We're looking back at the highlights from a year in Travel. Today, Asia.
DREAMS AND REALITIES
Sri Lanka had been a dream destination for many years and all of sudden, it seemed to be everywhere - topping multiple lists of places to visit in 2019, and jealousy-inducing pics appearing all over my Instagram feed. Finally, we were there, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Lush high-country tea plantations, gorgeous beaches, ancient temples, jungle filled with elephants, leopards, monkeys and unusual birds, and the food... Oh! The food!
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Don't let the Easter bombings deter you from going - I'd hand on heart say Sri Lanka is the most wonderful place I've visited in my life so far, and I urge you to see its beauty for yourself. The country and its warm, welcoming people are picking back up and moving on, waiting and hoping that the tourists return. Put it on your list for 2020.
— Stephanie Holmes
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
I thought the Chinese food in Auckland was good — but the pork dumplings I ate soon after landing in Shanghai - population 24 million and growing - were next level. In a modest shop down an alley off East Nanjing Road — the world's longest shopping street — my meal cost only NZ$3.
I spent the next two days exploring those alleys, finding spots that looked good. I feasted on noodles, Sichuan dishes, lamb skewers, brisket stews, spring onion pancakes — even something called "the husband and wife lung slice".
A long line outside was always a good sign.
The hit rate unbelievable.
Just before I left I went back to that tiny dumpling spot and ordered those dumplings again — served in the pan, deliciously crispy on the bottom, a dash of hot soup inside — thinking they couldn't really be that good — and, of course, they were.
Tips: carry cash, use the subway to get around — all lines are colour coded — taxis I found less reliable. And, yes, visit The Bund, but do it at night to catch the skyline across the river at its most impressive.
— Greg Fleming
A SPECIAL PLACE IN THE HEART
Tokyo is a lot of different things to people, but one of the most memorable moments was escaping the bright lights of Shinjuku and the flurry of people in Harajuku and Omotesando for the quiet respite of the Meiji shrine situated in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. A little bit of history and a whole lot of nature is what makes this place special, right in the heart of Tokyo.
Whether you're a fan of the Netflix juggernaut Terrace House like me, in search of the eateries used by people on the show; or simply looking forward to exploring the home of the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo has a lot to offer for anyone interested in the beautiful elegance and nature of Japanese culture. A feast for the senses and with plenty of stimulation, the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park is not to be missed, purely because it gives you some time to reflect and appreciate the unique dichotomy of tradition and modernity that makes Tokyo one of the best cities to explore in the world.
— Dan Ahwa
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
It was my final night in Singapore when I met up with a friend and visited Singapore's famous Gardens by the Bay to see the Supertrees - huge, tree-shaped structures with intricate, web-like canopies towering up to 50m above the crowds below.
We wanted to catch one of the two dazzling light shows, free to watch nightly.
We found a concrete ridge and lay with our backs on the warm stone, staring up at the canopies.
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🎄Revel in the festivities at Singapore’s most popular year-end event, Christmas Wonderland at Gardens by the Bay! ☃️ 🚘 Go Car-free this weekend and take public transport to the Gardens 😊 https://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/christmaswonderland #gardensbythebay #ChristmasWonderlandSG ##ChristmasatGBB #visitsingapore #sgig #exploresingapore
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The show, Garden Rhapsody, is really something to see. The lights are scattered throughout the tree canopies and run with a compilation of musical pieces. I was mesmerised the entire time.
For a fee you can also watch the show from the 22m-high walkway among the trees, but I preferred being able to lie down and look up.
The attraction of show appears never to dim. The grove is absolutely packed — so make sure you get there early to find a good spot.
— Melissa Nightingale
SURFING WITH THE LOCALS
The bitingly-cold cocktails on arrival at our clifftop Uluwatu resort were a round of bliss. A lobster roll gobbled up on equally plump sun lounger looking out to sweeping ocean views? Hello heaven. But it was about an exhilarating two hours spent learning to surf in the salty, beginner-friendly waters of Kuta Beach that I first told friends and family back home.
I thought I'd be a pile of unco-ordinated limbs set to spin-cycle in whitewash . . . turns out I'm a "natural", or so my teacher reckoned. More so, the experience was a true local way of life — far removed from the marbled cocoon that waited with sunset canapes. From hanging 10 with wrinkled surfers camped out on white sand, to steering well out of the way of young pros catching waves on their lunch break, if I move to Bali the first thing I'm buying is a board.
— Sarah Downs
IN GOOD COMPANY
A 12-day tour of Vietnam battlefields with a group of 15 Australians, including four war veterans, was unforgettable. One of the vets, Eraldo "Benny" Bensi drove diggers during the war, spent time down the terrifying Cu Chi tunnels and could tell a story. He was travelling light this trip, rarely out of a pair of pink fluoro Jandals and a shirt with the message "courage, endurance, mateship, sacrifice" on it. That was Benny. He was great company as were others, including a damn decent former infantryman Colin "Slippery" Jackson and a young Queenslander, Steve Noble with a deep curiosity and wicked humour.
I also met Vo Xuan Thu, a North Vietnamese Army vet who shared a couple of beers and his stories with me. Kiwis were among forces trying to kill him and his comrades 50 years ago. The Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tour was more than war stories, memorials and fascinating museums. It was also about the food, less-tragic history and, from the excellent local guides, an insight into Vietnamese society. I'm now sold on taking quality guided tours to places hard to figure out yourself. It also reminded me of how great travelling companions can make a trip.
— Grant Bradley
I fell completely head over heels for the beautiful city of Jaipur in Rajasthan — a glorious mashup of history, noise and colour. And now, you can experience the wonders of the Pink City from the comfort of your own royal suite.
The launch of the new Airbnb Gudliya suite at the City Palace gives us mere mortals a chance to experience life as a royal, and there is even a chance — albeit small — that you'll run into members of Jaipur's royal family as you wander the ornate corridors.
At US$8000 per night the suite is certainly not accessible for everyone, but the good news is, the profits benefit a charity for underprivileged women.
The City Palace also has areas open to the public year-round, so you can always just settle for a day visit to the pretty pink buildings, gorgeous handpainted gates, sculptures and gardens within its walls. Who knows, you might still bump into the handsome and eligible Maharaja Padmanabh Singh, who resides there several months of the year.
— Courtney Whitaker
COCKTAILS IN THE SKY
If an open-air bar on the 61st floor in one of the world's busiest cities sounds like a giddy experience, wait until you look over the edge after a few cocktails. Moon Bar sits on the top of the Banyan Tree hotel in Bangkok, and is worth a visit for the view alone. Try to make it before sunset so you can enjoy the pretty pink sky from your premium perch. The cocktails are not why most people visit this bar, but are delicious and creative all the same. Leave your selfie stick at home — the staff are more than happy to take your picture on the glass platform that makes it look as though you are hovering 61 levels above the Thai capital.
— Courtney Whitaker
THE NEW HAWAII
If you're planning a honeymoon or island getaway you might think of Hawaii — but how about the Hawaii of South Korea? That's what Jeju Island is known as, and for good reason.
It's packed with activities to make the most of its natural beauty, whether it's exploring the lava tubes, enjoying the beach, or diving for seafood. The seafood here is a true specialty, so if you get the chance try the Hairtail fish. Their tangerines are also unmissable, so good that South Korea sent 200 tonnes of them to North Korea as part of peace efforts. Eat them on their own, as part of a tea, or in chocolate.
Basically, enjoy nature, then eat yourself stupid.
— Frances Cook
AND IT'S GOOD NIGHT FROM ME . . .
That bed – acres of it. Crisp white sheets, the little colourful origami crane perched on the coverlet. The gentle minor-key Japanese music playing from the television. The comfort of the gently lit bathroom beyond.
It was 2.30am, and I'd just spent nine hours lying on the unforgiving floor of Tokyo's Narita Airport after a typhoon knocked out train services and roads, along with 13,000 others waiting for rescue. Even the England rugby team and a really important African bishop in robes were on the floor. (The All Blacks escaped on a bus).
The five-star welcome of the aptly-named Shangri La Hotel was utter bliss. A long shower, a cup of green tea and the delightful tasty treats the management had left and I slipped between those sheets into oblivion.
If you need rescuing from the chaos of Tokyo at any time, the Shangri La and its quiet, unobtrusive staff, exquisite food, gentle lighting and magnificent luxury are balm for the soul.
What a pity I had to head off to the next destination barely five hours later. Could have spent forever in that bed.
— Linda Thompson