In addition to its waterfalls, Asia has other attractions to keep you busy taking photos or admiring the scenery. I’ve singled out some of the features that you’re bound to see upon a visit to this continent. Read below to get a brief introduction to these features.
Patong Beach (Thailand): Here is where Waikiki meets Thailand. This bustling beach and resort area is buzzing with tourists and local markets offering the traveler a dizzying array of food options, souvenirs, live entertainment, and places to stay among other things. The town really takes a life of its own at night.
Maya Beach (Thailand): If you're doing an excursion to Phi Phi Island, it's most likely going to include this picturesque beach backed by towering karst cliffs and fronted by a shallow white-sand beach with colorful lagoon. Julie says this beach made an appearance in the movie "The Beach" and it sold her on coming here. Since coming here, she says it has met and maybe even exceeded already lofty expectations in terms of scenic allure perhaps even rivaling Bora Bora and the Whitsundays.
Phang-nga Bay (Thailand): Towering mound-like karst mountains with sea caves, sea arches, and overhanging stalactites makes this place stand out. An excursion out to here usually includes the popular James Bond Island, which made an appearance in one of the older James Bond movies. You typically explore these islets and islands in a long day tour though it's easy to envision spending even more time here if you're so inclined.
Since I'm also into natural arches and bridges, it's definitely worth noting a particularly large sea arch that you get to kayak (well some local will do the paddling actually) through not too far away from the interesting stilted town of Panyee. Since it's typically hot down in this part of the country, the breeze through the arch feels real good.
Sunday Walking Street (Thailand): In a word - electric! This once in a week night market is the most happening thing in Chiang Mai that our guide has said even surpassed the daily night bazaar in popularity. Expect crowds of people, performers, loads of food stands, shops, etc. In fact, there's so much energy in this 1.5km stretch of pedestrian traffic (normally allowing for vehicular traffic except Sunday nights) that you'll leave the place still feeling buzzed and energized.
Khao San Road (Thailand): This is Bangkok's answer to Chiang Mai's Sunday Walking Street. This more intimate, much smaller scaled night market is happening and lively. You'll find mostly young travelers and young locals in these parts, and it's a great way to end off a day sightseeing the many historical treasures found in the city.
Grand Palace (Thailand): Tall golden chedis, fancy ornate shrines with Big Buddhas inside, and fancy government buildings are among the things that make this the must-see site in Bangkok (at least as far as the locals we met were concerned). And it's gonna take you a while to both check out and take photographs of the scene.
Wat Arun (Thailand): This very tall and steep structure is one of Bangkok's more impressive attractions. A visit here and we're betting that you'll get butterflies should you choose to climb up to the upper parts of the wat and get good looks of downtown Bangkok. Just watch your step on those stairs because a nasty fall here and you're not likely to be coming back!
Wat Pho (Thailand): Not too far from the ferry going across the river to Wat Arun in downtown Bangkok, Wat Pho is famous for a really big reclining Buddha as well as more fancy buildings and tall chedis. We managed to come here after twilight and the soft glow of the lights onto the chedis gave these structures a more mysterious appearance.
Ayutthaya (Thailand): This was once the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. So it's not surprising to find a multitude of ruins here complete with older style chedis and prangs. Among the places we visited here include Wat Chai Wat Tanaram, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, and even some ruins with a Buddha head surrounded in tree roots (the name of this place escapes me).
The quantity and selection of ruins to choose from and explore can take a lot out of you and can even make you templed out as I was starting to be. So you know for a temple or history buff, this place is for you!
Doi Suthep (Thailand): This very popular temple atop the hills overlook Chiang Mai is full of fancy structures, Buddha statues, chedis, bells, and overlooks of the city of Chiang Mai. At the time we were there, the central golden chedi was being renovated so it was surrounded by scaffoldings. The smell of incense filled the air in the shoes-off section.
You could easily spend a few hours here checking out all the ornate Buddhist architecture or even take your time walking up and down the steps leading to the main section. All in all, it's considered a must-do attraction if you're in the Chiang Mai area.
Doi Inthanon (Thailand): This is Thailand's tallest mountain. Up here, you'll find the Ang-ka Nature Trail taking you through wetlands as well as the 7th King's ashes. Further down, you'll see a pair of attractive chedis providing nice views of the surrounding area as well as more opportunities to admire the Buddhist-inspired architecture within. Further down still, you'll find several waterfalls, which are further explained in the waterfalls section of this site.
Pong Dueat (Thailand): This is a thermal spring and resort area featuring a couple of bubbling pools as well as a chance to soak in the thermally heated runoff leading to a sort of resorty area where there are spa treatments, lodges, and the like. Pretty interesting place to relax but watch out for crowds as it was very busy when we were here.
Wat Phra That Lampang Luang (Thailand): One thing that stood out about this mostly teak temple is that there are a pair of dark buildings with small holes letting in apparently the right amount of light to project an image of a chedi onto the accepting cloth. This phenomenon stumped me so that's why I can't stop thinking about it. Of course, there's also the assortment of Buddha statues, chedis, lots of people, incense, and even some bullet holes from the Burmese-Thai conflicts of years past.
Sukhothai Historical Park (Thailand): This extensive historical park contains several ruins and museums. Many of the ruins are impressive collections of tall chedis, giant Buddhas, and stucco elephants. In fact, the complex is so extensive that we toured by bicycle, which is an excellent low-impact way of seeing the area.
A particular famous feature of the site is the giant sitting Buddha at Wat Si Chum. Here, you could spend lots of time trying to photograph the massive structure which sits in what used to be an enclosure and is now roofless. But there's still a narrow entranceway that teases you closer for a look.
Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park (Thailand): This overlooked (by most foreign tourists) park is a UNESCO World Heritage site because it contains some very old ruins of bygone days of the Thai Kingdom. Here, you'll see Buddha statues allowed to weather and corrode into alien-like statues as well as crumbling walls of very old chedis and city walls. Set amongst some teak trees and being a pretty quiet place to walk around a reflect, it certainly distinguishes itself as one of the more impressive historical Thai sites like Ayutthaya and Sukhothai - except, it's much quieter here.
Angkor Wat (Cambodia): This is the signature attraction of the Siem Reap area of Cambodia. And this is with good reason for it's a large, shapely ruin with restored prangs right in the middle of it all. A moat surrounds the complex and there are many opportunities to take that picture-perfect postcard shot with reflections and lotus buds.
In fact, it's hard to comprehend just how many stones had to be moved from the so-called "mountain with the waterfall" to this ruin (among others). It was all done by manual labor and with elephants. Once you're standing here surrounded by these structures, that's when you'll appreciate just how much work was put into it.
Ta Prom (Cambodia): This is the ruins that the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movie made famous. For it's here that you'll find the signature trees growing their roots over the ancient-looking ruins. Unfortunately, there are plans to cut these trees down in order to keep them from further destroying the ruins (which is a move I'm not so sure I agree with). In either case, you'll probably be seeing a really different attraction in two years time.
Angkor Tom (Cambodia): This is the largest of the stone ruins in the Siem Reap portion of Cambodia surpassing even the famed Angkor Wat in terms of overall size. It actually consists of a series of structures and ruins but one of the main ruins consists of several prangs along with some 250+ Buddha faces strewn throughout. Of course this is also the busiest ruin in the Angkor Tom complex.
You could easily spend a day here given the size of the place. Unlike the Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand where you're encouraged to ride a bicycle to explore the sites, your options are more impactful here - from elephant rides to car shuttling to just plain old walking (if you have the time and energy).
Floating Village (Cambodia): Going back some 2000 years, this village literally is floating near the meeting of the Mekong River and the Sea of Fresh Water. Its aquatic lifestyle predates even the ruling of kingdoms and regimes thereafter. Thus, it's very interesting to check out and get a glimpse of what life was like in this rather unique ecosystem - despite the boats becoming more motorized and other modern things introduced to facilitate an otherwise humble life here.
Victoria Peak (Hong Kong): At the top of this hill, you can get gorgeous views of Hong Kong as well as the quieter backside towards the ocean. It's probably the must-do activity in Hong Kong if the weather cooperates, and I'm sure the night scene is even more gorgeous. I also got a kick out of the train that climbs up the hill to the top as the tracks seemed to get steeper and steeper the further it went.
Tsim Sha Tsui (Kowloon/Hong Kong): Sitting at the far southern tip of Kowloon (meaning 9 dragons in Cantonese), this describes the district across the harbor from downtown Hong Kong and is easily the most touristy part of the district. There's a little bit of a Hollywood style walk of fame where you can see film stars' names like Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, and others. But the views across the harbor towards downtown Hong Kong (especially at night) are magnificent.
Po Lin (Lantau/Hong Kong): The Tian Tan Buddha Statue at this monastery is said to be the largest sitting outdoor bronze buddha. You can take a cable car, bus, or hike to get from the main part of Lantau towards the monastery where you can then walk up to the 260 steps taking you right to the base of the Buddha. It's definitely quieter on this part of the greater Hong Kong area and makes for a pleasant diversion.
Elephant Hill (China): One of the attractions within Guilin City, this natural arch can be seen from a distance or you can get a closer look at it by paying for one of the raft boats. The park-like walk is littered with the Chinese character for elephant (exhibiting the pictogram nature of the language) and also meanders alongside a canal as well as a small scale garden. If you look in the distance from the garden area across the bridge, you might see another natural arch beyond the Elephant Hill on the opposite bank.
Reed Flute Cave (China): Even though China likes to artificially light up their caves, I think this is the one cave where the lighting and the standing pools of water make for a really surreal scene. They do hold light shows with music and narration in the large chamber that was once a bombshelter. But as for the scenery, I think we've had more people comment on our photos from this cave than any other. So if you're looking to take similar photos for yourself and you're visiting Guilin, take the time to visit this cave.
Li River Cruise (China): The 4-hour cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo along the Lijiang (Li River) is perhaps the must-do activity for anyone visiting this area. For it's on this excursion that you get to escape the urban jungle of Guilin City and be surrounded by more naturesque scenery, especially the world famous karst mountains that have made Guilin world famous. Once you're at Yangshuo, you can spend a night there as we did, or you can take a 2-hour taxi or tour bus ride back to Guilin City.
Moon Hill (China): About a 10-15 minute car ride out of Yangshuo, this giant natural arch was the main reason why we chose to spend a night in Yangshuo Town after our Lijiang Cruise. True to its name, this arch combined with a hill right behind its span gives you various phases of the moon depending on where you're standing to look at it. We only did the autotouring thing, but I'm sure if you're up for enduring the hot and humid conditions, you can probably find a path that takes you to its span for a closer look.
Qingyan (China): This is considered an ancient town though it's still an active shopping area for snacks and souvenirs. If you go in the quiet back way, you'll no doubt appreciate the stairs leading up through the ancient walls as pictured here. Once inside, you're treated to a charming assortment of shopping streets with a definite air of distinctly Chinese culture. There are also plenty of temples and shrines here as well, and definitely makes for a nice little getaway from the chaotic Guizhou capital city of Guiyang.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base (China): If you haven't seen a giant panda in person before, this is a great place to come face to face with them (and fall in love with them). This facility is completely devoted to captive breeding (and exhibiting) the giant pandas as well as red pandas, which are closer to racoons than bears. The park is pretty large as they have separate pens for pandas in different stages of life from very young to adult. If you're willing to donate money, you can also buy yourself the priviledge of petting one of the cute baby pandas. Sure it's not pandas in the wild, but given that they're critically endangered, you're not likely to see them in the wild anyways.
Grand Buddha at Leshan (China): About a couple hours car ride south of Chengdu lies the town of Leshan. The main feature here is the UNESCO World Heritage Grand Buddha, which lives up to its name as it's probably the largest Buddha in the world that's still intact. Behind a bunch of temples and praying areas, the main touring area on land involves a pair of viewing areas on either side of the Buddha as well as a looping and steep stairway getting you up close looks.
Another way to see the Buddha is from Leshan town's waterfront where there are tour boats going across the river and right in front of the statue where you can also see that there are side carvings in the cliffs flanking the Big Buddha. If you pay extra, you can get your photo right in front of the Buddha, but if you don't pay extra, you have to live with subpar views since the boat is strategically positioned to center itself so only the paying customers get the best shots. Just so you know.
Qianfoyan (China): We were fortunate to be driven to this (one of many "Thousand Buddha Cliffs" attractions in the country) by relatives who live here. Since we haven't seen tours come here, we suspect that might be why it's so much quieter and hence a very pleasant experience just walking before the impressive tiny Buddha carvings into alcoves here. And even though tours don't come here, it doesn't mean it's not worthwhile (quite the contrary).
Jiuzhaigou (China): Meaning the 9 Village Gully (based on the Tibetan villages of which only 3 are currently open to tourism), this nature reserve features some of the clearest and most colorful lakes and ponds we'd ever seen. Without a doubt, this is one place where after you visit it, you can close your eyes and just imagine this place when the word Jiuzhaigou pops up. It's that beautiful!
This contrasts with the sometimes well-deserved reputation of the environmental degradation and pollution as well as overpopulation that most of the country suffers from. Still, it's nice to know that this is one place that has still retained its natural beauty at the moment and we think should be tops on anyone's visit to China especially if they like natural landscapes.
Huanglong (China): A couple of hours drive from Jiuzhaigou lies the Yellow Dragon (Huanglong), which is known for its colorful pools and terraces trickling down the yellow hillside that has earned this park its name. The best time of year to come to this place is definitely late Summer and early Autumn because at other times of the year, the weather is bad or there's not enough water. But even when we showed up in May, the terraces at the top of the park are definitely worth the high elevation workout to get there. It's very reminiscent of the Mammoth Terraces in Yellowstone, except these are not hot springs.
Terracota Warriors (China): Ever since their discovery, this legacy of Emperor Qin has probably surpassed the Great Wall (also an Emperor Qin legacy) in terms of popularity and symbol of Chinese culture. This museum features three main pits full of restored, intact, as well as broken and undug areas showing the immense scale and paranoia of the first Chinese emperor. Also on display are horses, officers, archers, and even weapons and other artifacts excavated from this UNESCO World Heritage site. I'm sure you can't really say you've seen China without a visit here.
Big Goose Pagoda (China): Did you know that China has its own leaning tower? This particular one is near Xi'an, home of the Terracota Warriors and is perhaps one of the more impressive pagodas in the area. Besides there pagoda itself there's a couple of gardens as well as other Ever since their discovery, this legacy of Emperor Qin has probably surpassed the Great Wall (also an Emperor Qin legacy) in terms of popularity and symbol of Chinese culture. This museum features three main pits full of restored, intact, as well as broken and undug areas showing the immense scale and paranoia of the first Chinese emperor. Also on display are horses, officers, archers, and even weapons and other artifacts excavated from this UNESCO World Heritage site. I'm sure you can't really say you've seen China without a visit here.
Xi'an (China): Besides being the base of the Terracota Soldiers and the Big Goose Pagoda, you could argue that the city of Xi'an itself is an attraction. The reason is because it's literally loaded with impressive and historic buildings like the Bell and Drum Towers as well as the old city walls surrounding the city center. Moreover, there are nice parklike areas just outside the inner city walls as some of them house pagodas or other traditional-looking battlements. Plus, there's the happening Muslim Quarter with the street markets as well as the mosque hidden within the district. Add it all up and we think a stroll around the city is a great way to spend time.
Wulingyuan Scenic Area (China): This section of the greater Zhangjiajie area in northern Hunan Province perhaps epitomizes the Chinese landscape drawings and paintings you might've seen on scrolls hanging in some homes and stores. They're vividly etched in my mind growing up and after a visit here, we could easily envision now that those places in the scrolls aren't fantasy. They're reality!
What makes this place such an embodiment of Chinese landscape art is that you have towering limestone pinnacles, mountains, and cliffs draped in swirling mist. It's the kind of scenery you might associate with the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" movie if you weren't exposed to Chinese landscape art beforehand. Plus, the natural arches and bridges add further allure to this area that surprisingly doesn't seem to get many foreign visitors outside of Asia.
Tianmen Arch (China): This is Zhangjiajie's other major tourist attraction as it's one of largest natural arches in the world perched atop cloud-shrouded mountains overlooking the city. You get up here by cable car and from there you can take a bus right up to the start of the 999 steps up to the arch span itself or you can take a cliffhugging path that is literally above the clouds looking down at the scenery below.
The 999 steps up to the arch (translated as Heaven's Gate) was a deliberate choice as word for the number 9 sounds close to words pertaining to time and longevity when spoken in different tones. Plus, the snake-like road that twists and turns its way up the precipitous cliffs is also a thrill in and of itself. And if that weren't enough, you might even spot seasonal waterfalls and cascades around the arch either from the cable car or from the bus ride up!
Humble Administrator's Garden (China): Ever since we saw a condensed version of this garden in Portland, Oregon, we had always been wanting to see the real thing in Suzhou, China. And this one didn't disappoint as it's on a far grander scale and packed with historical artifacts and buildings as well as pretty flowers and ponds with a distinctly Chinese character to them. Give yourself some time to check it out because it's big and in three sections!
Canals (China): This is a catch-all term I'm using to encompass China's grand canal linking Shanghai and Beijing and considered one of the greatest manmade achievements in history (although it's probably terrible from an environmental standpoint). That said, this is China's version of Venice, Italy though it's got a totally different character altogether.
There are actually multiple canal towns though the famous ones near Suzhou are Zhouzhuang and Tongli. We actually spent the night in the smaller but charming Tongli though we toured the much busier but very impressive Zhouzhuang. In those towns, you can expect to walk amidst charming narrow streets crossing over bridges spanning canals where gondolas quietly pass underneath.
Shanghai (China): This city is rapidly poised to become China's version of New York as it's got a financial center, sightseeing places like the Bund, happening nightlife and shopping centers like Nanjing Road, and plenty of attractions sprinkled throughout the city from the Yu Garden to the Jade Buddha. Even though we could've called out each Shanghai attraction separately on this page, we think of this city as one big attraction by itself as a couple nights here can easily occupy any visitor out for soup dumplings, sightseeing, and an overall good time.
When we were there, the city was undergoing extensive construction in preparation for Asia World Expo 2010. So until this work is completed, you can expect lots of closures and construction dust. Nonetheless, you can still visit the city and do sightseeing anyways, but we wonder how the new Shanghai's going to look and feel. If Beijing's transformation for the Olympics is any indication, I'm sure Shanghai is going to be a greatly improved and happening place when all's said and done.
Siberian Tiger Park (China): Siberian Tigers (and most tigers in general) are a critically endangered species. And it's a shame since they're the biggest cats in the world (even bigger than lions). So if you want to see them, your best bet is to show up to this Haerbin attraction on the city's outskirts and ride safari style through the fenced off facility featuring various tigers as well as lions. At the end of the safari, you can walk through a caged pedestrian area that features other exotic (and endangered) cats like jaguar, white tiger, and even a liger!
Now whether the tigers here are ready for Nature (if it will ever happen) will remain to be seen since it's encouraged to pay for chicken, goats, or cows to feed to the tigers. In fact, if tourists don't buy anything, you can bet the safari driver will hastily drive through the safari portion making it difficult to take photographs unless you're quick with an SLR.
Church of St Sofia (China): If you're visiting Haerbin, an absolute must-see is the Church of St Sofia. For it's here that you get the best example of Russian architecture in the city. Who knew? Indeed this city has a bit of Russian heritage even though it's predominantly Chinese these days. Inside the structure, you could be forgiven if you thought you were in Russia instead of China. Besides the gaudy shape and arches of its architecture, there are photos inside providing a glimpse of what Haerbin was like back in the day.
Heaven Lake (China): Shared between China and North Korea, Tianchi (Chinese for Heaven Lake) is a revered lake sitting atop Changbai Shan (Everwhite Mountain). It's quite sacred to Koreans and it's not unusual to see just as many South Korean tourists as Chinese tourists here. However, whether or not you get to see the lake in all its glory requires a multitude of factors from coming here during the late Summer and early Autumn months when the lake isn't frozen to the fickle weather that might block your views with fog to the brutal Siberian cold climate at an altitude of over 2600m.
Temple of Heaven (China): This temple within Beijing and within a pretty easy subway ride to get here is an impressive complex of pagodas and historical temples as well as artifacts from the Ming Dynasty. Expect to do lots of walking as there are plenty of sights as well as long corridors to walk through and take photos. Also, there'll be lots of people as this place is one of the easier attractions to see while in the country's capital.
Summer Palace (China): This huge complex features many temples, shrines, pagodas as well as a very large lake, a marble boat, and even an island. Plus, there's a really really long outdoor corridor full of decorations and Chinese characters. Though this place is full of tour groups giving this place a bit of a crowded and noisy feel, it kind of gives you an idea of the wealth of royalty since the 18th century.
Great Wall (China): Clearly the de facto iconic symbol of China as this giant wall spans thousands of miles though only a few sections are suitable for touring given most of the wall has deteriorated into rubble due to neglect. Of the restored sections, the parts we visited were the Juyongguan and Badaling. We actually climbed the wall at Juyongguan, which is a tiring and hot endeavor given its steepness and exposure to the sun. But there isn't a whole lot in terms of that all encompassing photograph from here.
For that, you have to go to Badaling where many sections of the wall join together providing nice panoramic views. Though we were a bit annoyed with a Beijing Olympics 2004 sign within the panorama, it's pretty easy to take photographs without the amount of exertion we did at the Juyongguan section. Julie thinks if you had to pick one part of the wall to visit, this one's it.
Forbidden City (China): If you're coming to this mainstay of Beijing tourism, you better give yourself time because this place is huge... really huge! It could easily occupy at least 3 or 4 hours simply walking from one end to the other while exploring some of the side areas. In fact, we don't even think we saw half of what's inside this area full of the former royal opulence of dynasties past.
Yet even with the grandeur and size of this place, it still gets crowded as there's no shortage of tour operators and visitors coming in on their own. It doesn't matter whether they're local or foreign. You'll be one amongst a whole horde of people and sometimes you might even find yourself getting shoved around here and there within a crowd if you're in a crowded spot like say in front of a throne room. On the back side of the complex is a garden. On the sides, you may find museums with treasures and artifacts of dynasties past.
Tiananmen Square (China): This is said to be the largest public square in the world as it's one tremendously huge expanse of concrete on flat land. To the north, you can see the front facade of the Forbidden City with a large portrait of Chairman Mao right at the entrance. To the south, there are flags and pillars as well as a big modern looking building. And all in between is empty space. Indeed it's vast, and it's hard to believe this whole square was filled back in 1989 before the massacre occurred. Indeed, a visit here gives you a perspective of that turning point in Chinese history as well as a confirmation that when it comes to China, things tend to get grand.
Tokyo (Japan): Sure this might be one of the largest cities in the world, but since Japan's public transportation system is so efficient, we mind as well call the whole city one big attraction. In the full day we had here, we managed to see main city attractions like the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Senso-ji Temple, Harajuku District, Akihabara Electronics Town, Ueno Park, and Shibuya. It was a lot to digest in one go, but with so much to do and so much to see, it was easy to pass time quickly and fully experience this dynamic modern city.
Nikko (Japan): Like Tokyo, we're calling the whole town of Nikko as one attraction by itself since it's got three World Heritage temple and shrine sites as well as the Shinkyo Bridge and the Bakejizo. Sure I could've flooded this page with itemized Nikko sights, but with their reasonable bus system and concentration of World Heritage sites, we thought it'd be easier to talk about Nikko this way.
Perhaps the highlight is the Toshogu Shrine featuring the Sacred Stables and the "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys. There's also the Taiyun Mausoleum with its ornate tombs and buildings as well as the Rinnoji Temple. Indeed, most of the attractions here are well preserved and it's probably no wonder why you're likely to see as many foreigners here than anywhere else in the country. Nikko is Nippon? You bet!
Mt Fuji (Japan): Viewable from various places but most notable the Five Lakes region (go-ko) and Hakone region, the elusive summit plays hide and seek behind clouds for photographers (at least when we were there). However, this is like the must-see attraction of the country given this conical mountain's iconic stature as quintessential Japan. The Five Lakes region gives you chances to photograph the mountain fronted by one of five lakes. While the Hakone region is the more touristed section and provides classic views of the mountain. And during climbing season, the adventure of summiting this very tall mountain simply can't be resisted.
Matsumoto Castle (Japan): This UNESCO World Heritage site on the foothills of the Japan Alps in Matsumoto City contains one of the best preserved wooden castles in the country and is certainly the highlight of the city itself. Take your shoes off and stroll the interior of the castle going up several steep and narrow steps while getting nice views of the surrounding moat and garden area. There are also shogun artifacts within the castle.
Nara (Japan): Even though this is a city, there are plenty of well-preserved historical buildings concentrated within walking distance of either of the train stations (whether it be JR or private). Hence, it's a UNESCO World Heritage site especially regarding the impressive Todai-ji Temple, which has its own big buddha statue inside. But the exterior of that temple will easily draw camera shuttle clicks and the city's pet deer population are a source of entertainment for people like us who aren't used to seeing them walk around like beggars looking for deer cracker handouts. Also featured in the park-like atmosphere of the historical section is a 3- and 5-story pagoda as well as various other shrines and temples.
Nijo Castle (Japan): Unlike the other wooden castles in Japan, which are tall and imposing, this castle is low and showcases ornate walls and rooms. Especially cool are the nightingale floors which make squeaking noises like nightingales singing when you walk on them. Supposedly this was to prevent any surprises to the emperor (he always knows someone's moving). Too bad you can't take photos inside, but you can take photos in the surrounding gardens both inside and outside the castle walls and moat. It's one of many worthwhile sights within the greater Kyoto area.
Fushimi Shrine (Japan): This is one of the more unique temples we've been to as the central feature is the long corridors of toriis lined up in succession. Come in the late afternoon or early evening before it closes where the shrine takes on a very eerie feeling. Each torii has lots of kanji characters of what looks to be donors contributing the funds or the torii we think. Plus, fronting the corridors are attractive red shrines and temples. Definitely a worthwhile place to visit while in Kyoto.
Gion District (Japan): For a look and feel of the old school Japan where geishas still pop in and out of alleyways and traditional-looking residences, come to the Gion District. There, you'll find more temples and shrines as well as a park with a Japanese garden as well as a large cherry blossom tree (though it wasn't blooming when we were there in late May).
Still, a popular activity here seems to be trying to get that elusive geisha shot. We even saw one Japanese tourist follow a traditionally dressed woman down the street trying to get a good photo of her. I'm not sure if some of these women are truly geishas or maiko without the makeup, but you're probably more likely to see them playing the part in the evening when the district takes on a much more livelier feel. I'm not sure if the women appreciate being photo subjects as they seem to know when they're being photographed, but I guess it's all part of the mystery and allure of the whole geisha culture found nowhere else in the world.
Osaka Castle (Japan): This large structure has been destroyed in the past and has been rebuilt. So it takes on more of a modern look and feel. Now we didn't go inside the castle and pay the admission, but we did check out the structure from the pleasant vantage point of a tiny Japanese garden providing nice photo ops.
Dotombori (Japan): This is the happening night district in Osaka where there are heaps of eating joints, pachinko arcades, and sheltered shopping arcades. You'll find heaps of people both locals getting off work as well as tourists wanting a piece of the action. It was probably the highlight of our brief visit in Osaka and is definitely worthwhile to experience what this happening and modern part of Kansai holds.
Himeiji Castle (Japan): This could very well be Japan's most impressive and imposing castle as it dominates the northern end of Himeiji city. Besides the tall multi-story wooden structure, which you can visit with shoes off, there's also a very large complex surrounding it including another shoes off place at the West Bailey area. Inside the Himeiji-jo, you get very nice views of the complex looking out towards the city. And since it's reachable by only a half-hour train ride from Kobe and an hour or so from both Kyoto or Osaka, it can easily be done as a day trip regardless of where you're based in Kansai.
Shiretoko National Park (Japan): Of all the places in Japan, this could very well be the most wild part of the country. Sitting on the eastern peninsula of Hokkaido, it could be the only roadless wilderness left where no development exists except for the fishing hamlets on the coast. And it's for that reason that there is a healthy brown bear population as well as lots of birdlife and foxes as well as eagles and dolphins and deer among the many wildlife here.
On top of the wildlife sightings, which you can get from a boat ride or if you're an expert hiker prepared for bear country, there's also nice lakes and mountain scenery. Perhaps the easiest and most popular walk is at the Shiretoko Five Lakes (go-ko) where alpine mountains can routinely be seen reflected in the calm lake waters. It's nice to know places like this still exist in the world and it's one of the more memorable places in the country that we've visited.
Akan National Park (Japan): This park is all about the lakes. Perhaps the most revered and most beautiful lake in the country is Lake Mashu. But there are also other lakes that are a bit more interactive as they allow some degree of recreation. We even visited the Lake Wakoto area where we got to soak our feet in a really hot outdoor onsen while seeing clouds reflected in the calm lake.
In other parts of the park, you can also see a little bit of Ainu culture as there's an Ainu village at the Akan Kohan. That's where you can also see the spherical algae known as marimo balls.
Sapporo (Japan): Probably synonymous with the beer brand by the same name, this city made for a great bookend to our 2-month marathon trip and 3-week Japan leg. For within the city, we got to experience the Nijo Fish Market, see an Ainu Museum, see both the clock tower and TV Tower, and experience a little bit of the nightlife in Susukino while trying to pick one of the delicious Sapporo-style ramen restaurants in the ramen alley.
Taj Mahal (India): This is India's most iconic monument as well as its most recognizable feature as just about everyone associates this with the highlight of the country. Made of very high quality marble as well as being intricately adorned and engraved all over, we'd have to say that seeing this was definitely better than our jaded expectations. Indeed, it seems like a dream as the monument pierces through the haze and casts different colors as the light intensity and position changes throughout the day. We got to see the monument in the afternoon while the best time to see it might be during sunrise when it's quieter. However, the monument is closed for cleaning on Fridays so that's something to keep in mind when you plan a trip here.
This monument was built in commemoration of Shah Jahan's third wife (who was also his favorite), and it was her who requested that something be made to symbolize their love as she was dying on after giving birth their 14th child. Shah Jahan eventually settled upon a Turkish architect's idea, which came to embody the Taj Mahal, and the locals here often say that this is the only monument born out of a dream rooted in love.
Chandni Chowk Bazaar (India): This is a massive network of chaotic bazaars flanking narrow and chaotic alleyways crowded with foot traffic as well as rickshaw, livestock, scooters, and bicycle traffic. This is where many locals come to shop and where foreigners come to get lost.
Nestled within this chaos is also the reasonably-priced Karim's Restaurant which served the most delicious Mughlai food (let alone North Indian cuisine). Nearby this restaurant is the adjoining Jami Masjid mosque, which is an impressive structure with a wide courtyard, a fountain, and a trio of gates.
Humayun's Tomb (India): Considered to be the pre-cursor to the iconic Taj Mahal, this impressive tomb complex was perhaps the highlight of the attractions in Delhi that we'd seen. The giant building is fronted by ornate gates and walkways with a fountain facing the actual building itself. The historic nature of the complex also made this a UNESCO World Heritage Monument gazetted in 1993.
Qutb Minar (India): Also spelled Qutab Minar is the country's tallest brick minaret at 72.5m. Surrounding the impressive tower are ruins decorated with intricate engravings. A stroll through these grounds was reminiscent of some of the Nile Valley walks amongst Egyptian ruins. Sometimes you might see parrots here nestled in the upper sections of the ruins. Getting here takes longer than you think given Delhi's crazy congestion and chaotic traffic (allow about an hour from Old Delhi even though the distances aren't great).
Ranthambore National Park (India): This nature wildlife reserve has a lot going for it, and is certainly an important tourist attraction in the Rajastan state. The main reason why people come here (us included) is for a chance at seeing a tiger in the wild. We were lucky to have seen the oldest and largest tiger in the park (known as the Lady of the Lake). And when I say we were lucky, I'm serious, because you have about a 50-50 shot of spotting one unless poaching pressures threaten to wipe them out (thereby reducing your chances further).
In addition to a chance at spotting a tiger, there are also other wildlife such as various birds (including the kindfisher, peacocks, egrets, owls, hawks, etc.), various grazing mammals (i.e. sambar deer, spotted deer, etc.), monkeys, turtles, snakes, leopards, and even sloth bears. Some of the prey make distress calls, which are actually used by guides to help spot tigers for safari customers.
As if that wasn't enough, there's also a historically important and impressive Ranthambore Fort perched high up on the cliffs. It kind of gives a sense of history and heritage while this ecosystem is well on its way to recovery after unsustainable practices almost wiped out the megafauna here in years past. Note, I've also seen this park spelled Ranthambhore, just so you know.
Mumbai (India): This dynamic city embodies the contradictions of India. Here, you've got homeless street dwellers and touts living alongside mega mansions and high rises of government officials as well as the celebrity elite such as some of the Bollywood Stars who have made a home here. The city possesses a bit of British architecture as well as some intriguing tourist attractions such as Chowpatty Beach as well as some of the sites of the 26-11 attacks such as the Taj Mahal Hotel (still being rebuilt though it is open for business), the Oberoi Hotel, and the Leopold Cafe; all of which are in the tourist-central area of Colaba. Even though the city doesn't sleep, it's at its liveliest in the late afternoons and evenings when street vendors and the buzz of activity from tourists and locals alike converge on Colaba and Chowpatty Beach.
Agra Fort (India): This very large and posh royal structure opposite the river across the Taj Mahal is where Shah Jahan was held under house arrest as his usurping sons deemed their father too unfit to rule due to his mourning for the death of his third wife. It'd be from this fort that he'd stare out at the Taj Mahal for several years at a time.
Fatehpur Sikri (India): This is elaborate complex is considered to be the ghost city because it was abandoned only two weeks after it had been built. And if you visit this complex and look at all the infrastructure and resources that went into this place, it kind of boggles the mind how much was wasted. In any case, it's a pretty neat place to tour and it sits roughly over an hour's drive away from Agra city.
Panaji (India): Also known by its Portugese name of Panjim, this compact and charming little Goan town has some attractive Catholic churches as well as the scenic Ourem Creek flanking one side of the downtown area, and all of which is within walking distance of various local restaurants and accommodations. The buildings here have Portugese influence unlike anywhere else in the country and the streets are charmingly narrow and old school. In a way, it's almost as if a piece of Europe was transplanted into this Western Indian state, and this fact hasn't be overlooked by foreign tourists as you're likely to see many of them as you stroll about the charming streets of this town.
Goa Beaches (India): The state of Goa is most famous for its beaches. However, there are a plethora of beaches to figure out where to go as once chic destinations become sloppier than our LA beaches, while undiscovered areas become the new getaway places to be. In fact, many foreigners come here, and Indians think of this place as a great getaway holiday destination. We happened to be staying near Calangute Beach, which is not very impressive. However, the further away you leave (in both directions north and south) the city of Panaji or the airport at Vasco da Gama, the more likely you're going to have that quiet beach experience you've envisioned.
Old Goa (India): In addition to the charming Portugese-influenced town of Panjim, this little section contains some centuries old church relics and buildings such as the Se Cathedral and the Basilica de Bom Jesus. In the basilica, you can see the body of St Francis Xavier whose corpse somehow defied decomposition.
Murudeshwar (India): This intriguing beach town has a quirky combination of local Indian marketplace, a sandy beach (full of cows, chickens, and litter), and a giant Shiva statue with nearby temple. Aside from the crowds that tend to be here (many Indians locals love coming here), it was definitely a memorable place as it's not often you find such a quirky combination of these things in one place.
We also witnessed a funky sunset as the fading afternoon sun yielded some natural sepia tones. We basked in this scene over some vegetarian food at the nearby Naveen Beach Restaurant.
Marari Beach (India): We found it rather strange that the beach experience we expected to find in Goa ended up being right here. For it was here that we found peace and quiet while reclining on beach-side hammocks while feeling the cool breeze to help with some of the heat and humidity. Maybe most of the tourists head to the Keralan Backwaters and forget about the beaches here?
The one hazard we do have to warn about here is to watch where you step as there are several human feces mounds in the sand. This is because locals tend to squat and poop right onto the beach (we also noticed this in both Goa and Murudeshwar). I had the misfortune of stepping on one of them, but it didn't dampen my spirits as the peace and quiet is very well appreciated after going through so much chaos in India.
Kerala Backwaters (India): Apparently, this is the quintessential must-do experience in Kerala. As a tourist, you can take short motorized boat rides around the extensive canal system here as well as stay on traditional and semi-luxurious house boats. Besides the plethora of mosquitoes, this is actually a very relaxing and enjoyable cruise. Apparently some members of the British Band "The Beattles" thought highly of this experience, too, as Sir Paul McCartney (so we were told) just so happened to have stayed at the houseboat we got to stay in.
Maldives: This is a dimunitive nation full of atolls where the highest point is a mere 2m above sea level. Most of the islands protruding above the surface of the ocean are fringed by extensive coral reefs supporting a variety of marine life from black-tipped reef sharks to whale sharks to dolphins, and to other organisms like stingrays, birds, fruit bats, all sorts of reef fish, etc.
Given the low-lying nature of the country, it's very conceivable that Maldivians will become climate refugees thanks to climate change rendering their own lands unlivable. They're actually building a 2m man-made island called Hulhumale Island in the event the sea levels rise beyond what's managable for the people here.
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