How to cram and enjoy brief visits to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Malaysia into a week's vacation, either comfortably or experientially.
Visit some distant countries and you feel right at home; they’re so similar to your own country that you can hardly tell you’re someplace foreign. But then there’s Southeast Asia. There, you know you’re in an exotic foreign place. The sights, the smells, the tastes and of course the languages are so unfamiliar, even strange, that your senses scream “Wow, this place is truly foreign,” and that’s wonderful, because that’s why you’ve traveled there in the first place.
Now, regardless of where you travel, you are fairly likely to fit one of two tourist profiles. The first type of tourist wants to see the famous places they’ve heard about or read about. They expect to enjoy comfortable accommodations and eat palatable foods. They expect to be reasonably safe in all they do. Then there’s the second tourist profile. They’re looking for greater stimulation, more fun, anything that they couldn’t do where they live, and especially something they can fashion into interesting conversation with their friends back home. They’re not adverse to less comfortable accommodations, and are willing to try unknown foods. And they are open to a little bodily risk.
So, lets assume that you have a week’s vacation, and want to see the best of Southeast Asia during this short break. Let’s say you’ve picked the following countries to cram into this limited time, and want to put together a travel itinerary that includes brief but enjoyable visits to Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore and China. How could you do it, and what would be your destinations if you fell into either of the two tourist profiles, which we will now label the Comfort Tourist and the Experiential Tourist. This article can’t tailor a specific itinerary for you and your interests, but it can provide you with some ingredients that you can mix together to bake your own cake. Here they are, for each country:
This country consists of a group of islands forming an archipelago inhabited by about 130.000 million citizens. It is a highly developed country with high living standards, and is one of the world’s leaders in technology and manufacturing. The largest island, Honshu, is home to the largest metropolitan area in the world, greater Tokyo. Since our tourist has only a day to spend in Japan, Tokyo seems the most logical final destination.
Accommodations: Hotel Okura. If it is at all possible for your budget to allow a luxury hotel in Tokyo, it is hard to beat this one. Famous for its splendor and enduring elegance, this business favorite is conveniently located in the heart of Tokyo, almost across the street from the American Embassy, and walking distance from the Imperial Palace.
Food: There are hundreds of fine restaurants in the heart of Tokyo, including a wide selection right within the Hotel Okura. But if you want to eat a memorable Japanese lunch, you really have to do like the natives do and go to an udon (noodle) buffet. You’ll be surprised not only with the wonderful tastes, but also with the slurping sounds all around you , which are accepted as normal manners in an udon establishment.
Attractions: There are a plethora of tour services to suit every tourist interest. Tour buses stop at most hotels to pick up clients. Typical tourism stops include the Imperial Palace, Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo Tower, the Cherry Blossom Festival (seasonal), and diverse shrines and temples.
Accommodations: No Western style hotel for this tourist, who wants to stay at a traditional ryokan, a Japanese -style accommodation. Experience the elements of Japanese culture and customs, staying in a room with a Tatami (straw mat) floor, and sleep on a futon (bedding) placed right on the Tatami.
Food: There’s nothing like a sukiyaki dinner prepared right at your table, and topped with a raw egg. There are dozens of sukiyaki houses in most cities; look for Japanese-style buildings with a cow sign hanging outside.
Attractions: Take the bullet train on any of eight routes, and travel at 180 mph. Experience Tokyo’s Sumida River Fireworks Festival, which pits rival pyrotechnic makers against each other. While watching the overhead show of 20,000 rockets, snack on exotic specialties while seated cross-legged on a converted fishing boat rafted up with hundreds of others on the river (end of July).
The smallest nation in Southeast Asia is the Republic of Singapore. It is one of only four city-states in the world. Located at the tip of the Malay peninsula, it boasts one of the busiest ports in the world, and relies heavily on exporting and foreign exchange trading. It also depends heavily on tourism, and is a popular destination for millions of visitors annually.
Accommodations: Homesick? Want a bit of someplace a little familiar? Book a room at the Singapore Holiday Inn or the Marriott. Or instead stay at any of nearly 200 other comfortable hotels, such as the Le Meridien or the Meritus Mandarin.
Food: From crab cakes to sesame-crusted tuna, Singapore’s restaurants have food variety to meet all tastes and price limits. Fodor’s lists and rates 62 establishments, for example.
Attractions: Take your pick of 184 official attractions. Typical are the Singapore Botanic Gardens with its 600,000 plant species, or maybe Chinatown. Maybe you’d rather spend the day on Orchard Road, a 1 ½ mile boulevard having the world’s largest concentration of ritzy shopping centers. For an afternoon tea, try the famous Raffles, which made the Singapore Sling famous as an alternative drink to tea.
Accommodations: Try something real different, and avoid the hotels altogether. Instead, stay at the Incrowd Hostel, where you can sleep on a dorm bed for $20, or if you have a significant other along, splurge and get a double room for $59. Along the way, meet a lot of interesting world traveling backpackers.
Food: For the best food in Singapore, those who are not squeamish, go to the Newton Food Centre, where hawkers operating out of stalls will tickle your palate with delights like oyster omelet, popiah, and barbequed stingray topped with sambal chili. Yum.
Attractions: For the true experiential tourist, there is a no-brainer attraction: The Singapore Zoological Gardens, which is one of the world’s greatest zoos. Where else can you ride bareback on a huge elephant, or hug a grown orangutan while enjoying sandwiches as part of an afternoon tea.? Another great experience is to catch a bus to nearby Malaysia, which is one of the countries you hoped to see. Visit the unique fishing village of Kukup, built entirely on stilts. And while there, buy a “real” Rolex watch from a street hawker for only $12.
Also known historically as Formosa, and politically as the Republic of China, the island of Taiwan is located just 70 miles off the southeast coast of mainland China (PRC), which currently claims but has never controlled it. Taiwan’s economy is export-driven, and is dynamically capitalistic, but more recently has been shifting more towards tourism.
Accommodations: Since Taipei is the population and financial center, it is obviously the best place for the one-day tourist. Hotels are plentiful, ranging from mid-price, such as the Cosmos, to the superior, like the Shangri La Far Eastern Plaza.
Food: If you want to hunt up some quality Chinese food, like xiao long bao, head for the 5-star Din Tai Feng, which is rated as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world by Time magazine. Of the scores of other restaurants, many are less expensive, some serving homesick Americans familiar foods, one example being the 1-star Hooters of Taipei.
Attractions: If you only have time for one attraction, you have to see Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world. A little more time: check out the changing of the guard at the Martyrs’ Shrine, or enjoy the panoramic view atop the 46-story Shin Kong Observatory.
Accommodations: Now’s the time to use all the money you saved at the Incrowd Hostel, so splurge and spend the night at the world famous Grand Hotel, which sits on a hilltop overlooking Taipei. The Grand, built by Chiang Kai-shek in 1952, is a showcase of Chinese architecture and culture. You’ll never forget it.
Food: How about attending a Mongolian barbeque, prepared by real Mongolians at the Taiwan Golf and Country Club?
Attractions: Join in and participate along with hundreds of morning Tai Chi practitioners in the daily spectacle as the sun dawns over the grounds of the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall. Or, take the ferry to Tamshi and walk up to Kuaryin Mountain to join the bird-watching crew for the day’s sightings.
Hong Kong, an island territory located 35 miles from the south coast of mainland China, has the world’s greatest number of skyscrapers (over 750) crammed into the limited sprawl space between the steep hills and the harborfront. As such, the skyline is a memorable sight. With a population of about 7 million predominately Chinese people, with help from Western nations, Hong Kong has become one of the world’s leading financial centers and capitalist economies, while maintaining a significant Asian culture. In 1997, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to the Peoples Republic of China, yet it retains a high degree of autonomy.
Accommodations: Rated one of the five best hotels in the world a few years back, the Mandarin Oriental should draw any tourist capable of spending almost $500 per night. Located in the central business district, it is only minutes from transportation anywhere. Aside from impeccable service, the most memorable part of a stay for many is the upper-story indoor swimming pool. It is truly spectacular, worth seeing even if you didn’t bring a swim suit along . For those with a more moderate budget, consider the Novotel Citygate at a one third of the price.
Food: For something classic, yet quality, try either FINDS Bar and Restaurant (contemporary Scandinavian), or perhaps Bo Innovation (French-Japanese-Chinese . If you love duck and want to keep your bill more moderate, try Bebek Bengi, - Dirty Duck Diner (Balinese).
Attractions: Hong Kong has so many attractions, you can’t even see most in a day. The best are the funicular ride to Victoria Peak, the Star Ferry which takes you to Kowloon, China, a shopper’s paradise, and the Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Accommodations: Usually, when you look for a bargain hotel, you don’t get much. Not true for the Cosmopolitan, which is priced under $100.
Food: No visit to Hong Kong or Kowloon is complete without a visit to a restaurant to enjoy a Dim Sum dinner. Where else can an Experiential Tourist try 1000-yr old eggs, shark-fin, or bird-nest soup, not to mention more mundane dishes such as delicious shrimp, and pork dumplings.
Attractions: The Experiential Tourist, whether 16 or 60, can salivate at Ocean Park, an amusement park that features the popular Dragon Roller Coaster, not to mention dozens of other thrills and sights.
PLANNING YOUR TRANSPORTATION
Visiting six Asian countries during a short break of only seven days is quite an undertaking. To make it all happen smoothly requires advance planning on transportation. Just getting all the way from the U.S. to this part of the world should be done on a weekend day, without depleting any of the planned seven days in the Asian locale. Getting back, using a redeye flight on the night of the seventh day, won‘t use up any of the seven days, and should be part of the plan. This leaves seven full days for visiting six countries crammed into four days, plus three days for travel logically planned based on geographic distance minimization. Thus, the order of visitation should start in Japan, thence to Taiwan, then to Hong Kong, and finally to Singapore. Or visa versa, starting in Singapore.
The only airline that appears to cover all these connections is Cathay Pacific. Others that cover pieces of the itinerary include Singapore, Thai Air, Nippon, China and EVA. Travel time between the various countries are as follows:
Singapore to Hong Kong 3 Hr 55 min
Hong Kong to Taipei 1 Hr 45 min
Taipei to Tokyo 3 Hr 10 min
So start planning well in advance. It’s a tough itinerary.