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Travel Oracles: Please Comment on My 6-week Asia Itinerary

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Dear Travel Wizards,

In June, I'm taking a six-week trip with my wife through various parts of Asia. I would love your thoughts on my draft itinerary. Have I picked compelling destinations? Am I allocating sufficient time to them? Are there other destinations you would recommend instead?

We are New Yorkers in our mid-thirties, and we particularly love strolling through charming small towns and cultural-rich cities and viewing dramatic natural beauty and quiet countryside. We often prefer feeling immersed in a destination by (trying) to follow in locals' footsteps, rather than visiting a series of specific sites. We also appreciate a balance between active exploring and inactive relaxing.

Here is the tentative itinerary:

Japan
3 nights Tokyo
3 nights Kyoto

Vietnam
3 nights Hanoi
2 nights Halong Bay cruise (Au Co)
3 nights Hoi An

Cambodia
3 nights Siem Reap

Laos
4 nights Luang Prabang
2 nights Elephant Conservation Center (Sayaboury)
3 nights Vang Vieng

Bali, Indonesia
4 nights Ubud
2 nights Sidemen
2 nights Bingin/Dreamland

Sri Lanka
3 nights Dambulla (Kandalama Hotel)
1 night Kandy
2 nights Ella in Hill Country (by train)
2 nights Galle

Maldives
5 nights

I am sure many will think this itinerary is rushed. But unfortunately, I won't be able to return to the region for quite some time, and would love to see these destinations.

Thank you so much for your thoughts and insights! It is very generous of you to take the time to provide them.

George

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    Remember that 2 nights somewhere is merely one day. You have to figure in your travel time. We are all different, but here are my comments on your itinerary:

    Japan: This is not the best time of the year to visit. Generally, fall or spring are best. Personally, I'd skip Japan this trip and save it for a better time of year - koyo (Fall colors) or sakura (cherry blossoms). But if you do go, add a couple of days to Kyoto.

    VN: not enough time in Hanoi, IMO. And most people consider one night on Halong Bay to be plenty.

    Cambodia: You ned a minimum of three full days (4 nights) just to visit the major temples. If you have a real interest in Angkor, you will want even more time. Get a copy of Dawn Rooney's book, Angkor: A Guide to Cambodia's Wondrous Temples to prepare and get an idea of how much time you want there. Also, take a look at www.theplf.org

    Laos: Personally, I'd skip Vang Vieng and put that time elsewhere. If you must visit, one or two nights are sufficient.

    Bali: I'd choose just two locations so you can settle in and experience the local culture.

    Sri Lanka: 3 nights in Dambulla is an absolute minimum. I'd add a night. And I'd add a night to the Hill Country as well.

    Maldives: This one wouldn't even be on my list, but some people love it. Be aware, though that this is exclusively a beach experience, no local culture to explore.

    If you are like many of us, you will be back to Asia much sooner than you think. Have a wonderful trip!

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    Thank you both for your thoughts.

    Kathie, does your lack of enthusiasm for Vang Vieng stem from its history of being overrun with intoxicated partiers? Or is the area not as beautiful as I think it is? If its the former, I've read many posts that suggest the place has substantially improved since the authorities shut down the unlicensed bars on the river.

    Thanks very much Kathie!

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    I'm pretty much in agreement with Kathie (as usual...)

    There is so much to see in Japan that you are really short-changing it, especially as I didn't find Tokyo representative of the rest of the country. I'd save it for when you can spend at least a couple of weeks there.

    You can usefully add the time to the other destinations - aside perhaps from the Maldives. Seems to me to be an excessively expensive beach destination, and if I want a beach I have one two hours away. There are also beaches, probably more interesting and certainly cheaper, in Vietnam and Cambodia and Indonesia.

    I've been to Hoi An twice, and been disappointed twice, but I'm not a shopper. If you can't fit in Saigon I'd spend the time in Hue. I'd also take one night from Halong Bay and add it to Hanoi.

    The first time I went to Cambodia I spent three nights at Siemd Reap and had to go back for more. But it really depends on your interest in the temples. Note that there are other worthwhile sights in Cambodia.

    I saw VV back in 2002 and hated the "scene". Not sure how much cleaning up has been done, but the scenery wasn't that spectacular. I'd go to Vientiane instead, or even better go south to Champasak and the islands.

    Don't recognise the second and third locations in Indonesia. I would go to Yogyakarta.

    How are you planning to travel? Is this all by plane, or can we get you on a train or a bus or a boat? (For trains in Vietnam see http://www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm )

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    Thank you both for your thoughts! A couple specific questions and responses:

    At first glance, Hoi An sounds too touristy for my blood. But nearly everywhere I read, people rave about its beauty and vibe. I don't care at all about shopping. Kathie, are you fond of Hoi An?

    If I could allocate more time in Vietnam, I'd be particularly excited to explore some of the caves around Phong Nha, as well as Hue. Have either of you checked out those caves?

    Siem Reap confuses me. Are the town and its environs genuinely attractive in of themselves, or should I expect that my time there will be overwhelmingly devoted to Angkor Wat? I assumed the latter (though I was planning to take a ATV tour of the area and check out some markets). As excited as I am to see Angkor Wat, I have some but not very substantial interest in temples.

    I had my eye on Yogykarta and Eastern Java (to see Mount Bromo), but time became a factor. I also thought that after seeing Angkor Wat (as well as temples in Kyoto and Ubud), we might need a break from temples. But am I making a mistake? Are 4-5 nights in Java (Yogyakarta and the Bromo area) worth it?

    I'm feeling persuaded that I should drop Vang Vieng. But would you both agree that Luang Prabang is a special place worthy of 4 nights?

    As for the Maldives, I'm able to get free nights at a lovely (and otherwise unaffordable) hotel with some points, and I'm an avid snorkeler/diver. This is also a sort of delayed honeymoon, so I want the final destination to feel particularly romantic for my wife.

    Ss for modes of traveling, I'll take trains, hang-gliders, blimps -- whatever works and is most exciting.

    Again, thank you so much!

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    OK, those sound like good reasons for the Maldives. If I could do it on points, I'd go too!

    Luang Prabang is a lot less special than it used to be, but better to go now before it gets any worse.

    Temples are not all the same! The temples in Kyoto are quite different from the ones in Cambodia, and Borobudur is different again. However, if you aren't really keen on temples, or in historic architecture, you might drop Siem Reap altogether. The town itself is not worth seeing - there is NO reason to go there other than to see the temples.

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    Why is Bangkok not on your itinerary and why has no one else picked up on this? Bangkok is not only a base for visiting many of your targeted destinations, but is an interesting destination culturally. Also, why is India not on your list? I would replace SL with India - far more colorful and interesting. I loved Sri Lanka, but India deserves to be your first choice - most start in the north: Agra, Udaipur, Varanasi are my favorites. Also look at Myanmar - amazing country, culturally, specifically Bagan and Inle Lake.

    If the Maldives works romantically for you and your wife, by all means, go for it.

    LP is definitely worth 4 nights.

    2 locations in Bali for 8 nights is perfect. Hire a driver and see the island that way. One of the most culturally interesting places on the planet.

    3 nights in SR was perfect for us - we appreciate temples and with early flights, you can easily fit in 3 days of site seeing, which is plenty for those that don't want to get "templed out". And it is all about the temples, although there is night life in town.

    Hanoi deserves more time. Limit Halong Bay to one night.

    Skip Japan on this trip.

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    I haven't been to Hoi An - it sounded too touristy to me 10+ years ago, so I skipped it. Hue is more interesting to me, but there was flooding there when we were in VN, so I haven't seen it yet. I can't help on the caves.

    Get Dawn Rooney's book I referenced above. Be aware that while "Angkor Wat" is a specific very large temple with incredible stone carvings, the term is also used to designate the huge cluster of temples in the area. There are dozens of accessible temples both in the immediate area, and many dozens farther away. As a temples fanatic, I find them all fascinating, but you may not.

    Let me comment on the question of temple fatigue. We were in Japan in November (great timing - height of the koyo) and I found the Japanese temples less compelling than the temple gardens. I know this is heresy, but I was not wowed by the Buddhist temples in Japan, perhaps because they are mostly Zen Buddhist and therefore very different from the temples I love in SE Asia. The temples in Bali - all Hindu temples - are dark and mostly tiny, very different from what you will see elsewhere. Central Java is amazing. Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world is stunning. I found it as overwhelming went I returned there a year ago as I had 20 years earlier. The Hindu temples in central Java - those at Prambanam are well worth seeing, IMO, but not as dramatic as the mountain of Buddhas. BTW - we opted not to go to Bromo after seeing photos of lines of people walking to the edge of the caldera - people lined up one arm's length from the person in front of them, thousands of people. Not my idea of nature. But there are other volcanos in Eastern Java that are less visited. Also, you can stay in wonderful hotels on Java for very little money.

    I agree that Luang Prabang is really special We spent a week there and loved every minute.

    I do understand about the free nights in the Maldives. I'm sure it will be very romantic.

    You may not want to wade through my long and detailed trip reports, but photos can say so much more than words can. In particular, take a look at the Java photos: www.marlandc.com/java-2012.html There is a link to my trip report if you want to know about logistics. Just go to www.marlandc.com and you can see photos from 10+ years of our travels.

    If it was me (and it isn't) I'd skip Japan - save it for when you can go at a better time of the year. Add a few days in VN - maybe go to Hue rather than Hoi An, spend another day or two in Hanoi. Check on the caves if they interest you. I know some VN agencies are taking people there. I'd add at least one night to Siem Reap, keep time in Laos, add time in Java - either just central Java or eastern Java as well, keep Bali as is, and add a couple of days to Sri Lanka if I could, then finish with your free nights in the Maldives.

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    I'm not opposed to the Asian sampler kind of trip, but I think you're underestimating the complexity of getting from destination to destination. Aside from eating up more time than you would expect, travel like that can be exhausting. You'll need more down time.

    June is a great month for Bali -- generally good weather and just before the July/August crush.

    East Bali around Sideman is lovely and culturally rich, but the town is not much of a destination in itself. You could easily base yourself in the Ubud area and do day trips to east Bali. The distances are not that great and the scenery not that different.

    You really can't beat the river valleys outside of Ubud for natural beauty, culture and accessibility.

    Unless you're a diehard surfer, I don't know that I'd recommend staying in the Ulu Watu/bukit area. The names of towns and beaches are used loosely so you may have a specific resort in mind, but you want to avoid Pecatu Indah/ "New Kuta" which dominated by a massive resort development.

    Although there are quite a few uber-luxury resorts as well as many, many surfer hangouts, the area has been insanely overbuilt. Be aware that the resorts in the area are not actually on the beach but are on the cliffs overlooking the sea, which means a lot of down and up steps.

    Aside from surfing and gazing out to sea there's not much in the way of culture or other activities and transportation is limited.

    June's a little early for the really big swells but the Ulu Watu surf is still treacherous unless you know what you're doing. Definitely for the experienced advanced, surfer only! If you're a beginner surfer and want to learn more, go to Double 6 beach in Legian/Kuta.

    I think you'd enjoy a few days at a resort or villa on Seminyak beach. Though it's a lively well touristed area, it's lively with shops, restaurants, spas and a long, sandy, big wave beach with glorious sunsets. You want to be in the northern side around Petitenget.

    June is a good time for Bromo and Yogyakarta/Borobudur. Again, because transportation is time consuming you should at least three days each for East Java and Central Java.

    I wouldn't say the Bromo area is overrun with tourists. There are some big tourist groups, but it's a big multi-mountain area of profound natural beauty. If you go, you should definitely stay on the mountain and not "commute" from Surabaya or Malang.

    Same for Borobudur. It's best to stay near the monument in the countryside. Yogyakarta is, to me, not an especially appealing city, though it does have several interesting attractions. Where you really get the magic and allure of Java is in the villages, rice paddies and mountain areas.

    Lastly, you hardly need another destination, but consider diving in Sulawesi! Bunaken and the Lembeh Strait have some of the most exotic and varied marine life on the planet.

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    Thank you all so much for your thoughts!

    Craig, I think India deserves an entire trip in of itself. And although I'm a fearless traveler and grew up in different developing countries, my wife can be a bit sensitive. I thought Sri Lanka might be a bit more palatable for her on our first trip in SE Asia, rather than India.

    Kathie, Craig and others: Am I right to include Galle on my trip through Sri Lanka? I know it's a lengthy drive (6-7 hrs) from Ella, but it seems particularly beautiful. Part of my concern is that without Galle, I won't have much interaction with Sri Lankans and their way of life -- i.e. my trip will be largely focused on sights in the cultural triangle and the mountains of the hill country, without much contact with towns or with people. Is that incorrect? If so, I'd happily drop Galle. Or maybe spend a night in Kataragama (which is also inconveniently located) to see the puja.

    Marmot, do you recommend particular villages to stay in near Mount Bromo in Java? As for Bali, I've been hesitant to consider Seminyak because it seems overrun with tourists and more overbuilt than the Bukit peninsula, but it appears that I am mistaken. If the area is charming and vibrant, I'd love to see it.

    Thank you all!

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    We didn't visit Galle on our trip, but I've designed a return trip and included it. I think it is worth keeping in.

    Probably the best place to stay near Bromo is Java Banana. While we ultimately decided not to go to Bromo, I researched it, and Marmot recommend this place at that time.

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    Unlike several posters here I was underwhelmed by Galle. Note that there are two Galles - the old town, where the tourist sights (and hotels, shops etc.) are concentrated - and the town where people actually live. I'm not sure what kind of contact you have in mind, but I doubt Galle is any more likely to provide it than Kandy would. I'd spend more time in the hill country.

    If this is your first trip to Asia I agree that "India lite" would be a better starting point than India proper.

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    Mt Bromo: Right now the best place to stay is Java Banana in Probolinggo. All accommodations on the mountain are fairly basic but this one's making an effort (not always successful, though). The whole area's sparsely populated and the villages economically depressed, but the natural beauty is overwhelming. By 10 a.m. the sunrise viewers will have decamped and you'll have the place to yourself.

    Seminyak: All of South Bali is tourist driven economy and Seminyak is basically an upscale resort. There are all kinds of resorts, hotels and villas -- some in better taste than others -- but it retains a village atmosphere (albeit a rather hedonistic one).

    Having said that it's still Bali and you'll find Balinese culture -- processions, ceremonies, temples -- everywhere. Something's going on near Petitenget temple most every day.

    Seminyak beach is not pristine and deserted, but full of energy, both oceanic and human. It's simply lively and fun, no more, no less. If you're looking for Culture with a capital C, avoid the beaches altogether. But if you want to relax, eat, play in the waves, enjoy the benefits of sophisticated beach culture, then I'd suggest Seminyak, Petitenget especially.

    I like boutique resort, The Colony. Not right on the beach but nearby, a good value, charming and friendly. If your budget can handle it, The Legian (the one in Seminyak) is one of the best beach resorts anywhere.

    I've spent a fair amount of time in the Ulu Watu/Bukit area because I have a surfer in my family. The ocean views are stunning and the surf humbling, but the unrestrained development is to me the worst of Bali. You find eyesores in Seminyak and Ubud too, but they're especially heartbreaking in Ulu Watu because the area was so barren and surfer-cool before.

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