I may never be able to take a months-long trip again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t return to Asia. Here are five of my favorite destinations that would be great for a short trip:
Chiang Mai, Thailand: Enjoy the famous northern Thai cuisine and hospitality, visit beautiful Buddhist temples and go trekking in the lush forests.
Rajastan, India: Visit magnificent forts and palaces, stay at a Haveli (a historic mansion converted into a hotel), learn about life in the desert.
Georgetown, Pulau Penang, Malaysia: See colonial architecture, explore Strait Chinese heritage and try some of the best food in Malaysia.
Hoi An, Vietnam: Stroll through the streets lined with well-preserved colonial buildings, try the delectable Vietnamese cuisine at one of the riverside cafes and visit the ruins of an ancient Cham civilization.
Siem Riep, Cambodia: Discover Angkor Wat and other temples of the Khmer Empire, see a traditional dance performance, swap stories with fellow travelers at one of the funky bars.
Kerala is famous for its food and spices. It’s also the setting of the novel “The God of Small Things” by Arundathi Roy. I had just read the novel and was hoping it would come to life here. We walked through the narrow lanes and courtyards of Fort Cochin’s spice markets. We saw St. Francis Church, where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was buried after his death in Fort Cochin. His remains later were returned to Portugal.
In the evening we saw a performance of Katakhali, an all-male Keralan dance traditionally performed in Hindu temples and depicting scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu epics. It was so fascinating we actually went twice.
Katakhali artists wear elaborate costumes and makeup, which is more like a mask. Some characters have green cheeks, red lips, black shadows over their eyes and papier-mâché collars attached to their jaws.
Performers tell a story with hand gestures and facial expressions.It’s very exaggerated and sometimes comical. For example, the expression for love involves moving the eyebrows up and down, glancing sideways and smiling.
After spending a few days in Goa, we took a train south to Kerala province to visit Fort Cochin, a colonial town full of Portuguese churches and crumbling villas.
We managed to get tickets for the train leaving at 1 p.m. and arriving between 1 and 2 a.m. Trains are a popular and efficient way to get around, so it’s hard to get tickets on short notice. A day train seemed like a waste of time but I ended up looking out the window until nightfall.
We went past palm groves and rolling green hills, and children making faces at the train. Women in traditional dress walked through the fields with baskets balanced on their heads. At one station a woman in a white sari led a demonstration of about 50 people.
I stayed awake so we wouldn’t miss our station, Ernakulam. Everybody was sleeping except for a train conductor who didn’t speak a word of English. Asking him when our station was coming brought no results.
Fortunately, the sign with the name “Ernakulam” was visible from my berth and we got out at the right station. The autorickshaw driver, who said he knew exactly where we needed to go, couldn’t find our guesthouse for about an hour and then demanded we pay double for his efforts. We didn’t.
One of the best ways to get to know the country you are visiting is to go to a major market. Asia is famous for its markets. Some will expand your comfort zone and make your jaw drop. Others offer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. Here are five of my favorite markets in Southeast Asia and India.
Last week I found myself in front of the blackboard in a classroom of a rural Cambodian school.
Marat and I volunteered as teaching assistants in an aftershool English program in Bospo village, Battambang province.
The program, run by the local nonprofit KNGO, provides free English lessons and computer training to about 200 village children of various ages.
The program relies on the help of English-speaking volunteers to improve the students’ pronunciation and to motivate them to learn English. Knowing English in Cambodia is the key to good jobs in the tourist industry.
I was helping in three beginner-level classes, where young kids were learning words and simple sentences. They were curious, eager to learn and always smiling. And they were loud, as if they would only get a word right if they shouted it at the top of their lungs.
In the afternoons, the younger students came to KNGO office to read books and practice English with us. Those were the most challenging, exhausting and fun two hours of our day. We played word games and read storybooks downloaded on the iPad the night before. The kids were really interested, and we were happy to bring them this excitement.
It was hard to say goodbye when it was time for us to leave. But I hope to return to Battambang someday for a longer stay.
Crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia set us back an extra $100 because border officials found something wrong with our passports. We were told our visas were more expensive (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) than regular visas. Several people we were crossing with were in the same boat.
The experience was frustrating and a little scary. Even so, Cambodia quickly grew on me thanks to its good-natured people and cultural heritage.
We started in the capital of Phnom Penh, where everything looked recently built and freshly painted. It seemed like the city was trying really hard to be a busy Asian center but lacked the crowds and the activity to make it possible.
The reason, I think, is that Cambodia is still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, which in the late 1970s destroyed a quarter of the country’s population.
Phnom Penh’s residents were marched out of the city and into labor camps around the country. Many died from starvation and disease.
Many places around the city serve as memorials to those who perished. One such place is the Tuol Sleng prison, a former school where the Khmer Rouge tortured people for crimes they hadn’t committed. It’s a truly haunting museum. Our Cambodian guide had tears in her eyes as she walked us through it.
On the bright side, we met two men who survived the prison. They were talking with visitors that day. One was allowed to live for his skill as a mechanic, the other because he could paint portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
The other well known memorial is the Killing Fields, a place where the Khmer Rouge secretly executed people. It’s now a beautiful park with signs guiding visitors through mass graves and other horrors. It’s a deeply moving tribute to the people who lost their lives there.
The Cambodian people want the world to know about Khmer Rouge atrocities so the victims can be remembered. I’d say one of these museums is a must when visiting Cambodia, but they are not for the faint of heart.
Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam.
We started in Hanoi and made our way south in about 16 days. Here are the highlights.
Hanoi: My favorite Hanoi experience was attending a concert of Ca Tru, a historic genre of religious music that is all but forgotten now. A group of young musicians is trying to revive it. The venue was a beautiful 19th-century house, one of many in Hanoi’s old quarter.
Hue: This city was the empire of the Nguyen dynasty in the 19th and early 20th century. It’s full of palace ruins and royal tombs. The most memorable one was the tomb of the emperor Ming Mahn. It’s set in a beautiful garden and includes many sculptures and temples. All royal tombs are built similarly, but this one is the most interesting.
Hoi An: The town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so many colonial-era houses have been restored. Like in Luang Prabang, they mostly house restaurants and shops, but at least they are owned and operated by the Vietnamese.
The highlight was visiting the house of Mr. Duong, a retired math teacher. The house has been in his family for six generations. We stayed for a long time and talked about the elections in Russia, the future of Vietnam and American foreign policy.
Ho Chi Minh City:The War Remnants Museum here was showing the Requiem photo exhibition. It features works by news photographers from all over the world who died documenting the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The museum is really good but seems to be focused exclusively on how America wronged Vietnam.
We also watched a religious service at the colorful Cao Dai temple outside Saigon. Cao Daism includes elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other faith traditions. The religion, which has about three million followers, was founded in Vietnam in the early 20th century. The Cao Daists want to tell the world about their faith, so they let tourists sit in on services. The writer Victor Hugo is one of the Cao Dai saints.
Mekong Delta: We stopped here, in the very south of Vietnam, to see the countryside and the floating markets on the Mekong River. The trip was amazing.
Traders arrive from their villages by boat each morning to buy and sell produce. All trade is conducted on boats floating in the Mekong River. Whatever fruit or vegetable people have for sale is tied to a post on the boat. We had to leave our hostel at 5:30 a.m. to see the market at its busiest. By 8 a.m. most merchants are returning to the local markets in their villages.
One of the places we saw during a four-day motorbike trip around the Lao countryside.