Asia offers a whole lot of awesomeness to the wanderlust-filled adventurer — a lavish bounty of cultures, architectures, histories, people, and foods. Knishes become mantu which become samosas then momos then dim sum before ending up as gyoza. The endless variations on a dollop of stuffing wrapped in dough illuminates how vast and diverse the continent is. (Vast is probably the perfect word for a geographic mass that holds 30 percent of all the planet’s land.)
Lonely Planet — who has been tightly linked to Asia since the company’s earliest days — asked their authors to rank their favorite spots in Asia. The list they arrived at is full of spectacular beauty, unique culture, and delicious food. This visual tour will give you a sense of the spots the authors highlighted…and leave you with the chance to win a dream trip of your own.
1. HOKKAIDO, JAPAN
Hokkaido is a land of strong traditions. Japan’s northern island is still home to indigenous populations, wild animals, and an abundance of natural beauty. It stands out from the bustling cities of the southern islands with a steadfast commitment to preserving the natural, quaint, and old. Skiing used to the tourism economy go round and round. Today, food and drink tourism has flourished thanks to the island’s spectacular seafood. A huge geo-thermal network under the snow-covered mountains powers an array of onsens (Japanese hot spring spas), where visitors can relax and unwind after a seafood feast.
Accessibility to the island from Tokyo became a lot easier, and faster, when the bullet train opened service to the island’s southern city of Hokadate (running under the Tsugaru Straight). Soon Sapporo will host the Winter Olympics and Hokkaido will enjoy a much deserved moment on the world’s stage.
2. SHANGHAI, CHINA
Shanghai is a bit like a beehive. It’s awash with people, food, drink, parties, steel, glass, vehicles, and art — all moving and striving to survive amongst the chaos that is Shanghai. Like several of the other large cities along the Asian continent’s eastern coast, Shanghai is a port city where the world comes together in a wholly unique way. This is reflected in the city’s streets, in its food, and in its vastly varied population.
There are few cities on Earth with street food as crazy good as Shanghai. You can eat yourself into a gluttony-induced coma each night.
3. JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA
Korean food is a big part of the American culinary tapestry for good reason — it’s a delectable blending of sour, umami, sweet, hot, and funky. So a trip to Korea is a must of any food-forward world traveler. To tourists, Jeonju was long known as the home to one of Korea’s oldest and best preserved ancient villages. But to Koreans, Jeonju was always about the food. Bibimbap had its humble origins in the city. Today, more people travel to Jeonju for its food scene than the ancient architecture (which still endures and makes a perfect way to walk off all that kimchi and soju).
UNESCO crowned Jeonju 2012’s City Of Gastronomy. It’s that good. Eat your way through the city’s inns and eateries then hike the bamboo covered hills surrounding the city or take in an ancient temple nestled on a hillside.
4. CÔN ĐẢO, VIETNAM
Given the massive amount of tourism Vietnam receives these days, it’s easy to forget that its recent past was very tumultuous and dark. Welcome to Côn Đảo, a formal penal colony for political prisoners until 1984 when it was converted into a national park. The lack of travel to the area allowed it to be mostly preserved in all its gorgeous Indochinese glory. The islands offer a glimpse into a wild and nearly untouched corner of Vietnam with jungle trails, pristine beaches, and crystal clear water. Accommodations range from simple camping all the way up to 5-star resorts, depending on your comfort and budget levels.
Vietnamese budget airlines just got a huge boost to shuttle travelers all over the country, and Côn Đảo is part of that new network. It’s easier than ever for even the most budget-minded travelers to discover the idyllic beaches, abundant seafood, and endless leisure activities that this corner of Vietnam has to offer.
5. HONG KONG, CHINA
Hong Kong is where the Orient meets the Occident. If Shanghai is the beehive, Hong Kong is the tree. The city reaches every corner of the world, and every corner of the world can be reflected on its streets.
Do you want to find the best New York style bagel outside of the U.S.? It’s in Hong Kong. The best Korean food outside of Korea? It’s in Hong Kong. The best Neapolitan pizzas outside of Italy? You guessed it, Hong Kong has it. Look at Hong Kong as the city that happens when the people of the world come together, leave their religion at home, and let nothing stand in the way of capitalism. It all somehow works. It all somehow continues to grow. The food will blow your mind. The speakeasy bars tucked away behind used cellphone vendors will serve you some of the best cocktails anywhere on the globe.
Getting to Hong Kong is easy. Leaving is hard. Bring money. Make money. Spend money. Like Berlin or New York, Hong Kong never sleeps, so you don’t ever have to stop.
6. IPOH, MALAYSIA
Let the muezzin wake you up every morning in Malaysia. Let his voice lead you down to a cafe for a kopi tarik — a strong coffee aerated with condensed milk. Walk down the street further and find some plastic tables to sit and order a bowl of congee replete with chunks of airy doughnut slices and raw white fish. It’s the perfect way to start a day in Ipoh. The old town is a colonial relic harkening back to some other reality. The Malaysians have been reclaiming the buildings and streets with their chefs and artists. Today, Ipoh is a mecca of Malay food culture and everyone is paying attention.
Getting to Ipoh, and around Malaysia in general, is a very easy task. There are high-speed trains, air-conditioned buses, and internal budget airlines that will take you to every corner of the country for very, very cheap. Once there, Malaysia is a very inexpensive country to live and eat. Ipoh is no different, and continues to grow as it embraces what made it great.
7. PEMUTERAN, INDONESIA
Permuteran in Bali exudes a quiet calm. The far northeast corner of the island is home to Bali’s only national park. It’s where the human world ends and the life aquatic begins. There’s a teal and blue world just below the surface of the water waiting to be explored. A massive coral reef wall plays host to countless fish species. Sunken boats and statues intertwine with the sea life, creating a surreal submerged museum.
On land you’ll find some of the best beaches in Indonesia. Beaches that will make you want to leave the world behind. Huts pepper the shore selling nasi goreng (fried rice) and freshly picked jungle fruits. A cold Bintang beer is never more than a few steps away.
Bali is rowdy when it comes to tourism. Expect a fair contingent of Aussies and Europeans to be filling every cabana in sight along the southern and western coasts. Pemuteran is still quiet, secluded, and worth every winding curve on the long road up north.
8. TRANG ISLANDS, THAILAND
The isles along the southwestern coast of Thailand are like little diamonds shining brightly in the Andaman Sea. Each one sparkles a little differently. Striking monoliths, covered in creepers and vines, jut up out of the crystalline water.
Travelers have been saying Thailand has been played out for decades now. That’s their loss. Thailand, like everywhere, has so many amazing corners to visit and explore that you’d need a lifetime to see them all. That’s if you don’t get stuck on the amazing beaches of the Trang Islands for the rest of your life.
9. MEGHALAYA, INDIA
India is the only spot outside of east Asia to make Lonely Planet’s list. Meghalaya is so far east in India that it is almost in Myanmar. Trekking around the mountains, crossing ancient rope bridges, and visiting bridges will leave you feeling like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie.
Meghalaya is very popular with Indian tourists, but has yet to become a huge draw for Western tourists and remains an off-the-beaten-track gem. The winding mountain roads, massive waterfalls, and insanely good curries all deserve your attention.
10. TAITUNG, TAIWAN
Nestled on the southeastern stretch of the Taiwan is Taitung. This corner of the island is home to the original Taiwanese indigenous populations, a vast agricultural center, stunning beaches full of surfers, and plenty of mountains to meander through. Taitung’s life is still tied heavily to the land and their harvest festivals are a joy to experience. The confluence of the sea, mountains, and farms means the food is extraordinary and fresh.
Unfortunately Taitung was recently hit with the massive typhoon Nepartak and clean up is still underway. Now may be a good time to travel there and volunteer some time to help clean up and spend tourist dollars — both of which will help the people of the region get back on their feet.