Three weeks is not enough, but it's something, it's a taste, an appetizer. The first time I went to Asia I planned 4 weeks to "do" only Thailand. After being there 6 weeks, I thought that I knew enough to know where to start next time. That next time, I allowed 2 months thinking that would be enough to get it out of my system. After staying 3 months I still didn't want to leave. All this just in Thailand. I keep going back, I'm hooked.
What follows is a three week itinerary. You can follow it independantly with the help of a few guidebooks and a knowledgeable tragel agent. You can do it in many price ranges. But beware: Asia is addictive. Read on if you dare, but you've been warned. With this in mind, I suggest you start as I did, in Thailand.
Thailand has it all: world class hotels, hill tribes living in bamboo huts, traffic jams, monks collecting alms at dawn, a sophisticated cuisine, excellent transportation and communication infrastructures, and great beaches. Thailand is a diverse, complex, beautiful country. Each region is unique.
Almost all international flights land in Bangkok, but let's start with the second largest city: Chiang Mai, the centre of the northern region. It's a one hour Thai Airways flight or a comfortable overnight train ride from Bangkok.
Chiang Mai means "New City", but this old town was founded in the middle ages, and like many of its European contemporaries, the original city is enclosed by a moat.
On both sides of the moat have many beautiful temples, each with their own stories and architectural distinctness. Wat U Mong is famous for its image of the fasting Buddha and its reputation for taking foreigners as monks. Wat Suan Dawk is the site of the most important cremations in the north. Its chedis, large memorial spires, contain the ashes of the Royal Dynasty which ruled the northern kingdom before it was incorporated into Thailand.
While moving around within Chiang Mai you will occasionally get views of a distant and gleaming temple on the mountain which looks like a story book Shangrila: this is the famous and beautiful Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The site was chosen by an elephant.
The story goes that in 1383 the king came into possession of a relic from the historical Buddha. To honour this sacred object he decided to build a new temple, luckily he had a white elephant, that most sacred of all animals to help him choose the site.
The relic was mounted on the elephant's back and the auspicious pachyderm proceeded to wander until it came to the top of the mountain. How did the King know that the elephant had chosen this spot? The elephant dropped dead on the spot! The Buddha relic is now permanently at rest under a golden chedi, and the elephant is buried nearby.
The area around Chiang Mai is populated by so-called "Hill Tribes". These people are ethnic minorities, each with their own language, culture and costumes, who have migrated over the centuries from Laos, Burma, China and Tibet.
If you can't go into the hills, many of the hill tribes will come to you at the night market in Chiang Mai to sell their crafts. There are lots of very cheap souvenirs, copies of designer clothes, luggage and watches. And if you look hard you can actually find some very beautiful antiques (both authentic and new) and some good quality local crafts.
Around Chiang Mai, the river boat trip down the Kok River to Chiang Rai gives a quick entry into the mainstream of hill tribe life in the north. Or try a visit to Mae Hong Son, a town near the Burmese border which is quickly changing from a sleepy hamlet to a commercial centre. It's a 45 minute flight (book early), or a day's bus ride from Chiang Mai and worth the trip if only for a glimpse of the pond in the centre of town at sunset. The quiet calm of watching the temple spires reflect in the water at dusk will make it hard to believe that Bangkok is part of the same country.
It's no secret that Bangkok is a congested place. Until the rapid transit system (now being designed by a Canadian consortium) is operating, traffic is not likely to get any better. In the meantime, a great way to get around within the city is the River Express boat service. The activity on the river is a cross section of Bangkok life which cannot be seen from the streets. Boat service operates from the international hotels on the river, past Chinatown, Wat Po, the Grand Palace, and continues up to Nontaburi a northern suburb of Bangkok which has a market that is more typical of a small town than a large city.
The absolute "must see" in Bangkok is the Grand Palace Complex. Every last corner, every doorway, and window, even every tree has been sculpted and ornamented, and then decorated some more. It makes Disneyland look plain and empty. Read your guidebook before you go, then put the book away, wander around the Grand Palace and let your jaw drop open in amazement.
Just south of the Grand Palace is Wat Po. ("Wat" in case you haven't guessed, means "temple"). This temple is the home of the Reclining Buddha, a recently restored 150 foot statue of the Buddha in the posture associated with his preparing to enter Nirvana. The temple grounds are home to a squadron of fortune tellers, and to an excellent (and more dependable) massage school at which you can get a great massage for just $7.
Every part of Bangkok is a neighbourhood with its own character and speciality. One area specializes in Buddha images, it merges with the district that sells military decorations and uniforms, which is not far from the street of wood carvers, which in turn is beside the area that specializes in hand making monk's bowls. Instead of specialty stores as in a shopping mall, Bangkok is one open-air shopping opportunity with specialty districts.
Despite its fascinations, Bangkok is a big busy city, sooner or later you will have had enough. Solution: go to the beach.
If you aren't the beaching sort there has been another interesting option for a few years: the Eastern & Oriental Express. This cousin of the Paris to Venice luxury train makes the two day run every week between Bangkok and Singapore. Days 7 and 8 could be on that, leaving you a little more time, but a good deal less money for Singapore.
But if you choose to beach it you still have a problem: which beach? All beaches are not created equal.
Pattaya, the resort city about three hours from Bangkok was developed as an R&R destination for American soldiers during the days of the Vietnam war. It is the place to go if your idea of a holiday includes partying until dawn. But Pattaya's beach is far from the best that Thailand has to offer. Prosperous Bangkokians go instead to Cha Am or Hua Hin for their holidays. These quiet resort towns are also about three hours from Bangkok and get very full on summer weekends.
Further south the beaches are even better. An hour's flight from Bangkok, Phuket's beaches are lined with first class resort hotels. This is the Puerto Vallarta or Bahamas of Thailand. It's quieter than Pattaya, except for Patong Beach which now has a sleazy 24 hours a day scene.
The area around Krabi, three or four hours south-east of Phuket, has some of the best beaches. There are a few first class hotels, and lots of economy accommodation from $5 per night up. The natural beauty of this area is its limestone cliffs and the beaches they enclose.
On the eastern coast, in the Gulf of Thailand, is Koh Samui. Once famous for its coconuts, it was known as a destination for backpakcers who appreciated the chain of fine beaches ringing the island. Budget accommodation or very comfortable small resorts await those who put up with the crowded (but cheap) two hour boat ride, or can a get ticket on one of the direct flights from Bangkok. Each beach on Koh Samui has its own personality and you could have a worse holiday than trying a few of them.
Thailand is the world's most accessible "exotic" destination, and is full of surprises. For many people, including me, the best discovery has been the Thai people themselves. They are fiercely proud of their country and unique culture, they have a relentlessly positive attitude and nearly constant smiles which are highly contagious.
Malaysia and Singapore will hate me for this but with limited time, I would fly over or move quickly through these very worthwhile destinations. It would be torture to completely miss the shopping and the food of Singapore, but when living life in the fast lane these are some of the hard choices we have to face.
Upon arrival in Denpasar, take a taxi or a bemo (small bus that doesn't move until it's overfull) to Ubud.
As Thailand is a huge, diverse, wonderful country, Bali is a small, homogenous, gem of an island. Historically, Ubud has been the centre of arts in Bali and remains a Mecca for lovers of Balinese painting, dance and music. It's a romantic place. Accommodation here ranges from small guest houses for $6/night to the Aman Dari hotel which starts at $300/night - if you can find a vacancy. For $40 you'll get a lovely hotel room that would go for $250 in Toronto.
When you arrive in Ubud, stop rushing for a while. If there's time to walk around and choose a restaurant for an evening meal, that's enough. The Balinese think that it is unseemly to hurry, I recommend that while you're there you try on this attitude for size - remember that Hong Kong is next and they feel very differently about speed there.
In the morning, when the birds and the sunlight have woken you up, and you've had breakfast on the terrace, stroll through Ubud. On this itinerary you'll be in Bali four days which according to the law of averages means that there will be at least one major festive occasion while you're there. Ask at your acommodation and plan around that.
A word of warning here. In recent years the openness and welcoming nature of the Balinese has been misinterpreted as a willingness to commercialize the sacred events of their lives. This is wrong. Be part of the event, please don't be part of the commercialization of what really are meaningful sacred ceremonies.
The most festive event you see in Bali might be a cremation. The soul of the deceased is thought to ride on the life-size papier maché bull that heads the procession. In order to disorient the soul and get it to fly off into the heavens, the forty or fifty men carrying the bull dance around and change direction as they make their way from the temple to the cremation ground.
It's not compulsory, but it's appreciated that sarongs be worn while watching or following the procession. And sarongs and waist-sashes are required to enter most temples.
In Ubud, check out the shops. Balinese painting is world-renown, the silver handicrafts are well-priced, the batiks are priced so low you'll want to check your currency conversion rates twice. Every evening there is a dance or music performance in Ubud. Tickets are available from street sellers for about $5.
For your visits to the important temples in the countryside, it's most efficient to rent a car in Ubud. If driving on the left side of narrow roads intimidates you, your car rental agency will provide a driver-guide for about $10 for the day. You'll be expected to buy fuel for the driver as well as the car, and it will likely be a pleasure to have lunch with him.
As beautiful and numerous as the temples are, they are not the basic essence of Bali. That's the countryside itself: the green, green rice terraces which have been built up and tended over a thousand years. Pick up a map of the walking paths in and around Ubud and allow a day to walk where cars cannot go. Within five minutes of leaving the road you will be in scenery that hasn't changed in a millennium.
Brace yourself for Hong Kong, in many ways it's just the opposite of Bali: Hong Kong is fast, crowded, worldly and changing.
If you can afford it, consider booking into one of Hong Kong's top hotels: the modern and elegant Regent, its neighbour in Kowloon the venerable and posh Peninsula, the celebrity favourite and home of the best caviar in the hemisphere: the Mandarin, the brand new Ritz-Carlton which probably prove to be the most traditional of the lot, or the thoroughly Art Nouveau Grand Hyatt. They are attractions in their own right and you won't get service like they provide anywhere in the West.
Most of us think of Hong Kong as only high rises. It's not. To get this idea out of your mind spend a day on one of the outlying islands; Lantau or Cheung Chau will show what this region was like when Hong Kong was a young colony. The ferry ride takes one or two hours, but when you arrive at the dock you'll think you've travelled many years - backwards!
Of course you must allow a day for the compulsories in Hong Kong: the central district, antique shops, more shopping, the tram up the peak for really stunning views, maybe a moment's reprieve at the Botanical Gardens and a look into Falstaff House which is now a museum of tea ware. The pace is relentless, the crowds are endless, you'll wonder how this can be on the same planet as Bali - and it's all just a warm up for the intensity of Japan.
Upon arrival in Osaka take the train to Kyoto. You should be at your accommodation within two hours. Try to get into hot water on you first night in Japan, that is try to find a bath house to visit. If you can screw up your courage, and have learned the etiquette, you will love sitting in the hot bubbly water while admiring the ankle to elbow tattoos on the guy next to you.
You're in Kyoto because it has the best temples. Many are former country estates which the nobility bequeathed to the monastery. Use the excellent tourist maps to find the ones on the edge of the old city. They are the finest examples of the traditional Japanese aesthetic that exist and will transport you to another era. Modern Japanese who work long and hard and live in small quarters worship the idea of being able to contemplate spacious beauty at leisure.
Board the bullet train for Tokyo and get there $120 and two hours later. Travel within Japan is efficient but not cheap; if you were going to be here longer I'd recommend the $240 rail pass.
For your afternoon in Tokyo, make your way by subway to Asakusa. This is where Tokyo started, it's the site of the oldest temple in the city. Devout Japanese and curious visitors mingle in the smoke of incense under the gaze of demons frozen in time. A few blocks away on Kappabashi-dori Avenue you'll find stores selling the plastic replicas of food that Japanese restaurants use instead of menus, and one of the few shopping bargains in the country: beautiful Japanese china designed for use in restaurants.
In the evening, Ginza is a show worth seeing: women in kimonos, men in tuxedos acting out a mating ritual over American ice cream and $10 cups of coffee.
It's a cliche, sorry, but there really are $10 cups of coffee in Japan. But there is also limitless free tea, and meals of sushi with enough fish to satisfy a shark - for less than the price of that coffee. Yes, Japan can be ridiculously expensive, but it doesn't have to be.
Are you tired? Too bad, sleep when you're home. Go to bed late if you like, but get ready to get up very early on your last day. The action at Tsukiji starts about the time the night life slows.
Tsukiji is the fish market that supplies Tokyo. By now you will know that the Japanese diet is mostly fish and rice - rice keeps almost indefinitely, but fish has to be fresh fresh fresh. Figure out what 5:00AM Tokyo time is back home and get yourself out of bed to see this spectacle. Seafood that still looks surprised to be out of the water is bought and sold and will be digested by the time you're over the Pacific.
Yes, Asia can be tiring, strange, incomprehensible. If you follow this itinerary, or a version of it, you will experience all that. But it's an important segment of the human experience on this planet; it's wonderfully beautiful, full of life and fascinating. I'll bet you can't go just once.