Here’s an experiment – ask anyone around you where their last vacation was. Odds are, places like Seoul, Bangkok, Tokyo, Taipei or Bali will pop up. For decades, these cities have come up tops as the most visited cities in the world, welcoming millions of tourists every year! In fact, some of these cities have made the list of top 10 most-searched or most-booked travel destinations in 2021 and 2020, according to Expedia.
Although many local travellers are itching to catch their next international flight from Changi Airport to a dream location, one thing is for certain - significant change has been brought upon the travel industry in the past year. From cabin crew in masks to travel restrictions at its peak, no one can say for sure what the future of travel beholds. Nonetheless, when travel restrictions do eventually ease up, starting with a short getaway closer to home can get your travel engine revved up with before planning for a longer trip down the road. Here are 10 must-visit destinations in Asia that will surely satisfy your wanderlust, or at least have you dreaming of these fantastic places again - for now! Doesn’t matter if it’s your first time or if you’ve visited before, we’re sure these top picks will make their way into your upcoming bucket list of Asian destinations.
1. Bali – Not just a beach holiday
Bali is synonymous with its beaches and easy-going atmosphere. Sunbathers, backpackers, thrill-seekers or history buffs can all find their centre here.
Ever-popular beaches like Kuta are a surfers’ paradise, while Nusa Dua’s upscale family resorts make for more tranquil waters. Nyang Nyang or the black volcanic sand of the Balian Beach have a growing fanbase too. Wherever you go, water sports here have been perfected to an artform. Where else are you going to be able to fly a water jetpack or go exploring the depths in your own personal submersible?
But there’s more to Bali than just its beaches. Swap the two-piece for breathable cotton and head inland to Ubud, Bali’s arts and cultural centre. You may know it for the Monkey Forest, but Ubud is also brimming with artisanal shops, galleries and museums, both traditional and contemporary. Take home a little (or big) piece of the island with Hindu wood carvings or even a theatrical Topeng (masks in Indonesian) when you visit spots like Mas Village.
Whichever route you pick during your time in Bali, you’re bound to find something new to experience, take home, or see.
2. Bangkok – Land of a thousand bargains
World-renowned cuisine, cheap prices, and a milieu of culture have made Thailand the poster city for both luxury travel and affordable getaways. While Chiang Mai further up north may have the edge on scenic vistas that makes it one of the world’s most beautiful places, Bangkok remains a hotspot for its vibrant city life. Here, party animals can revel at international music festivals like Road to Ultra: Thailand, while traditional festivities like Songkran are an eye-opener, even on repeat viewings.
With just about everything under the sweltering sun up for sale, Chatuchak Weekend Market is near and dear to many. You can indulge yourself in all manner of clothes, accessories and trinkets, at a fraction of the price - probably one of the best places to go when shopping for yourself and the kids. Street food is a guilty pleasure too! Find food trends like Thai milk tea or stir-fried ice cream that commonly pop-up on your social media feed lined up in rows. Why stay hydrated with water when you can do so with coconut ice cream, right?
After doing so, you can take refuge from the blazing heat at Mixt Chatuchak, a brand new air-conditioned shopping mall that opened in 2019 with more than 500 shops, situated right next to Chatuchak Market. With zones for food and beverage, beauty, home and decor, spas and fashion, you’ll be able to shop anything from trendy and hip clothes to handmade leather goods. Get your hands on modern homeware, indulge in a wide variety of Thai and other cuisines, and even get a massage or manicure! Plus, you don’t have to wait till the weekend to visit because it’s open all week!
Additionally, Bangkok’s café-hopping scene is brimming with numerous themed venues nestled in the city. If you need a more in-depth guide to Bangkok, see it in a different light through the eyes of an expat!
3. Ho Chi Minh City – A metropolis rooted in tradition
With more hustle and bustle than the capital, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) draws visitors in with its metropolitan charms and French influence, without forgetting its traditional roots.
And who would want to, with east-meets-west fare to drool over like bánh mì (liver paté baguettes), phở (rice noodles in beef broth) or gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese spring rolls) a universal sight in cafés and street stalls? Visit the sprawling Ben Thanh Market for traditional textiles, dried nuts and fruits. Alternatively, grab your monopods and take a cruise down the postcard-perfect floating markets at Cai Be along the Mekong Delta. If it’s your first time visiting the city, here’s a checklist of the things you can see and do.
Backpacker or wild child, Bui Vien’s reputation as the new, unadulterated Khaosan Road of Southeast Asia is well deserved. Soak in the city’s nightlife in its many pubs, bars and roadside stalls – just remember to keep an eye on your belongings, or opt for an anti-theft wallet!
4. Hong Kong – Packed, in every sense
Travel to Hong Kong and you’ll be sure to feel the unmistakable city buzz of activity in this concrete jungle. Skyscrapers tower over dense rows of flats, all decked out in neon signs. The tiny island-state (only 1.5x larger than Singapore) is also packed with things to do, see and stuff your face with.
After all, where else can you find better dim sum or noodles than at the cha chaan teng (tea restaurant) on the streets? Eateries like Capital Café have built loyal followings with classics like scrambled eggs and toast or bo lo bao (sweet buns stuffed with thick slabs of butter). Some, like Mido Café in Yau Ma Tei, are even frequented by Hong Kong’s film and television stars!
It’s a shoppers’ paradise too with plenty of reasons to splurge on affordable fast fashion at the Ladies’ Market and Temple Street Night Market in Mongkok, to sweet deals on electronics in West Kowloon. For the bargain hunters seeking out higher end brands at outlet prices and looking for places to go with the kids, check out ‘The Lanes’ – two alleys (Li Yuen streets) bursting with factory outlets and market stalls offering discounted clothing, costume jewellery, watches, children’s clothes to luggage and shoes.
Need a full-blown itinerary of things to do with the kids when you travel to Hong Kong? Many magical school holidays are also had at Disneyland Resort! Besides its slew of family-friendly attractions, you’d definitely want to go on weekend romps in the glitzy casinos of nearby Macau. Hong Kong may feel claustrophobic in places, but it’s also brimming with culture, shopping, delectable cuisine and not to forget, nightlife at the popular Lan Kwai Fong area.
5. Kuala Lumpur - Same same, but different
Next up is a city near and dear to many Singaporeans, Kuala Lumpur (KL)! It’s not uncommon for Singaporeans to visit family here, but there’s more to do here than just catching up.
For one, why not settle the immortal debate of Singaporean versus Malaysian cuisine by sampling it for yourself? Spots like Jalan Alor offer long stretches of Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian cuisine to rival our hawker centres. Fans of staples like hokkien mee (a stir-fried noodle dish that originated from China’s Fujian province) can pass the rule on the differences here – KL’s dark soy sauce version is glazed with wok hei (a smoky flavour imparted from cooking in a wok on high heat) versus the Singapore ‘white’ version, which is stir-fried with fragrant stock. Beyond Jalan Alor, check out our guide to an authentic foodie experience in KL.
KL’s no stranger to megamalls either. Berjaya Times Square, Mid Valley Megamall or the glitzy Sunway Pyramid (complete with its own “Sphinx”!) will leave you spoilt for choice. Down on the ground, Petaling Street Market is a favourite haunt for those who like a haggle – though we can’t guarantee the many handbags, watches and shoes aren’t counterfeits!
While canopy walks and rooftop bars are plentiful in both cities, KL edges out Singapore in terms of city escapes. Beat the tropical heat with a visit to Genting Highlands, a long-time respite for Singaporeans which has recently undergone renovation and is expected to debut a new 20th Century Fox World theme park in 2021. Or head to the majestic Batu Caves – a mountainside Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan for its colourful and breath-taking sights. KL may look the same on the surface, but there’s much the city can offer that one can’t find in Singapore.
6. Manila – Loud, chaotic and vibrant
The capital of the Philippines wears its history proudly on its streets, alleyways and buildings. It’s where the skyscrapers of Makati Financial District frame the skyline of Spanish colonial buildings in Intramuros and a city where you can relive the quaint 18th century by exploring the villas of Plaza San Luis Complex. Looking for a place to chill out with friends? Give luxury travel a taste and enjoy a metropolitan sunset with grilled squid and beer atop the stately Bayleaf Hotel.
For the shopaholics, megamalls like the waterfront SM Mall of Asia, Greenbelt and Glorietta in Makati, to SM Megamall in Mandaluyong City provide rows of high street and local fashion. Or venture into ukay-ukay (which translates literally to “dig dig” from Tagalog) stores dotting the capital that sell pre-loved European and American labels, sometimes by the kilo. A good one to start at is Anonas Mall in nearby Quezon City. Lovers of online shopping can revel in the fact there’ll be piles to uncover great finds - be prepared to spend some time sifting through them!
Must-try Filipino food include the famous halo-halo (crushed ice topped with evaporated milk, yam and sweetened beans), palabok pancit (noodles in shrimp sauce topped with ingredients like cooked shrimp) or adobo (meat or veggies marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and black peppercorn sauce) – all of which are staples on menus in restaurants. If you’re a little more adventurous, balut (a boiled, developing duck egg embryo eaten straight from the shell) is a Pinoy specialty.
7. Seoul – Find your soul here
Since the early 90s, the Hallyu (Korean Wave) has conquered everything from television screens, bedroom walls, phone covers to hairstyles. Through the sheer power of pop culture, South Korea has transformed itself into a cultural centre of the world – with Seoul at the heart of it all.
Must-visits include Gyeongbokgung Palace, the historical seat of the Joseon Dynasty, and a common sight in many period K-dramas, and one of five, yes five, palaces in the city alone.
For those less historically inclined, places like Dongdaemun Market or Myeongdong house the best of Korea’s cosmetics and fast fashion in sprawling megamalls and market streets. It may not have a billboard-smashing hit named after it, but the Hongdae district is worth a visit too. Art galleries and rustic cafés thrive in the bustling underground culture surrounding the university here.
And the food? From piping hot street food, stews, live seafood at Noryangjin Market to the Korean fried chicken and beer you see in every K-Drama – you’ll never go hungry in Seoul. Just be sure to take your health supplements regularly for all the sinful foods you’ll be feasting on in the largest metropolis in South Korea.
If you feel like you’ve seen everything in Seoul – hop on over to Busan and Incheon with our itinerary in hand.
8. Taipei – Night markets and cheap eats
The birthplace of the bubble tea craze that swept the world – Taipei has stolen many hearts with its outrageously cheap street food, ubiquitous night markets and breath-taking natural beauty.
Down for a long night? Head down to Ximending or Shilin Night Market. These unassuming, pedestrian-only districts transform into places of revelry at night. Like The Red House, an iconic red-bricked building housing crafts and clothing by local designers by day before sprawling into an assortment of bars after dark. We recommend checking out Hanko 60 – a grungy little joint decked out to look like a cinema on the outside. Enter however, and you’ll be treated to a medley of kooky cocktails, served in even kookier glasses!
Nature lovers can find peace simmering in the hot springs of Beitou’s mountainside resorts or hiking up the rocky ranges of Teapot Mountain or Yangmingshan National Park nearby. Whatever your way of fun, you’ll find it cheap and good in Taipei – a mainstay for many Singaporean getaways.
If you’re heading to Taiwan with your crew, an alternative way to experience it is via a thigh-burning, cross-island cycling trip.
9. Tokyo – Warp to the future, gaze at the past
Neon signs crisscrossed with giant electronic billboards, wacky, almost-alien flavours, and high-tech innovations in everything from its metro to the toilet bowls. Tokyo has captured imaginations for decades as a city on the bleeding edge. While many cities, including Singapore, have since given it a run for its money in the avant-garde race, holidaying in Tokyo remains a travel bucket list for many.
From cafés in just about any theme you can think of, tech hotspots like Akihabara (literally “Electric Town”), counter-culture districts like Harujuku, and tiny ramen shops to Michelin-starred restaurants, Tokyo is a town of endless activities and interaction that can almost overwhelm you. Here’s a guide from locals on how you can navigate Tokyo in style.
It's not all smart toilets and capsule hotels though, especially with a wealth of traditional culture steeped in its nooks and crannies. Kyoto might have its famous red Torii gates at the Fushimi Inari temple, but Tokyo’s Nezu Shrine in the sleepy Bunkyo Ward offers an equally scenic spot for the Gram’.
10. Yangon – Paradise untapped
Myanmar is a relative newcomer to modern tourism, having only reopened its borders in the late 90s. However, it’s largest city, Yangon, makes our travel bucket list, having steadily climbed the tourism ranks ever since!
Despite the rapid growth, Yangon is perfect for relaxation. Spend the afternoon at tea shops around the city or sink into a chair at Chinatown on 19th Street with beer, barbecue and football or local lethwei (kickboxing) matches.
Fans of architecture will appreciate Pansodan Street’s many colonial buildings, the most in Southeast Asia in fact. You can people-watch in equal measure too, with bygone professions like typewriters and street plumbers still plying their trade here!
The city’s golden pagodas draw in many religious or spiritual tourists too. The towering jewel-encrusted stupas at Shwedagon Pagoda and a monumental (65ft!) reclining statue of Buddha at the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda are truly captivating to behold.
We hope this was a nice reminder of the wonders these destinations offer, even to seasoned travellers and backpackers alike. It’s probably been some time since most of us travelled, so we hope you’ll keep these top Asian destinations in your long-awaited vacation plans!
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