Worlds away: a resort at Hua Hin, Thailand.
From beaches to bays, mountains to caves, it's always worth stepping outside the capital cities, writes Kerry van der Jagt.
Asia has some of the biggest, brightest and brashest capital cities in the world, each with its own personality. Some, like Bangkok, are all fire and spice, while others, like Kuala Lumpur, are smooth and sophisticated. Beijing is serious and restrained, while Tokyo is an exploding pinata, all colour and energy and promise. Love them or hate them, sometimes you just need to get away from them, to escape the pace and pollution, to slip into some quiet cracks for a while. As Scarlett Johansson found in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, the calm of Kyoto is only a bullet train away from the turmoil of Tokyo.
Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Corbis
Side trip: Kyoto
Getting there The fastest Shinkansen (bullet train) takes about three hours, making a return day trip possible.
See and do With 17 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites and a further 2000 temples and shrines you'll need a game plan (and a serious pair of walking shoes). Kick off with the big guns - The Golden Pavilion (with its picture-perfect reflection pond), Sanjusangen-do temple (with its army of 1001 armed Kannon statues), Nijo Castle (one of the last samurai strongholds) and Kiyomizu-dera (literally 'pure water temple'). For quiet reflection there's the rock garden of Ryoan-ji Temple, the bamboo grove of Arashiyama and the Philosopher's Path of Higashiyama.
The turquoise waters of Nippah Beach in Indonesia. Photo: Matthew Williams-Ellis
Don't miss visiting Gion, for tea and the chance to glimpse a geisha.
Halong Bay, Vietnam. Photo: Getty Images
Side trip: Hua Hin
Getting there The resort town of Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand is a three-hour drive from Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport. It can also be reached by train, bus or plane (nokair.com).
See and do Known as Thailand's "Royal Beach Resort" Hua Hin provides a gentile alternative to Phuket or Samui. Strung along Hua Hin's beachfront is a daisy chain of luxury resorts, spas, seafood restaurants, temples and markets. Further afield you'll find wineries, palaces, nature reserves and some of Thailand's best golf courses.
UNESCO WOrld Heritage status preserves Luang prabang. Photo: Getty Images
Don't miss a morning wine tasting at the nearby Hua Hin Hills vineyard (50 minutes drive).
More info tourismthailand.org.
Statue of Lord Murugan, Batu Caves. Photo: Getty Images
Side trip: Halong Bay
Getting there Halong Bay, in the Gulf of Tonkin, is a 3½-hour drive from Hanoi.
See and do Designated a World Heritage site in 1994, the only way to appreciate this ethereal landscape of jade-coloured waters and soaring limestone islands is from the water. Forget a day trip, you'll need a couple of nights to reach the more pristine parts of the 1550-square-kilometre bay. Days are spent immersed in the landscape; visiting floating villages, paddling inside caves, gorging on beachside barbecues.
Xian, home to the terracotta warriors. Photo: Getty Images
Don't miss a sunrise.
More info vietnamtourism.com
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
An orang-utan in Kuching. Photo: Corbis
Side trip: Pyeongchang County
Getting there Pyeongchang, in Gangwon province, is about 200 kilometres east of Seoul and can be reached by car or bus.
See and do Pyeongchang County, set to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, is home to the 1708-metre Pyeongchang Mountain, the third largest in South Korea. The three main ski resorts are Yongpyong, Alpensia and Phoenix Park, which are open December to March. If you prefer hiking boots to ski boots, Seoraksan National Park is a year-round destination with walking trails, waterfalls, hot springs and temples.
Don't miss autumn, when the park erupts in a blaze of colour.
More info visitkorea.or.kr
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA
Side trip: Batu Caves
Getting there Batu Caves is in the Gombak district, 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur and reached easily by taxi, bus or train (unless you are a pilgrim, and then you walk).
See and do After climbing 272 steps, fighting an army of marauding macaques and finally stepping through the entrance to Temple Cave you will see one of the most important Hindu shrines outside of India. Other attractions include the 42-metre statue of Lord Murugan and, if you have any energy left, there's a number of rock climbing routes in the area.
Don't miss the annual Thaipusam celebration, when thousands of devotees gather at the caves with hooks and skewers in their backs.
More info tourism.gov.my
Side trip: Lombok
See and do Billed as the new Bali, Lombok offers everything from wild surfing beaches to sheltered bays. There's the 3726-metre Mount Rinjani to climb, traditional Sasak villages to visit, and for a holiday within a holiday, the Gili Islands are a short boat ride away. Comprised of three islands - Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno - these pretty islands still exude a bohemian air, but stylish eco-lodges and luxurious villa resorts are moving in.
Don't miss a ride on a small horse-drawn cart, called a cidomo, around Gili Trawangan.
More info indonesia.travel
Side trip: Luang Prabang
Getting there Luang Prabang is a 40-minute flight from Vientiane (laosairlines.com).
See and do The roll call of things to see and do in the World Heritage-listed Luang Prabang is a study in the art of slow travel; rise at dawn to watch monks collecting alms, take a slow boat along the Mekong, pedal a bike around dusty streets, visit a gleaming temple, float under a waterfall, discover the Pak Ou caves. In between such strenuous activities you can join a cooking class (tamarindlaos.com), enrol in a weaving lesson (ockpoptok.com) or volunteer at a reading centre (bigbrothermouse.com). Or just kick back with a Beerlao.
Don't miss the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre (adjacent to the Tat Kuang Si falls) cares for bears rescued from the illegal wildlife trade (freethebears.org.au).
More info tourismlaos.org
Side trip: Bako National Park
Getting there Bako National Park can be reached by a 40-minute drive from Kuching to the tiny fishing village of Kambung Bako, followed by a 20-minute boat ride to the national park.
See and do Bako National Park, established in 1957, is the oldest national park in Sarawak, eastern Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Crawling with critters such as long-tailed macaques, silvered langurs and bearded pigs, the park features rainforests, waterfalls, rocky headlands and white sandy beaches, all of which can be accessed by a multitude of sign-posted walking trails. Come as a day trip from Kuching, stay the night in a camp ground or book a forest hut.
Don't miss a chance to see one of the endangered proboscis monkeys that are found only on the island of Borneo. Bako is home to about 150 of those bulbous-nosed monkeys.
More info tourism.gov.my
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA
Side trip: Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap
Getting there Siem Reap can be reached from Phnom Penh by plane (45 minutes, cambodiaangkorair.com), road (four to five hours) or boat (three to eight hours, depending on the season). The main temples are about eight kilometres away.
See and do If you survive the big three - Angkor Wat (mother of all temples), Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider temple) and Bayon (216 smiling stone faces) - ditch the crowds and find your own favourite. For fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework head to Preah Khan; for perfection in pink head to Banteay Srei Preah and for moody, jungly atmosphere there's Preah Palilay. Get a one, three or seven-day pass at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat.
Don't miss the local dish, amok, a coconut and fresh-water fish curry served in a banana leaf.
More info tourismcambodia.com
Side trip: Xian
Getting there Xian is a two-hour flight from Beijing.
See and do Xian is well known for its terracotta warriors, that 2000-strong army of life-sized soldiers, horses and chariots built by an emperor with serious security issues. What isn't well-known is that Xian has enough activities to keep you busy for days. Cycle around Xian's city wall, shop in the Muslim Quarter, gaze at Big Wild Goose and Little Wild Goose Pagodas, climb the Bell and Drum Towers, visit the Mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor or see a cultural show at the Tang Dynasty Theatre.
Don't miss the TangBo Art Museum offers free calligraphy classes (after museum entry).
More info Helen Wong's Tours offers a 12-day China Discovery tour; helenwongstours.com
LUANG PRABANG IS ALIVE WITH HERITAGE HOTELS
Luang Prabang has an unmistakable French influence, not only in its baguettes and bistros, but also in its French colonial architecture. Many of these buildings have been reinvented as hotels but, thanks to UNESCO World Heritage listing, renovations must follow strict codes to ensure historical integrity.
One of the most beautiful is Villa Maly: it was built in 1938 and was the royal residence of Princess Khampieng and Prince Khamtan, grandson to a 19th-century Laotian king.
Tucked away in a quiet street a short stroll from the main restaurant strip and nightly Hmong market, the residence has been renovated and extended into a 33-room boutique hotel in tropical gardens. The guest rooms are an oasis of colonial calm and charm, all mosquito nets and billowing curtains, four-poster beds and mahogany chests, (and thankfully, airconditioning).
The colonial-style ambience continues in the Henri Mouhot bar, named after the French explorer who "rediscovered" Angkor Wat. Mouhot visited Luang Prabang in 1861, calling it a "delightful little town". He died from malaria a few months later. A grave and tomb, in the jungle on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, mark the spot.
Australians need to get visas (up to 30 days) in advance from a Lao embassy ($45) or on arrival for $US30 ($33) with two passport photos. Villa Maly is in a quiet part of Luang Prabang, about a 15-minute drive from the airport. Rooms from $259; villa-maly.com.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kerry van der Jagt is a Sydney-based writer specialising in history, culture and outdoor adventure.