The Far East has never been so near. 2017 has been the Year of the Bull for tourism in Eastern Asia. The Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index 2017 holds a total of 8 Far-East destinations out of the 20 listed, with Thailand and Singapore making it to the top 5. This year’s tourists seem to have been either all in for the green or on the lookout for a high-tech experience. And the Far East seems to have something in store for everybody.
The capital city of Thailand is a two-faced beauty: majestic temples and timeless teak buildings stand as a tribute to the past against the new ultra-modern skyscrapers.
The heart of Bangkok past glory is in Rattanakosin, the royal district. Crossed by the Chao Phraya River with its many floating boats, Rattanakosin hosts the iconic Great Royal Palace and the sacred temple of Wat Phra Kaew.
On the weekend the polar opposition of tradition and innovation is transposed in shopping. The choice is between the famous overly crowded Chatuchak Weekend Market or the brand new equally jam-packed malls in Ratchaprasong.
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To get the best of both worlds, we recommend a visit to Khao San Road, a safe place for backpackers from all over the world since 1982. Its popularity has slowly grown, morphing Khaosan into an uptown hipster night district, where tourists and locals can find both cheap and luxury venues. The selection of food ranges from traditional Thai restaurants and street food carts to refined Western cuisine.
Khao San Road is also the best place to spend a night out, offering the best nightclubs and bars in the whole city. Nothing’s better than a drink and some freshly made street pad thai after a dance night.
What’s in a name? For Singapore, aka The Lion City, everything. A roaring economy, a fierce identity and a majestic appearance. All the different ethnicities that peacefully inhabit Singapore have contributed to shaping it into a dynamic and colourful display of the Far East.
Indian, Chinese and Malaysian cultures are all equally represented in picturesque districts such as Little India, Chinatown or Arab Street and in their places of worship: the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Buddhist Temple, the Sri Mamman Indu Temple and the majestic Sultan Mosque. The cohabitation of cultures has brought to a distinctive hybridization of culinary styles such as the Peranakan cuisine, a mix of Chinese and Malay born and flourished in Singapore.
The colonial era finds its highest expression in Padang, a former cricket ground turned into a multi-purpose open playing field. Neo-classical buildings surround this immense green field: the City Hall, the Old Supreme Court Building and St Andrew’s Cathedral.
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Neo-futuristic quintessential Singapore is located near Marina Bay, famous for its hotels offering a breath-taking view of the waterfront and skyline. No one can miss the view of the skyline from the Skypark at Marina Bay Pearl.
Following a Far-Eastern trend, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel offers to its guests the incredible experience of a bath in the rooftop Infinity Edge Pool. More often than not, the hotel offers special promotions and rebates, so that anybody gets the chance to spend the night and experience the view from the pool.
Nature and art lovers can’t miss the opportunity to visit Gardens by the Bay, an extraordinary and ambitious project combining horticulture, gardening and art.
Seoul, South Korea
Seoul embodies the peculiarity of South-East Asia, mixing spiritual tradition and technology to the max. While hosting 5 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Neolithic remains, Seoul has the world’s fastest fibre Wi-Fi connection and an incredibly technologically advanced infrastructure.
The two buildings representing neo-futurism in Seoul are the wave-shaped City Hall and Dongdaemun Design Plaza & Park. Exposition spaces, futuristic retail stores, a rooftop walkable park with a breath-taking view of the city’s skyline and restored parts of the Seoul Fortress are all featured in the DDP. This masterpiece of elongated shapes and curved forms was designed by Zaha Hadid and it is the heart of South Korea’s fashion hub, Dongdaemun.
The economic centre of the city is in the Gangnam district, hosting venues such as the World Trade Center and the COEX Mall. Its distinctive lavish lifestyle has been transmitted to the world by the K-POP singer PSY. Since Korean pop has reached the West in the early 2000s, its ever-growing popularity has been attracting crowds from all over the world to Seoul.
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But it’s not only innovation that tourists want to experience. The royal compound of the Five Grand Palaces with their gardens offers a perspective on the traditional architecture of the Far East.
To taste some traditional Korean barbecue or tea instead, we recommend a stop in Seoul’s most popular cultural street, Insa-dong. This street in downtown Seoul is home to the extraordinary Jogyesia Temple. During Buddha’s Birthday Celebrations in May the temple is an explosion of colours and lights. Many secular pine trees rest on the temple ground, designated and protected as Natural Monuments either for their age or rarity.
Nevertheless, the true green lung of the city is located along the Han River. Many parks of different dimension and purpose are populated on the weekend by local trying to escape from the stress of urban life.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Every year flocks of tourist fly to Kuala Lumpur to get to the top of the Petronas Twin Tower. These giants of glass and steel, decorated with Islamic motives, stand at more than 400 meters and promise vertigo and astonishment to every visitor. The distance between them is covered by a double-decker sky bridge, which serves as structural support to the towers in case of high winds. Access to the sky bridge is granted to 1000 visitors per day on a first-come, first-served basis.
But that is not all the city has to offer. Good shopping and good food are its most prominent features for locals. For some true oriental shopping head to Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur’s own Little India. A few streets down, the central market in Chinatown it’s almost like an open-air art gallery, showcasing the city’s best craft masterpieces. The posh Suria KLCC mall stands at the feet of the Petronas, featuring luxury goods, an art gallery and a science centre. Being one of Malaysia’s largest malls, the choice in the food court is incredibly vast.
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More traditional hearty Malay meals can be tasted on food carts and small takeaways in Tapak, the only permanent food truck park in town. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste Durians, the smelliest – and yet one of the tastiest – fruits in the Far East. Although it is deemed an essential ingredient for various traditional Malay meals, Durians smell so bad that they are banned from public places. Apparently, cracking one open in a cafè or on public transportation can get you fined.
Nature lovers can fill their spirit with the mystic atmosphere of the Batu Caves. The limestone has hidden the ornate Hindu temples and altars of Bathu until 1875. The statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity, salutes the visitors right in front of the cave’s entrance, standing at a height of 42 meters with its coverture of 300 litres of gold paint imported from Thailand. Monkeys, mostly macaques, are frequently spotted on the site, searching for food from either the visitors’ hands or their bags.
No one is safe from Tokyo’s unique charm. It’s an extremely photogenic city, where every single corner seems to be polished and ready to be featured in an editorial photo-shoot. Every day the trendiest fashion-forward outfits are walking through Harajuku and Shibuya, ready to inspire locals and tourists as well. Once all the notes have been taken, Harajuku’s huge vintage shops are the best places to start recreating the looks.
The quirky side of Japan is in Akibara, where every electronic device imaginable is sold. Tourists spend their time roaming through the stores, trying to find the quirkiest object to bring back home as a trophy.
For a taste of Tokyo’s neon fantasy, either Shibuya or Roppongi are the places to be, the latter with its karaoke bars and traditional cosy izakaya pubs.
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Not unlike its far-east sisters, Tokyo mixes ultra-futurism with tradition and history. Beautiful ladies clad in traditional ornate kimonos stroll around the streets of Asakusa, along with small antique shops and the temple of Senso-Ji in its distinctive lacquered red. The majestic gardens of the Meiji Shrine at the border of Harajuku attract tourists from all over the world. For its inauguration in 1920, the Japanese people donated 120.000 evergreen trees of 365 different species to the shrine. The resulting forest measures 700,000 sqm and it’s used either for leisure or meditation.
Even though the entertainment scene is mainly following the western trends, traditional Japanese inspired solutions are still available in the Kabuki theatres scattered across the city. Kabuki-za in Ginza offers performances almost every day. The programs are organized monthly and with different acts and dances in the afternoon and in the evening.
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Of course, Tokyo offers many different solutions for the most delicious and Instagram-friendly meals in Japan. The Character Food Court at Sanrio Purolands offers delicious traditional Japanese food shaped in the cutest forms. Ordering the Gutedama Omu Curry Rice, for example, gets you a smiling sunny-side up eggs chilling under a bacon blanket.
Those who are looking for delicious authentic sushi will have their wish granted by Tsugu Sushimasa in Shinjuku. Their success is apparently due to a traditional Edo period recipe for the rice, that involves the use of a stronger type of red vinegar. Even those who are not really into raw fish can taste some succulently grilled one. Itadakimasu!