A few people have mentioned to me that they love traveling to Europe, but they have no desire to go to Asia. I have a brief response to that: You’re missing out! Sure, it’s a longer trip from the US to Asia than it is to Europe. But it’s a completely different world, one definitely worth visiting. Here are 5 reasons why you should go:
1. The People of Asia
As I continue to learn each time I go to Asia, the people are warm, friendly, and helpful. I swear, Malaysia has the friendliest people in the world, at least of any country I’ve been to. I was amazed by how helpful the locals in China were. The showed me the way when I was clearly looking lost, regardless of whether they spoke English. And they gave me a helpful hand after I hurt my back. There was the time I found solace in an Indonesian Buddhist temple from the chaos outside. (I was not in a tourist area.) The gentleman in charge made sure I had a spiritual experience. Not to be outdone, I was made an honorary Muslim (or at least I was given an honorary Muslim name) by the imam at Kuala Lumpur’s historic mosque.
2. The Food of Asia
The food is out of this world! (Yes, I did have some interesting adventures in dining in China. I’ll get to those in upcoming posts.) But let’s face it: Asian food in Asia. Pretty hard to go wrong, right? I love the hawker stalls (food courts) in Singapore where you get the yummiest, freshly made regional dishes. Despite some culinary adventures in China, I had some dishes that were outrageously good. The regional varieties are virtually endless. Nothing is quite as ceremonial as a Peking Duck dinner, especially if you have it in Peking (Beijing). And Shanghai is known for its dumplings with good reason. Just be sure not to burn your tongue or face when the soup sprays out of the dumplings! Just imagine authentic Indian food in India. Okay, I’m not a huge fan of Indian food, but when in Mumbai… And someday I hope to be—in Mumbai, that is. And maybe someday I’ll be a fan of Indian food, too. And why not treat yourself to the freshest sushi…in Japan!
3. The Religious Architecture of Asia
The temples and mosques are extravagantly beautiful. This one should be fairly self-evident from the pictures. The first time I saw a Hindu temple was in Singapore. I was hooked. Such explosions of color and detail. And it adds a pretty nice touch when a small group is playing traditional Indian instruments, like I had the good fortune to experience. Buddhism originated in India, but perhaps it reached its greatest expression in China. The Buddhist temples I saw there, and in Malaysia too, were extravagant. Lose yourself amid the incense and statuary, and you might attain Nirvana. The mosques in Singapore and Malaysia are beautiful, but nothing prepares you for the opulence of the grand mosques in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Oman. No expense has been spared to dazzle the worshippers with the power of Allah (and oil money). And if I get to India someday, I hear there’s a cool building called the Taj Mahal. Right, the Taj Mahal is not a mosque, but it is probably the apex of Islamic architecture. Angkor Wat, anyone? Why, I’d love to! Between the captivating architecture and the kind holy men, you will have a spiritual, cultural experience if you allow yourself to.
4. The History of Asia
The history is profound. This is likely evident nowhere more than the majestic Great Wall of China. The portion of the Wall I visited on the outskirts of Beijing was built by the Ming Dynasty in 1504. The history of Wall goes back to the 3rd century BC. Construction of the various walls that make up the Great Wall took place off and on through the Ming era. In Hangzhou, I took a water taxi ride on the Grand Canal, which was begun in the 5th century BC and completed in the 7th The awe-inspiring, overwhelming Forbidden City was built by the Ming in the early 15th century. The civilization of China dates back millennia. It flourished while Europe was living through through the Middle Ages. Asia’s other great ancient civilization is India, birthplace of four of the world’s great religions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Buddhism and Hinduism have been around for about 2,500 years. Jainism, possible even longer. I would love to make a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in India, where Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in about 500 BC. More recent, but still fascinating history is present throughout Asia wherever the European colonizers set up shop. The stately European-built buildings along the Bund in Shanghai shimmer at night along the Huangpu River, right across from the ultra-modern Pudong. For some living history, I have experienced nothing in my life like the weird and beautiful Peking Opera in Beijing. It’s an ancient tradition that still breathes…and dances and sings and dazzles and amazes.
5. The Chaos of Asia!
It’s not Europe. That’s the point! It’s different. It may be a little chaotic compared to Europe, but that’s just part of the charm! (Actually, Italy seemed fairly chaotic to me.) Don’t get me wrong. As people who know me know, I LOVE Europe. Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin. Bavaria, Liguria. What’s not to love? But I’ve thoroughly delighted in exploring a completely different part of the world over the past few years. And I’m ready for more! (I should say “completely different parts of the world”, as the Gulf States of the Arabian Peninsula itself are completely different, and very far, from East Asia. When I get to India one day, I know that will be yet another whole new world.)
My recommendation for the first-time Asia-goer is Singapore. Virtually challenge-free. Everyone speaks English. Transportation is topnotch. The cuisine is legendary. (The Chinese food in Singapore beats the Chinese food in China hands-down, in my opinion.) And you have no idea how much there is to do there. (Well, of course you do if you followed along on my Southeast Asia trip a few years back.) You can make it a real adventure by tacking on some time in neighboring mainland Malaysia. (Why fly all that way and see just one place?) English is no problem. The food is outrageously delicious. The people are just about the friendliest on the planet. And it’s a tad more Asian than heavily westernized Singapore. Plus a lot cheaper to boot!
Hong Kong is another good choice. You get the English-speaking version of China. I haven’t done a sightseeing trip there, but I spent some time there when I was in the Navy back in the ‘80s and absolutely loved it. It’s like New York if Chinatown took over all of Manhattan (plus the Bronx). You can easily make a trip to Hong Kong’s Portuguese-flavored sister, Macau, just an hour away by ferry. If you want a taste of the mainland, historic Guangzhou (Canton) and booming Shenzhen are nearby.
I’m dying to go to Thailand someday. I hear nothing but raves about it. And what better place to get Thai food! Not to mention the legendary beaches. And oh, how I’d love to go to India, the only place you can see the Taj Mahal. As India was the jewel in the British Empire, English is widespread.
Finally, for something completely different, there’s the Persian Gulf region in Western Asia (i.e., the Middle East), which I toured in ’13. The small countries here were under British influence, so English is no problem. Glitzy malls, gorgeous mosques, glamorous hotels, and glittering beaches. All this and shawarma, too. Okay, this region may be a little too exotic and not quite touristy enough for a first trip to Asia. (Although it is fairly easy to get to.) So maybe you should stick to Singapore or Hong Kong!
It all comes down to this: Go!