If I had a dollar for every time I was asked this question, I’d be rich indeed: “Out of everywhere you have been, where was your favourite destination that you visited on this trip?”
It’s an impossible question to answer. There was only one place I really probably wouldn’t go back to: Siem Reap, Cambodia. There was nothing to do outside of the temples so when it’s hottest during the middle of the day you don’t have much to do except go back to your hotel and go to the pool – and the tuk tuks and child beggars are super aggressive which can be unpleasant.
But every other destination had something that made it truly special and it would be impossible to choose my favourite one (especially considering how unique and special my time in Hong Kong was compared to every other destination).
So this list is exploring the best of the places we went, and where you might want to visit if you’re interested in particular activities.
Best Beaches: Phuket, Thailand
So you want to laze around on a beach, enjoy the scenery and just soak up some rays, ocean, and natural beauty? Phuket is perfect. There’s soft sand, perfectly clear and warm water, and amazing scenery around. I’ve heard Pattaya, Thailand, and Palawan in the Philippines are other amazing beach destinations, but never actually been to either myself.
Honorable mention: Sai Kung, Hong Kong
It might be in one of the busiest metropolitan areas in the world, but honestly, you feel completely isolated on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, comparable to those in Thailand. I was literally alone on this beach – which is definitely something in Hong Kong. Plus (if you’re in decent shape enough to hike) it’s relatively accessible by public transportation!
Best Shopping: Seoul, South Korea
Seoul is super trendy and has several huge shopping areas for different price points, including the super exclusive Gangnam-gu area, made famous by PSY’s Gangnam Style, and the more young and trendy Myung-Dong area. But what I thought was most unique about Seoul, and makes it truly the ultimate shopping destination in Asia was that while there’s tons of modern shopping complexes, malls, boutiques, and more, they also keep their traditional clothing markets like Kwangjang, and Namdaemun market. And most ridiculous (and amazing) of all is the place called Dongdaemun market. When Kelvin and I went there, we initially thought it referred to the traditional fabrics, and clothing market (which seemed to span for miles)….but no….there’s more. There’s at least 10 massive modern shopping malls included as part of the Dongdaemun shopping complex. And it’s open until 4:00am. Yes. You read that right. 4:00am. People are still shopping after partying late at night in the early hours of the morning. In fact – it’s totally normal to stay out all night here, shop, and then spend the hours after 4:00am either eating or at a spa (or both).
Unfortunately I simply couldn’t capture the magnitude of the expanse of Dongdaemun in any image – you have to actually be there to really feel the enormity of it.
Honorable mentions: Singapore, Osaka
Marina Bay Sands is one of the biggest shopping malls I’ve ever seen – and they take Shopping malls seriously in Asia. It was so big (and Singapore is so hot) that I saw people running inside there. There’s also streets of massive malls and shops at Orchard Road in Singapore
While Tokyo (and Bangkok actually) have several large mall regions, and Tokyo has the Harajuku neighborhood, which is a shopping experience in of itself, seriously Osaka takes shopping to another level. To put it into perspective a bit, walking from Namba Station along the Shinsaibashi main shopping street to Shinsaibashi station is over a kilometer solidly of shops. Now remember that the area a few blocks the right and left are also part of this shopping area and it’s just mind-boggling huge. Especially considering how small Osaka is compared to Tokyo! And in case you weren’t satisfied with the selection there, there’s the Umeda area a few stops on the train away that has shopping malls as far as the eye can see, complete with a ferris wheel on top of one. It’s seriously impressive (but not open until 4:00am).
Best (all around) Food destination: Singapore
Singapore is almost as good as New York when it comes to variety of food available – the population here is so incredibly diverse that you can find so many different kinds of cuisine and all really authentic and really great quality. But it definitely beats New York when it comes to price – even in the financial district downtown, there’s an amazing Dai Pai Dong (much more succint Cantonese word for open air cluster of food vendors) where you can get Singaporean Laksa, Hong Kong roast pork, Thai stir-fries, Japanese noodles, Pizza, Indian curry and more for crazy cheap. And at night they close down the street adjoining for all the Satay vendors. It’s the perfect spot to hang out with friends so no one needs to feel pressured to spend a ton of money, everyone gets what they want, and it all tastes pretty great too! And they have plenty of little vendor market areas like this all around the city if you know where to look! There’s 4 official languages in Singapore: English, Mandarin (Chinese), Malay, and Hindi – so likewise there’s a heavy food influence from those 4 groups (and more!).
Honorable mentions: Osaka, Tokyo
Osaka and Tokyo really are food heavens. Plain and simple. The selection and quality of food at varying price points is amazing! However, I ranked them as below Singapore because while every city’s restaurants cater to local palates, Japanese cities are so homogenous that the palate is pretty specific, so if you’re not looking for Japanese food, or Japanese fusion food, you’re not going to have an easy time finding somewhere to eat. The only kind of food I saw frequently other than Japanese food was Italian (but really looked more like Italian-Japanese fusion) and Chinese (which didn’t really look like the Chinese food you’d get in China…)
Best street food destinations: Thailand (Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai),;Seoul, South Korea
In Thailand street food is on another level – and Bangkok is pretty much the world capital of street food. Chiang Mai is similarly street food oriented, just on a smaller scale since it’s a smaller city. Almost every street corner has a stall of some kind, and there’s tons of areas where vendors cluster together so you can walk past rows and rows of delicious smelling and looking street food. You can eat great in Thailand never setting foot in a restaurant. Though honestly, if food hygiene is a critical issue for you – you’re probably not into street food in the first place, but if you are – Thailand might not be your first choice (there were a couple of rats hanging out in the dirty pile across from me in the second picture), I’d check out Seoul or Taipei instead. Thai street food standards of hygiene are not as high as they are in South Korea or Taiwan – so while I love it dearly, I always leave Thailand with a stomach full of delicious things but totally unsettled.
Seoul takes their street food seriously. It’s perhaps not as famous for street food as Bangkok, but the markets in every neighborhood always have so many street food stalls. They often even have chairs so you can stop and eat it right on the street too. It’s kind of hard to walk around Seoul and not feel hungry all the time because you smell food everywhere. I actually wasn’t really expecting this, and was a little surprised – I think Hong Kong used to be a prime street food destination in the 90s, but they’ve all been cleared out, while Seoul’s remain. Plus, in Seoul you can also super casually just buy Soju for really cheap from most street food vendors. Awesome. I love South Korea.
Honorable Mention: Taipei, Taiwan
Taiwan food culture is insane and awesome. It’s like…actually it’s not like…it’s actually what happened…all the best chefs from China ended up moving to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution in China because highly skilled workers were persecuted. So you have this rich cultural heritage of amazing chefs from various regions of China coming together to make a super awesome cuisine. But Taiwanese people also particularly appreciate night markets, and there are several really fantastic ones in Taipei that you can’t miss – including the Raohe street market…yes, that is the first place we went after getting off the plane, why do you ask?
Best Adventure Destination: Chiang Mai, Thailand
There’s so much to do in Chiang Mai. In one day trip I went white-water and bamboo rafting, rode an elephant, visited an orchid farm, hiked to a waterfall, and ate pad thai wrapped in a banana leaf in the middle of the jungle. But that’s only a small sampling of the activities you can do! You can trek in the jungle for days at a time, bathe and take care of elephants, ride ATVs, meet Tigers, go ziplining, and visit hill tribes and see what village life is like there (I don’t really know how I feel about that because on the one hand it does increase peoples’ awareness of how other people live, and raises money for the village, but on the other hand, it destroys a way of life and makes people almost a zoo attraction). All of it is affordable and accessible, with the flexibility of group tours or going private.
Honorable mentions: Bali, Indonesia
Bali has some insanely beautiful scenery, and temples, with beautiful waterfalls, a Volcano, beaches, snorkeling, fishing, diving, boating, ATV adventuring trekking and more. It’s less accessible than Chiang Mai, since there are not very many group tours or packages, you mostly have to rent your own driver privately to take you around all of these places. It’s actually pretty affordable to do that, but I always hate being on private tours because you feel like you have to create conversation with your guide, and your guide most of the time will try to spend most of the day telling you how hard up they are for money, and how difficult it is to find work in the town, and how they have families to support, so that you will give them a bigger tip. Of course I totally get it, and I feel for them, but I don’t particularly enjoying spending my time off feeling guilty and fretting over how much money I need to tip the driver. I (and the guide I think) feel much more at ease when it’s all included as part of what you initially agreed upon.
Best Spa Relaxation: Bangkok, and Chiang Mai, Thailand; Bali
Thailand is famous for massages, and if you thought they were cheap in Bangkok, they’re even cheaper in Chiang Mai! Personally I prefer the Thai style massages which are supposed to be more therapeutic than relaxing. If it doesn’t hurt a bit while they’re doing it – it’s not that great. I love how it stretches you out, targets stress centers of your muscles, and makes you feel amazing afterwards. It’s considered medicine in Thailand, and many locals go for the health benefits, and there’s a ritual to it which you should respect if you are there. Quiet, and peacefulness are keys to a good massage. The massage will end with them giving you a cup of a tea, and sometimes a biscuit. You should feel free to relax and recompose yourself before changing back into your street clothes and leaving.
In Bali, Balinese massages are king and over the world they are famous, but not as famous as Thai massages. Balinese massages include lots of fragrant oils, and it’s a much more relaxing massage than a Thai massage. There’s not stretching, no pain, no working out of knots in your back, really, it’s kind of more like a relaxing body rub with oils. It does feel nice (but personally I like the Thai massage better…). So really it’s up to you to decide what’s your favourite style of massage and pick your destination based on that.
Best destination for a bit of everything: Hong Kong
Hong Kong has it all – food, street food, beaches, hiking (OK, not so much snorkeling, adventures, ATVs, elephants, or ziplining), but it has a lot of stuff to do and is a great compromise between outdoorsy with it’s amazing hiking, jungles, beaches, and parks, with modern urban city tourism with food, sleek skyscrapers, and shopping
So all in all, if you want to know what’s the best one, there isn’t one. But if you want a recommendation for a travel destination in Asia, based on what you’re looking for in a vacation, then I’ve got you covered!