Happy New Year – it’s 2017 and our gift to you is a celebratory episode of Talk Travel Asia. Today we’ll revel in our very favorite things about Asia in a multitude of categories from how to get around to where to imbibe and a whole lot in between. We take on a variety of categories from best transport, to airports, best movies theaters and a whole lot in between. This is our Best of Asia from more than 33 collective years living and traveling in the region. Ring in the New Year by celebrating travel and get planning your trip to Asia for 2017!
Trevor: There are so many things I love about traveling, and people are always asking me, “What’s the best place for…” Now, I’m not sure what “the best” is as I can only speak from my experience, but I can tell you that it’s almost certainly not what Trip Advisor tells you is the best.
Scott: Why I love travel – this isn’t ‘the best’ but places I recall fondly – some may love them – some may hate them – take them as you may and I guarantee nothing!!
Trevor: This year I hope to get to: As always my go-to answer is Hawaii. If we stick to Asia… hmmm… AirAsia flies to Mauritius. Thats technically Africa, I think, but it looks awesome. (Note: Trevor booked tickets for Mauritius in April 2017).
Scott: This year I hope to get to…northern loop from Hanoi up the east to the China border and down through Sapa on a motorbike – Pakse – 4,000 Islands to Phnom Penh, and maybe Dublin – lets see! Bali too.
Trevor: And then there’s our Preah Khan Kompong Svay motorbike trip…
Scott: Very true! Well, we have a lot of categories to get through on our Best of Asia list, so let’s get to it!
Best hub city
Trevor: For the city you want to fly into if you want to explore all of Southeast Asia, I think it’s really down to Bangkok or Singapore. For cost and connections, Bangkok arguably has the edge as it has a lot of international and budget carriers servicing it, but more importantly, its geographically central. That said, both Bangkok airports have some serious flaws and if you have to do a connection between the two airports, good luck. Maybe KL…
Scott: Kuala Lumpur has perhaps the greatest number of flights with AirAsia and opens the most possibilities all the way to Iran, Kathmandu, and Borneo to name a few, but the airport is about 70km out of the city center and hotels are more expensive in KL than Bangkok. If you were just doing a ping-pong flight trip in/out of a capital city then it would be a pretty solid bet. Singapore is pretty good, but I agree, the medal has to go to Bangkok – two airports, a multitude of budget airlines, and it’s geographically pretty center.
Trevor: The coolest airport I’ve been to in the region has to be Samui International. It’s tropical, open-air, has free coffee and snacks, and even has fish tanks in front of the urinals!
Scott: Changi Airport in Singapore definitely clinches it. While I agree Samui and Sukhothai airports, both owned by Bangkok Airways, are unique and cute, Changi has international down to a science. Clean, super efficient, spaces to lounge, gardens, a movie theatre and sheer speed – you can’t beat it. I have been from exiting a plane to my mother in law’s house in under and hour – very slick.
Trevor: I love the prices of AirAsia, the food on Korean Air, and the in-flight magazine of Bangkok Airways, but Singapore Air has treated me best. Singapore Air is pretty smooth sailing: first class service and comfort, even in coach.
Scott: I agree AirAsia, bang for buck, is pretty good. They’ve gotten their planes much more on time in the last few years. Scoot is an honorable mention – new planes, larger space in seats than traditional low-cost airlines, and you get 20kg baggage. But I agree, Singapore Airlines nails it. I flew them last year for the first leg of my trip back to Canada and they are awesome – great in-flight entertainment system, wonderful service, nice planes, good food, etc.
Best Train System
Scott: For train experience, taking a Chinese train on the Trans-Siberian was pretty neat, but the ride wasn’t so nice – old and a bit dirty. You’ve got to hand it to the Japanese for the best train system overall. From great city subway systems to inter-city trains to Shinkansen (high speed) trains that fly across the country, these trains leave on time, are clean and go everywhere.
Trevor: I love riding the train. I know there are some awesome ones out there, including the Orient Express… but I’ve not been impressed by trains in Thailand or Vietnam, the only places I’ve really done much train riding in Asia. Since we didn’t mention busses, I’m deferring on the trains and going with Chinese busses which have bunk beds in them!
Best local transportation option
Scott: Driving a tuk-tuk was pretty awesome – but they’re over-priced and you have to inhale Bangkok’s air. I have to go with the classic bicycle. Not always possible in Asia, but when you can, a bike gets you places other modes of transport can’t. And you get some exercise.
An honorable mention goes to the trishaws in Penang, Malaysia which are lit up and decorated with Hello Kitty themes and other outlandish ones – pretty fun.
Trevor: Ramork: the Cambodian version of a Tuk Tuk – I like the slower pace and the fact that your driver will inevitably sleep in a hammock.
Best boat trip
Trevor: Halong Bay is a nice boat trip and we’ve had some epic NYE boat parties on the Chao Phraya in Bangkok, but the old-world style luxury mekong river boats from CF Mekong are great. Multi-day trips from Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, with stops along the way at historical temples and artisanal villages.
Scott: Tough one. I haven’t been on too many really nice, high-class boats, but enjoy paddling a kayak, pretty much anywhere. That said, one of my favorite activities has always been to paddle along the cliffs between Ao Nang and Railay Bay at Krabi. Cheap, fun and stunningly gorgeous – especially at sunset. I’ve always wanted to do a boat from Pakse to 4,000 Islands down and back as well – very short distance but it would be cool I think. Aqua in Cambodia look pretty darn nice and plush as well. Link to episode
Category: CITY LIFE
Best people watching location:
Trevor: I think I’m going with Tokyo. Either Harajuku because I don’t remember just crazy cosplay but punks and such as well. Or the intersection outside Shibuya station, where the Hachi the dog statue is. That intersection outside the station is crazy busy with people.
Scott: This is a tough one to pick one – I like sitting at the entrance to Nana Plaza in Bangkok at Big Dogs to see the sheer bizarre of the city, while I also very much like watching motorbikes and life go by at Cafe Zoom in HCMC. Also I love the Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal – it’s almost medieval – very cool atmosphere. All fun, full of energy and you can enjoy a drink.
Best Night On the Town
Trevor: Lots of people told me its the best, but now that I’ve been to Jakarta I don’t find the nightlife options as diverse as some other Asian cities. I’ve been to Tokyo and Beijing, both of which have lots of cool venues. Despite no more free-for-all 24-hour parties (though they’re there if you want them) Bangkok is tough to beat. (For more on nightlife, one of our favorite topics, see Episode 58 Asian Bar Games Olympics, Episode 38 Inside Bangkok – Nana, Episode 21 Three nights in Bangkok, and Episode 17: Favorite Watering Holes)
Scott: Yep, Bangkok is tough to beat due to variety from side-of-the-road to top of the city and everything in between. Japan is pretty fun, although I didn’t have the budget to go into many bars. KL has some pretty fun speakeasy bars, but I’ll have to difer to Phnom Penh again on this one. The variety is outstanding, the prices very reasonable, and I’ve always had a great night on town there. I’ve also had some fun in Seoul a number of years ago.
Best City for Dining:
Trevor: One of my favorite things about traveling is eating. For example, one of my favorite things about Korea is Korean food. Vietnamese food, as we heard from Bobby Chinn on Episode 55, is pretty awesome too. But for all-around dining, it’s hand’s down Bangkok. In addition to amazing Thai street food (which I’m homesick for after a week nearly anywhere), Bangkok has Gaggan, #1 restaurant in Asia (which is Indian cuisine, but also “molecular” cuisine proving Bangkok’s status for creative food), and Bangkok has some of the most authentic all-around Italian, Japanese, Ethiopian, German, etc, etc, etc cuisine.
Scott: I love Phnom Penh – there’s every kind of food available, maybe not the region’s best, but very affordable and always fun. Eat, eat, eat and don’t break the bank. Kyoto is pretty darn fun as well. They say Osaka is the best for street food, but I really enjoyed an interesting mix of food in Kyoto in 2016 – pretty much any city in Japan for that matter – one of the world’s best countries for food.
Trevor: Tough call, but it’s gotta be somewhere in Bangkok. I like Scala because it’s old school and huge (but maybe closed now: I’ve heard mixed things lately), and of course Friese-Green Club: it’s intimate, you can see amazing films, and you get to rub shoulders with filmmakers from the region. I’m going with the Emquartier, which has the True Screen X: a triple screen, nine projector movie projection system that allows customers 270- degree vision, another with a Premium Laser Projector that provides 20 times brighter and sharper view, AND an IMAX.
Scott: Yep, Bangkok gets the award – from old classic theaters to a ton of high-end theaters and even the ‘normal’ ones are very nice and about $6-7US for a typical show. Great value just to get out of the heat!
Category: BEACHES AND ISLANDS
Best country for Scuba diving:
Trevor: Forget about Thailand, I have to say. And I’ve never been to Philippines so I have to withhold judgement there. While I’ve only been diving off of a handful of the 3000 islands in Indonesia, I’m going Indo. Even the diving in Menjangan National Park in Bali was like: turtle, eel, pygmy seahorse: really a cornucopia of exotic marine life. There’s mola mola and giant mantas…I can only image Komodo and Flores and… and… and…
Scott: I don’t have a whole ton of diving experience in the region – about 20 dives, but I was never that ‘wow’d’ by any I’ve done. That said, from knowing my friend Laurie in Kuala Lumpur, I think the award may have to go to Malaysia. They have Sipadan, Pulau Tioman, Redang, Perhentian and a whole bunch of others down the east-coast of peninsular Malaysia. (For more info on diving and snorkeling, have a listen to Episode 48: Snorkeling and Diving in Asia).
Trevor: Amed, Bali. Crystal clear, wide, shallow bay after bay after bay. Even a wreck you can snorkel around the top of.
Scott: Again, I seem to have somehow done surprisingly little of this in a ton of locales, mostly in Thailand, which is nice, but not world-class. I differ to you Trevor.
Best Party Island
Trevor: If we have any 18 year old listeners, you’ll probably go to KPG FMP (and know what that means), but I’ve never been and never will, having experienced a normal weekend in Haad Rin. I’ve done the Gilis too, and it’s cool, but… honestly, the most fun I’ve had is in Chaweng Beach in Ko Samui. It’s fairly compact so you can bump around, the crowd is cosmopolitan (and neither too young nor too old), and the clubs on Soi Green Mango stay open late, late, late.
Scott: I’m clearly getting old and can’t remember the last time I really partied on an island. I have always enjoyed chill evenings on Ko Samet, Thailand at Silversand on Ao Phai – relaxing, mats, fire show, pretty easy fun.
Best up-and-coming island:
Trevor: The islands of Rayong, Thailand all compete here. Ko Phra Tong is awesome. There’s less than 10 places to stay although it’s one of the biggest islands in Thailand. Its also one of the only places in Thailand with Savannah, so there’s interesting bird life. That would be for “get away from it all” – for “up and coming” I like nearby Ko Phayam because while there are no cars on the island, it’s got a bit of action, beach parties and the like. So you can either find a quiet place to chill out or mingle a bit if you want to.
Scott: Ko Phayam is on my list for 2017 as well – been threatening to go for a long time – I have to get there!
Category OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Best Mountain Biking:
Scott: Nepal is legendary – there are so many spots to ride – always love it! Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai has some pretty decent downhill tracks, I enjoy some remote paths in Chiang Rai province. Bukit Kiara in KL gets a mention too – fun riding there. Riding in the Angkor Historical Park is fun – atop walls, on dirt tracks around temples, through the forest – there is some good fun to be had but you have to have someone show you how and where.
Trevor: I’m not a big biker, so I’m going with the electric bicycles at Angkor Archaeological Park. You can pedal them if you want to.
Best Adventure Sport
Trevor: I’ve done lots of dangerous and exciting things in the region. Deep water soloing in Krabi has to be a runner up here (rock climbing from a boat up a cliff without ropes and then falling/jumping into the sea). Best for me though was off-road motorcycling. Dirtbiking the dancing roads of Cambodia.
Scott: I’ll list dirt biking in Chiang Rai, Thailand along the Thai-Myanmar border – love it. And while it’s not hard adventure – supported trekking in Nepal is one of my all-time favorite activities.
Trevor: Kuang Si which is located about 30 kilometers to the southwest of Luang Prabang. There is a rope swing and you can jump off lower falls. Beautiful upper falls have picnic tables and you can hike to the top. There is also an Asian Black Bear conservation center.
Scott: Thi Lo Su Waterfall in Tak province, Thailand – quite remote – good trekking there, multi-tiered, quite impressive.
Trevor: Obviously Indonesia, though I’ve never been to Philippines: like diving: Bali, Java, Sumatra, even Lombok have world-famous breaks but there are thousands of islands…
Scott: Weligama, Sri Lanka, sandy bottom, tiny waves, but fun and easy for beginners – really enjoyed multiple days here and hope to try it again sometime soon.
Trevor: Lake Toba in Sumatra is a runner up for me, but the winner is Yak Lom in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. It’s a volcanic crater formed like a million years ago (or more), filled with water in the middle of the jungle. It’s so deep and pristine: refreshingly cold and clean. There’s also a cool hill tribe center beside the lake, a snack bar that sells jars of sticky rice wine, and a walking trail through the jungle around it.
Best Wildlife Experience:
Trevor: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra – Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Leonardi Dicaprio was even there recently. I went back in 1996 so it’s good to know that its still going strong.
Scott: Looking for rhinos in Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal was pretty cool – hardly any left in the wild now unfortunately but did see one – impressive. Would love to go looking for tigers in Bardia National Park, in SW Nepal – that would be cool. Seeing the orangutans outside of Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo was pretty cool – swinging, coming in for food – very neat.
Scott: Tatai River in Southwest Cambodia is pretty neat – staying at 4 Rivers, swimming right from the balcony at your tent, paddling 10km on the river, nice, remote, quiet, clean water.
Trevor: Agree that Tatai is pretty nice. And portions of the Mekong are amazing. I stayed in a little village near the borders of Cambodia and Laos and saw river dolphins. Awesome.
Scott: We’ll we have a lot more to cover but it looks like we’ve run out of time for this week.
Trevor: We have a lot more to cover so I guess we’ll have to do a “Best of Asia, part 2” sometime soon.
To learn more about Scott & Trevor: