It’s difficult to condense a year of traveling into a top ten (believe us, this took a lot of discussion). However, if you’re planning a trip to Asia, here’s the top ten experiences we’d suggest you add to your itinerary.
1. Hunting for Dragons – Komodo, Indonesia
Visiting Komodo isn’t for the faint hearted. It’s inhabitants (and main attraction) grow up to 3 metres long, can run at 20 kms per hour and could break your leg at the swing of a tail. However, the opportunity to see the Komodo Dragon is like stepping back in time to when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
The best way to see the dragons is by hiking around Komodo and/or Rinca. There are a couple of tracks to choose from depending on how far you want to walk. We chose the longest (2.5hrs) and though we saw more dragons around the kitchen huts at the visitor centre area than on the hike, the island is absolutely stunning, a beautiful walk in itself.
You must hike with a guide and bear in mind they are only equipped with a stick to protect you (our guide was also a work experience student, not quite the answer we were expecting when we asked how long he had been working there for!). There are a few grizzly stories about dragon attacks but we found that for the most part the dragons didn't seem too concerned about us, even when we saw a mother guarding her nest.
Komodo National Park offers a lot more than just the dragons. To see the islands most people stay onboard a boat for a couple of days and enjoy the incredible snorkeling / diving (if you’re lucky you’ll also see Manta Rays) as well as the beautiful islands. It’s a great opportunity to get away to a part of Indonesia that’s far away from the crowds of Bali, Java and Lombok.
Do: Hike, spot dragons, snorkel and bask in the scenery
Don’t: Expect to walk with a guide armed with anything more than a stick.
2. Escaping civilization – The Philippines
We heard a few stories about The Philippines before we arrived and it seemed to have a slightly edgier reputation than most of the rest of South East Asia. In our three months there we were shown nothing but kindness and incredible hospitality. Filipinos were definitely some of the friendliest people we have ever met.
The highlight of our stay was the incredible rice terraces of Batad. A long and windy bus from Manila brings you to the Cordillera, a region known for it's incredible scenery. Batad is a beautiful pocket of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of Asia, an area cut off from roads and vehicles.
Hiking is the only way to get there. Once there you will see an amphitheatre of rice terraces and be able to experience them in complete silence: how often can you say that in Asia?!
Do: Give yourself time to take in the amazing scenery. The last thing you want is to hike the whole way to find you have to turn around to get the jeepney back. If you have the time, take a side trip to Sagada and the incredible hanging coffins.
Don’t: Expect 5 star accommodation. Our hotel didn’t even have plugs in the room as it was deemed a fire hazard! Get those cameras charged ahead of time.
3. Exploring rural Thailand - Cave Lodge
Everyone knows the stereotypical image of Thailand: beaches, full moon parties, Chiang Mai, elephants etc. However, not many make it to the border with Myanmar and we’d argue it's one of the best parts.
Mae Hong Son is a few hours away from the cute little mountain town of Pai, but offers a much more rural side to Thailand (you won't find tour buses here). It’s the perfect place to see a more authentic side of Thailand.
Cave Lodge was set up as a base for exploring the surrounding wilderness and has the perfect mix of feeling remote but with amenities. As well as several caves to explore (some require crawling through tiny passageways on your stomach), there’s hikes and kayaking. The walks involve quite a lot of up and down on slippy track so if you're a bit unsteady on your feet take poles.
Do: Find the swallow cave that's just a 10 minute walk from the lodge and wait until dusk. Then you’ll see the sight of swallows coming back into the cave while the bats go out. Quite a spectacular sight but watch the guano!
Don’t: Take on the cave tours if you’re claustrophobic. Many of the caves we visited could only be visited by sliding through tiny tunnels and streams on your stomach.
4. Beautiful rooftop hopping - Udaipur, India
There are few places in the world like Udaipur. In the heart of Rajahsthan, it’s beautiful city crafted around a lake in the middle of the desert. It’s peace and tranquility is a million miles away from the usual bustle and human crush found in the majority of cities in India.
The city is full of rooptop restaurants and cafes (many have a strange obsession with showing Octopussy - mainly because Udaipur features in it), presenting the perfect place to relax and watch the World go by. Head to the lake to catch one of those beautiful Indian sunsets.
Stay: Splash the cash and go for the Taj Palace in the middle of the lake. You only live once.
Do: Slow down the pace on a rooftop terrace. Preferably with an ice cold drink. Or back at ground level try Pap's juices, the pomegranate and mint flavour was our fave!
Don’t: Be one of those people watching Octopussy. You didn’t go to Rajasthan to watch 80s Bond movies! Or maybe you did, we don't judge!
5. Going back in time - Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike, Myanmar
Myanmar is one of our favourite countries in Asia. The people are incredibly friendly and you can easily spend a lot of your time sipping fresh green tea and sharing tofu crackers with a local family who just happened to see you walking past and invited you in. The men wear longyis (a sheet of cloth wrapped around like a sarong) and the women wear thanaka (a yellowish paste worn as make up and believed to protect them from the sun).
One of the greatest experiences of the year was the 2 day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake. The trail winds through the Burmese countryside where people carry out a lifestyle that looks like it's barely changed for decades. We stayed in huts of local villagers (nothing was arranged, our guides simply asked around for who had any space) and were served a feast of local food every night. it was incredible to see what came out of a tiny one pot kitchen!
Do: Go with a local guide who will teach you about local customs, the flora and fauna in the area.
Don’t: Seek out the jumping cat temple in Inle Lake. The cats don't jump anymore, we never could quite work out what happened!
6. Waking up to the Himalayas – Nagarkot, Nepal
Not all of us are Edmund Hillary, so rather than climb some of the World's highest mountains why not settle for second best and take in the view instead. Nagarakot offers the best views of the Himalayas within a short distance of Kathmandu, boasting vast panoramic views of snow capped peaks on the Roof of the World.
There's nothing quite like watching the sunrise over the Himalayas, walking out in the crisp early morning air to take in the view of Everest from your balcony. There's plenty of places to stay with most offering a private balcony overlooking what has to be one of the best views on Earth.
Stay: Hotel Green Valley. It wasn’t finished when we visited, but it offered the best view in town.
Do: Hunt out a hotel with a view and make the effort to get up for sunrise. It may be freezing, but the clear view of the Himalayas (including Everest) is worth the effort.
Don’t: Forget to bring warm clothes. It’s pretty cold up there, even in the hotel rooms which aren't heated.
7. Seeing the less visited parts of Angkor - Siem Reap, Cambodia
Visiting Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm can be a battle with the crowds. They are all magnificent buildings, but you’ll be lucky if you’re sharing it with less than 50 people.
The best experience we had was on a photography tour operated by Peace of Angkor Tours. Not only did they offer expert advice on photography, but they took us to the lesser known temples at Angkor.
With a little effort, you can see incredible temples that are slowly being reclaimed by the jungles and you'll likely have them all to yourself. A favourite was Preah Khan, a huge place with incredible architecture, not to be missed. We’d strongly recommend Phom Ba (for temples on the top of a mountain with trees growing out the top), Banteay Samre, Ta Noi (for a relatively intact temple but within the jungle), and Banteay Srei.
Do: Buy the 3 day pass to ensure you can do as many as possible. Hang around until closing time and offer the guards a tip, you might just get as lucky as we were, an extra hour in the main temples, all to ourselves.
Don’t: Expect to have sun rise all to yourself at Angkor Wat. Manage your expectations and you can still appreciate it for what it is.
8. Hiking in the clouds – Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
The Cameron Highlands is an outdoor mecca in the middle of Malaysia, presenting some of the most accessible hiking trails in South-East Asia. It’s also a very welcome break from the intense heat and humidity of the lowlands.
There’s plenty of trails that vary in difficulty and some also include stops at the famous tea plantations in the area. Boh plantation has a great balcony view to go with that cuppa!
One of the most memorable places is the Mossy Forest, a place which is nearly always under perpetual cloud and completely covered in moss. Even when the rest of the Cameron Highlands is sunny, the Mossy Forest can still be in the middle of a cloud, a really atmospheric place for a stroll.
Do: Take a guide and head out to the jungle 45 minutes from the highlands to hunt out the world's largest plant - the Rafflesia. This carnivorous beast is not something you'll forget easily and nor is the smell!
Don’t: Go with a minivan to get there. Some of the worst driving we’ve ever seen was in the Cameron Highlands and the minivan drivers were often the culprits.
9. Getting spiritual amidst 7 volcanoes – Borobodur, Indonesia
Borobudur was on the bucket list for years before travelling and it didn’t disappoint. Hidden in the midst of seven volcanoes, it’s hard to imagine a more impressive setting.
The temple itself is magnificient, with layer upon layer of carvings to help teach enlightenment through stories including the Ramayana. Once at the top you’ll see an amazing view of the surrounding area including the world’s most active volcano – Merapi.
Do: Visit at sunrise. Not only do you avoid the crowds, but you’re likely to have the early morning mist disperse and show off the landscape in a grand reveal.
Don’t: Pass up the opportunity to see the local countryside. There’s plenty of villages and monuments littered around Borobudur. Hire a motorbike and head out exploring.
10. Temple Hopping – Luang Prabang, Laos
We visited Laos nine months in to our Asian adventure and it's fair to say that we had seen a lot of temples. The words templed out spring to mind. If this is you and you are thinking about skipping Luang Prabang - don't do it. This beautiful little city is picture perfect. You can walk or cycle to virtually everywhere, no need to fear for your life here, the roads are as calm as it gets in Asia.
The temples themselves are also unique. Stand outs being the ornate gold and candy coloured temples of Wat Xieng Thong. We happily spent a week weaving our way in and out of these little gems, interspersed with regular coffee and croissant stops.
Do: Hire a scooter and head out to visit the sublime Kung Si waterfalls.
Don’t: Think you've seen enough temples and skip the best in Asia.
Where's the best place you've been to in Asia? Let us know what you think in the comments below.