Rock Star Guides: Asia
Get the scoop on backpacking through Asia.
It all starts and ends with Tokyo. Japan's impossibly crowded city is like the metronome of Asia: everything in the region, from the economy to the latest pop music fad, moves to Tokyo's constant and commanding beat. If you can keep up with the pace and not get mowed down by its pedestrians, it's a fascinating place to explore.
Sure, there's a dearth of aged landmarks (World War II left very little behind), and instead tourists often come to play in a dense, electric playground that always seems to hum with activity, night and day. Even with the mid-afternoon sun firing on all cylinders overhead, neon signs beat down every block. But behind these giant electric ads stand interesting structures of varying styles of modern architecture, including one of the world's greatest testaments to East Asian art and archaeology, the Tokyo National Museum. If you're looking for a taste of tradition in the way of a Japanese garden, Tokyo's best is Hama Rikyu Garden. Meanwhile, trend-setters and clothes lovers must make a pit stop in the Ginza, Tokyo's hippest shopping district.
The cutting-edge culture is also evident in the city's nightlife. Tokyo could easily be considered home of the craziest, most charged scene in Asia. Many of the world's best DJs spin in its clubs (a night at Air is a must) and bars.
After you've exhausted Japan's supply of sake and wore the varnish right off Tokyo's dance floors, you'll want to take care of that blistering hangover. The best cure comes in the form of "pho," a noodle soup unlike any other. You can slurp gallons of the stuff in its unofficial birthplace: Vietnam. From the 1960s to the late 1990s, no foreigner would have given even a second thought to visiting the little sliver of land to the southwest of Japan, thanks to decades of harsh communist rule and artistic suppression.
These days, however, it seems the collective imagination of the Vietnamese has unexpectedly exploded. Today, the city of Hanoi, set along the banks of the Red River, is growing at a ferocious and exciting pace. Increasing in numbers, visitors are witnessing the vibrant metamorphosis that has caused trendy bars like Vasco's (16 Cao Ba Quat St.), a popular eatery/watering-hole, to start popping up around town. The city also features older attractions like Hoan Kiem Lake, the town's popular and symbolically rich meeting point, as well as Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum and the Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda), a serene shrine in the museum's backyard. This clash of new and old, traditional and innovative, makes Hanoi all the more remarkable.
Bangkok & Ko Samui, Thailand
The hectic pace of Hanoi and Tokyo can, at times, be overwhelming. But never fear -- taking a little breather in Thailand will help bring your blood pressure to respectable levels.
Mention the word "Thailand" to most anyone, and it conjures up images of depraved and sexed-up crowds
swarming Bangkok's streets. Those images alone are enough to raise your heart rate, so skip Bangkok -- or make a brief pit stop there -- and head straight for the island of Ko Samui instead. This slice of coastal paradise was spared by the devastating tsunami in 2004, because of its sheltered location on the other side of the country. It is one of the few places in the world where, without moving an inch, you can plant yourself on perfectly tranquil and breathtaking beaches for an entire afternoon and then get your groove on at hypnotizing parties at night. Known as moon parties, these surreal beachfront celebrations are paradoxically soothing and stimulating at the same time. With the moon acting as a giant disco ball coaxing partiers to the shore and a gathering of supremely laid-back backpackers underneath, it's a nocturnal experience that you just can't miss.
If you can pry yourself away from the beaches, be sure to visit Big Buddha, on Ko Samui's Route 4171. At 12 meters tall, the Zen-tastic shrine is Ko Samui's biggest draw after its beaches. Big Buddha watches over everyone and everything on the island, including the fighting buffalo. Yep, while other cultures pit roosters or kangaroos against each other, the island locals prefer these burly beasts of burden as their true heavyweights. Entertaining to some, and disgusting to others, the fights don't last very long. Organizers stop the battle before the buffaloes get hurt. In other cases, the fight ends on its own when one of the animals flees.
China's diverse and addicting cuisine isn't exactly a secret among world travelers. But the United States, among other countries, has done a stand-up job of bastardizing the name "Chinese food." The ubiquitous take-out favorite has accustomed us to the overly salty and fried versions of the dishes packaged in those familiar, oddly shaped white boxes. Staying a few days in Beijing, China's second-most populous city and the unofficial culinary capital of China, will thankfully erase those misconceptions the moment you saddle up to the counter of any small, crowded haunt. You can never go wrong judging a restaurant by how packed it is, and since sub-standard eateries are hard to find anywhere in town, most places in Beijing are filled to the gills with hungry locals. In this city, filling your sightseeing appetite is just as easy.
Many of the sights are familiar ones. They include such famous landmarks as Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City -- places striking enough in history textbooks to embed themselves forever in your brain. Seeing them in person, though, adds a whole new dimension to those images.