Asia

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Asia.

luan-prabang

The Ancient Spirit of This Place is Still Alive: Luan Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, with its meld of Franco-Indo-Chinese traditions, architecture and food, was once the capital of Laos and still has that air of importance. The sacred-to-Buddhists Mount Phou Si has gorgeous views of the city and the surrounding mountains and rivers.

Wat Xieng Thong, the region’s most magnificent Buddhist temple and monastery, is lavishly gilded and utterly peaceful, housing a standing Buddha as well as a rare reclining one. Wat Wisunarat is one of the oldest temples, with a sizeable collection of Buddha statues calling for rain. The Royal Palace Museum houses the crown jewels of Laos, as well as a carefully preserved retelling of the country’s history, and the solid gold Prabang Buddha statue. If you’re an early riser, cover up and watch the Alms Giving ceremony, where Luang Prabang’s monks practise walking meditation around the town, receiving rice and food for the day.

Monks making their daily rounds - they live on the alms they manage to collect

Monks making their daily rounds – they live on the alms they manage to collect

For something different, try the Bamboo Tree Cooking Class, which gives you the full experience, from shopping to prep and eating what you cook.
Take a day-trip to Kuangsi Waterfalls by shared minivan or tuk-tuk, and enjoy the beautiful falls. Sharing transport will lower costs as well as turn the day into a picnic of sorts.

kuangsi-waterfalls

The stunning Kuangsi waterfalls

The Pak Ou Caves is another great day-trip destination. The upper and lower caves are famous for the thousands of Buddha statues and images left behind by travelling pilgrims to mark their journey. Take the opportunity to cruise down the Mekong River.

pak-ou-caves

Pak Ou Caves


LEAVE ON A JET PLANE: Return flights start at 545 USD from Mumbai and 638 USD from New Delhi
VISA: 42 USD  (on arrival)
GET AROUND: Luang Prabang is very easy to explore on foot. So give your legs a stretch or treat yourself to tuk-tuk rides. Tourists are chared around 1.5 USD for short tuk-tuk rides. Bike rentals cost around ? 1.5 USD to 3USD/ day, and offer more flexibility.
The eco-friendly E-Bus is a cheap and unhurried way to get around, especially the green line for visitors.
STAY: Luang Prabang’s hostels aren’t too highly recommended, but its guesthouses are quite reasonably priced. Try these options: Villa Ban Lakkam, Lao Wooden House and Lan Kham Riverside. Sala Prabang is not cheap, but is worth the splurge.
EAT AND DRINK: Feasting is a national pastime in Laos, and Luang Prabang is no exception. Fresh, sharp flavours abound, with a variety of succulent meats and robust Laotian coffee on offer. Try the Colonial Cafe Le Ban Vat Sene. Some of the best Lao food in town is at tiny Cafe Toui. Head to the Night Market after 9pm for desserts, like sticky rice and coconut cream, hibiscus smoothies and more.
WHEN TO GO: March to May is hot with hazy skies, but that’s also when the Pi Mai or Lao New Year celebrations take place. June to October is the off-peak monsoon, so prices and numbers plummet. The best time, and peak season, is November to February – this is when reasonable prices and comfortable climates meet.

Dive Into The Incredible History Of China

The name Grimaldi is inexplicably tied to Monaco. In 1395, descendants of a 12th century Genoese statesman took control of the principality and it has remained in their hands ever since. On the other side of the world and 250 years later, a similar attempt to seize power was taking place as the Qing dynasty swept through China. It took them over four decades to conquer the country, from the mid-17th century onwards, but the 150-year reign was a period of great stability for the ever-growing nation.

“The Qing dynasty were builders, bureaucrats, artists, scientists… They built modem China,” says exhibition curator and Honorary General Curator of Heritage Jean-Paul Desroches. “They had a new approach, a new dynamic.” The Qings heritage was somewhat at odds with Chinese culture at the time. They had semi-nomadic roots while the rest of China was invested in agriculture. But despite their differences, the Qing epoch was a golden period for China and its people in terms of culture, art and the pursuit of knowledge. The Grimaldi Forum’s summer exhibition, La Cite Interdite, takes visitors on a tour of the Forbidden City, which was first built in 1420s and remained the imperial palace throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.

China-sunset

Of the 250 paintings and artefacts that feature in the exhibition, 200 have been sourced from the Forbidden City palace itself and many have never been seen before outside of China. The remaining works have been provided by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions such as the Louvre and the Musee des Arts de I’Asie in Pans, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and the British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Desroches first presented a China-themed exhibition in Monaco back in 2001 with China, the Century of the First Emperor. This time it is the Qings (1644-1911), their home and their heritage who have piqued his interest. “The Forbidden City is at the heart of the Beijing, which is at the heart of China, which – in turn — is at the heart of the world for the Chinese people,” says Desroches. “We want to immerse visitors in the world of the Forbidden City.”

The Beijing palace, which can be explored in depth at the exhibition, is a replica of the skies, with the emperor as the polar star and the rest of the world moving around him. The Chinese were famous for their astronomy — the exhibition includes the first documented map of the solar system by Chinese hands and dates from the early Tang dynasty — but it was during the time of the Qing that this art truly flourished. Struggling to secure support from the Chinese elite, who thought of the Qings in the early days as uncultured invaders, Jesuit scholars and artists were invited to work at court and assist the Chinese in further developing their expertise.

Their Western influence and breath of knowledge revolutionised China. The second Qing emperor, Kangxi (1662-1722), was particularly welcoming of the Jesuits and was a proficient mathematic and intellectual himself. He was also an accomplished musician and had a teacher called Grimaldi – although it isn’t know if this family was directly related to the sovereign family of Monaco! One wool and silk painting from the early 8th century and a feature at the exhibition is believed to have been painted by a Frenchman and depicts Emperor Kangxi listening to German astronomer Adam Schall. The annual calendar was established by Schall and his Flemish successor, astronomer Ferdinand Verbiest. Another notable Westerner to infiltrate Chinese culture was Frenchman Jean-Denis Attiret who was trained in Rome then sent to China Works attributed to him include an oil painting of a concubine dating from 1750-60.

China

At over 2.5 metres tall, the Hongli Hunting Deer silk painting is one of the largest pieces to be included in the exhibition, but it is also one of the most telling. Emperor Qianlong, who is depicted in the painting, was the fourth and most prolific Qing emperor, and was in many ways entirely assimilated with Chinese cultural norms. This stylised artwork of unknown origin, however, reveals that Qianlong was still very much in touch with his Manchu Mongolian ancestry and every autumn would participate in great, traditional stag hunts. Perhaps one such successful hunt resulted in the construction of the beautiful antler throne that features in the exhibition.

From calligraphy, sketches and paintings to furniture and pieces of ceremonial dress, which are extremely rare finds and each piece may only have been worn once, twice or even three times in its lifetime, the exhibition is designed to be wholly immersive. As Desroches explains, it was envisioned as a place where the visitor is transported to the realm of Qing and the vast Forbidden City, which measures an astonishing 72 hectares. The exhibition is taking place from 14th July to 10th September.

tokyo-japan

Discovering Tokyo – Japan

The capital of Japan is a happy, exciting place, with tonnes of cheap and free things to do. Start with a free guided tour led by volunteers and become familiar with the layout of the city.

Stroll through the vast green spaces and foliage of Meiji Jingu and neighbouring Yoyogi Park; the latter featuring cosplay at times, which makes for a great evening. Tsukiji fish market is a must-see, and the best time is early morning. A session at the relatively cheap Jakotsuvu Onsen will help you get to sleep early.

meiji-jingu

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo

During the day, you can take a free guided tour of the Imperial Palace grounds, conducted by the Imperial Household Agency. Plan to go on a Sunday, when you can rent a cycle for the picturesque moat-and-pine-tree-view 3km course around the grounds. Do also visit Sensoji Temple, then wander its nearby winding lanes that offer bargain shopping, and head to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building sky tower for stunning and importantly, free, views of the city at night.

Imperial Palace - Tokyo

Imperial Palace – Tokyo

If it’s your thing, lose yourself in yourself in anime at the Tokyo Anime Centre, and trawl the streets of Akihabara for the latest in gadgets and toys. Or pick up arty skills at Origami Kaikan and watch sumo wrestling practice sessions at Arashio Beya. But, most importantly, download a translation app at Narita Airport, so you can take a screenshot of the Japanese translation for “Is it free of charge?” and travel smart.

arashio-beya

Arashio Beya

LEAVE ON A JET PLANE: Return flights start at 557 USD from Mumbai and New Delhi VISA: 7USD

GET AROUND: Tokyo’s metro system is sugoi (wonderful). Taxis will burn through your entire budget. Get a SUICA Pass, which also works at convenience stores. For train travel outside of Tokyo, get a Japan Rail Pass and plan your dates carefully.

STAY: Tokyo’s hostels are some of the nicest you could find. Look in the central Ikebukuro area, which is cheaper than overpriced Shinjuku. Options include Book and Bed Tokyo, Sakura Hotel Ikebukuro, Bunka Hostel Tokyo and The Ryokan Tokyo Yugawara.

EAT AND DRINK: When in Japan, eat ramen – it’s cheap and delicious. Grab breakfast at a 7-Eleven, where you will also find bento boxes for days on the go, or beer at half the rate when compared to bars. Fast food chain MOS Burgers has cheap, delicious burgers made to order, with a vegetarian option. Oh, and don’t forget to treat yourself to sake at an izakaya (local pub).

WHEN TO GO: Not during sakura (cherry blossom) season for sure. Despite rain and typhoons, June to July and September to December respectively are better.

singapore-breakfast

The Love For Breakfasts – Singapore  

Here’s what my first breakfast in my new home of Singapore looked like: sticky, slime-colored coconut custard jam slathered over a thin crisp of toasted brown bread, served with a side of two eggs so undercooked that their whites retained the clarity of newly dead fish eyes. Alongside, a small cup of coffee with an oleaginous blackness that rejected the advances of condensed milk. It was not love at first sight.

And yet, in a way that only travelers can appreciate, a passion was born. The basis of a classic Singaporean breakfast, kaya is a custard of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, flavored with pandan leaf, which gives the jam the perfume of freshly cut grass and the flavor of the underside of a lawn mower. In the Malay language, kaya means “rich.” But the richness doesn’t end with the jam. It’s served with barely boiled eggs, cracked into  the runny eggs served in cups. The jam was so fresh I ate three helpings and ordered another tapow (to go).

kaya-jam

Fragrant, earthy, and sugary, kaya jam is the star of a stack of toast

After more than three years of obsessing over breakfast, I reached the apotheosis of my kaya quest. A search for the oldest kopitiam in Singapore led me to Heap Seng Leong, a flashback to a world of “uncles” in pajama pants, milk-can ashtrays, and old men lingering over newspapers as the day turns from balmy to incendiary. Decades of dietary fads have gone unnoticed at this kopitiam, which specializes in kopi guyou-coffee with an oil slick of butter on top. The taste is just what you’d expect: black coffee plus butter. There’s a reason you don’t do this at home. The most amazing thing I saw here was the ancient proprietor hand-slicing a loaf of bread the size of a cocker spaniel. It was not the best kaya toast, but the improbable fact that this mid-century holdover is in business at all is astonishing.

When friends visited me, the first thing I would do is whisk them off to Tong Ah. I told myself I was showing them a Singaporean secret. But I was also revealing a bit about myself, and that’s the point of obsessions.

My passion for kaya—a food item my father found so inscrutable he put it on ice cream—really has nothing to do with jam. And everything to do with my love for and fascination with Singapore and Singaporeans. Along the way I discovered how to disappear into a faraway place and come away with a rich experience.

 Breakfast spots in Singapore

HEAP SENG LEONG:

HEAP-SENG-LEONG

Entering this kopitiam is “like stepping into a time portal,” writes Leslie Tay, the Singaporean behind food blog ieatishootipost .sg. “We need places like this so that our kids know where we came from and what it was like in the past. 10 North Bridge Rd.

TONG AH EATING HOUSE:

TONG-AH-EATING-HOUSE

Local kaya-philes love the extra-crispy toast served at this iconic kopitiam located on a street lined with old shophouses. Breakfast is not the only specialty- dinner features home-style dishes. 35 Keong Saik Rd.

CHIN MEECHIN:

For deliciously messy breakfasts served on weathered marble tables, try this old-school kopitiam in the Joo Chiat neighborhood, which specializes in toasted buns topped with custardy kaya jam. 204 East Coast Rd.

The Most Amazing Railway Stations In India

Sawai Madhopur Junction, Rajasthan – When passengers alight at Sawai Madhopur station, gateway to Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, they’re struck by the bright murals that adorn its walls. There is a giant painting of a banyan tree that covers the entire ceiling of a central hall. It is modelled after a real tree inside the national park, one of the largest in India. A number of forest dwellers inhabit its branches. Paintings of tigers, flocks of birds, and sloth bears cover platform walls and pillars of the small station, offering a colourful peek into life in the jungle. Painted by the artists from the Ranthambore School of Art, the spectacular murals capture the hearts of all who visit this National Tourism Award-winning station.

Autumn-railway

Royapuram, Tamil Nadu – The very first train to run in South India rolled out of Chennai’s Royapuram station in the monsoon of 1856 and travelled to the town of Arcot in Vellore district. Royapuram was southern India’s first station, in what was then known as the Madras Presidency. The original structure still stands today, making it the oldest functional railway station in the country. The simple red-and-white colonial building with grand Corinthian pillars is a heritage structure. The station underwent extensive restoration in 2005.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Maharashtra – Without a doubt CST is Mumbai city’s busiest railway station. But the metropolitan city’s transport hub is also a UNESCO World Heritage structure and one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in India. Gargoyles jut out of the high walls of this 19th-century masterpiece; they often spout water from their mouths during the monsoon. A high-arched ceiling painted with golden stars covers the ticket counter, while statues and carvings of peacocks, tigers, and other wildlife cover walls and crevices. An octagonal ribbed dome atop the structure is its crowning glory. Known as Victoria Terminus until 1996, CST is an arterial city station, one which took almost a decade to build.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh – The city of nawabs welcomes passengers in style at the splendid red-and-white Charbagh Railway Station. Built in 1914, the sprawling structure blends Mughal and Rajasthani architecture, and overlooks a huge garden located outside its front entrance. It was here, under the station’s cupola-studded structure, that Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. In aerial views, the structure with its small and large domes resembles a chessboard laid out with pieces.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Howrah Junction, West Bengal – With a mindboggling 23 platforms, this is one of the busiest stations in India. A melee of bookshops, tea stalls, and fast-food stands provide succour to passengers. This is one of the oldest stations in India, and the first train from Howrah ran on 15 August 1854, to Hooghly. It was the proverbial feather in the cap for British engineers, representing a new era in the colonial dream of expansion. Located on the banks of the Hooghly River, with the Howrah bridge leading up to its cherry-red facade, the station has starred in many a poster shot promoting the state. Its architecture is a mix of Romanesque and traditional Bengali styles, very much in sync with its surroundings.

science-express-india

Science Express Combines Perfectly Knowledge, Fun and Beauty of Nature

Rolling into stations around India since 2007, the Science Express is essentially a science exhibition on a railway track. For seven months a year, the train travels to various places across the country. Visitors, especially schoolchildren, troop in for guided tours. The train undergoes thematic transformations; it ran as Science Express Biodiversity Special from 2012-2014 and has been the Science Express Climate Action Special since 2015.

science-express

The pop-coloured interiors are lined with exhibits and photographs created by the Centre for Environment Education, National Innovation Foundation, and Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology on themes like the impact of climate change, adaptation, carbon footprints, and prevention of climate change. The next phase of the vibrant science lesson begins October 2016 and goes on till May 2017. (www.sciencexpress.in; entry free).

  • Around the world: If the train tracks of the Indian Railways were laid side by side, they would cover Earth’s circumference twice over, and then some more.

Other Beautiful Indian Rail Routes:

tiger-express-india

Take The Tiger Express and Get Enthralled By India’s Wilderness

TIGER EXPRESS

ranthambore-national-park

Ranthambore National Park

Scenes from the jungle and India’s many heritage sites adorn the exterior of the semi-luxury Tiger Express that journeys to Rajasthan from Delhi. Passengers travel to Udaipur, Chittorgarh, and Ranthambore National Park to soak in the tranquility and myriad sights of the forest, and perhaps catch sight of the magnificent striped cat.

The entire train is a tribute to the national animal, so a journey aboard ensures the image of the regal beast stays with travellers long after the safari has ended.

Other Beautiful Indian Rail Routes:

BUDDHIST-CIRCUIT-SPECIAL-TRAIN

Step Into a Spiritual Trip Through Indian Rich Culture By Train

BUDDHIST CIRCUIT SPECIAL TRAIN

mahabodhi-temple

Mahabodhi temple – Bodh Gaya, Bihar

If enlightenment could be found on wheels, it would be aboard the Mahaparinirvan Express or the Buddhist Circuit Tourist Train. On this circuit, passengers travel to four key Buddhist sites in India and Nepal. Starting in Delhi, they first pay homage at the Mahabodhi Temple complex at Bodh Gaya in Bihar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Buddha attained enlightenment.

The train then moves on to witness the serenity of Sarnath’s Dhamek Stupa, and the fifth-century reclining Buddha at Mahaparinirvana Temple in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh. A bus ride to Lumbini in Nepal follows, taking passengers to the spot where Siddhartha Gautama was born.

DAKSHIN DARSHAN

sree-padmanabhaswamy-temple

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

Jaw-dropping sculptures and murals, serene deities, and mandapams: the pious and spiritually curious have much to see on the Dakshin Darshan train tour.

There are numerous Dakshin Darshan tours, starting from Mumbai, Delhi, Lucknow, and Agra among others. Itineraries include a visit to Trivandrum’s eighth-century Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, which is revered for its statue of Lord Vishnu reclining on a serpent. At Rameshwaram Temple, columns carved with ferocious mythical creatures greet visitors. And in Madurai, the highlight is the towering gopuram of Meenakshi Temple covered in sculptures painted in bright pinks, blues, and reds.

Other Beautiful Indian Rail Routes:

nilgri-railway-mountain

Travel High With The Mountain Railways of India

The mountain railways of India are narrow gauge trains curving across wooded hills and challenging mountainous terrain. Three of these trains are part of UNESCO’s Mountain Railways of India heritage list, while the fourth has been submitted for review. Affectionately called toy trains, they traverse some of the most beautiful routes in the country and are marvels of British rail engineering built between the 1890s and early 1900s.

DARJEELING HIMALAYAN RAILWAY

DARJEELING HIMALAYAN RAILWAY

This darling of Indian mountain railways was built in 1881. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was also the first of its kind to get UNESCO heritage status. The 8 8-kilo metre-rail line is all about the journey rather than any of the stations en route. It chugs upwards from New Jalpaiguri through tea gardens, flower-filled meadows, and vertiginous curves to about 7,200 feet at Darjeeling. The highlights of this heritage track include the famous Batasia Loop, a spiral line near Daijeeling which offers gorgeous 360-degree views of the Eastern Himalayas, and the lovely mist-draped station of Ghum, among the highest railways stations in the world. Originally built to take British officers from Kolkata’s humidity to Daijeeling’s cooler climes, the steam-powered train still remains one of the most charming ways to journey into the hills.

KALKA SHIMLA RAILWAY

KALKA SHIMLA RAILWAY

Built in the 1890s, the Kalka Shimla Railway has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is the gateway to Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj, and still among India’s most popular hill stations. Five trains run along the 96-kilometre track which is a massive engineering feat featuring 102 tunnels and a staggering 864 bridges with glorious viaducts. Offering a spectacular ride through small hill towns and forests of fir and pine, this route is popular with holidaymakers and honeymooners. Indian Railways has also introduced two special charter coaches—the Shivalik Queen and the Shivalik Palace Tourist Coach, which offer privacy, giant picture windows, and plush onboard comforts.

NILGIRI MOUNTAIN RAILWAY

NILGIRI MOUNTAIN RAILWAY

The third of the UNESCO heritage railways opened in 1899 and was extended up to Ooty (Udhagamandalam) in 1908. Nilgiri Mountain Railway offers a memorable journey through the lush Nilgiri Hills. Starting in Coimbatore, the train puffs its way through the hill towns of Coonoor, Wellington, and Lovedale before culminating in Ooty, having travelled 46 kilometres through tea plantations and mist-filled valleys. The train was a boon for travellers to these hills at a time when the only way up was on horseback. Its construction led to the further development of hill stations in the region. Today, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway together with the misty Western Ghats form a popular backdrop for Indian films. Several abandoned stations, old churches, and cottages along the way add to the route’s nostalgic charm.

KANGRA VALLEY RAILWAY

KANGRA VALLEY RAILWAY

The Kangra Valley Railway’s narrow gauge track is the only one on this mountain railway list yet to receive UNESCO heritage status. Running from Pathankot in Punjab to Joginder Nagar in Himachal Pradesh, the route dating back to the 1920s is both scenic and cleverly engineered. The well-designed track offers unsurpassed views as it makes its way up hilly terrain rather than tunnelling through the mountains. Although not a mountain railway in the strictest sense—the train meanders through for­ests, fields, and valleys before making its way up into the hills over a distance of 164 kilometres. Kangra Valley Railway is near­ly always backed by the snow-capped peaks of the Dhauladhar range. Aboard this train, passengers can see the various facets of the Kangra Valley, from its urban centres to its rural heart.

Other Beautiful Indian Rail Routes:

Royal Indian Train Rides

PALACE ON WHEELS

PALACE ON WHEELS

A traditional welcome with garlands and Vermillion awaits pas­sengers who board the Palace on Wheels. This luxury train starts in Delhi and loops through many famous tourist attractions in Rajasthan, before returning to Delhi via Agra Its elegant sa­loons, restaurants serving Rajasthani and continental cuisine, and furniture with inlay work take passengers back to a time when maharajas ruled the land. Palace on Wheels showcases the best heritage and wildlife along India’s Golden Triangle, includ­ing the grandeur of Hawa Mahal and Amber Fort in Jaipur, the wilderness of Ranthambore National Park, the timeless sands of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, and Agra’s centrepiece the Taj Mahal.

MAHARAJAS EXPRESS

MAHARAJAS-EXPRESS-interior

Those looking to experience the best of central and northwestern India in the lap of luxury should board the opulent Maharajas’ Express. The train runs on five separate routes across the states of Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat. Depending on the journey chosen, passengers may visit a dinosaur excavation site in Gujarat, feast on local delica­cies, and explore the temples of Khajuraho. In addition they get to relax in luxurious suites with large windows and have their meals in elegant dining cars.

THE GOLDEN CHARIOT

THE GOLDEN CHARIOT

Be it the erstwhile hunting grounds of Mysore’s maharajas in Kabini,Tipu Sultan’s Daria DaulatBagh palace in Srirangapatna, or the temples of Mamallapuram, The Golden Chariot flaunts the best of South India’s wonders. The train runs on two routes, both of which begin and end in Bengaluru. On board, guests live in cabins with modern decor tinged with traditional elements. The cuisine changes with the region the train is passing through, and local artists often perform in the train.

THE DECCAN ODYSSEY

THE DECCAN ODYSSEY india

Dubbed the ‘blue limousine,” the interiors of this train bring to mind the era of Deccan rulers, thanks to its jewel colours, extensive woodwork, and attendants dressed in traditional Maharashtrian attire. Its two restaurants, Peshwa I and Peshwa II serve Indian and continental cuisine. Rooms on the train have modern ameni­ties and decor with a traditional touch. The Deccan Odyssey runs on six routes across the Deccan, and also covers Delhi, Mumbai, Aurangabad, and parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan.