Top 10 for 2013: Asia

Whether you've spent time backpacking through Asia on your gap year, or have only experienced the continent vicariously through your local takeaway, it doesn't matter, because we've got 10 amazing reasons to book a flight to the region this year. From sampling wines in high-tech Hong Kong bars, to panda-watching in Chengdu, soaking up some winter sun in Phuket or discovering the cultural underbelly of Dubai, read on for the top 10 places to visit in Asia in 2013...

Words: David Whitley

  • Phuket, Thailand

    The Thai resort island has boomed in recent years, and when Thomson starts flying its Dreamliners there direct in November, Phuket is likely to become 2013’s most talked-about winter sun wonder. For now, costs on the ground are relatively cheap – although this will undoubtedly change in years to come. There’s also a good mix of poolside lounging and kid-friendly activities – think water parks, Gibbon rehab centres and boat trips. More independent minds can use Phuket as a jumping-off point for less crowded hangouts and islands along the gorgeous Andaman Coast.

    Picture credit: Thomson

  • Dubai, UAE

    Now Qantas has joined Emirates in routing its connecting flights through Dubai, the blingy Gulf city is getting harder to avoid. But the crass consumption image isn’t entirely fair – Dubai is primping up its historic districts, offering get-to-know-the-locals cultural lunches and brilliant food tours that show off the multicultural energy of a truly global city. You can round off a surprisingly varied stopover by venturing into the desert that Dubai was somehow built on, dune-bashing your way to a private desert camp with Arabian Adventures.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Hong Kong

    From nowhere, Hong Kong has become the world’s biggest wine-trading hub. Fuelling Mainland Chinese vinophiles has led to a boom in high tech, innovative wine bars such as Amo Eno and the Flying Winemaker. It’s a new twist on a perennially frenetic nightlife, with the hip areas heading west from Lan Kwai Fong to Soho and Sheung Wan. And, if you want something to anchor the sauvignon blanc, then hit the dim sum trail. Tim Ho Wan in Kowloon is legendary for serving the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred food.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Seoul, South Korea

    Still under the mistaken impression that Gangnam Style was ever funny? Well the blingy Gangnam district of Seoul is for you. For everyone else, new direct BA flights from Heathrow open up a multi-faceted goldmine of a modern megalopolis. The Zaha Hadid-helmed Dongdaemun Design Plaza project is bringing in hip fashion boutiques, while in other parts of the city it’s possible to learn taekwondo, stroll along a once-neglected stream that’s been turned into an open-air art project and watch slapstick-meets-martial arts non-verbal theatre.

    Picture credit: Korean Tourism Office

  • Fukuoka, Japan

    Ramen seems to be the new inescapable culinary craze, and noodle pilgrims can test how it’s done properly in ramen’s rapidly growing birthplace – Fukuoka. On Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, Fukuoka enjoys a subtropical climate and living standards routinely ranked amongst the world’s best. That’s if you can tear yourself away from the endless food stalls, of course. KLM starts flying to Fukuoka in April.

    Picture credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

  • Pakse, Laos

    Dozens of shack-like bars line the Mekong river in Pakse, staring out at mountains and cracking open another bottle for a mostly local crowd. It’s southern Laos’ emerging traveller hub – perfect for boat trips out to 4,000 islands just before the Cambodian border as well as trekking, coffee plantations, eco-resorts and waterfalls on the less humid Bolaven Plateau. And for now, it feels like a special discovery on a par with Leo DiCaprio’s The Beach.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia

    Cambodia’s chaotically endearing capital is gradually getting easier to reach – Qatar Airways launches flights to Phnom Penh in March – but it still has a certain Wild West feel. You’re as likely to see monkeys prowling on roundabouts and suspiciously flash cars outside the casino hotel as orange-clad monks outside temples. The heartbreaking Khmer Rouge education trips to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Prison are still the must-visits, but Phnom Penh is also the gateway to the burgeoning beach resorts in the south.

    Picture credit: David Whitley

  • Chengdu, China

    From September onwards, going beyond the obvious destinations in China will be a lot easier, with British Airways launching direct flights to Chengdu. Now we could pretend this is a great chance to explore spicy Sichuan cuisine or admire giant Buddha statues, but really it’s all about the pandas. Sichuan Province has more wild pandas than anywhere else in the world, although your odds of seeing them at the Chengdu Panda Base research centre are much higher.

    Picture credit: China National Tourist Office

  • Sri Lanka

    Fancy the Indian subcontinent but with less of the hassle factor? Then Sri Lanka is the spot – a winning combination of beach resorts and photogenic hillside tea plantation towns. Areas in the north that were once civil war danger zones are now opening up in earnest to visitors too. Trincomalee in the north-east is an ideal spot for chilled beaches, fishing villages and whale watching. Sri Lanka becomes a lot easier to get to and around this year. British Airways is relaunching flights to Colombo from Heathrow, while new domestic airline Cinnamon Air is running short hops to coastal holiday strips.

    Picture credit: Chaaya Hotels and Resorts

  • The Philippines

    The Philippines has a Catholic heritage that can make it seem more passionate and South American than reserved and South East Asian. And it’s curiously underrated on the South-East Asian circuit too. Main island Luzon is about the scenery and adventure – the incredible rice terraces in the north and the walk through an ash-filled valley to Mt Pinatubo’s crater lake are in must-see territory. But elsewhere – particularly in resorty Boracay and currently hip Palawan – it’s all about beaches, hammocks and chilling out.

    Picture credit: David Whitley