My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #4 – Beijing, China

My first trip to Beijing was in the summer of 1992 as I flew to Asia for the first time to teach in a summer English course in the northeastern city of Dalian. We were fortunate to stop-over in Beijing during both ways of our trip.

The Beijing of 1992 is certainly a far cry from the post-Olympic model which has swelled to more than 21 million people and is famous for the smog which leaves a permanent blanket over the city. I can’t speak to that image of Beijing, but I can speak to the one which has left an indelible mark on my mind because of the grandeur of history which sat before my eyes.

For me, visiting Beijing was like looking into the past and trying to understand an ancient culture which my country boy, Pennsylvania eyes had trouble comprehending. But I did enjoy the trying.

I remember standing in the middle of Tienanmen Square just trying to understand the scope of what I saw. The large portrait of Mao. The elaborate Forbidden City. I remember our tour guide taking us into the labyrinth of buildings with the curved roofs. He said, if my memory serves me right, that one could sleep in a different room in the Forbidden City each night and wouldn’t duplicate one until they were 60 years old. It was awe-inspiring.

But then we went to The Great Wall and took a picture on the wall which my mother had framed. It was one of those moments in life that you just want to last forever, to take a deep breath and take in the wonders of the world, both natural and man-made, and try to understand the scope and scale of things which enabled them both to be.

Visiting Beijing and the surrounding region was indeed one of those magical times for a boy never imagined an opportunity to take in the roots of an ancient civilization such as China.

Whatever else Beijing is to others – a mecca for food, shopping, modern culture and development, to me Beijing is about history and heritage thus making it one of my favorite places in Asia.

To review the list so far:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, Malaysia

4. Beijing, China

3. ????

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #5 – Sabah, East Malaysia

Sabah is Malaysia’s most eastern state on the northeastern tip of the large island of Borneo. The charming city of Kota Kinabalu is the capital, and Mount Kinabalu is one of Malaysia’s top hiking destinations, rising more than 13,000 feet into the clouds.

I’ve only been to Sabah once, but it has left a lasting impression. First the water.

The water in Sabah is crystal clear, even in the city limits. There are fun little islands just off the coast which are great for snorkeling, swimming, and hiking. The capital, KK, is full of fun shopping and great food. The Filipino market is a wonderful place for freshly grilled seafood, prepared before your eyes.

One of the favorite things my family did in Sabah was to rent a car and go exploring. We followed the coast northeast into the far reaches of the island, stopping at the beautiful long-houses of the indigenous people groups. Then we ended up at The Tip of Borneo, which is precisely what it is: the northern most tip of the entire island which juts out into the sea.

The Tip of Borneo is a completely undeveloped area which is fronted by, probably, the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, stretching in both directions with not another soul in sight. I can only hope that there are not any development plans for this breath-taking location. Further up the beach a little park comes a head, surrounded by rugged rocks which play dangerously with each other in the white caps of the surf. This small park had a tiny cafe as it’s only amenities. ┬áStanding literally on the islands tip about the surf and looking out over the vast ocean was completely thrilling.

Other attractions of Sabah which we did not get a chance to sea include the orangutans in their original habitat and Sipadan, with its world famous dive site and its incredible water village.

Sabah is a place I would like to get an opportunity to explore some more. It easily started the countdown of my top 5 favorite places in Asia.

Here’s a recap:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. Sabah, East Malaysia

4. ???

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #6 – southern Vietnam

I have had the privilege of visiting four different parts of southern Vietnam (admittedly, all of them are quite a ways back): Quy Nhon, Nha Trang, Dalat, Ho Chi Minh City. When taken as a whole, southern Vietnam has quite the interesting scope, making it a wonderfully fun and exciting place to visit.

Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by its residents, is the largest city in Vietnam – the commercial hub which has the openness and vibrancy of any modern southeast Asian city. It’s a city on the move, driven by entrepreneurs and a pop-cultural movement that sets the pace for the growing and quickly modernizing nation. From Ho Chi Minh City, head west to Cu Chi and visit the former free-fire zone and the maze of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to wreck havoc on American bases in the region during the war years. Or you can head south into the Mekong River Delta and experience one of the planets most fertile and productive rice regions.

Da Lat is the quaint mountain-top town several hours drive out of HCM City. Dalat is known for its quaint French villas, a year-round wonderfully cool climate, and beautiful serene scenery.

If beaches are more your thing, head over to Nha Trang and enjoy the wonderful seafood and restaurants along the beautiful white sandy beach that stretches the length of the city. I spent 10 days in Nha Trang enjoying the surf and sand – one of my favorite family vacations I’ve ever been on.

If you want to explore further north, you can hit the other beach town of Quy Nhon, or head up into the wild mountainous regions and indulging in places like Ban Me Thuot to see the booming coffee plantations.

Southern Vietnam is full of exciting and memorable places to visit, easily notching an important slot in my top ten favorite places in Asia.

Review so far:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. southern Vietnam

5. ?????

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #9 – Chiang Mai, Thailand

I have many fond memories of Chiang Mai, not the least of which is the day I walked my wife from the YMCA Hotel to Ram Hospital to have our second child. What an amazing experience that was! It certainly was easy, for this reason alone, for Chiang Mai to crack the top 10.

But, it would have made it anyways. Chiang Mai is a quaint little city in northern Thailand, surrounded by beautiful mountains and a laid back, friendly spirit. Chiang Mai has great food. I still remember fondly a small shop that served this out of the world ginger pork curry. It has one of the best and largest night markets in Asia, a sprawling scene with untold riches ready to be found. And it’s always fun to arrive in the Tuk Tuk, the small motorized vehicle which seats 3 or 4.

Just outside the city limits, you can go for elephant rides (a truly fun experience) see the massive snakes and a myriad of other interesting day trips. You can even head to the Golden Triangle for the day where China, Thailand, and Myanmar all meet.

If you ever get a chance, put it on your list! ┬áHere’s my daughter in Chiang Mai, testing out the wooden elephants.

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The list so far:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. ?

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #10 – Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca is located on the Malay Peninsula, an hour and a half south of Kuala Lumpur and five hours from Johor Bahru and Singapore on the peninsula’s tip.

The history of Malacca is what drew me to it; its charm is what keeps me going back.

The history stuff first. Malacca was taken over by the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century, being a perfect outpost for their trade forays into the spice islands. They established a small settlement, including St. Paul’s church whose structure is one of the oldest European buildings in the region. The Dutch removed the Portuguese in the 17th century and the English returned the favor in the 19th century. The European colonialists provide a rich layer of history to Malacca with fascinating architecture and beautiful old colonial houses and shops.

Jonker Street and the surrounding streets provides a rich shopping experience for antiques, art, and varied knickknacks and rare finds. Malacca boasts some of the best Nonya (Straits Chinese) food in Malaysia.

In the past few years, the Malacca River has gone through a renaissance of sorts, lined with beautiful walks, refurbished ancient structures, and modern and sleek hotels and restaurants.

It’s a cultural and historical feast – as well as a gastronomical one. For all of these purposes, Malacca ranks as one of my top 10 places in Asia.

Here are a few photos from my last visit to Malacca:

Colonial era homes of the Straits Chinese
Colonial era homes of the Straits Chinese

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Dutch Square - Stadthuys Ethnographic Museum on the right. Christ Church in the background.
Dutch Square – Stadthuys Ethnographic Museum on the right. Christ Church in the background.
Jonker Street. Wonderful night street market with Chinese delicacies, art, antiques, and lots more.
Jonker Street. Wonderful night street market with Chinese delicacies, art, antiques, and lots more.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier outside St. Paul's church.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier outside St. Paul’s church.
Malacca River. Enjoy a night cruise.
Malacca River. Enjoy a night cruise.

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: Not Making the Cut

I was doing an author’s interview recently and the interviewer asked what is my favorite place in Asia. That made me really stop and think. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled to some pretty cool places throughout east and southeast Asia. So I decided to do my blog’s first 10 ten series. I’ve compiled my 10 most favorite places I’ve been to in Asia.

Now, of course, a list like this is very subjective. So I do have a couple of rules.

1) This list includes only places that I have visited. Yes, there are a lot of great places not on the list which I simply haven’t been able to get to. So don’t be offended if your favorite place isn’t even mentioned. I probably haven’t been there.

2) Some of the places are more regional, and others more specific. I didn’t want to just say “My Top 10 Favorite Cities” because some of my favorite places aren’t necessarily in a city.

3) Some of these places I haven’t been to in years so my thoughts are based on my experiences whether recent or long ago.

So with those ground rules, I’ll be posting my picks over the next few weeks. I’d appreciate your comments.

Today, I’m starting with seven places which just didn’t make the cut. It’s not like I didn’t like these places; it’s just that only 10 places fit in a top 10. Here are a few leftovers in no particular order:

Bangkok, Thailand – Bangkok is a sprawling, bustling city, that always feels extremely hot. The temples and palaces are beautiful and the food is great. But it wasn’t enough to crack my top 10.

Vientiane, Laos – I remember driving through the capital for the first time and asking myself, ‘where’s the capital’? It’s an extremely laid back place. Very friendly people, but not a whole lot to do.

Bali, Indonesia – Some will wonder how this one didn’t crack my top 10. The beaches are beautiful, yes. However, I was turned off by the crowds. Everything was so busy and chaotic. It wasn’t the relaxing beach destination that we were looking for. It is pretty, though.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – The capital of Cambodia is an interesting place to visit. A must are the relics which reveal the horror of the Killing Fields. The Cambodian people are fun and gracious.

Tokyo, Japan – It was big, confusing, and really expensive.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – KL is an interesting city with some fun stuff to do. I always like stopping by the administrative capital of Putra Jaya to the south. But really, if you are going to Malaysia, there are more interesting places.

central Vietnam – This one was hard to cut from my list because there are some really nice places to visit there. Hoi An, the ancient city, is quaint and pleasant. Danang has the wonderful China Beach, Hue, the former Imperial City, has some wonderful old palaces to visit. Come to think of it, how did this one not make the list?

These ten ahead of it must be something special.

Up next: #10