Quirky, camp, cool – call it what you will, Japanese culture is one of the most fascinating and best-preserved cultures in the world. Their incredible tours and temples tell a chequered historical tale, but you only need look at the locals in today’s Japan – preparing tea, wrapping a gift, making sushi – to really immerse yourself in their ritualistic and beautifully considered devotion to tradition.
Tradition abounds globally – British default is to have a cup of tea when the proverbial hits the fan – but Asia’s plethora of ethnicities and links to spirituality make its customs extraordinary. You can explore the Silk Road’s melting pot of ancient and modern culture, pick tea at a traditional plantation in rural China, or stay with some of east India’s oldest tribal communities – the options are endless.
Famed for beautiful beaches, boats and homestays, many people haven’t a clue that Kerala exists beyond its backwaters, but head north to Malabar and India’s southern tip is even prettier. Stay south and hike freely through the spectacular Western Ghats Mountains, or grab a bike – a few hours out of town and you’ll be pedalling peacefully through spice and coconut plantations.
An intriguing story of historical trading from the mystical East to the enraptured West, a journey along the Silk Road is evocative and then some. Its architecture is a huge collection of bright azure mosques defined by intricate hand-painted porcelain; its people, from the sun-soaked elderly to modern merchants, are truly charming; and its tale becomes more fascinating the further you go.
Excepting Mongolia (sorry, Mongolia, it’s not you, it’s the abundant, but limited range of preserved milk products), Asian food is exceptional. Spicy, salty, sweet and sour all at once, Indochina brings fragrant rice and noodle dishes to the table; China and Japan, weird and wonderful street food; and then India, the king of constantly evolving cuisine, where each region does each dish differently.
We say China, you say Great Wall. They’re synonymous – and rightly so. Winding its way 21,000km along an undulating east-west line, the Wall represents engineering at its finest and a culture at its most isolated. The further you wander from Beijing, the less crowded it becomes; to stand and contemplate northern China’s mountainside from atop a fortification is a feeling like no other.
The Himalayas: 40 million years old, the world’s highest mountain range, and an area 10 times the size of France that spans India, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and Pakistan. Wherever you hike, walk, or simply stand and watch, you will be blown away, but northern Nepal’s Himalayan belt, home to the Annapurnas, Manaslu and Everest to name but three, is the undisputed jewel in this colossal crown.
First things first, Indochina is a group of four Asian countries – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia – all rolled into one chaotic, crumbling, modern, ancient package. Thailand’s hill tribes will surprise you, Laos is utterly unspoilt, Vietnam is frenetic and friendly, and Cambodia is so much more than temples; you can explore them all over a month long adventure of river, road and rail.
Elephants used for riding are not and never have been domesticated; they are captive, wild animals that, sadly, have been broken in and controlled in order to be around humans, a process that can be horrifically cruel. Elephant trekking may seem like a quintessential Asian experience, but its not helping the elephant. Give it a miss and try elephant conservation work instead – or visit one of the superb elephant sanctuaries.
Sadly, many vulnerable children across countries including Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal have become a commodity. The number of orphanages there has risen, not according to a rise in orphans, but in line with the number of tourists that visit, and orphanage volunteering only exacerbates the situation. Read more about this deep and detailed issue in our guide to volunteering with children.
The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi is very popular with tourists for all of the wrong reasons. Over a hundred tigers spend most of their time chained up in stark enclosures in 40 degree heat, as tourists pose with them for photos. Worse – there are suggestions of illegal breeding programmes taking place for cash, not conservation, and a number of wildlife organisations have called for its closure. Not cool. Not cool at all.
Asia is home to some of the world’s most desirable beaches – all clean, white sand and iridescent sea – but with that beauty comes a price and that price is sprawling, soulless resorts and littering lager louts (*cough* Kuta *cough*). Not everywhere though – seek and you will find paradise, but don’t add to the swathes of unimaginative masses by opting for the obvious choices.