When I was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times travel section, my editors knew of my affection for Asia and sent me to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and China, where I lived and studied Mandarin for about six months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
I was as happy as the pearl in an oyster.
As an adolescent, I was compelled by the notion that another place could be so utterly different from life as I knew it. That remains a big part of the reason I love Asia, which is good because I live here now.
“Here” is Ho Chi Minh City, where I teach English in a secondary school. I live in District 11, where dirt, noise and crowds mean I’m not exactly living the dream. In Ho Chi Minh City, construction is booming. Every block seems to have an international chain store or restaurant, every hand a mobile phone. When the school holidays come around, I reclaim the dream, taking off for Thailand or Laos or the beach at Da Nang City.
Asia covers more than 17 million square miles and has about 4.5 billion people, according to World Population Review, making it the world’s largest continent by land mass and the most populous. It’s composed of 50 countries, including, by most tallies, Russia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. There are few things you can say about Asia that hold true for all its parts.
But here is one thing these countries have in common: They are welcoming increasing numbers of tourists. China, for instance, recorded 126.8 million international visitor arrivals in 2018, a 12% increase from 2017. South Korea saw a 9.6% increase for a total of 30.7 million in the same time period, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Assn.
Low airfares are at least part of that allure. Last year we saw round-trip prices from LAX as low as $548 to Tokyo, $387 to Hong Kong and $515 to Singapore, according to Airfarewatchdog, which supplies weekly airfare deals to the L.A. Times Travel section. Granted, some of those tickets came with restrictions, and fares, domestic and international, may increase this year because of rising fuel prices, but the careful traveler can score some good deals.
Moreover, domestic and regional air travel in Asia is cheap, thanks partly to the emergence of small budget carriers such as AirAsia, Jetstar Asia and Nok Air. It’s not unusual for me to find round-trip fares from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi for less than $100 on Vietnam Airlines. That’s about the same distance from LAX to Los Cabos, Mexico, for which flights cost at least double that fare and sometimes more.
Although prices for accommodations, food and entertainment are climbing, as they are everywhere, parts of Asia remain a bargain. In Ho Chi Minh City, I can have noodle soup at a sidewalk stand for less than $1, indulge in a 60-minute massage for $20, buy about 7 ounces of the finest Vietnamese coffee beans for $3 or take a 45-minute taxi ride from the airport to downtown for $10.
As leisure travelers, we want to be careful in our spending of every dong (Vietnam), kip (Laos), kyat (Myanmar), baht (Thailand), yuan (China), won (South Korea), riel (Cambodia) and ringgit (Malaysia) because those currencies help fund our memories, the real treasure of travel.
In my mind’s eye, I can see the sunrise at the exquisite Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Indonesia, remember how orange-robed monks pushed my vehicle out of the mud in northern Cambodia, recall sipping a martini at the fabled Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok. I cruised blissfully on a vintage French colonial steamer through Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and slept in a hut on the beach on Malaysia’s minuscule Tioman Island in the Gulf of Thailand. From the window of a long-distance train, I saw the frozen Tibetan Plateau, a singular vision and experience.
I could go on but instead will direct you to the pages in this section, a sort of sampler platter of ideas for memories of your own: a beginner’s guide to Seoul, a baseball barnstorming trip to Japan, a deeper look at a Chinese city known mostly for an amazing archaeological find.
Too many time zones to consider? Sleep on the way there (or when you’re dead, as rocker Warren Zevon once said). Leave your comfort zone. Try Asia. It isn’t as far away from home as you can get, but sometimes it feels that way. And that is a very good feeling indeed.