Since Rob and I returned, one question which we have been consistently asked is 'Which was your favourite country?' It's a question both of us have found difficult to answer as every country we visited had elements which made it special. There wasn't a country we visited where we didn't enjoy parts, and conversely each one offered it's own challenges. Beyond that, Asia is hugely diverse and while we may not have liked parts of a country, we might have loved others- for example, neither of us were that enthralled by mainland Malaysia but Malaysian Borneo was one of our top highlights of the entire trip.
For these reasons, I wanted to finish our series of Asian blogs with an entry depicting our overall highlights. We had a truly amazing time and it's hard to comprise this list as every day we did something fantastic! Here's the things which really stand out though-
1) Exploring the Electronics District in Tokyo
Before travelling to Japan, I used to imagine it as being a crazy, futuristic world with new technologies being created all the time. When you walk through Akihibara in Tokyo that's exactly what you get. It's a kaleidoscope of colour with neon signs, crazy inventions and a frantic pace which is quintessentially Japanese.
2) Spying a Geisha in Kyoto
Japan as a country is a complete fusion of an Ancient Kingdom and a Modern Metropolis. Nothing exemplified that for me more that spotting a Maiko (apprentice Geisha) along one of the back alley's of Gion. With her elegant hairstyle, classic kimono and poise it instantly transported me to a different world. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get a photo as she disappeared as quickly as we spotted her but we got lots of photos of people in classic Japanese garments.
3) Visiting the Peace Memorial Park at Hiroshima
It's strange to note a tribute to one of the worst atrocities in human history as a 'highlight' but visiting Hiroshima was such an enlightening experience I had to include it in this list. The preservation of the A-bomb dome, the museum littered with Hiroshima's efforts to stop nuclear weapon development and the beautiful memorials to the victims of the tragedy are so well put together and we both felt it was a very cathartic experience.
4) Hiking to Arashiyama Monkey Park
One of our first wildlife encounters, Arashiyama is located just on the outskirts of Kyoto. At the top of a rather steep climb, you find a troop of Macaque Monkeys (native to Japan) who live freely with minimal human supervision. They have strict rules about feeding, touching and making eye contact with the monkeys but it is amazing to go and see them living in the wild and observe their natural behaviours!
5) Standing on (and tobogganing down) the Great Wall of China
The Great Wall is one of those monuments which you see and think 'it's bound to be a disappointment'. I really didn't have the highest hopes when we visited it, but I was so pleasantly surprised. It's been very well maintained and it's so big, you're not rubbing elbows with hundreds of other tourists. We had a great day traversing the wall, and tobogganing down it (yes, really) was an absolute highlight!
6) Catching an Acrobatic Show in Shanghai
I'd heard a huge amount about the Chinese Acrobats in Shanghai but they were something else entirely. The stunts, jumps, leaps etc. were all unbelievable. I spent the vast majority of the show with my hands clasped over my mouth on the edge of my seat, convinced someone was about to die in front of me.
7) Exploring the Hutongs in Beijing
One of the parts of Beijing which we both found the most interesting was the Hutongs. It's the old part of the city with tiny, winding alleys giving way to large courtyards surrounded by houses. It's very typically Chinese and with interesting bazaars and street vendors scattered around them, it's the perfect place to get lost for the afternoon.
8) Getting close to nature in Yangshuo
Without question, Yangshuo was one of my favourite places in China. A small village (by Chinese Standards) which used to be only home to agriculture, it's now the perfect place to go to escape the chaos of big cities and relax. With the Li river running alongside it, we spent a blissful couple of days cycling in the countryside, kayaking and swimming in the river, checking out the mud baths and hot springs and eating some good Cantonese food in the village centre.
9) Heading across to Lantau Island and Ngong Ping Village in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a really cool city (although expensive) but one of our favourite days here was when we headed across to the quieter island of Lantau (easily reached by MTR) and took the bus to the peak. Here is the largest seated Buddha in the world and a small village with a monastery. It was a lovely day out with some great scenery (apart from the 250 odd steps to the peak).
10) Trekking with the Hill Tribes in Sa'Pa
Sa'Pa in Vietnam is a gorgeous place. Located right up in the North, the people are some of the nicest and friendliest we met throughout Asia. There are five tribes who live there and who are slowly starting to generate sustainable tourism through running trekking tours. The scenery is breathtaking and we spent a night at a home stay right in the middle of the landscape which was cool.
11) Spending time in the Old Quarter of Hanoi
Hanoi was our first stop in Vietnam, and although it is short of typical tourist 'attractions' it's a great place to spend a week as it's perfect for a traveller. It's got cheap shopping, a great old quarter which is filled with things to see and some of the best food (especially the Spring Rolls) in Asia.
12) Staying on a Private Island in Halong Bay
Halong Bay was a mixed experience. Rob nearly drowned (funny now but a bit of a downer at the time), parts of it were a huge let-down (don't go to Ti Top Beach) but overall the natural beauty of the area is worth the trip. The best part of our experience was staying on a private island on the bay on the night of the staff's annual party. They made us feel so welcome sharing their food and drink with us, inviting us to join in their beach tournament and even presenting us with flowers!
13) Learning about Vietnamese History in HCMC
Ho Chi Minh City is much calmer than Hanoi and it was a big contrast. We loved all the War History though in the region especially the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels. Both of us were so ignorant about the history of South East Asia and HCMC was one of the places where we most able to rectify this.
14) Boating through the Tra Su Forest
As part of a trip along the Mekong Delta we headed to the lesser-known Tra Su Forest. We were the only tourists there and it was fantastic. Getting rowed through the huge mangrove swamp under a creep tree-lined canopy was a definite highlight of the Southern Region of Vietnam prior to our border crossing into Cambodia.
15) Gaining an Understanding of Cambodia's Recent History at the Killing Fields and S-21
Considering Cambodia's recent history is filled with tragedy and that almost 3 million Cambodian's died under a regime which ended only 40 years ago, we were both so ignorant of the effects of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Similarly to Hiroshima, visiting the Killing Fields was a devastating experience but it was also incredibly interesting and it offered you an entirely different perspective on Cambodia as a country.
16) Visiting the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh
Of all the temples and historical buildings which we visited, the Grand Palace in Phnom Penh definitely stands out as one of the highlights. In one of the most impoverished countries which we visited, the Palace stood out as a true marvel with high golden stupas and beautiful grounds.
17) Temple-hopping in the Angkor Complex
Angkor Wat is another one of those 'I bet it's over-rated' places but to be honest, it did disappoint. Compared to other temples we had seen, it was not the best. However, the Angkor complex as a whole is amazing! Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider) was filmed, is my favourite for its over-grown tree roots which engulf the temple, however it was all amazing. It was even worth getting up at 5am for to watch the sun rise!
18) Spying a Wild Orangutan in Borneo
Rob can definitely take the credit for this one, as he was the one that caught the glimpse of orange in the canopy at the Rainforest Discovery Centre near Sandakan. It was amazing to see such an endangered species in the wild and we must have spent half an hour just watching it go about it's business.
19) Releasing a wild turtle into the sea at Selingan Island
Selingan Island is one of the most amazing places either of us have ever visited. Where else in the world can you be on an island where only 30 people are allowed at once, snorkel on a coral reef, watch a mother turtle lay her eggs on the beach and release baby turtles back into the sea?
20) Spotting a herd of Wild Pygmy Elephants off the Kinabatangan River
This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one I'm pretty sure I'll never get to repeat. We were so lucky to be at the right spot on the river during their migration period and we saw approximately 70 wild elephants. We were both completely amazed at the opportunity to sit and watch and we could have done so for hours.
21) Exploring Balinese Culture
Bali was so different to other parts of Asia as it is predominantly Hindu, rather than Buddhist or Muslim. The culture is so apparent everywhere with ceremonial offerings placed on the streets every day, temples everywhere (including some of the most unusual ones we saw throughout Asia- see below) and processions taking place all the time. It’s so unique and it’s clearly apparent why it is called the ‘Island of the Gods’
22) Checking out the different Balinese Temples
In Bali, we saw a temple on the precipice of a cliff, one in the middle of a lake, another you could only reach at low tide and one next to an active volcano at the top of an incredibly steep hill overlooking the whole island!
23) Taking a Thai Cookery Course and eating the results!
With the exception of Japan (perhaps), the best food we ate was in Thailand. Spicy and sweet and salty and sour it was AMAZING, especially the curries and the street food. One of my favourite days in Thailand was a day I spent on a farm outside Chiang Mai learning to cook some of the regional specialities. Of course, this gave me an excuse to try and recreate it all at home.
24) Heading to the most Northerly Point of Thailand and visiting Chiang Rai
We took a full day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, and while this involved spending a lot of the day on a bus it was completely worth it. Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, is worth the trip alone. Where else can you see a modern temple with Spiderman and Harry Potter on its’ walls. Beyond that we also got to learn about the history of Opium production in the region, catch a glimpse of Laos and Burma and visit the long-necked Karen tribe.
25) Playing with the Elephants at Elephant Nature Park
Elephant Nature Park is a fantastic sanctuary for mistreated and geriatric elephants and the day we spent there was wonderful. We got to feed, stroke, bath and play with many elephants and learn about the historical mistreatment they have received in Thailand and other parts of Asia. I would love to go back and volunteer in the future but that’s one for the bucket list!
26) Witnessing a Thai Festival on Loy Krathong
Loy Krathong is an annual full moon festival celebrated throughout Thailand. We were in Chiang Mai at the time and it was beautiful watching a cascade of paper lanterns rise from into the sky and seeing ornately decorated boats coming along the river.
27) Hiking through the Thai Jungle
Northern Thailand is beautiful and it was great to spend a day trekking through its’ jungles. It was pretty challenging but worth it for the stunning views and wonderful wildlife along with the remote villages which we encountered on the way.
28) Viewing Bangkok from above at the Sky Bar
Bangkok is a bit like marmite- it seems you either love it or hate it. I happened to love the chaos, but it was still nice to escape on the 88th floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel with a cocktail and a film-worthy view of the city.
29) Checking out the seedy side of Bangkok at Pat Pong and Khao San
Bangkok is famous for its’ less-than-respectable underbelly and Pat Pong Market is definitely the place to see this. Khao San Road is like a traveller’s mecca, and whilst also seedy, it’s a must-see for its’ cheap souvenirs, raucous atmosphere and popular street food.
30) Meeting the animals at Singapore Zoo
So that's the round-up. There's other things which would make the list if I did a top 50 for example frolicking in the waves of Kuta, spending a disproportionate amount of time on Chinese night trains, some of the other big cities or the specific people we have been lucky enough to meet. However, this list could genuinely go on forever. Suffice to say we had a fantastic time and this list only captures a small percentage of that.
It's an opportune time for me to have written this as I'm jetting off for my next adventure tomorrow- to the States and the Caribbean. I'll be posting with a bit more information over the next few days, but for now I'm off to get some beauty sleep before another long-haul flight tomorrow!