These waterfront destinations offer incredible scenic views, ancient history, and natural beauty across the continent.
Asia has many water towns, cities, and ancient places shaped by inlets, seas, bays, and rivers. They possess invisible waterways, canal networks, majestic oceanside settings, select diving locations, and giant rivers that define their past and future. Such watery backdrops enhance the beauty and intrigue of these communities, which are scattered from China in Asia’s north to Malaysia in the south, Sri Lanka in the west, and Japan in the east.
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WHERE: Bangkok, Thailand
Koh Kret is artificial, but you’d never know it. This manmade island, in Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, was created nearly 300 years ago and is now home to one of the most traditional neighborhoods in the Thai capital. Koh Kret looks and feels like an idyllic rural location, removed from the overwhelming energy of this gigantic city.
This serene, car-free island is decorated by verdant fields, palm groves, Buddhist temples, street markets, and stilted wooden homes that crouch above the river. Tourists can catch a taxi 15 miles north of the city center, get a longtail boat over to Koh Kret, and then wander in aimless bliss.
WHERE: Shanghai, China
No country in Asia has as many water towns as China, with these settlements widespread in and near Shanghai. Eight such towns remain in this area on China’s mid-west coast–Wuzhen, Nanxun, Tongli, Luzhi, Zhouzhuang, Xitang, Qibao, and, perhaps the most striking of all, Zhujiajiao.
More than 1,700 years old, Zhujiajiao, for many centuries, was a key trading port on the Grand Canal, a huge waterway system constructed more than two millennia ago. Now it’s a popular tourist attraction thanks to its network of canals flanked by willow-shaded cobblestone streets, each lined with timeworn shophouses, temples, and mansions.
In the mountains, 15 miles southeast of Kathmandu, are three rivers that define the ancient town of Panauti. Two of them are visible–the Punyamata and Roshi rivers which are the lifeblood of this 1,800-year-old settlement. The third river is mythical, the Rudrawati, which lives large in the Hindu and Buddhist folklore of Panauti.
The peninsula created by the first two waterways is home to the historic center of Panauti, an enclave of ancient timber-and-brick homes, Buddhist shrines, and Hindu temples. Tourists can watch locals fishing in the rivers of Panauti, which the Nepal Government has nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although it is beloved by domestic tourists, Malacca is one of Asia’s most overlooked destinations when it comes to international travelers. This small city was given prized UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its intriguing history, eclectic architecture, and attractive, river-pierced Old Town area.
A former capital of Malaysia, it is on the country’s southwest coast, 75 miles south of the current capital, Kuala Lumpur. Malacca bloomed into the headquarters of a wealthy Islamic Sultanate in the 1300s before being seized by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British.
As a result, Malacca is embellished by a melange of architecture, from Islamic mosques to Dutch churches, Portuguese mansions, and British administrative buildings. Many of these landmarks are clustered near the Malacca River, around which this city is built.
WHERE: Palawan, Philippines
One of the wildest and most naturally-blessed locations in South-East Asia, Palawan (which is on Fodor’s 2023 Go List) is a long, thin island cloaked in rainforests and fringed by powdery beaches and azure seas. Its capital Puerto Princesa also is ensconced in natural splendor.
This small city is flanked to its west by a calm inlet and to its east by the marine wonderland of the Sulu Sea, which provides some of the finest diving locations on the continent. Tourists can wander its neat boardwalk, gazing across the inlet at densely forest hills, or wade into warm, crystalline water at the city’s many beaches.
Widely regarded as Laos’ most photogenic city, Luang Prabang sits on a lush peninsula where the commanding Mekong river meets the narrower Nam Khan river. Following heavy rainfall, the roar of the surging Mekong can be heard by tourists staying in the many boutique hotels that flank this waterway in the Old Town area.
That UNESCO World Heritage Site brims with stately, French colonial buildings, many of which have been meticulously renovated and converted into cafes, restaurants, museums, art galleries, and accommodations. They are kept company by many gleaming Buddhist temples which date back to Luang Prabang’s 400-year reign as the royal capital of Laos.
This port city on Vietnam’s central coast ranks alongside Luang Prabang as the most picturesque urban area in South-East Asia. Like the Lao gem, Hoi An is blessed by its pretty riverside perch and enhanced by diverse and historic architecture, in this case, a blend of Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and French designs.
What sets Hoi An apart is its dramatic appearance once the sun slides from view and its sprawling Old Town area is painted by the rainbow glow of its many hundreds of colorful lanterns. This spectacle reflects off the glassy surface of the placid Thu Bon River, which bisects Hoi An’s Old Town.
If Bikan were located in Tokyo or Kyoto instead of low-profile Okayama, it would be swamped by tourists filling their social media feeds with images of its quaint streetscapes. Wooden rowboats cruise along its tree-lined canals, beneath arched stone bridges, and past rows of European mansions and attractive old Japanese buildings with whitewashed walls and traditional Kawara roof tiles.
While these ancient storehouses now house galleries, studios, cafes, and restaurants, this neighborhood looks like it’s been transplanted from the 17th century, when Bikan boomed as a port town. These days it is a key destination for Japanese visitors, but one which isn’t yet planted on the international tourist trail.
WHERE: Galle, Sri Lanka
On Boxing Day 2004, Mother Nature tried to wash away Fort Galle. Thankfully many lives, and its beautiful urban area, were saved due to the high, thick stone walls of this citadel, which sits on a peninsula in the Indian Ocean within the Sri Lankan city of Galle.
Those fortifications, built by the Portuguese in the 1500s and later expanded by the Dutch, withstood the giant tsunami that would have smashed Galle Fort’s Gothic churches, Portuguese mansions, Dutch shophouses, mosques, and Buddhist temples. A UNESCO World Heritage site surrounded by pristine sea, it remains Asia’s best preserved European fort.
Suzhou is Asia’s original canal city, a watery wonder which predates Italy’s revered Venice and is almost as spectacular. Its beauty is long depicted in Chinese paintings; 2,500-year-old Suzhou is carefully laid out around a network of canals crossed by dozens of graceful stone bridges and flanked by stunning classical gardens.
These meticulously landscaped green spaces, designed to mimic nature on a small scale, were originally private gardens for members of the city’s elite but now are tourist attractions. Wandering Suzhou’s lovely canalside streets, from garden to garden, is a meditative and memorable experience.