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1. For food – Vietnam
It’s all about trying unrecognisable food; sampling anything and everything even though you have no idea what it is, let alone if it’s an animal, plant or bean derivative. It’s about sitting down on the curb – a plastic seat if you’re lucky – beside a roadside stall and slurping your way through a broth that has so much flavour it’s like a Mike Tyson punch to your taste buds. Yup, it’s all about Vietnam.
Try it: Lose your inhibitions and any fears of an icky belly and go full throttle; you can eat dry noodles when you’re home. The national dish and a daily staple is Pho Soup; a watery mixture of chicken or beef broth combined with ginger, spices and sliced meat, and look out for Cau Lau in Hoi An, it’s quite a speciality here because the rice has been soaked in water from a special Hoi An well, with lye sourced from local tree ash. There are fresh juices found all over Vietnam, young coconuts that will cost you less than a dollar and an entire assortment of herbs, spices and condiments. You can’t call Vietnamese cuisine a one trick pony, it’s as extensive as it is delicious.
HOT tip: Wary foodies should start in restaurants with English translations. Then, when you know what you like, you can frequent the street stalls and order the same thing.
2. For perfect beaches - Thailand
Right, let’s get this one out of the way - Koh Phi Phi Beach, the backdrop for Leonardo’s movie, The Beach. Impossibly beautiful, it’s the very definition of Thailand’s Utopian beach culture: bleached-blonde sand, limestone cliffs and startling turquoise water, but if you want idyllic photographs without the throngs of tourists, you’re going to need apt Photoshop skills too.
Find it: For somewhere a little less touristy, Sunrise Beach in Ko Lipe delivers the perfect balance of people and paradise, where mass tourism hasn’t spoilt the view, there’s snorkelling off the beach and 2km of glistening-white sand. For the bohemians, a hippy vibe and a sleepy stillness exists at Hat Salad Beach in Koh Phangan. Secluded, clean and quiet, this is the place to chill, with plenty of tumbling forestry and a scattering of laid-back dining establishments. And then there’s Bamboo Island, part of the Phi Phi Islands and one of the most isolated Thai beaches you’ll find. Tiny enough to walk its perimetre in 30 minutes, the island’s protected so you won’t find any bars, bungalows – or buckets of ‘Full Moon Party’ grog.
HOT tip: Make Bamboo Island a day trip; you can't stay overnight unless you camp with a guide.
3. For shopping – Thailand: Bangkok
Bangkok offers multiple different ways to blow your baht, from modern, air conditioned malls to chaotic street markets. If you’re after high street names such as Zara and Timberland, CentralWorld is a mega mall of gargantuan proportions, featuring an ice-rink, 15-screen cinema and over 200 cafes and restaurants.
Find it: Don’t miss the authentic street markets either. JJ Green Night Market is cooler than the better-known Chatuchak Weekend Market, but it’s just around the corner so you can easily hit both. JJ Green combines funky vintage finds with great Thai food and cheap beer. Open Thursday to Sunday, from 5pm to midnight, you’ll find fixed stores as well as car-boot style vendors.
Shopaholics should also check out the famed water markets. Damnoen Saduak has been Thailand's best known floating market for decades but for once that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Sure it’s enormous, lively and chaotic, jam-packed with tourists and exhausting but it’s also a Thailand must-do. Bear in mind it’s more than an hour's drive outside Bangkok so you're looking at a 5am start. For something more authentic go to Amphawa Floating Market - a whopping 90km south west of Bangkok, but it's worth it for the photos of bustling wooden boats, jostling stall owners and wooden houses neatly lined along the canal.
HOT tip: We all love a knock-off, for fakes head down to Patpong Market and polish up on your bargaining skills.
4. For culture - Cambodia
If we're going to talk about culture and Cambodia, then we need to mention Angkor Wat. We know it's a beacon for tourists (up to 6000 people frequent the park daily) but it’s also regarded as the heart and soul of Cambodia. Don’t try to explore the world’s largest religious monuments in a single day, but instead purchase a three-day pass and take your time. Must-dos are sunrise over the temples, Angkor Thom and its famous ruins of the Bayon Temple, a sunset picnic and climbing the rambling tree trunks that crudely impose themselves throughout the stonework. Angkor Wat might be an obvious choice but it’s 100% worth it.
Find it: For history - and a thorough understanding of Cambodia’s turbulent past – The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is as haunting as the name suggests. The museum, in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh, functioned as a high school until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison known as Security Prison 21. What ensued was half a decade of torture and imprisonment, resulting in over 17,000 mass killings. At its height, S-21 claimed 100 victims per day. We won’t lie, this is a thoroughly depressing experience, but then, history so often is. To truly understand modern-day Cambodia, take a big gulp and look into the nation’s past.
HOT tip: Hire a guide to take you around Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. There are countless photographs, graves and personal artefacts that all tell a story.
5. For families - Bali
Travelling with children makes most parents grimace, but those who have been to Bali know better. Well regarded as one of the most family-friendly destinations on the planet, Bali offers everything from purpose built children’s attractions to accommodation with pool fences for hire. Many of the restaurant’s menus have been designed with plenty of western-style options for fussier palates and there’s an assortment of activities the kids can show off about when they return to school.
Try it: Waterbom Bali is Asia’s premier water park, with rides that reach speeds of 70kph and lazy rivers for parents who like to take things a little slower. The perfect day-out to cool off and keep heat-triggered tantrums at bay. To burn off excess energy, Ubud’s Mepantigan specialises in various mud games (and we all know kids hate to stay clean) from wrestling to frog catching, tug of war and mud horse racing, it’s the perfect combination of mud and mayhem. Of course, the monkeys are also a huge attraction in Bali. Monkey Forest, in Ubud, encourages visitors to feed the inquisitive mischief-makers in a safe and clean environment. You can buy bananas at the forest entrance and enjoy a really special close-up encounter.
HOT tip: The flight time from Auckland to Bali is roughly eight hours so it’s certainly not short haul. Ask your HOT consultant about the most child-friendly airlines, including those that provide activity packs, games, kids’ movies and children’s meals.
6. For local experiences – China
As travellers, we have a tendency to cram as much as possible into a short schedule, but there’s no shame in visiting one country – and staying in a single place. You’ll get a much better understanding of the culture if you stay-put for a while; it sounds like a cliché but live like a local and you’ll benefit from a more in-depth experience.
Find it: Shanghai provides the perfect combination of Asian culture and western influence, meaning you can engross yourself whole-heartedly into Chinese lifestyle – and then retreat into western familiarity just as quickly. To embrace traditional Chinese culture, take a Mandarin and calligraphy class which are readily available across the city, or if you’re after something a little more active, a kung fu class. Culinary courses will see you returning to NZ as masters in Xiao Long Bao (dumplings) and home-made spring rolls. Or, skip class altogether and simply absorb what’s going on around you; old men playing Mahjong beside the road and locals practicing their tai chi in the park.
HOT tip: Check out Shanghai’s eclectic architecture; a battle between east meets west. The Old Town is fiercely traditional, whereas the banks of The Bund feature buildings with a distinctly British vibe and the French concession is, unsurprisingly, characterised by its Parisian influence.
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