The Foreigner’s Guide to Traveling in Asia
Choosing your next vacation destination? East Asia has a lot of great options for you.
Whether you favor nature or prefer bustling urban centers that never sleep. Whether you want o see places with religious and historical backgrounds, or just want to eat the local cuisine, the many countries in Eastern Asia have plenty to offer to any traveler.
In this guide, we will take a look at some of the prominent features of the most popular destinations in Asia: Korea, Japan, China, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and lastly Hong Kong.
Let’s dive right in.
Traveling to Korea
South Korea is one of the smaller nations in Asia, with a size similar to the state of Indiana. What it lacks in size it makes up for in a rich culture, tasty cuisine and welcoming locals.
Some Background When You Travel to Korea
The Korean peninsula has been stuck between a rock and a hard place – Japan and China – for most of its existence. The region was prosperous under the three kingdoms of Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla about 1500 years ago until the Mongols raided the land and built an empire. The 16th century marked the end of the Mongolian Empire and the beginning of an ongoing struggle between China and Japan over the region.
After World War II, Korea finally broke free from Japan. The USSR managed the North and the United States occupied the South. Today the North and South are two sovereign nations separated by a demilitarized zone. South Korea is officially known as the Republic of Korea, but more commonly referred to as just ‘Korea.’
There’s Still Soul in Seoul
Despite the fact that Seoul was largely burned down during the Korean War (1950-53), the northern part of the capital city is still home to hundreds of spectacular palaces and shrines. The Chosun Dynasty’s Gyeongbokgung Palace is a 5.4 million square foot landmark with a 500-year history and stands among the remaining four palaces in Seoul. It takes a whole day to explore the palace in all its magnificence. And if you visit while dressed in a hanbok – Korea’s traditional dress – admission is free!
The Jongmyo Royal Shrine is a perfect next stop. This was where the people of the Chosun Dynasty worshipped. On the first Sunday of May each year, a traditional memorial ceremony is held at the Shrine with all the grandeur of the occasion 500 years past.
The southern part of Seoul is the commercial center of the city and boasts a fascinating blend of traditional and modern architecture. Here you will find the World Cup Stadium, which weaves together shopping, museums, and the Lotte World recreation complex.
Make sure to visit the city, and then venture outside into the lush green landscape that Korea has to offer.
When to Travel to Korea
Korea has a temperate climate, resulting in heavier rain in the summer months (July and August) and a dry winter. Winter is snowy all over Korea, and the ski season from November to March is very popular. There are now 21 ski resorts in South Korea alone! After a day on the slopes it is common to relax in one of the many spas with natural hot spring baths.
On the other hand, summer is extremely crowded and very wet in Korea. For milder weather it is best to travel Korea in the spring or fall. But traveling to South Korea any time of year is sure to be an exciting and rewarding experience, regardless of the weather!
Traveling to Japan and Experiencing the Far East
If you’re determined to explore Asia but unsure of which country to visit, you might want to consider Japan. Here is some useful information that might help you decide to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun. Hopefully, it helps you better understand what Japan has to offer so you can experience Japan more comfortably.
About the Country
Japan consists of four main islands and several smaller ones. Together the islands take the shape of a seahorse and occupy an area of 146,000 square miles.
Tokyo, the capital city, is very modern and bustling with activity, so when you travel to Japan, be ready for a few crowds. The landscape of Japan, away from the big cities, is mountainous with spectacular scenery; some of the mountains are still active and volcanic. The most iconic and the tallest is Mt. Fuji, which is actually three volcanoes in one.
When to Travel to Japan
When you travel to Japan, it’s important to know the country’s seasons and when they occur during the year. The islands of Japan lie in the temperate and at the northeastern end of the monsoon area. The climate is generally mild, although it varies considerably from place to place when you travel Japan.
Summer, which is warm and mild, begins around the middle of July following a rainy season that usually lasts for about a month. Except in northern Japan the winter is mild with many sunny days. Spring and autumn are the best seasons of the year with balmy days and bright sunshine. Coming during these seasons will also give you the opportunity of seeing Japan’s prized cherry blossoms.
About the People
Before you decide to travel to Japan, it’s a good idea to get a sense of the people and their culture. Japan is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, with some 330 persons per square kilometer (approximately 860 people per square mile). The Japanese are a Mongoloid people, closely related to the major groups of East Asia. However, some evidence also exists of a mixture with Malayan and Caucasoid strains. About 750,000 Koreans and much smaller groups of Chinese and Caucasians reside in Japan.
When you travel to Japan, you will be exposed to some new religious and personal beliefs. Buddhism is an important influence to Japan’s culture and has strongly shaped the fine arts, social institutions, and philosophy. Most Japanese consider themselves members or practitioners of Buddhist philosophy.
Shintoism originated in Japan, and is founded on myths, legends, and ritual practices of the early Japanese. Neither Buddhism nor the indigenous Shintoism is an exclusive religion. Most Japanese observe both Buddhist and Shinto rituals. For example, funerals are conducted with Buddhist principles, and Shinto rituals are common for births, marriages, and other occasions. Confucianism, primarily an ethical system, profoundly influences Japanese thought as well.
About 2 million people in Japan are Christians, largely due to missionary activity that took place back in the 1500s. An estimated 60% of those are Protestant, with the remaining 40% Roman Catholic.
Travel and tour tips for China
China is a large country at a size of almost 4 million square miles. China has been a Communist country for many decades, and has only become partially open to the world since the 1980s. Although there has been a substantial amount of progress to China’s development and tourism industry, there are still areas that need to be improved before China can match what most tourists look for on a trip.
However, much of the intrigue in visiting China is its rich history and how different it is from the rest of the world. China placed itself on the map in a big way at the 2008 Olympics, where they put on one of the most memorable Olympics in recent memory. Cities have continued to be constructed at a breakneck speed in the decade since.
China is rich in culture & history. There are too many cultural sites to list. Have a chance to isit the Great Wall of China in Beijing, sip Chinese tea in Xiamen, dance with ethnic tribes in Yunnan, and check out 19th Century European buildings in Qingdao. There’s no shortage of things to do and see in China.
Below are some practical tips to make sure your trip goes as smoothly as possible.
Visiting China requires an entry visa from most countries. Apply at the Chinese consulate or through your travel agent before travelling to China.
The climate is very diverse since China is such a big country. It is tropical in the south, and subarctic in the north. Be prepared with the right seasonal clothing.
Foreign Exchange and Payment Methods
The unit of money is known as Renminbi (RMB) or Yuan, which currently has an exchange rate of 7 Yuan: 1 USD. Get some Chinese Yuan in your local country before travelling. When in China, exchange foreign money for local money in the banks or at the hotel. Banks tend to give slightly better rates than hotels.
Most luxury hotels and shopping centers take Credit Card or Travellers cheques. Smaller hotels & shops may take cash only. Especially when you venture out of the big city, the villages and small vendors all over China may not be equipped to take your credit card and ATM card.
Money is still king in Chinese business and trade. However, be smart and cautious.
China is generally a safe country, but hang on tight to your wallet especially in crowded, popular tourist sites in places such as Beijing & Xian. Counterfeit notes are common in China. Check carefully before accepting cash, especially if you are handed a 100 RMB note. You can feel a texture difference when it comes to counterfeit bills.
These tourist cities also have a lot of scammers in the streets selling tourists anything from money exchanges, to jewelry, to female companionships. Avoid these types of vendors at all costs!
Understanding of English
Traveling to China is becoming more and more accessible for non-Chinese speakers, but it still has a long way to go.
Most signboards & notices will be written in both English and Chinese. However, be aware that some translations are quite rudimentary and inaccurate. They can be so notorious that even fluent speakers can’t understand what the translation meant originally.
Most civil servants, custom officials, police, and hotel staff do not speak English. Do not expect hotels or shops to understand English. Only the big hotels will have staff that will understand English.
Thankfully, most people are able to string together a few English words in order to communicate. And you might be surprised – many Chinese people can understand basic English if you speak slowly.
Bus, high-speed rail, ferries and domestic flights are well-developed. Avoid the crowd at the stations & book your tickets through the hotel tour desk or the nearest tour agent. Prices are likely to be competitive & tickets will be delivered to your hotel room. Again, avoid ticket touts who approach you in the streets.
Local buses are cheap – think 10 cents a ride. You may want to try out. But if you need something that takes you door to door, taxis are convenient and are available at all hours. Starting fares differ from each city and may be as cheap as $1.50 in Shenzhen.
Avoid travel in China during peak holiday seasons or book tickets well ahead.
There are many websites that sell hotel rooms in China on the internet. There are nice choices of hotels in China, ranging from one star to the most luxurious 6 stars. Most of the time, the rooms are safe, tidy, and worth revisiting again.
You can also check out the travel counters and information desks, which are available in most train, airport, or bus stations. Book ahead if travelling in peak seasons.
Peak Tourist Seasons
Below are the holidays and significant dates that are observed through the year. Understand the most popular days when the people travel or stay home, and try to organize your trip to account for such events.
A bit of advice: reserve rooms & travel accommodations early on if you want to travel. Believe me, the crowds during these peak times will be scary. What do you expect when all 2 billion people are on holiday at the same time?
May Day: First one weeks of May
Chinese New Year: Date varies but generally late January or early February.
National Day of the People’s Republic of China: October
Local Chinese food is absolutely delicious. Just as the weather is night and day in different parts of the country, the food is different too, largely due to the crops and climate.
North China has a dry climate, which means rice does not grow well. As a result, wheat flour is heavily used, and noodles and dumplings are a common menu item.
The south has much more rain, and rice is grown here. The south also boasts spicy food and has a greater variety of fruits and food.
Try as much Chinese food as your wallet or stomach can afford. However, avoid street side stalls & drinking directly from the taps if you have a delicate stomach.
Restaurants are available everywhere and open late. Most restaurants will have a menu that includes photographs of the various dishes. Better yet, ask for the food that the table next to you is having, especially if it looks delicious.
Unfortunately, there are many stories of how China is still developing as a tourist attraction. Some of the creature comforts you’re accustomed to may not yet exist. For example, parts of China are still using disgusting toilet facilities.
Things have improved significantly but it may still be smart to empty your stomach or bladder at every opportunity in a hotel, restaurant or departmental store. Public toilets & toilets in small shops can be a hazard to your nose.
Useful China travel tips
Try to get a English speaking tour guide at every opportunity you can. China has a rich and wonderful history. Without a guide, you may miss out on fascinating backstories and an appreciation for the cultural site you’re visiting. If you can’t arrange for one, hang around a group that has a English speaking guide!
Always ask for a receipt from a taxi driver so that you can complain if you have been cheated. This could also be helpful for tracing purposes (for example, if you happen to be leaving your camera behind in the taxi.)
After a long day, check out Chinese foot reflexology or Chinese Tui Na massage. This is wonderfully refreshing for the body after a long and hard day. To find one, look out for shop signs that shows one feet! They are everywhere, and they are quite affordable too.
Try to take a business card for the hotel you are staying at, as these cards will have a Chinese address & the map of your hotel location. This is useful if you want to seek assistance to find your way back as the English pronunciation of a hotel or a street name may be different from the Chinese version.
Make friends with the Chinese whenever you can. They love to meet foreigners, and they would make awesome tour guides. But don’t forget to buy a small present as a small token of appreciation.
Travel to the Philippines
Somewhere in Southeast Asia between the Philippine Sea and the East China Sea, east of Vietnam, south of Taiwan and just north of Indonesia, lies a much neglected but historically and ecologically prized archipelago known as the Philippines.
This cluster of 7000+ islands is the perfect tropical getaway balanced with just enough cultural intrigue and undulating urban energy to keep you going. Despite the country’s somewhat turbulent recent history, the Philippines has reached a level of stability making no better time than now to travel the wonders of the island-nation.
Colonial Legacy, Indigenous Heritage
The first western encounter with the Philippines occurred when Spain’s Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521, initiating over 300 years of Spanish colonization. A tremendous amount of today’s Filipino population has Spanish roots, although very few are completely Spanish.
The United States took over colonization in 1899 until the Japanese invasion during World War II. Following Japanese defeat, the Philippines gained its independence in 1946. American cultural and military influence still permeates through island culture, although the last U.S. military base has finally been closed.
A Pocketful of Paradise
The nation is divided into three main regions, each with its own metropolitan hub and particular points of interest.
Luzon to the north is the most populated region, with the expansive capital city Manila as its main destination. Travel farther north to Banaue where a spectacle of rice terraces had been etched up along the hillside by the Ifugao tribespeople over 2000 years ago. Also, don’t miss the truly isolating beauty of Hundred Islands National Park where you may just find a beach all to yourself, as there are literally hundreds to choose from.
The central region of Visayas is mostly smaller island clusters and famous for Boracay Island’s White Beach and surrounding resort and aquatic activity areas. Make sure to explore the island’s less crowded, but just as white-and-turquoise beaches.
The southernmost region of Mindanao is home to Davao, the largest city in the world by land area, and the stately Mount Apo, the Philippine’s tallest mountain. Enjoy a thrilling river rafting trip in Cagayan de Oro, or get back to basic Filipino life in the Tiruray Highlands where the remote shores of Lake Sebu are peacefully inhabited by the T’boli tribe.
With nearly 25 thousand miles of coastline, a luscious landscape of tropical greenery, and growing cities offering world-class cuisine and lifestyle, it’s hard to imagine that the Philippines will remain a secret for long. See for yourself why the Philippines is one of the last remaining gems of biodiversity and indigenous culture in this ever-growing region of the world.
Travelling to Thailand
Thailand could be one of the destinations that you can’t afford to miss on your trip to Asia. The beaches and culture certainly stand out when you travel to Thailand.
Traveling Thailand would not be complete without visiting Bangkok. As the nation’s capital with an estimated population of over 10 million, this city is by far the largest in the country.
The city is divided into many districts, or khet. There is the Ratchadaphisek in the northeast, Sukhamvit in the southeast, Silom in the south, Thonburi in the west, Rattanakosin in the central north, and Phahanyothin in the north.
The entire Bangkok district gives you a diverse taste of culture, history, religion, modernity, and fast-phase life. You can actually witness how all these blend together. Buddhist temples, historical museums, towering buildings, contemporary restaurants and hotels, shopping centers, canals and rivers, and food make Bangkok a one of a kind city in Southeast Asia.
Down south, Phuket features magnificent beaches, tropical sunsets, white sands, blue seas, and breathtaking sceneries. No wonder it is the most popular vacation destination in Asia beating every beaches of the neighboring countries.
It has several beaches like Kata Beach, Karon Beach, Patong Beach, Kamala Beach, and Surin Beach. The island showcases several water sports and activities including parasailing, jet-skiing, and scuba diving. By day, Phuket is alive with beachgoers and shoppers and by night, lights, sounds, and party people dominate the whole island.
This is the second largest city in Thailand with an estimated population of more than 200,000. This city is located in the northern part of the country, and offers greener and quieter city. Chiang Mai’s tourism is becoming more popular, and more expats are settling down in this city.
Chiang Mai boasts museums such as Hilltribe Research Institute Museum and the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center. With a rich religion and history, you can visit several Buddhist temples such as Wat Chiang Mun, Wat Chiang Mun, and many more. The oldest temple dates all the way back to the 11th century.
Chiang Mai features attractions such as Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February, Bo Sang Umbrella & Sankampang Handicrafts Festival in January, and the 2nd Orchid Fair also in January. The Loi Krathong Festival usually falls in November.
Located 90 miles north of Bangkok, Pattaya is one of the most popular tourist destinations, which offers great beaches, beer and go-go bars, and a wide array of sport activities.
Visit Pattaya when you travel to Thailand. Although it is the most overdeveloped part of the country in terms of tourism, prices in Pattaya for food, accommodation, and transportation still remain reasonable.
In a small province of Krabi lies a small town with the same name. Paying a visit to Krabi when you travel Thailand is worth the time. Located south of Bangkok near Phuket and Phi Phi island, the town features great beaches along with high end hotels that cater tourists of different classes.
Travel to Taiwan
A gem in the China Seas, Taiwan embodies a unique entangling of ancient and modern, East and West. From the bustling commercial center of the capital city, Taipei, to the cascading volcanic mountains of Yushan National Park, Taiwan offers the world traveler an unmatched experience. It is no coincidence that Portuguese explorers named this island ‘Ilha Formosa’, or the beautiful island.
Officially known as the Republic of China (R.O.C.), Taiwan should not be confused with the People’s Republic of China, which refers to mainland China. Within the past 200 years the island has been ruled by the Dutch, become part of Japan, has been “returned” to China and is currently striving to become an internationally recognized sovereign nation.
Taiwan’s tumultuous and fascinating history of the Aboriginal, Taiwanese and Chinese people is revealed through the many cultural festivals held throughout the year. Travel to the island in February for the Taiwan Lantern Festival or in June to watch the world-famous Dragon Boat Races during the Dragon Boat Festival.
One of Taiwan’s most prominent cultural symbols is Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building, measuring 1600 feet high and 101 floors. Finished in 2003, the tower signifies Taiwan’s substantial economic growth from the periphery of the global economy to become one of the four Asian Tigers, as well as the government’s dedication to a democratic society separate from that of China.
Tainan, the oldest and fourth largest city on the island, offers a more authentic and less commercialized window into Taiwanese culture. Temples and Memorial Arches define this city where the Ching Dynasty once prayed to the God of War.
The Taiwan Terrain: Recreation and Ecotourism
Exploration of the thriving urban centers is only one of many ways to get in touch with Taiwan. The rugged topography of Taiwan is adorned with magnificent peaks, lush valleys and dramatic waterfalls.
Yushan National Park is home to the island’s tallest peak, Jade Mountain, which towers at 2,610 meters. Hike to the summit and take the more technical route down or simply enjoy the breathtaking view from the Tatachia Visitor Center, accessible directly from the new Central Cross-Island Highway.
From Jade Mountain, descend deep into Taroko Gorge on Taiwan’s rocky and secluded east coast. This 12-mile-long canyon is home to the natural open-air Wenshan hot springs and the Atayal people, one of Taiwan’s remaining aboriginal tribes. The rocky cliffs at the canyon’s end are a starting point for those who wish to travel farther into Taiwan’s history.
The surrounding Pacific Ocean is sprinkled with beautiful green islands that have unique native histories and are mostly accessible by plane or ferry. Most of the pristine and dramatic destinations are protected by Taiwan’s National Park Department, which offers an array of lodging and guiding services and has proven to be a well-organized resource for the outdoor sightseer.
From the island’s tallest building to its tallest peak, Taiwan has something exceptional to offer every kind traveler.
Travel Hong Kong
Hong Kong features a diverse mixture of characters as a result of long British occupation and a great Chinese influence. Hong Kong provides a good introduction to whoever wants to know more about Chinese culture without entering the mainland. Currently there is some political unrest, but Hong Kong is still a great place to visit that combines western culture and Asian spirit.
Hong Kong Museum of Art
Located in Tsim Sha Tsui, the Hong Kong Museum of Art is open to anyone who wants to take a glimpse of Hong Kong’s culture and history through its large collection of over 14,000 items ranging from calligraphy, paintings, Hong Kong treasure, art objects, antiques, and lithographs. The museum is open from 10:00 am-6:00 pm daily except Thursdays.
Hong Kong Disneyland
The original and first Disneyland theme park in Asia offers total fun and excitement for the whole family. The park is divided into four major attractions: Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Main Street, USA.
Soaring 1810 feet above sea level, the Victoria Peak is the premier destination for tourists who want to take a birds eye view of downtown Hong Kong, Kowloon, and Victoria Harbour. Go another step higher and take a 10-minute hike to the actual Victoria Peak.
Take a cruise around the waters of Lantau Island and watch pink dolphins that only live in these waters.
This is one Hong Kong attraction where you and your kids will have great fun. The park is one big oceanarium containing Lowlands Gardens where pandas live. There’s also a butterfly house, shark aquariums, and an amusement park where you can go and take a ride with cable cars and roller coasters.
A miniature China that houses Chinese shrines, street scenes, temples, and palaces only at Middle Kingdom.
The Central District
If you travel to Hong Kong because you love to shop, you better go to the central Hong Kong district where big shopping malls and several Western designer and signature boutiques are located.
If you want to see a different side of Hong Kong, try Lamma Island (also known as Pok Liu Chau). It hosts several outdoor activities such as swimming and hiking. And if you love to taste fresh Hong Kong seafood in great dining ambiance, Lamma Island is still the preferred place to go.
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (Sha Tin)
Located in the New Territories, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery features Buddha in different poses and colors.
In Hong Kong, everything is fresh. And when they say fresh, they mean it. If you happen to travel to Hong Kong to visit a friend or someone you know, tag along when they go to a wet market where freshest seafood are for sale.
Whichever country you choose to visit, you cannot go wrong. You can spend a lot of time getting lost in each country’s fascinating history, and enjoying their cuisines. Rather than only choosing one, perhaps why not try to visit more than one?
Where would you prefer to go? Please leave a comment below!