on earth, the city is a dream for foodies, museum-buffs, shoppers and nature lovers.
In a single half-day tour, you can gaze at the world-famous skyline from Victoria Peak, stroll through a traditional Chinese floating fishing village and bargain shop at Stanley Market. In the evening, take in the sights of lit-up Hong Kong and Kowloon on a sunset cruise with dinner at the city’s famous floating restaurant. For a taste of Hong Kong’s British heritage, place your bets on a horse race at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Happy Valley.
Hong Kong also makes a perfect base for day trips to nearby Macau and mainland China. Macau, a former Portuguese colony, has become Asia’s answer to Las Vegas but with five times the revenue flowing through each year. Sip on sangria, dine on world class Portuguese cuisine and try your luck at some of the world’s biggest casinos. Alternately, take a day trip to nearby Guangzhou to see some of China’s most iconic sights.
8. See Singapore by night
Singapore’s collection of ethnic enclaves and mega-malls make it a great destination anytime, but the city truly comes to life at night. When the sun goes down after a day full of shopping on Orchard Road, exploring the temples of Chinatown, munching on street food in Little India or lazing on the beaches of Sentosa Island, the real action is only just getting started.
Singapore is home to the world’s first nighttime zoo safari, where an open tram takes you through the tropical jungle adjoining the Singapore Zoo for a unique opportunity to witness nocturnal animals in their natural habitats. Learn about Singapore’s Chinese history with a tour of Chinatown at night. You’ll dine under the light of red paper lanterns and ride a trishaw through the bustling Night Market. For the best views of the Singapore skyline, enjoy a dinner aboard the Singapore Flyer, the tallest observation wheel on earth. You’ll have 360-degree views over the course of 60 minutes or two rotations.
9. Cruise the waterways of Zhouzhuang in China
The water villages surrounding Shanghai have been dubbed by some travelers as the Venice of the East. Zhouzhuang is the oldest of these villages, known for its ancient residential houses, meandering waterways and picturesque stone bridges, all dating back more than 900 years. Local villagers still live traditionally, using these waterways for everyday activities like shopping and laundry, and the best way to witness this rural way of life is by cruising on a Chinese-style gondola.
You can easily visit Zhouzhuang and the world-famous gardens of nearby Suzhou on a day trip from Shanghai. Besides cruising the waterways, you’ll get tour a silk-spinning factory where Chinese silk has been produced since the fourteenth century. For a quieter, more subdued water village experience — or for those pressed on time — visit the Zhujiajiao Water Village in a half-day trip. With Shanghai as your travel hub, you can cruise the waterways one day and visit Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors the next with a day trip by air.
10. Visit the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an
Xi’an developed as a major military and trading post along the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty, but it’s most famous attraction wasn’t discovered until 1974 when a local farmer unknowingly uncovered a collection of ancient terracotta sculptures dating back to the third century BC. The thousands of Terracotta Warriors have become one of China’s best attractions.
You don’t actually have to stay in Xi’an to include a visit to the Terracotta Warriors in your itinerary; you can make a day trip by air from Shanghai that includes visits to the Warriors as well as Xi’an’s impressive Ming Dynasty city walls. Should you decide to spend a night or two in Xi’an, you’ll have the option of taking a more leisurely city tour of the Warriors with a stop at the 6,000 year-old Banpo ruins.
11. Hold a baby panda in Chengdu
China’s Giant Pandas are famous around the world, and while you can see them in many zoos in big cities across the globe, your best shot at seeing an adorable baby panda or two is at the Panda Breeding Center in Chengdu. Often, visitors can see pandas ranging in age from a few days old to full grown adults, and those so inclined can have a photo op with one of the young bears.
It only takes a half-day to tour the Chengdu Panda Breeding Center, where you’ll see baby and adult pandas as well as red pandas. For an extra fee, you can hold a baby panda in your lap and have your photo taken to remind you of your trip.
12. Walk on the Great Wall
The Great Wall might very well be China’s most recognizable landmark and a must on any Beijing itinerary. The wall was originally constructed over 2,000 years ago Dring the Ming Dynasty to protect against invaders from the north. While the wall stretches over 5,000 miles (almost 9,000 kilometers), you can access and climb several sections on a day trip from Beijing.
See the New Wonder of the World from the ground and the sky with a private walking and helicopter tour where you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the wall that few people ever see. Visit the resorted Mutianyu section of the wall on a small group tour for the chance to ride a toboggan down the wall or experience it from a cable car, or you can combine visits to the Great Wall and Ming Tombs in a day tour from Beijing. If you have limited time in China’s capital, hit all the major sites, including the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in a Beijing Essential Full-Day Tour.
13. Sample Peking Duck in Beijing
Each region of China has its own unique cuisine, and Beijing is no exception. The city’s most famous dish both in China and abroad is Peking duck, a meal that every traveler should experience while in China. Cooking the duck is a two-day event, as air must be pumped beneath the skin to make it crispy during the roasting process and the meat gets marinated in a sweet glaze for a full 24 hours. The resulting meat and skin are served with tortilla-like rice paper wraps, hoisin sauce, cucumbers and green onions.
While a few Peking duck restaurants have English menus, it’s much easier — and more fun — to combine your duck dinner with a Beijing Acrobatic show with a guide who can explain the intricacies of China’s national dish. If martial arts are more your cup of tea, combine your dinner with a tea ceremony and Kung Fu show.
Eating Peking duck in Beijing is a must, but you don’t have to be staying in Beijing to do it. Travelers further south can experience the best of Beijing in a day trip by air from Shanghai.
14. See the sights of Taiwan
The Portuguese sailors who were the first to set foot on the island of Taiwan dubbed it “Beautiful Island,” and the name is well-deserved. This small country packs a big punch when it comes to things to see and do. The island and its capital city of Taipei offer lush mountains, relaxing hot springs, succulent street food, picturesque beaches and a treasure trove of temples, monuments and museums.
It would be a shame to rush the Taiwan experience, but in a pinch, you can see the major sights of Taipei, such as the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall and National Palace Museum, in a half-day city tour. If you have a full day to spare, you can see one of the seven wonders of Asia for yourself: the Taroko Gorge and its beautiful marble cliffs. To experience a variety of Taiwan’s natural and cultural wonders, take a four-day journey through Taipei, Tainan, Kenting National Park, Taroko Gorge and Puli, or a more leisurely five-day island tour by coach.
15. Enjoy the high and low dining in Kuala Lumpur
In Kuala Lumpur, traditional Malaysian culture lives on under the shadows of ultramodern skyscrapers, and nowhere else is the contrast between old and new more apparent than in the food. In a single day, you could be dining on fiery hawker stall noodles or Michelin-starred fare.
Food offers one of the most easily accessible insights into a local culture, so get to know Malaysia with a small group foodie tour of Kuala Lumpur’s markets and hawker centers. If you find modern Malaysia more to your liking, book a dinner at the KL Tower Revolving Restaurant and dine with a panoramic view from the top of the country’s tallest building.
16. Cruise on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay
In Vietnam’s mysterious Halong Bay, more than 3,000 limestone karsts jut out from the emerald green waters to create one of the most dramatic natural settings on Earth. Halong Bay has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994 and still draws visitors to its spectacular scenery. Traditional junk boats ply the waters each day, ferrying visitors to the beaches, caves and floating villages hiding amid the karst forest.
From Hanoi, you can spend the day cruising through the rock formations on a Halong Bay small group tour, but to really appreciate this natural wonder and explore the waters away from the heavy tourist traffic, take an overnight junk boat cruise; you won’t regret the extra time when you wake up to the eerily quiet, misty scenery.
17. See Saigon from another point of view
Life in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s commonly called, moves at a breakneck pace. This commercial capital of Vietnam has grown into a busy, modern metropolis in the years since the end of the Vietnam War, yet you’ll still find vestiges of its turbulent past at attractions like Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.
It’s not uncommon to see cars around the city, as they’ve become a favored form of transportation, but if you really want to travel like a local, you have two options: cyclo or boat. Immerse yourself in Saigon’s vibrant street life on a cyclo adventure tour of the city, with a shopping stop at Ben Thanh Market where you can haggle for all sorts of foods and souvenirs. When the sun goes down, see Ho Chi Minh light up on a luxury dinner cruise on Saigon River.
18. Explore the Golden Triangle in India
The three most popular sites in India — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — make up what’s called the Golden Triangle, and travelers from around the world follow this path through opulent palaces, imposing forts, sprawling street markets and iconic monuments.
From Delhi, you can trace the Golden Triangle on a four-day tour of Agra and Jaipur. Feast your eyes on the majestic Taj Mahal and stand in the room where Shah Jahan was later imprisoned at Agra Fort. Wander the palaces, forts and markets of Jaipur, Rajasthan’s “Pink City,” before returning to Delhi. Travelers with limited time can still see Agra and the Taj Mahal on a day trip or Jaipur on an overnight tour from Delhi.
19. See Old and New Delhi
Delhi, capital of India and home to more than 14 million people, is a multidimensional city dotted with British imperial monuments, medieval style street bazaars, ancient temples and mosques, high end boutiques and world-class museums. It’s a cultural melting pot like nowhere else, divided into two very different areas, Old and New Delhi.
Old Delhi was once the capital city of Islamic India, and it is here that you’ll find some of the best markets and monuments, including the Red Fort. New Delhi, largely built during the time of the British Raj, teems with hip cafes and British colonial monuments. Experience both sides of this international capital with a private day tour or customized day tour with a guide who can fill you in on the city’s fascinating history. Dive deeper into the local culture cooking and eating with a local family, or learn about India’s deeply rooted religious traditions with a Delhi Temple Tour.
20. Understand Balinese culture
Most people probably know Bali for its beaches; they have a well-deserved reputation for being rather beautiful. But there’s more to this Indonesian island than sun and sand. Bali stands apart from the rest of the Indonesian Islands as the only one that’s predominantly Hindu instead of Muslim, and the Balinese people are best known for their dramatic dance and works of art.
Experience the island’s cultural heritage on a private tour through small artists’ villages, archeological museums and terraced plantations along the banks of glassy Lake Batur. Ubud in central Bali has become the island’s cultural center. Explore it, along with Kintamani Volcano and an evening Barong Dance performance on a full-day Bali tour. After a day of sightseeing around the island, sit back and watch three of Bali’s traditional dances — the Kecak Dance, Fire Dance and Sanghyang Dance — as part of an evening dance tour.
21. Relax on the beaches of Bali
After a single sunset viewed from the golden sands of a Bali beach and you’ll understand why this Indonesian island is often referred to as paradise. Whether you prefer relaxing in the sand with a cocktail and a good book, hang ten in the legendary surf or dolphin-watch on sleepy stretch of black sand, Bali’s got a beach or you.
If the crowds of backpackers and locals on Bali’s southside beaches are cramping your style, you’ll find a blissfully quiet bit of white sand real estate on the tiny island of Lembongan just of the coast of Bali. Take a Beach Club day trip to Lembongan and enjoy the sun, sand, lagoon pool and water sports equipment. Bali’s legendary sunsets rank among the best in the world. Watch one in style aboard a sunset dinner cruise through Bali’s Benoa Harbour with live entertainment and sumptuous seafood offerings.
22. Explore the ancient temples of Angkor
The name Angkor Wat means “Temple City,” and the complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples just outside of Cambodia’s Siem Reap is the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat and the rest of the Angkor ruins date back thousands of years and were eventually abandoned and forgotten, gradually reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. The ruins weren’t to be rediscovered until 1850, when a French naturalist on expedition in Cambodia “rediscovered” the site.
A visit to the ancient Khmer capital city is the reason most travelers come to Cambodia in the first place. Delve into the history of Angkor with a private tour of Angkor Wat and the Royal Temples of Bayon and Angkor Thom. Alternatively, see the Roluos Temples, some of the oldest in the Angkor complex, on a full-day Angkor Wat Ancient Temples tour. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed at the jungle temple of Ta Prohm; see it as well as Bayon and Angkor Wat on a small group day tour, or get off the beaten track with a bicycle excursion through rural villages to the Ruluos Temples.
23. Understand the horrors of war at the Killing Fields
Most people in the West are familiar with the Vietnam War thanks to the heavy US involvement, but fewer people know about the equally horrifying atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge during Cambodia’s Civil War. The conflict lasted over four years, and by the end of it, an estimated 3 million people — about a fifth of Cambodian’s population — had been wiped out by their own government.
The communist party in power at the time rounded up anyone with connections to the old government, professionals or anyone wearing glasses, artists, urban dwellers and ethnic Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese minorities and shipped them off to prison camps. Many were paraded to fields outside Phnom Penh where they were executing and buried in mass graves.
Before heading up to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat, take a day to reflect on the horrors of war at the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, then tour Phnom Penh to see just how drastically the country has changed in just a few short decades.
24. Get a taste of Seoul
Seoul, the capital of South Korea, often gets overlooked as a travel destination in favor of neighboring China or Japan. It’s a shame, because Seoul is a traveler’s heaven, offering a multitude of experiences in a city that seamlessly blends history, tradition and modern pop culture. Lavish palaces, quaint tea shops, world-class art galleries, ancient temples and fiery cuisine reward those who make their way to this isolated nation.
Take a walking tour of Seoul’s art markets, tea shops and temples, plus Cheonggyecheon Plaza, Jongno, Jogyesa Buddhist Temple and Insa-dong to experience the soul of Seoul. You can gain fascinating insights into Korea’s rich history with a half-day tour of Seoul’s historic houses, palaces and markets.
You can’t come to Seoul without sampling Korean cuisine. Koreans love to eat, and some of the best street vendors set up shop at night. Join a small-group night food tour to taste everything from Korean barbecue and savory pancakes to spicy fried chicken or braised tofu. If you want to bring the taste of Seoul home with you, sign up for a Korean cooking class and learn to make some of your new favorite dishes.
25. Explore modern Manila
Most travelers to Manila never step foot outside the airport; they simply use the city as a stepping stone to get to the beaches of the Philippines islands. They’re missing out, because the Filipino capital city offers a rich cultural experience you won’t find on the smaller islands, including the world’s oldest Chinatown and a well-preserved collection of Spanish colonial churches.
See the contrast of Old and New Manila on a sightseeing tour of the city. You’ll learn about the Spanish colonial days and see some of the city’s most impressive architectural sights, like the Baroque San Agustin Church and the old Spanish Santiago Fortress. If you’re on a budget, combine your Manila tour with a visit to the picturesque village of Tagaytay with its panoramic views of nearby Taal Lake and Taal Volcano. End your stay in this colorful city with a sunset dinner cruise on Manila Bay, where you’ll be treated to live Filipino music and traditional Filipino dishes.
- Viator Travel Team