The Asia bucket list

Swim, fly, hunt, swing and climb your way through Asia

Climb an ever-steaming volcano in Java, Indonesia
Mount Bromo, on the eastern side of Indonesia’s Java Island, is the kind of volcano you feverishly imagined during geography classes as a child. With its top entirely blown off, 2,392m Bromo constantly belches sulphurous white smoke. It sits in a desolate sea of sand in the dramatic surroundings of a collapsed caldera, next to the inactive Mount Batok (2,470m) and the towering, dangerous to climb, highly active Mount Semeru (3,676m). Most local guesthouses and hotels arrange treks. Among them, the boutique Java Banana Lodge (doubles from 540RMB) is a good base and organises dawn tours to see sunrise atop the crater rim.

Get there
Air Asia flies to Surabaya via Kuala Lumpur from 4,470RMB return. Mount Bromo is a three-to-four hour drive from Surabaya airport.
Photo by Riza Nugraha

Spear fish for your supper in Sihanoukville, Cambodia
Fancy playing Robinson Crusoe for a while? The white-sand beaches and small tropical islands around Cambodia’s coastal province of Sihanoukville are much as Thailand’s were 20 years ago, with few resorts and mostly simple hut accommodation. Guesthouses organise snorkelling, scuba-diving and Cambodian-style spear fishing day trips for travellers. Or, with Adventure Charters Cambodia, you can camp overnight on the picture-perfect Koh Ta Kiev island (overnight trips from 160RMB). The hammock, sling and spears for fishing, as well as the fire to cook your catch, are provided. And if your man vs fish skills aren’t up to it, there’s a simple kitchen on the island that serves seafood feasts.

Get there
China Southern flies to Phnom Penh via Guangzhou from 3,550RMB return. Buses from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville take around three and a half hours, and cost around 40RMB.
Photo by Bernd Nottelmann

Float above Avatar land in Zhangjiajie, China
It’s easy to see why the other-worldly Zhangjiajie forest park in Hunan province is alleged to be the inspiration for the ‘Hallelujah Mountains’ in James Cameron’s 3D science fiction blockbuster Avatar. Here, trees cling stubbornly to steep, 1km-tall stone mountain pillars, formed by erosion over the millennia. It’s an awe-inspiring view from the ground but, for those not scared of heights, the best way to see them is from the 60m-long glass walkway. The head-spinning path edges its way around the rocky face of Tianmen Mountain, a cool 1,430m above sea level, providing unparalleled views of the forest below. Look down and imagine you’re floating through the alien planet of Pandora. Or just faint. The choice is yours!

Get there
China Southern flies direct to Zhangjiajie from 2,990RMB return. Tickets for Wulingyuan Scenic Area (which includes Zhangjiajie) are 248RMB for three days (children under 1.2m go free).
Photo by Severin Stalder

Soar over a city of temples in Bagan, Burma
Packing nearly 3,000 temples into an area not much larger than Manhattan, Burma’s ancient capital city, Bagan, is spectacular. It’s an even more stunning sight if you take a hot-air balloon at sunrise or sunset and glide gently over the golden and ochre spires and stupas, most of which were built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Balloons Over Bagan runs sunrise and sunset flights from 1,910RMB per person (includes hotel pick-up and light champagne meal).

Get there
Thai Airways flies to Yangon (also known as Rangoon) via Bangkok from 4,350RMB return. Air Mandalay flies from Yangon to Bagan Nyaung-U Airport from 1,440RMB return.
Photo by Dreamstime

Dive with manta rays in Ishigaki, Japan
Looking up at the white underbellies of manta rays, as you dive below them along the sea floor, is exhilarating. However, although the sheer size of these prehistoric beasts is sure to set the heart racing – the reef species can grow up to three metres long – they are, unlike their venomous sting-ray cousins, completely harmless (unless you’re plankton – the main source of their diet). Manta rays can be found all year round off the Japanese island of Ishigaki. The best time to see them is in late August and early September, when schools of manta rays migrate east. They cross through the tropical waters surrounding this little-known paradise, cleaning themselves around the area’s stunning reefs, and are particularly known to congregate at the ‘scramble point’ off Kabira Bay. Umicoza dive school is one of many offering opportunities to dive and snorkel with manta rays in Ishigaki, with prices from 675RMB.

Get there
Air China flies direct to Osaka Kansai Airport from 4,595RMB return. ANA flies from Kansai Airport to Ishigaki from 4,750RMB return.
Photo by Jens Viggo Moesmand

Zip through the treetops in Bokeo, Laos
Swing from tree to tree like Tarzan, while earning some ecological karma points with the Jungle Hotel Paksong’s Tree Top Explorer Experience. Based within the Dong Hua Sao National Protected Area in southern Laos, this project lets travellers live the ‘high life’ by hosting them in tree houses that are built ten metres high, in the forest canopy (from 1,630RMB for two nights). As part of the package, guests go for treks through the forest, cross bridges over ravines, dip their toes into pristine pools by waterfalls, and get an adrenaline rush whizzing along networks of zipwires, some as long as 400m, connecting the trees. But be warned – this is real nature, so it’s not an experience for those scared of creepy-crawlies and spindly beasts. And yes, the accommodation might seem a little bit basic for the money you’re paying, but rest assured; this project has the seal of approval from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The money you spend is pumped into preventing illegal logging and hunting in the area, and the centre helps promote sustainable tourism by employing local villagers as guides. Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your inner child here.

Get there
Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct to Bangkok from 2,845 RMB return. Lao Airlines flies from Bangkok to Pakse from 1,908RMB return. Transport to and from Pakse is included in the adventure package.

Square up to sumo wrestlers in Tokyo, Japan
If you’re after a bit of man-on-man action, there’s only one place to go in Japan. And no, we’re not talking about the infamous love hotels. Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan hall (1-3-28 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo; +81 3 3623 5111) is the venue for sumo wrestling. It hosts three of Japan’s six annual tournaments, which each last two weeks and are held in January, May and September (see Tickets for the first and final days of the tournament sell out in advance but, for the other days, you can normally get tickets on the door (starting from 170RMB). Only die-hard fans show up in the morning – the high-ranking wrestlers don’t start fighting until around 4pm. When there’s no tournament on, check out the sumo museum next door to the hall and pick up a protein-laden chanko nabe stew – a vital part of the wrestlers’ diets – in one of the local neighbourhood eateries.

Get there
Air China flies direct to Tokyo from 4,690RMB return.
Photo by J Drevet

Trek over glaciers in Eagle Valley, Mongolia
Feeling overheated in Beijing? Tucked away in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park of Mongolia is Eagle Valley, a spectacular narrow gorge filled with ice sheets and beautiful scenery. A trek through the canyon will see you encountering a wide array of wildlife (including Siberian ibex, a wild species of long-horned goat) and thick ice, even in the height of summer. Plus, if it all gets too cold, the valley is just a few hours from the Khongor sand dunes – the largest in Mongolia. Ayan Trails offers the five-day ‘Golden Gobi Short Tour’, visiting the Eagle Valley, the Khongor sands and the fossil-rich Flaming Cliffs from 7,240RMB (includes all accommodation, meals and internal transport, including domestic flights from Ulan Bator).

Get there
Air China flies direct to Ulan Bator from 4,050RMB return.
Photo by Lip Kee

Boat into the underworld in Palawan, Philippines
Most people go to the Philippines to bronze on the beaches. The wild, western province of Palawan offers plenty of the sandy stuff, but also a rarer natural wonder: one of the world’s longest underground rivers, in Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park. You can only visit with a guide (in a paddle boat) and you’ll only see the first 1.5km stretch of the St Paul River’s 8.2km entirety. But it’s still thrilling to float into the dark, cavernous entrance at the edge of the beautiful blue lagoon. Inside, bats flutter past strange rock formations and the guide points out which rocks resemble Jesus (this is the Philippines, after all). Tickets (40RMB) for the boat tour must be picked up from the official office in Puerto Princesa, but access to the river is from the village of Sabang.

Get there
Cebu Pacific flies to Puerto Princesa via Manila from 3,035RMB return. The name – Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park – is a misnomer, since the river is actually at Sabang, a good two-to-three hour jeepney journey (for around 20RMB) from the city of Puerto Princesa.
Photo by Mike Gonzalez

Learn Thai massage in Wat Po Temple, Thailand
Wat Po, one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok, would be worth visiting for its vast collection of beautiful Buddha iconography (including a 46m-long reclining golden Buddha) alone. Add the fact that this is the birthplace of traditional Thai massage and that there’s a famous massage school on site, and you have yourself the perfect sightseeing destination: expand your mind with a tour, then indulge in a treatment to work the knots out of your weary body. If you’ve got time in the Thai capital, don’t just pop in for the day. The school offers a range of massage courses in English (starting from 1,500RMB for a 30-hour, five-day programme) which will soon have you kneading, pressing and pulling like a pro.

Get there
Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct to Bangkok from 2,845RMB return.
Photo by elbisreverri

Sleep in The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the spiritual centre of Sikhism and one of Northern India’s most iconic landmarks. Reflected into an adjacent expanse of water known as the ‘Holy Pool of Nectar’, and filled with crowds of brightly turbaned pilgrims, this beautiful place of worship is a travel photographer’s dream – both by day and when it is lit up at night. Instead of just taking your snaps and leaving, why not stay around a while? Free accommodation is available inside the temple (although donations are expected; 50 rupees [6RMB] per person is the minimum you should give). The rooms are dirt-basic, with people crowded into single-sex dorms and shared squat toilets, but you’ll have the chance to chat with the pilgrims about their religion.

Get there
Cathay Pacific flies to New Delhi via Hong Kong from 4,755RMB return. Trains from Delhi to Amritsar take around six to eight hours, and cost from 55RMB (booked through
Photo by Paul Rudo

Swim over giant clams in Camiguin, Philippines
Although barely a speck on the map of the Philippines, the one-road island of Camiguin cuts an impressive figure as you approach it by sea. Twenty green volcanic cones, some rising over 1km tall, jostle for space on this tiny landmass. This dramatic volcanic interior is surrounded by beaches and reefs, offering excellent diving and snorkelling opportunities, as seen elsewhere in the Philippines. Unique to this island, however, is the giant clam sanctuary run by local volunteers at Cantaan. Harvested almost to extinction in the Philippines, the mollusc is found in abundance at this protected sea nursery. For 25RMB, you can swim over these Technicolor wonders – some of which have grown beyond a whole metre – then watch how they shiver and snap shut as you approach (though, thanks to the volunteers’ guidance, not close enough for you to risk losing a limb).

Get there
Cebu Pacific flies to Tagbaliran in Bohol via Manila from 3,015RMB return. There are daily ferries from Jagna in Bohol to Camiguin, which take between two and four hours and cost 76RMB. Cantaan is a short jeepney or motorcycle ride away from wherever you are staying on the island.
Photo by chjab

Monkey around with orangutans in Borneo, Malaysia
Perhaps it’s because we share 96.4 percent of our genetic makeup with them; perhaps it’s just because they look so cute with their ginger hair and deep, wide eyes – either way, orangutans are fascinating. Borneo is the place to meet these great apes in their natural habitat, with several ‘rehabilitation’ centres for mistreated apes now offering visitors the chance to meet them face-to-face. However, some are more like zoos, focused on the tourist dollar: at best, camera-clicking humans outnumber the primates; at worst, visitors are allowed to cuddle the orangutans, potentially passing on diseases. Instead of dropping in on a day trip, consider volunteering for one of the more reputable projects. It doesn’t come cheap (two weeks ‘volunteering’ costs around 13,030RMB) but The Great Orangutan Project at Matang Wildlife Centre is a good choice. You won’t be allowed to touch the apes, but you will have plenty of opportunities to see them up close as you maintain their environment.

Get there
Malaysia Airlines flies to Kuching via Kuala Lumpur from 4,340RMB return. Transfer to the centre from Kuching airport is included as part of The Great Orangutan Project package.
Photo courtesy of Tourism Malaysia

Squeeze into a Viet Cong tunnel in Cu Chi, Vietnam
It’s hard to believe the frighteningly small tunnels at Cu Chi – barely big enough to crawl through (despite being widened to accommodate fat tourists) – once held whole armies of Viet Cong guerrillas. But they certainly did.
Built during the French Vietnamese War (1946-54) and the American Vietnamese War (1955-75), the network once included over 250km of tunnels, stretching from the South Vietnamese capital, Ho Chi Minh City (commonly known as Saigon) to the Cambodian border. Burrowing down several storeys deep, these tunnels acted as entire underground cities, with sleeping areas, kitchens, weapon factories and even – in the bigger chambers – theatres to put on politically motivated plays. The network helped the Viet Cong launch surprise attacks; some tunnels even went under a US Army base. Today, you can visit the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc sections at Cu Chi for 25RMB. Guides lead you through the tunnels and demonstrate how bamboo spear trapdoors were used on unsuspecting American GIs. Despite there being something of a theme park atmosphere at times (an onsite range allows visitors to shoot AK-47s for a dollar a bullet), the tunnels are a sombre reminder of what was endured by both sides and make for a fascinating day out.

Get there
Air China flies direct to Ho Chi Minh City from 2,600RMB return. Taxis from there to Cu Chi cost around 300RMB.
Photo by Shutterstock

For more great Asia destinations see our Expert's choice feature, where travel experts pick their favourite spots.
  • 4 out of 5 stars