Cruise holidays (don’t forget your cruise travel insurance) to Asia are exploding in popularity thanks to a heady mix of colossal skyscrapers, stunning temples and breath-taking scenery.
There are plenty of exciting destinations to choose from, ranging from well-established modern cities with an incomparable reputation among travellers to destinations establishing their reputation with cruisers. Here are some of the best cruise destinations in Asia:
A few days in the throbbing capital of China is an essential part of many Asian cruises. Travellers will want to take in the gardens of Ming Dynasty Temple of Heaven, the UNESCO-designated Summer Palace, the eponymous Forbidden City and the stunningly vast Tiananmen Square. Anyone wanting to bring home some unique gifts or mementos should head to the treasure trove that is the Pānjiāyuán Market for some serious haggling.
Hong Kong, China
Hong Kong’s 260 islands are a mishmash of beautiful traditions and startling modernity. Colossal skyscrapers, lit up with neon lights, loom over 13th-century villages and sacred temples. Travellers after perfect pictures should head to the burgeoning Kowloon neighbourhood, or take the cliff railway to the top of Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island.
The Po Lin Monastery is perhaps the biggest cultural draw on the islands. The rich, colourful Buddhist sanctuary is also home to the 34 metre Tian Tan Buddha, a bronze statue that looks North over China and its people.
Located at the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River, Shanghai is one of China’s most modern cities. The waterfront area known as the Bund or Waitan, offers an eclectic mix of sculptures and buildings designed in architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Classicism and the Renaissance. Walking the promenade at night is a must.
Wondering through Shanghai’s Old Street (Miaoqian Dajie) is also a must, the earliest bank, gold shop, jewellers, wine shop and tea house in the city are all to be found here. Cruisers with a little more time should head to Mt. Jiuhua, an exquisite complex of Buddhist temples, and one of the four sacred Buddhist shrines in China.
The capital of Japan is a sprawling blend of vibrant neighbourhoods, each with a slightly different feel and offering. Shoppers should head to Ginza which brims with famous designers, while those after more of a buzz should head to Shibuya, Shinjuka, Ropponji and Asakusa. Fish lovers should head to Tsukiji, the gritty fish market is the largest in the world.
Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Sensoji, is another of the city’s highlights. Finished in AD645, the beautiful building houses a 1400 year old statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which was fished from the Sumida river.
The former imperial capital of Japan and the emperor’s residence for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is a refined city full of splendid structures and fascinating formal traditions. A temple tour is one of the best ways to explore the city. Start with the Kiyomizu-dera temple which dates back to the 8th century, built across a waterfall, the temple has a veranda with sweeping views Kyoto and the tree gardens below.
Next on the list is Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). The top two floors of this striking temple are covered in gold leaf and its pond-side setting, surrounding bonsai trees and gardens complete combine to create a stunning attraction.
Finally, the Ryoan-ji Zen temple is the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden, the origins and meaning of which remain a mystery.
Adventurous passengers could head to the Gion neighbourhood, Kyoto’s most famous Geisha district, to dine in one of ochayas (teahouse) that overlook Shirakawa Canal.
Bali (Benoa), Indonesia
Known for its forested volcanoes, terraced rice paddies and plantations, beaches and coral reefs, Bali is the picture of a tropical paradise.
For a dose of culture, head to the iconic lake-side Pura Ulan Danu Bratan water temple or the Uluwatu Temple, perched on a cliff, 70 metres above the sea, Uluwatu is one of six believed to be Bali’s spiritual pillars and is one of the islands top places to watch the sun set.
For something a bit more brash and lively then the beaches at Kuta and Seminyak are the places to be. Quality food, clubbing and excellent shopping characterise the south beaches of Bali.
Bangkok is home to modern skyscrapers, royal palaces, ornate temples and a street scene rich with colour and frenetic life.
Bangkok’s two hundred year old Chinatown is a good place to start, packed with exciting street-side restaurants, market stalls and gold shops.
The Grand Palace is also a must, it is perhaps Bangkok’s most striking building and its grounds are also home to Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand, the temple houses a carving of Phra Kaew Morakot, completed from a single block of jade.
For another striking Buddha, travellers should head to Wat Pho – the oldest temple in Bangkok – where they’ll find the country’s largest reclining Buddha, clad in gold, measuring 46 metres long.
For shopping, the new riverfront Asiatique offers a brilliant mix of small vendors, antique shops, restaurants and street entertainers.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
Halong Bay is quite simply magical. Located on the northeast coast of Vietnam, the bay is home to almost 2,000 limestone pillars, topped by forest, that loom out of the water throughout the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong means ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’ and one legend has it that the beautiful bay was forged by a mountain dragon charging towards the coast while its tail thrashed the land, creating numerous valleys and fissures. When the dragon reached the sea, it submerged and flooded the area, leaving only the peaks of the gorges visible.
Touring the bay on a junk (Chinese sailing ship) is an unmissable experience for many.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam on full volume. Its energy is matched only by its diversity as you walk through time-trapped alleys into gorgeous temples before hitting designer malls and dizzying skyscrapers.
The spectacular Jade Emperor Pagoda is an assault on the senses, as is the Ben Thanh Market which is brimming with exotic foods, paintings, porcelain, jewellery and wood carvings.
The stylish French-built Presidential Palace, is also well-worth a visit and the city’s History Museum houses a fine collection of artefacts that trace the evolution of Vietnamese culture.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
It’s hard to miss the Petronas Towers, which loom 451 metres over the Kuala Lumpur skyline, head to the skybridge or observation deck for some of the best views of any city in the world. If travellers have a head for heights, the revolving restaurant at the 421 metre KL Tower is also a big draw.
For something a little more traditional head to the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, one of the city’s earliest Moorish-style buildings. Built in 1897, this standout landmark originally served as the centre of the colonial British administration. Similarly spectacular in its Moorish-style is the nearby Kuala Lumpur Railway Station which houses a typical glass and metal English railway building under its Islamic exterior.
The 1888 Central Market is a highlight for souvenir hunters who can find everything from designer labels and home furnishings to authentic arts and crafts.
Singapore, like many Asian cities, is a melting pot of ancient culture, modernity, traditional architecture and skyscrapers and all of it is worth exploring.
Often referred to as the Garden City, the island has a greening policy which means it is covered in rich flora, parks and gardens. The Singapore Botanic Gardens, founded in 1859, are regarded by many as the best on Singapore and feature over 10,000 species of flora.
The National Gallery of Singapore has the largest display of modern Southeast Asian art in the world, while Little India and Chinatown pulse with energy and dizzying aromas.
Shoppers will want to head to Orchard road, one of the most famous shopping streets on the continent.
The former capital of Myanmar (previously Burma) is, for now, relatively untouched by modernity. The city is dominated by colonial structures and some of the most stunning pagodas in the world.
Described as ‘a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun’ by Rudyard Kipling, the 99 metre Shwedagon Paya dominates Yangon’s skyline. Nearly 30 tons of gold leaf, diamonds and gems adorn the pagoda which is one of the most important sites for Buddhists in the world. The nearby People’s Park is also worth a visit, offering brilliant views of the Paya as well as beautiful gardens and a decommissioned fighter jet.
Bogyoke Aung San Market (sometime called by its colonial name, Scott Market) is a vast, covered market offering the largest selection of local handicrafts and souvenirs in the city.