Visiting Asia for the first time, where would you suggest

I’ve been at home sick for the past few days and have spent a lot of time reading up on travel forums. I’m stunned by how inexpensive it is to travel to major Asian cities from Chicago O’Hare airport.

Assuming I have about 15 days or so, and plan to visit one ‘Western’ city and one ‘Asian’ city, where would you suggest? Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City? Hong Kong and Shanghai? Singapore and Kuala Lumpur?

I’ll assume Bangkok and Manila straddle between Western and Asian. I’ll also assume Japan is way too expensive. I’ll also assume Cambodia and Myanmar aren’t the places for first time visits.

I’d mainly want to visit museums, eat spicy local food, see architecture, visit some temples, and maybe some local sporting events.

I checked the temperatures even now in winter, that is some seriously hot weather in most of Southeast Asia.

Ubud, Candidasa, Tampaksiring, Tirtagangga, Amed. Just get an hour or two’s cab drive out of the airport in Bali, stop when you hear gamelan or see padis.

I could spend all fifteen days on that island alone. A side trip to Singapore (many Bali flights go through Changi anyway) would be fun though, for the food if nothing else.

I really liked Malaysia both times I visited and your money will go far there. You get to see Hindu AND Buddhist temples in the same country, and I could eat Chinese one night, Korean the next night and then go to a very Western place like Pizza Hut the following night. It’s a Muslim majority population but very much a “hijab with blue jeans drinking a Coke” kind of country. If this is starting to sound a little culturally confusing, I should also mention that when I went to a bookstore I noticed a lot of books in the social studies section with titles along the lines of “Searching for Malaysian Identity”. Fascinating country though.

Tokyo was expensive but not really any more expensive than the other big cities of the world. You might get a case of sticker shock if you look at taking a train out of the city, though. Japanese temples are more austere than what you see elsewhere in Asia.

Singapore has temples but it’s kind of one great big shopping center, really. It’s an alright place to stop between connecting flights to look around for a day or two but I don’t really think of it as a destination all on its own.

Thailand is a popular destination for backpackers. Some of the islands are beautiful and the Grand Palace in Bangkok is pretty amazing, but the country also has the drawbacks associated with very touristy locations and it tends to be scammier than the other places I’ve mentioned.

The people are very friendly in Taiwan and it’s a good place to go for a “China-lite” experience, as in, you’ll get Chinese culture like the temples without the drawbacks of mainland China like the pollution. Taiwanese TV commercials are also pretty hilarious.

I’ve been to Hong Kong but not much stood out other than the famous skyline and walk of fame, malls full of luxury goods average people can’t afford, and a visit to Ocean Park, which is kind of a Sea World amusement park kind of place. They had a panda and they didn’t even prominently advertise it!

I’ve never been to the Philippines but people I’ve talked to who went to Manila were scared for their life. Asia is generally very safe but Manila is a notable exception. You should only go to Manila to get on a connecting flight to one of the touristy spots elsewhere in the country.

Kyrgyzstan. I went there last summer, it is awesome. Incredible mountain scenery, delightful people, very cheap, no visas required. Very well-educated healthy modern people, good infrastructure, despite very low per-cap. Beat the rush, it is going to become a tourism hot spot. But linguistically frustrating if you don’t know any Russian – very little English spoken.

Seoul was fantastic. Clean, easy to get around(sbuway is super easy and in English), and lots to see if you make a small plan. I’d skip the Seoul Tower, but lots of temples and other stuff to go see.

Beijing is my favorite city in the world, but I haven’t been in 10 years. The polutiion levels were spotty back then. I had plenty of nice, clear days back then.

And, it’s and amazing city. You can go see the Great Wall outside the city and come back and visit temples, Tiananmen, and countless other amazing things.

Beijing is cheaper.

If you do go to South Korea, a great time is during cherry blossom season when you can go to Gwangju and see the cherry blossoms there as well as the National Museum. Korean baseball season is also underway by then so you could catch a game somewhere.

I’ve just returned from six weeks in the big cities of Southeast Asia. I liked Taipei best of all. Comfortable weather, good food, incredible transit system, lots of English signage, friendly people—and most of all, it’s a place you can wander around the same way you would Paris or Vienna. So many of the Southeast Asian cities are quite unwelcoming for the pedestrian. If there’s a sidewalk at all, it’s broken, blocked by parked motorbikes or trucks, and next to heavy traffic.

Singapore was reasonably familiar and friendly, but hot. Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok similar, not yet as Western, but with no shortage of aircon shopping malls. I liked the people of Vietnam very much, and found Hanoi not bad to walk around. Didn’t care much for Saigon, and really didn’t like Manila even though I met a very nice guy there. Though there were American brands and English signage, Manila seemed to epitomize the polarization of Asian big cities into glitzy shopping mall or shantytown, with traffic choked expressways in between that were topped by horribly overcrowded transit lines.

My wife and I went to Japan last year and it didn’t end up being particularly expensive. The hotels we used in Tokyo and Osaka cost less than $100 per night and they were clean and comfortable. Food wasn’t much more expensive than in Canada, either. YMMV, of course.

It would be helpful if you throw in some parameters or things you like.

Do you want to fly more or less? Hit the tropics or okay with the cold. Want to go skiing and hot springing? What kind of food do you like? How deep in the local culture do you want to get? Do you want to see the great wall? Are there any must see places and then can arrange your trip around that. Do you like Sushi? How about a hot spring inn? Do you want to see any festivals? What time of year? Anything you really want to do to arrange around such as Tokyo Disneyland or milking yaks in Tibet? Do you want warm oceans? Hiking?

Hints: Shopping in Hong Kong is not a bargain. Shanghai can be very polluted (but it’s a great walking city). Japan isn’t cheap but it’s can be done on a reasonable budget (I used to live in Tokyo and my who family did Okinawa, Kyoto and Tokyo over xmas). What kind of local sports (Japanese baseball, Thai elephant polo, muay thai kickboxing, etc)?

We have a lot of collective experience and can help provide options if you give a few more hints and maybe some budget constraints. Are you comfortable with a back pack and traveler hostels, or want hotels and clean restaurants and toilets? “Asia” is huge, has a breadth of attractions at multiple price points. We can help.

Depending on when you want to come, I’m a CouchSurfing host in Nanjing, and it’s cold as heck right now.

It’s easily connected to the important parts of China via the rail network, and our international airport (NKG) is truly international. Museums, Chinese food, a big sports stadium (although I have no idea about local sports!).

Don’t forget the Nanjing ancient city walls, the Ming Tombs and other cultural sites…

Bangkok is an incredible city with a people who are so polite and welcoming, that every time I met someone they acted like “OMG! My day is perfect, because you showed up!” Couple this with a great climate and a mix of modern Western and exotic Thai throughout, and it’s why I’m returning there for vacation this summer. :slight_smile:

Lots of good stuff in this thread already, and I’ll add my US$0.02. I (business) travel to Asia frequently.

I’ve been to Indonesia many times (including a few different cities/islands) and think it’s wonderful. The people are very kind and accommodating. Mostly I’m there for business, but we always manage to take some free time, too. I will second the recommendation for Bali. Yogyakarta was another fun place. I find there is a lot of English spoken here.

My favorite city has been Tokyo. I think it’s because I felt it was somewhat westernized, but also very different at the same time. I found it easy to get around, but still foreign enough to present a challenge, too. The people were surprisingly gracious at times. I can’t wait to visit and explore Japan again. I didn’t think it was outrageously expensive, either.

Malaysia’s cool. I thought parts of KL were just like NYNY. The countryside is nice and I found the folks friendly out there, too. Lots of English to be spoken here.

Taipei was great. As mentioned… clean and orderly. I experienced a great “street market” next to my hotel in New Taipei City. It came complete with stinky tofu and lots of selfie sticks but not a lot of English. The lack of English was not that large of a handicap, though.

Though I’ve not spent a lot of time in either, I’ve found Singapore and Hong Kong sorta meh.

In summary… Western suggestion: Tokyo. Asian suggestion: Bali.

The USD/JPY exchange rate is pretty good these days. When I visited in 2010, it was 85 yen per dollar; lately it’s more like 120 yen per dollar. As hogarth notes, there are hotels for every budget; I wouldn’t leave it off of your list without at least investigating a little bit.

I just finished a vacation trip to Melbourne (I know, not Asia, but in the general neighborhood if you’re coming from the US) and Ho Chi Minh City, and I can heartily recommend both. Melbourne’s got the museums in spades and is very multicultural; and HCMC was a surprising pleasure. Enough Western comforts if you want to seek them out, but still totally foreign in many many ways.

It’s hard to go wrong. The more details you provide, the better recommendations people will be able to give. It’s a huge continent with a million options. In addition to your list, I’d consider an inland Chinese city- maybe Xi’an. I wouldn’t write off Cambodia, either.

My thoughts on cities I’ve been to:

Beijing- One of my favorite cities ever (though I fully admit I was there on a freakishly clear and blue-skied week). Its got it all- history as far back as it goes, temples, amazing food of all types, the Great Wall (I went to a more distant site and we had the place to ourselves), charming streets to wander, a thriving and energetic art scene, everything. I love, love, love Beijing. It’s huge and crazy, but still very charming and thoroughly Chinese.

Shanghai- Has its good points (I recall a great museum), but didn’t capture my imagination like other cities in China. It has a solid sheen of “international mega-city”, which is fine, but with all the options in the region I wouldn’t choose to visit again.

Bangkok- Laid back and charming. You are definitely knee deep in the tourist trail, with all the accompanying hassles, but Thailand is so pleasant that it makes up for it. None of the stuff I did was show-stopping or once-in-a-lifetime, but I spent a very enjoyable week visiting temples, taking cooking classes, watching kick-boxing, eating street food and visiting the occasional disco.

Manila- I like Manila, with its traffic and mega malls, but I wouldn’t go to the Philippines just to visit Manila. It’s a gorgeous country with great travel, but not a place I’d go to stay in cities.

I love Shanghai. It isn’t the most Chinese feeling of cities, but it does feel like a not-too-distant future when China and the west have absorbed each other. Great shopping, sight-seeing, and many varieties of food. You can stick to the international zones and get along with English, or venture into the local areas and try to commune with the locals. And the architecture is amazing; you can almost see the skyline grow as you look at it!

I generally hate cities (in general), but I have a fondness for Shanghai. It’s like “escaping to the West” when I need a break and want to speak English and have decent Western food. Well, as long as I’m in the right parts of Shanghai, that is.

Man, do I miss Shanghai. Lived there 12 years, have a gazillion relatives on my wife’s side, still have a flat there. Ughhh, the pollution is getting really bad though. It’s not western like Hong Kong or Singapore, but it’s not rural China either. It is a great city for walking in if that’s your thing. Bicycling too. The attraction is the old International Settlement area and art deco architecture mixed in with the drama of big city China.

Another second for Tokyo. The yen is cheap, and Tokyo doesn’t have to be stupidly expensive. Tokyo is like an altered universe. Things on the surface may seem very Western but it’s not when you scratch the surface. I lived there for 3 years, and my whole family spent a few days there during xmas. There is a ton to do depending on what you are interested in.

Yes, the world is very cheap right now in US dollars. I’m booked next month in a 3-star airport hotel at Narita for $45 – you can’t get a room in a US exit-ramp motel nowadays for that.