4.02.2014

In five years, THIS will be Asia's hottest travel destination

A future headlining destination: soe lin
Yes, there are lots of options for people heading East for their holiday.  Thanks to Thailand's seemingly endless political troubles, rapidly modernizing Vietnam is on the rise as a tourist destination in Southeast Asia.  Malaysia remains one of the cheapest places to travel in the region, while the weak Yen has many people reconsidering a visit to Japan.  And of course, there is always China, with its gigantic list of possibilities.  

But none of these places will be Asia's new buzzed-about destination in five year's time.  That distinction will go to Thailand's western neighbor, Myanmar.  

12.06.2013

Can't get to Rio? Enjoy Carnival in Asia this year

Tokyo Carnival via LuxTonnerre

Even if you've never been to Brazil in February, if someone mentions the Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, images of gaudy floats, colorful costumes, over-the-top revelry, and perfectly proportioned scantily-clad dancers come to mind almost immediately.  Yes, if you really want to experience this pre-Lenten bacchanal, Rio is the best destination on earth.  Things are more toned down in Asia, but thanks mainly to centuries of Portuguese influence, a few destinations do have some very fun Carnival celebrations.


East Timor (Timor Leste)


East Timor, the youngest country in Asia and the place that most displays a Portuguese influence, is another south-of-the-equator Carnival destination.  Dili's Carnival is probably most akin to the celebrations that take place in the Caribbean: casual parades, a happy-go-lucky street-party atmosphere, and a strong dose of local culture.  Dili is still a pretty raw place, but that is what makes Carnival here such an attractive idea.




Goa


Carnival is celebrated in the former Portuguese enclaves of Western India.  The only event worth mentioning, however, is held in the tourist haven of Goa.  With floats, music, acrobats, dancers, and parades, Goan Carnival is a wild as it gets in super-conservative India.  A lot of the events have adopted a cultural theme, with locals taking the opportunity to introduce unique Goan culture and history to tourists.  Goa's Carnival is a little less over the top than its Brazilian peers, but generally, tourists will feel more at ease here and will still be able to immerse themselves completely in the street-party atmosphere.




Elsewhere


Yes, you can find some celebrations elsewhere in Asia, but these are quite muted, and some don't even take place until after the traditional Carnival season has ended.  One event worth noting is the  Carnival in the Asakusa District of Tokyo.  This area has a strong Brazilian presence because of decades of immigration.  A massive samba parade is held, not in February, but in the late summer.  Because of the South American influence (and Japan's fascination with dressing-up in over-the-top costumes), this is arguably the most authentically Brazilian Carnival parade in Asia, and certainly worth a visit if you don't mind waiting until later in the year for your fix of samba music and feathery costumes.  

Want good music? Go to Singapore (and jazz it up)

Singapore jazz scene by preetamrai

Singapore: it's the one place in Southeast Asia that has a truly noteworthy concert calendar.  Virtually every major pop, rock, and jazz act stops by on the Asia leg of their world tour.  There is at least one famous DJ, popular pop act, and well-known rock group hitting the stage in the city-state every weekend.  With the almost-annual unrest in Bangkok and the buzz-kills in KL canceling concerts on moral grounds, Singapore has become the only safe bet for concert promoters seeking a major market in Southeast Asia.


Singapore live music scene via chinnian

Early next year, the Singapore International Jazz Festival (nicknamed Sing Jazz) will be held at the Marina Bay Sands.  The line-up for the event includes jazz and R&B luminaries like Jamie Cullum, Natalie Cole, James Morrison, India Arie, Incognito, Gregory Porter, Allen Stone and Dirty Loops.  One day passes are on sale for prices starting at S$78 (that's about US$60).  Lots of local and regional acts will also be performing.  If you are a fan of these more-mellow genres, this festival is a pretty good deal.  If not, I'm sure you'll be able to find some more-MTV-esque acts on the concert calendar during the early months of 2014.  

12.05.2013

Vietnamese city to get English-speaking police force

the "mean streets" of Hoi An via AG Glimore

If you travel to Vietnam, you will probably not be a victim of a violent crime.  Muggings are very rare.  Stick-ups are almost non-existent.  In most cities, you can walk around at night without an issue.  Petty theft is another matter.  Pickpocketing, bag-snatching and short cons are commonplace in major tourist areas.  

Apparently, things have gotten pretty bad in the tourism hot-spot of Hoi An, the ancient town in Central Vietnam that is known for is historic buildings, night markets and awesome atmosphere.  A recent rash of bag snatchings and a growing number of complaints by tourists about harassment by vendors and beggars has led to a new initiative.   
Hoi An via Gary Cycles

The provincial government in Quang Nam, Hoi An's province, will be assigning English-speaking tourist policemen to patrol the streets of the city.  It's not certain whether or not these anglophone cops can lower the crime rate, but it will certainly make the city more user-friendly for tourists, who often simply give up when confronted with local cops who generally put on a hard-ass act with tourists rather than losing face because of their lack of language skills.  

Quang Nam and the other provinces of Vietnam's Central Coast have actually proven pretty savvy when it comes to tourism and development, so I would venture to guess that the English-speaking police initiative is more than a PR move and that the plan is actually to investigate the crimes that tourists report.  

Emirates launches world's longest commercial A380 flight

Emirates Airbus A380 via aero icarus

We don't usually offer a lot of coverage of Western Asia here at Asiascapes, but there is a story out of the United Arab Emirates that is definitely worth mentioning.  Emirates, the award-winning carrier based in Dubai, is offering non-stop service between its hub in the UAE and Los Angeles using one of the newest planes in its stable, the Airbus A380.  If that seems like it's a pretty long way for a non-stop flight, it's because...well...it is.  In fact, it is currently the longest A380 flight in the world at a scheduled 16 hours and 20 minutes.

This is actually a north-south route that passes over Russia, the Arctic, and Canada before following the West Coast of the US to the City of Angels.

16 hours is a long time to be aloft.  I've endured some pretty brutal 14 hour flights across the Pacific from Chicago.  But I have to say, if there is one airline that can make such a marathon palatable, it is Emirates.  Its cabins are roomy, even in economy class, there are plenty of entertainment options, the food is actually good, and the staff are unfailingly helpful and professional.  I've only used Emirates a couple of times, but that is enough to know that it easily beats the US carriers that I usually end up flying in terms of comfort, amenities and overall experience.

(via uaeinteract)

12.04.2013

Travel off-the-beaten-path with Asia's low cost carriers

Bangkok Aiways via aero icarus

Unless you are very familiar with the geography of Southeast Asia or you have traveled extensively, you have probably never considered visiting places like Miri, Malaysia or Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.  New air links (provided by two of the region's low-cost-carriers) will make it easy for travelers to go beyond the mainstream tourist scene and discover places like these that are well off the beaten path.

Nay Pyi Taw via Utenriksdepartementet UD

Bangkok Airways has just launched thrice-weekly service to Nay Pyi Taw.  Now the capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw (often romanized as Naypyidaw) lags far behind Yangon, Mandalay, and the southern beach towns in terms of notoriety, name recognition and popularity.  That's because it is an almost completely planned city that was only-recently built - just before the country's military leadership fell from power.  The population of the city is already approaching one million, but the roads, newly built malls and markets, and even the  golden-domed Uppatasanti Pagoda (a virtual carbon copy of Yangon's famous Shwedagon Pagoda) are almost always completely uncrowded.  

Miri, Sarawak via PhareannaH[berhabuk] 

The city of Miri, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, is another less-visited place in Southeast Asia that is now connected with a major hub city.  AirAsia Zest recently launched service between Manila and Miri.  Built around an oil boom, Miri boasts beaches, malls and markets, and plenty of great food.  It is also located near some of Sarawak's best national parks.  Admittedly, the beaches pale in comparison to Malaysia's best stretches of coastline, but add diving, trekking, and visits to the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park into the equation, and Miri is as attractive a place as anywhere else in Malaysian Borneo.  And, of course, like everywhere else in Malaysia, it has a great food scene.

As low-cost-carriers continue to make it easier (and cheaper) to get to off-the-beaten-path tourist destinations, people can travel beyond the obvious and really explore Southeast Asia in depth.   

12.03.2013

72-hours in China's best cities without a visa

Dalian by ashley wang
A growing number of Chinese cities are deciding to allow tourists to visit for a weekend without a visa.    Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, the boomtown (and corruption capital) of Chongqing, the northeastern hub of Shenyang, and Dalian, one of China's most user-friendly and pleasant metropolises, are all on the list of cities offering 72-hour visa-free stays to international tourists.

Travelers from most major EU countries, Australia, the US, and Canada are all eligible for these extended visa-less layovers.  This new policy might entice people to take an extended layover or to add a China leg onto their East Asian itinerary.  Hey, if time and money allow, why not add a weekend in Shanghai or Dalian (my personal favorite) onto your Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore vay-cay.

For a vast majority of travelers, though, getting a standard Chinese tourist visa, while an extra pre-trip step, is not nearly the headache it once was.  So if you want to spend a longer time in the Middle Kingdom, it's easy to do so.  But if you want to introduce yourself to China for the first time or discover a city besides Beijing and Shanghai, the new visa-free policy could make a quick stopover feasible and convenient.

This undiscovered destination in Vietnam is cool in more ways than one

credit: weendang

Vietnam can be a very chaotic country for tourists.  The traffic, the crowds, the heat and humidity, the ever-present hustlers: there is always a lot for travelers to deal with.

These negatives are all reasons why places like Da Lat became so popular for both international and domestic tourists.  The highland city was a place to get away from it all.  Cool weather, a chilled-out vibe, and natural scenery provided the perfect antidote to the crowded, aggressive streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the touristy beaches of Nha Trang, and the other crowded tourist zones.

Today, Da Lat is still a place to chill out.  The vibe is still unique, and the weather is always cool.  But it is no longer the untouched mountain town it once was.  There are more farms, more hotels, more people on those "secret" trails that lead to beautiful highland views.

credit: weendang

Enter Mang Den.  This mountain town is very similar to the Da Lat of the previous century.  Like Da Lat, this kilometer-high town has cool weather year round.  Unlike the highland hotspot, though, Mang Den is almost completely untouched.  Pine forests are everywhere, and the local streams are still unpolluted and filled with fish.  The "secret" waterfalls, lakes, and scenic overlooks that define the Da Lat experience are also found in Mang Den.  The difference: in Mang Den, you will be alone on the trails and you won't have to share the view with anyone else.

Mang Den is about 30 miles from Da Lat, so if the larger city doesn't live up to your expectations, there is another option only a short ride away.