Discovering Asia in 15 stunning photos
Conde' Nast Traveler contributing editor Ashlea Halpern is more than halfway through a year-long, 16-country tour of Asia. She shares her adventures-from country-hopping flights to street food feasts-via Instagram, and here are a few of her favorite images.
Last November I left my editing job at Bon Appetit magazine to travel Asia for a year. I’ve since bounced around China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, and now Vietnam. What follows will be some of my favorite moments from my first seven months on the road, starting with a photo I grabbed this morning while cruising beautiful Bai Tu Long Bay, 19 miles east of perpetually tourist-mobbed Halong Bay.
I gave up my NYC apartment and most of my furnishings to travel Asia for a year. But that hasn’t stopped me from jotting down design notes everywhere we go. This room at the City Palace in Udaipur, for instance. Look at that paint color! Those windows! My next apartment, wherever we go, will be taking its cues from the maharajas.
Sometimes it’s the hospitality you remember the most. At Tempelberg Villa in Galle, Sri Lanka, we kibitzed with expat hostess Karen, cooked curries with chef Trixie, and cuddled up with the family pets in handsome sitting rooms like this one. The 150-year-old colonial estate is located on a lush coconut plantation, just a short drive from Galle Fort and Unawatuna. It was after getting stung by a jellyfish at the latter that the Templeberg team really went above and beyond, rushing me to an ER via tuk-tuk and sticking with me until I got all of the meds and ice packs sorted.
The art scene in Kerala is off the hook, and we were fortunate enough to be down south when the Kochi-Muziris Biennale was wrapping up its second run. Exhibitions aside, Kochi is a goldmine for street art. I loved wandering the roads and alleys in search of works large and small.
No exaggeration, we’ve visited at least 300 temples, mosques, mandirs, gurdwaras, and other houses of worship since landing in Asia last fall. And just when you think you’re all templed out, along comes Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Grand, ancient, breathtaking Angkor Wat. My best advice: Work the big loop backward, taking in the sunrise at Srah Srang and moving counter-clockwise against the tourist flow. If you’re lucky, you’ll have Ta Prohm, a.k.a. the overgrown "Tomb Raider” temple, all to yourself.
The candy-colored shophouses of Singapore’s Koon Seng Road get a lot of love, and deservedly so. But I found the rainbow of HDB flats scattered around town just as intriguing. My favorite complex was the four-wing Rochor Centre, constructed in 1977 but set to be demolished next year.
Let’s talk about the Philippines and why more people aren’t vacationing there. The beaches are unreal, the cities are booming, the food is delicious, and the locals are some of the friendliest in Asia. We spent three weeks hopping around the island nation last December and fell hard for buzzy Manila, majestic Coron with its emerald Twin Lagoon and Kayangan Lake, and this: the Bilar Man-Made Forest on lush Bohol. These mahogany trees were planted in the late 1960s as part of a reforestation project; nowadays, the towering curtains of green have people pulling off the road left and right just to snap pictures.
Earlier this year, I spent a weekend at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand’s Chiang Mai province. Founded in 1996 by Lek Challert, the 250-acre rescue center is home to about 44 elephant “refugees”—overworked, abused, or otherwise abandoned in their former lives as loggers, trekkers, and tourist props. Their backstories are heartbreaking (some have lost feet to land mines; others were so overbred that their backs broke), but to see them now—free-roaming and tended to by dedicated mahouts—is inspiring. Here, two of the beauties were rooting around for cut-up watermelon and pumpkin.
If Airbnb has a Host of the Year award, it should go to Bryan Chiang of @wogoxetteupstairs in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. During our three-day stay at his flat in Kuala Terla, he took us around to night markets, tea plantations, chrysanthemum farms, and the mystical Mossy Forest in Gunung Bringchang. But what stands out most were his food suggestions—for laksa, char siew pau, apam balik, and this delectable wantan mee, served for breakfast at a no-name shop in Tringkap that we probably wouldn't have discovered on our own.
Visiting the Taj Mahal for the first time is like spotting a unicorn. You stare in slack-jawed disbelief for about 90 seconds, pinch yourself to make sure it's real, and eventually take 18,943 photos (give or take). There's some kind of voodoo up in that place, am I right?
I’ve got a thing for street art, so naturally I’ve got a thing for George Town, Penang. Works by Lithuanian-born artist Ernest Zacharevic are everywhere; they’re Instagrammed ad infinitum and have become inseparable from the cultural identity of the city itself. Watching travelers take photos of and with the art is often as fun as viewing the art itself.
One of my top five moments has to be sleeping under the stars in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert. We did an overnight camel safari with the Pleasant Haveli team in Jaisalmer; our guide Dev and driver Horo regaled us with crazy stories from sundown to sunrise, plied us with steaming cups of Chai tea, and whipped up an impressive vegetarian feast cooked entirely by campfire. Camels, it turns out, make the goofiest (and grossest) faces. We loved every minute we spent with them—although they couldn’t have cared less about us.
I am not a morning person, but I'm so glad I got up early to visit Amarapura in Myanmar. There is a glassy stillness to Taung Tha Man Lake that can only be appreciated before the tour buses and touts descend. I spotted this lone fisherman while strolling U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge and another site best visited shortly after sunrise.
When people ask me what is the single best thing we’ve done on the trip to date, my answer is always the same: trekking in Myanmar’s Northern Shan State. Nwe Nwe, our excellent agent at Myanmar Damsel Travels & Tours, hooked us up with guides at Hsipaw Resort. They knew the area inside and out and even taught us some Shan words so that we could properly greet villagers along the way. Treks vary in intensity and can last up to several days; ours took 10 hours and covered pineapple farms, rice paddies, a remote mountaintop monastery, a local school, and the rural bungalows of palm weavers and noodle pullers. This was the first shot I took the morning we set out—when the banks of the Dokhtawady River were still shrouded in fog.
No matter how many places I go in the world, my list of must-sees keeps getting longer. I’ve barely buckled my seat belt on the plane ride home and already I’m studying the flight maps in the back of the airline magazine, dreaming of where to go next. Watching this young flier gaze fixedly out the window during a Kochi-to-Colombo jag, I knew I was witnessing a fellow traveler in the making. Cheers to always going somewhere, kid!
Written by Ashlea Halpern