Asian City Side Trips

Escape the crowds at great destinations close to major Asian cities

Escape the crowds at great destinations close to major Asian cities

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I make sidecar trips whenever I can in Asia because they add sweet frosting to the cake of wondrous metropolises. Trails less travelled often provide opportunities to meet new people – often those with an adventurous streak.

That reason alone is enough reason to complement your next trip to the region with some detours you’ll long remember. They might even turn out to be even more inspiring than the main journey.

Below are three great options for a “break within a break” during a trip to Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

Pulau Bintan, Indonesia

Although not exactly a “hidden paradise”, Bintan Island is still an amazing amalgam of sights and activities. It’s but a short flight or ferry ride from Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia and the largest isle in the Riau archipelago.

I have always enjoyed secluded beaches and relatively few travellers when exploring a little beyond Bintan’s packed northern hotel area. One of my favourite pass times when visiting the island is to stay at one of the many shore line floating houses (‘kelong drum’) that offer a fun opportunity to do some undisturbed night fishing while meals are prepared and served to you.

Another option is to fish off of a boat if the seas are calm, which is exactly the way native Orang Laut sea people do it. You’ll see how the fish are attracted to the bright lights angled out over the sea.

I planned my last trip to coincide with the May-June Hawksbill sea turtle hatching season, where turtles from the Lagoi Turtle Hatchery are released to find their way to the ocean. It’s a rewarding experience to take a longboat trip to Turtle Island, where some of the turtles can be seen while snorkelling in the waters offshore. Sadly, like other destinations such as Koh Tao in Thailand, the number of turtles has been dwindling year after year as seas heat up, more plastics and other pollutants fill the oceans, and poachers catch these endangered creatures illegally.

My favourite place to stay on Bintan is Pantai Trikora – an isolated part of the island that is fringed by brilliant hues of azure waters. Weekends or holidays see more tourist traffic from Singapore and other points in the region, but you’ll easily find remote stretches of beach. Of course, if you want to go kite surfing off the main beach and brave the crowds, that’s an option too.

Out and About

The beautiful Tukang Jalan temple is a must see on Bintan, with its beautiful mini-minarets and brightly coloured walls with brick surrounds.

Mount Bintan is an amazing climb, and many waterfalls make cool stops along the way. Golfers will thrill at the island’s many stunning courses, including the Gary Player Ria Bintan Golf Club, where you might still find some of my divots around several of the holes. There’s no shortage of water sports either, including fantastic scuba diving, sailing, snorkelling and canoeing.

It’s generally a good idea to visit Bintan between March and November for the best weather (22-32 degrees Celcius). It’s pleasantly tropical all year round, but you’ll be hit by some monsoon winds and showers from November to March.

Khao Yai, Thailand

Only a couple of hours northwest of bustling Bangkok, Nakhon Ratchasima Province is home to one of the region’s jewels – Khao Yai National Park.

Khao Yai is a lush, forested area and every time I visit I find new plants, insects, birds and animals to photograph. The Heo Suwat waterfall alone is worth the trip, as it is as picturesque as any you’ll encounter. It was made famous in the 2000 film, ‘The Beach’, but natives knew of it long before Leo arrived.

I always take triple the number of photographs I anticipate in Khao Yai. If you go the extra distance away from the easily accessible tourist sites and lookout points, you’ll see what I mean. Coral-billed ground cuckoos can be spotted, as can gibbons and gaurs in the denser woods. Once home to tigers, the area was designated an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2005 and enjoys UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Stay and Play

Recent news stories have reported on the development of several luxury hotels and upscale property developments around the park. You can avoid these if you wish, or take advantage of their proximity with a comfortable stay.

For dining pleasure, I’d suggest splurging at the SALA Khaoyai Resort’s lovely hilltop open-air restaurant. The Pla Krapong Nueng Ma Now (steam sea bass fillet with lime sauce) was the best sea bass I’ve ever tasted. Khao Yai is also known as Thailand’s best wine region and there are some superb local wines to enjoy. In fact, according to some connoisseurs, in the last decade Thailand’s wines have come into their own.

With some 300 square kilometres to explore, you’ll still have plenty of wilderness experience on offer. Keep that camera ready – on my last trip I got several long-sought shots of Red Junglefowl, with ruddy, bright plumage tempered by dust baths. The mating ritual of tidbit-eating and clucking is a riot to watch.

Genting Highlands, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur offers such a variety of activities and wondrous shopping and entertainment venues, you might not feel the need to explore beyond the capital. But if you get itchy feet during a visit to KL, then only an hour’s drive away you can find a cool escape from the urban heat in the Genting Highlands, Pahang, nestled in the mountains bordering Selangor.

Not only a natural paradise, but also a “heaven on earth” for gamblers and fun-lovers, ‘GH’ is the only legal land-based gambling destination in Malaysia and in some ways it resembles a green version of sand-locked Las Vegas. There are slot machines and gaming tables galore, with food and beverage offerings equally abundant so you can spend your winnings as easily as you can lose them.

A Safe Bet

The Genting Highlands offers much more than casinos. There’s a fantastic cable car ride for a start that allows for amazing views of the verdant landscape, mountain peaks and twinkling sea beyond. It’s also one of Asia’s fastest ascents, with an 11-minute trip from Gohtong Jaya town to the top, a distance of 3.38km.

Another almost natural attraction comes in the form of many divinely sculpted shrubs, rock gardens and flowerbeds in the Valley Garden, as well as the outstanding Chin Swee Cave Temple, a lovingly created site venerating GH’s primary builder, Chinese construction magnate Lim Goh Tong.

Numerous lovely nature preserves, parks, scenic spots and forests make the trip to Genting Highlands and the surrounding hills a journey to remember. My personal favourite choice for a whole day of rock-hopping and riverside picnicking is Chamang Waterfall – a tumbling series of falls that more than rivals similar scenes I’ve visited in a dozen countries around the region.

Sense the Adventure

With a sense of adventure and an eye for interesting information and experiences you are sure to enjoy a side trip from Bangkok, Singapore or KL.

  • Check out Bintan’s Grotto Santa Maria (Santa Maria Cave). A mere 20 minutes away from Trikora Beach, this ceremonial site’s statue of Mary standing on a globe, 14 stations of the cross, religious tableaus make for a quiet rest stop and an ideal photo opportunity. On Sundays, devotees come to worship and sing songs of praise in the charming, small chapel on the Grotto’s grounds.
  • Decades ago, Khao Yai’s isolation from Thailand’s governing authorities led it to become a hiding place for criminals and outlaws of all kinds. In 1932, local villagers were relocated into the plains about 30 km away and the area’s official town status was withdrawn. Later in 1962, Khao Yai National Park was established declared by royal proclamation as the first national park in Thailand.
  • For those that prefer man-made wonders to natural ones, there are no less than three amusement parks in Genting Highlands, which together form the biggest theme park in Malaysia. Other amusements include video arcades, snooker rooms, bowling alleys, archery fields, a climbing wall and even a skydiving wind tunnel.
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