Last Thursday, Team Muddy came mid-table at the first pub quiz held at The Quince Tree in Stonor. Very disappointed to be so groaningly average when we so deserved to go down in flames but, God I love a pub quiz, and it was a really fun night (they’re weekly with another one this evening if you feel giving it a go). I mention it because the questionmaster stumped me with one question. He asked everyone in the room to guess how many of the 44 guests at the quiz had been to Asia. Anywhere in Asia. Even on a stopover. I said 37 out of 44, thinking how popular Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India are now, and how well travelled everyone tends to be. Nope – turns out less than half the room had even stopped over in Asia.
So I’ve been on the blower to Rachel at long-haul specialists Turquoise Holidays about the Top 10 Asian experiences they recommend on their trips, and below are her top tips. Book em up, tick them off, have an adventure!
Cycle through the paddy fields of central Bali
Bali is such a vibrant place with incredible beaches and really beautiful scenery. Up into the hills away from the touristy Kuta, you can explore the island easily on bicycle – the hotels that we work with have bikes that you can take out and we really recommend it as a way to see authentic Bali. Ubud is a great starting location – there are the Jatiluwih rice paddies there that are actually UNESCO recognised because they have such beautiful vistas in all directions and are really unspoilt. It’s about as far removed from the bright lights of Kuta as you can go! Or take an organised cycling trip go up to Kintamani, cycling through the local villages with views up to Mount Batur, the second highest mountain in Bali.
Jungle adventures with the Orangutans in Sabah, Borneo
Borneo is an incredible destination for those looking to combine a beach with natural adventure, and seeing orangutans in their natural habitat is just incredible. There are a couple of ways to do this – we recommend Sepilok, the orangutan sanctuary, a huge nature reserve where you see orphaned orangutans in a completely natural environment (and all money goes to the upkeep of the sanctuary). Or you can take a boat down the river and stay in one of the simple lodges perched on the banks. There are boat trips up the branches off the main river where you’ll see orangutans high in the branches above you, plus hornbills, proboscus monkeys, and other wildlife. Depending on your budget and inclinations, we also recommend flying into Lahad Datu, from which it’s a two and a half hour drive into untouched primary rainforest of the Danum Valley. There’s only one lodge there, the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge, with a collection of wooden bungalows with views out across the river and into the jungle. There’s a fantastic treetop walkway you can take in the area with a guide, and you can also do night treks and even a tube ride floating slowly down the river seeing hte wildlife as you go by. 2-3 nights would be enough here, and then we’d suggest a beach for a change of scenery. The best time to visit is during our summer, between May and October.
Stay aboard a traditional Junk boat in Halong Bay, northern Vietnam
Halong Bay is a stunning area of coastline dotted with 3000 limestone islands. It’s a real tourist draw for all the right reasons but to avoid the huge number of boats and cruises around these islands we’d recommend arranging a private boats – you can hire a small junk of 1-4 cabins, and go for more than one night. That way you’ll cruise further, you can pull up to shore and go out on kayaks or go on bike rides, and see this special little corner of Vietnam without the hustle of crowds. It’s a 3 hour drive from Hanoi, or you can take a 50 minute flight on a seaplane that pulls up right next to your boat! It’s a lovely way to arrive and also see the islands from the air.
Trek through the stunning countryside of northern Thailand
Chiang Mai would be the main gateway to exploring this beautiful part of Thailand. Chiang Mai itself is a vibrant city but also retains some of its original heritage with old city walls and low-rise buildings. There is lovely accommodation in the old part of the city, where you can walk around the temples and night markets. From there you can go up into the mountainous national parks and rain forests – short treks, long treks, overnight treks between lodges through jungle and waterfall, seeing local hill tribes and perhaps the most lovely of all, spending time with the rescue elephants in an Elephant Camp, washing them, spending time with them. You can also raft, cycle or even take an authentic local cookery course up here, Accommodation is more simple and rustic but still lovely (try Lisu lodge), and we usually suggest 2-3 days to properly experience this unspoilt side of Thailand.
Learn to surf in Seminyak, southern Bali
Cool beach bars, beautiful restaurants, nightlife that’s buzzy but not tacky and some of the best surfing in the world – Seminyak is part of a huge stretch of beach that starts at Kuta, and is home to the Rip Curl school of surf, one of the top places in the world for surf lessons. Look out for the fab Ku De Ta beach bar on the waterfront and the Potato Head beach club and check out Samaya right on the the beach for fantastic accommodation.
Climb Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Mount Kinabalu in Borneo is the highest mountain South East Asia – it’s the Kilimanjaro of the region, and a real achievement to climb it. This isn’t for everyone clearly – under 10s and the very unfit might want to give it a miss as accommodation is simple and it requires a lot of physical effort. You spend your first day trekking through the Kinabalu park for five hours, then you stop in basic overnight accommodation, before getting up at 2am the following morning to reach the summit for sunrise. They are truly magnificent views, seeing the surrounding rainforest, national parks and islands. Take your camera!
Visit the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia
This should be at the top of eveyone’s wish list for Asia! Angkor Wat in Cambodia is jaw-droppingly beautiful, a hidden kingdom stretching over 400km2, and over 1000 years old. It was rediscovered in the 19th century, having been left to the elements and overrun by the jungle. A big tip – explore the temples very early to avoid the heat and the crowds and give yourself a good 4-5 days to see all the temples, including Ta Prohm where they filmed Tomb Raider. One of the best hotels locally is the Belmond Residence de Angkor for luxury, but Sala Lodges are very cool too – a French couple found traditional Khmer homes, dismantle them, and rebuilt them with a luxurious finish inside. So it feels very local but with a great pool and restaurant too. Or there’s Phum Baitang in the countryside outside Siem Reap, landscaped with paddy fields – really luxurious but reasonably priced.
Learn to cook like a local in Hoi An, central Vietnam
Hoi An, on the central East Coat of Vietnam is a UNESCO heritage site. Only about 10 mins from the coast, it’s famous for is foodie, arty, creative vibe. It’s charming to look at, with its wiggly alley ways, and lovely bridges over the river, and as a heritage site it’s also beautifully preserved. It’s easy here to stay in a local beach resort (check out the Nam Hai) and then pop into Hoi An, but it’s also possible to stay in boutique hotel accommodation in Hoi An itself (consider Anantara Hoi An), and use that as a base to explore some lovely countryside and smaller Angkor-style temples. The the area south of Hoi An there’s farmland and we can arrange for customers to spend a day with the farmers, watching them plant or work, or use a local guide to take them around the sometimes bewildering food markets explaining exactly what’s being sold. There are some great cookery courses in Hoi An for foodies too, so it offers up more than you might at first think.
Kayak through the limestone Karts of Cheow Larn Lake, Thailand
Just north of Phuket is the magnificent national park of Khao Sok, home to incredible limestone karsts shooting up from the ground and a flooded valley where you can stay in a floating camp Elephant Hills. You have decking, your own tent, kayaks out the front of our accommodation and you can just kayak out into the most incredible scenery. You’d never guess it was just 2.5 hours from Phuket, it feels a million miles away.
Island bliss and total chill on Langkawi, Western Malaysia
Langkawi is accessed by a flight from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and is actually so close to Thailand you can see it on the horizon. It’s very unspoilt on this island, quiet, natural beaches, local villages going about their normal business. In the North of the island are a couple of hotels that are built right into the rainforest – one of the most famous resorts is Datai Bay where you get views across the rainforest canopy to the sea and one of the most beautiful unspoilt stretches of beach you’ll ever see. It’s probably more suited to couples than kids, so if you want to take the whole family another option could be The Four Seasons, with tropical gardens, and a natural ‘split’ in the resort between couples and more child-led constructs like the children’s swimming pool, clubs etc. Again in Langkawi it’s more than just a beach holiday – the island retains its original heritage, with rice paddies, mountainous areas, rainforest and jungle experiences. The best time to visit is between November and April, so a great option for winter sun and adventure.