The Ultimate Asia Bucket List

From bungy jumping to spelunking, Kate Springer explores a few of Asia’s most amazing experiences to help you plan your next adventure.

Living in Hong Kong, we’re spoiled for choice. It’s an hour to Taiwan, two hours to Thailand, three to Japan—there’s no end to the incredible trips at our doorstep. It’s so easy, in fact, that sometimes it’s impossible to make up your mind. We’ve talked to experts in the travel industry to bring you Asia’s most amazing offerings for your next adventure

Hot Air Balloon

Unless you’re the Wizard of Oz, it’s not every day that you get to travel by hot air balloon. These buoyant balloons’ whimsical, feel-good vibe put them high on most bucket lists. Kate Springer chats with the founders of Balloons Over Bagan—Brett Meltzer and Omar Win—who pioneered commercial ballooning in Myanmar back in 1999.

Why Bagan? “Bagan is the crown jewel of Myanmar,” says Omar. “There are between 3,000 and 4,000 temples spread across a flat plain as far as you can see—so that’s pretty hard to beat. But the great thing about ballooning is that it’s not just the temples that you see: you also see village life. You’ll go over the thatched roofs and the oxen parked in the driveway and you see people getting up and cooking rice. To float 200 feet high over the mist in the morning, the monks walking about and the town waking up, is just straight out of a fairytale.”

We all float on

When to Go: “The best time to go is in the morning and it’s all over by 10:30am,” says Brett. “If there are any gusty conditions—we don’t fly. The best months are November-December and January-February, because they’re the coolest and most stable months.”

Up, up and away

Fine Print: Rides with Balloons over Bagan last about 45 minutes, and cost US$320 ($2,482) per person. It sells out fast, so reserve six months in advance.

Get fired up for takeoff

Lazy Alternative: Get a bird’s eye view of Victoria Harbour on the new 60-meter-tall Observation Wheel ($100-150 per ride), which should be opening (to mixed reactions) any day now…

Best Bungy Jumps in Asia

The granddaddy of bucket list aspirations. Leave your vertigo-struck friends at home, and head to the best bungy sites in the region.To get some first-hand insight, Kate Springer talks to Tony O’Rourke, a veteran bungy master at AJ Hackett Macau. O’Rourke has been in the business for 23 years, and he’s logged 984 jumps and counting.

History Lesson: Bungy jumping has actually been around for centuries—the people of Pentecost Island in New Zealand would use vines to throw themselves off towers as a way to ward off spirits. But it didn’t go mainstream until speed-skiers AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch made it accessible with their first bungy spot at Queenstown’s 43-meter-tall Kawarau Bridge in 1988.

Skypark Sochi is lookin’ fly. Photo: AJ Hackett International

Jump Here: “That first jump is always the best jump, because you’re going into the unknown. If you were to include Russia as part of Asia, then I’d say the Skypark in Sochi ($1,686, which just opened a few months ago. The location is amazing, overlooking Sochi City and the Black Sea. Over in New Zealand, there’s Nevis Canyon ($1,869 from, which is the highest bungy in the country at 134 meters tall. But I still prefer the original Queenstown site: Kawarau Bridge ($1,318 from It’s only 43 meters high, but that’s where it all started, so it’s a really special place.”

Kawarau Bridge: where it all began. Photo: AJ Hackett New Zealand

Safety First: “When it comes to bungy jumping, safety is the most important thing. There are a lot of cowboys out there, so do your homework. We have jumped more than 3.5 million people in 27 years, and we have never had a fatality.”

The Fine Print: You have to weigh between 40kg to 125kg (88-276 pounds) to jump at AJ Hackett sites. And there are some medical conditions that will keep people from jumping, so check the website for more details.

Lazy Alternative: No time to go to New Zealand? The Macau Tower ( is just a ferry ride away. It’s also the tallest bungy jump from a building on the planet—233 meters tall. Jumps cost $2,600 per person.

The Macau Tower is right next door! Photo: AJ Hackett International

Climb a Volcano 

If you haven’t toasted a s’more in lava then you haven’t lived, so you’d better get yourself to the top of a volcano. Kate Edwards, the head of Southeast Asia at Hong Kong-based tailor-made tour operator Jacada Travel, recommends Asia’s top trek: Mount Bromo in East Java, Indonesia.

The Volcano: “Mount Bromo is incredible. Everyone seems to think you climb up Mt. Bromo, but you actually climb the mountain next door, Penanjakan, which overlooks Mt. Bromo’s crater for sunrise. And then afterwards you can hike over to Mt. Bromo in about two hours. Don’t worry about training too hard: you have to be pretty out of shape not to be able to do this hike.”

Ain’t no mountain high

Waking up Early: “There are a number of small guesthouses about an hour from the summit of the mountain. Usually people wake up about 3:30am, and they go to see the sun rise. It’s a good idea to go a bit early as it can be busy.”

Ain’t no valley low

The View: “It’s not just one volcano here, there are about five of them in the region. Mt. Bromo is the most well-known, but it’s surrounded by other volcanoes so it is really a special sight. It always has a plume of smoke coming from the center, so when you are watching sunrise and the mist clears: it’s absolutely beautiful.”

Misty mountain hopping in East Java

Step Up: “The landscape high up on Mt. Bromo is quite unusual—it’s desolate, dry and musty. To climb up the crater, it’s about 200 steep steps and it’s not for the faint-hearted. It feels like quite a long way. Usually we get horses for our clients, and then they can look down into the crater.”

Saying a little prayer for you

Where to Stay: “We always suggest Java Banana guesthouse (from $1,008 per night, it’s really the best in the area. It’s not a luxury hotel, but it’s rustic and sweet with little cottages scattered around the grounds.”

Lazy Alternative: We hear The Peak is gorgeous this time of year. And it’s just about an hour’s stroll up from Conduit Road (among other routes). But why hike when you can take the tram?

Stay in a Palace Hotel

Sky-high ceilings, four-poster beds and yawning courtyards: Who wouldn’t want a royal experience? Check into a few princely addresses with these recommendations from Lucy Jackson, who founded the Hong Kong branch of bespoke travel guru Lightfoot Travel.

All-Time Favorite: “I stayed in the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur (from $4,814 per night,, which is an icon. Check ahead to make sure the lake is full, otherwise the entrance is a little less dramatic. When you arrive, you have all these petals thrown over your head in a big Indian welcome. I think people imagine it will be grand, and it is—but it does have its quirks too. There are gurgling pipes, thin walls—but in other ways it goes way above your expectations with these ornate floors, exquisite four-poster beds, creaking corridors, and the gorgeous courtyards.”

Welcome to the Taj Lake Palace, your highness

Best Value: “The Rambagh Palace (from $4,180 per night, in Jaipur is great. The rooms are vast, and the ceilings are three times the height of a normal hotel room. It has wonderful gardens, with flowers cascading over the sides, and the pool is enormous as well. You can easily hop into Jaipur: We recommend a book called ‘I Love Rajasthan’ that knows all the local shops.”

Fancy a round of polo with the maharaja at the Rambagh?

Outside of India: “I’d have to say I love the Aman Summer Palace in Beijing (from $4,372 per night, It’s obviously on the edge of a bustling tourist area, but you can enjoy it peacefully. It’s pretty special: the decorations are incredibly ornate, and the rooms are all built around traditional Chinese courtyards.”

Aman Summer Palace: A hotel fit for an emperor

Fine Print: For more information about palace hotels—or more plebeian properties—get in touch with Lightfoot Travel.

Lazy Alternative: Pamper yourself at Royal Foot Palace (10/F, Kwong Ah Building, 114 Thomson Rd., Wan Chai, 5424-6945). $118 for a 45-minute foot massage. Cash only, your highness.

Explore Asia’s Largest Cave

Get off the grid and go deep, deep into the earth with a little caving action. Howard Limbert, who discovered the world’s largest cave—Son Doong in Vietnam—as part of the British Cave Research Association, tells Kate Springer about this amazing gem. He is also the technical director at Oxalis Adventure Tours, the only organizer with cave access.

Howard Limbert off to discover some caves, NBD
Asia’s Best Cave: “It is without a doubt Son Doong. It’s just so startlingly different than any other cave in the world. It’s huge and it has so many beautiful cave formations that you will never see anywhere else—plus two jungles. But if you go to Son Doong first, it will spoil you for any other cave in the world. We have had grown men crying down there.”

Get on this level!

On Preservation: “Oxalis arranges limited tours for just eight clients at a time. We just discovered Son Doong in 2009, so we are now trying to preserve it and keep it in pristine condition: we don’t want cable cars and mass tourism.”

Just go with the flow

For Beginners: “There’s another cave called Tu Lan, where we do one- to four-day tours. We swim through caves, and camp in the jungle. Most people who have done that trip say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.”

Hipster caving: the Tu Lan expedition is so underground

Fine Print: To get the most out of your trip, Limbert suggests that you have a general level of fitness and trekking familiarity. Son Doong costs $23,275 per person for seven days; Tu Lan costs $659 a day. The season runs from Feb 1 to Aug 31.

Lazy Alternative: Hole up in a karaoke parlor for the night—it’s sure to get wild in there. If you must be outside, then the Cheung Po Tsai cave on Cheung Chau takes about five minutes to squeeze through and is said to be home to buried treasure.

Sail in the Sunset

Wind in your hair, G&T in hand, approaching the horizon… It doesn’t get much better than life on the open seas. Don’t have your own boat? Charter the Raja Laut, a beautiful 100-foot wooden schooner. Co-owner and life-long sailor Louis Carraz tells us about his favorite destinations.

Introducing: Raja Laut

Where to Go: “I can’t pick just one recommendation, so I’ll give you two: the Mergui archipelago in Myanmar and Komodo National Park in Indonesia.”

Surf and turf inside the Raja Laut

First, Mergui: “The Mergui archipelago consists of more than 800 uninhabited coral-fringed islands covered with dense forest, arguably the most beautiful of their kind in Southeast Asia, and often described as a ‘lost world.’ You see it all: rocky karst-like islands, sheltered reef bays, white sandy beaches with turquoise water, rivers and mangroves. It’s just 70 nautical miles from Phuket, yet it has this ‘out of this time’ feeling about it.”

Mergui: pull up a boat and enjoy

And Komodo? “It’s a Unesco World Heritage site, consisting of 29 islands, and it’s most famous for its Komodo Dragon lizards and incredible scuba diving. On the way to Komodo you will cross the ‘Wallace Line,’ where the flora and fauna of subtropical Asia make a dramatic change into those typical of Australasia. The dry weather from May to September gives the island landscapes a unique savannah color and the sunsets are unearthly.”

How to train your Komodo dragon

Fine Print: Private charters with tailor-made itineraries and food menus start at $45,000 per day (up to 12 people). The six cabins on board all have en-suite bathrooms, air-conditioning, hot showers, and electric toilets.

Lazy Alternative: The world-famous “Star” Ferry departs every couple of minutes from Central Pier 7 for about $2.

Bike Cross-Country

Biking across a territory offers a totally different experience than your typical tourist trail. Humphrey Wilson, founder of Hong Kong biking tour company Mad Dogs, tells Kate Springer about some unforgettable rides.

Bragging Rights: Humphrey came to Hong Kong in an unusual way—by bike. He quit his job as an accountant and cycled from Buckingham Palace in London to Government House in Hong Kong. The route took him about six months, and afforded him visits to some of the lesser-trodden (or ridden) corners of the world, including Caucasus, Tajikistan and Xinjiang.

Humphrey Wilson riding the Gansu terraces

The Experience: “Cycling through a country compared to traveling by train or bus is like comparing a glass-bottom boat with pulling on scuba gear and jumping into the sea to explore a reef. It’s total immersion. You smell the smells, meet the people, and engage with the terrain—not to mention the weather.”

Mad Dogs on the road in Krabi

Best Rides: “The most classically pretty place I have ever cycled is around the volcanic lakes on Japan’s Hokkaido island (especially Lake Shikotsu), so diamond-perfect that it’s hard to fathom that they are actually real. The lakes are surrounded by live volcanoes, some piping with smoke. Taiwan has the most luscious and enchanting green mountains I have ever seen—which have a mystical air when the clouds are low. They float around the jungle landscape like flocks of sheep. The area surrounding Krabi also has to be one of the most stunning natural landscapes, with karst mounts jutting into the sea.”

Mad Dogs meets Lake Shikotsu

For First-timers: “Don’t let ‘beginner’ status put you off—I had never cycled properly before I embarked on my own epic ride from London to Hong Kong. Taipei to Kenting is a great option because the roads are excellent, and the Taiwanese are really welcoming to cyclists.”

Fine Print: Cycling trips with Mad Dogs start around US$1,120 ($8,688) per trip, including baggage forwarding, support, hotels, breakfasts, and local guides.

Lazy Alternative: We hear renting a bike ($20 per hour) and pedaling through tourists hordes in and around the West Kowloon Cultural District can be challenging enough.

Volunteer with Elephants

Make sure these beloved bulls finish life on a high note by volunteering at the Green Hill Valley elephant retirement home in Kalaw, Myanmar. Co-founder Tin Win Maw tells Kate Springer about the family’s sustainable tourism venture and her hopes for future conservation efforts.

The Idea: “It’s a family interest of ours. We started this project in 2011: my husband and I worked in tourism for 20 years, and my uncle was working as an elephant veterinarian. We wanted an alternative to touristy elephant sites, because we don’t want them to feel like they’re in a zoo or on display. The idea is focused on elephant care, and people come to help feed and wash them.”

Maw with her pals

The Elephants: “At the moment we have seven elephants. We started with two family-owned elephants, and added five more in 2012 that we bought from a timber enterprise. We are basically a retirement home for elephants: Instead of carrying around heavy logs, they just wander in nature. We want them to be able to relax and be cared for.”


Having a cow at Green Hill Valley

The Experience: “Every morning we find them in the forest and check them for any problems, then wash and feed them. They need about 200 kilos a day, so we also supplement their natural diets—changing their menu every week. This place is for travelers who are really interested to learn about elephants, and who really love nature. A lot of people go away feeling like it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”


The Future: “Myanmar used to have hundreds of logging camps around the country, but timber logging is reducing because of a new government policy to curb deforestation. So there will be a number of elephants who will be free from work, and we will have to figure out how to take care of them. We hope our model is an inspiration to others.”

Fine Print: Spend the day with elephants from about US$90-$200 ($698-1,552). Get there by 9am and stay till sunset.

Lazy Alternative: If elephants sound a little too big to manage, then volunteer to walk a dog—the SPCA is always looking for helping hands:

The original story ran as an HK Magazine cover story, and appeared online here