A few places in Asia for first-time travelers provide a softer landing than others. The culture shock doesn't hit as hard. Although pretty much everywhere in Asia is interesting to visit, some destinations can be more challenging and exhausting for the uninitiated and jet-lag weary.
If you haven’t traveled in Asia very much and aren't quite ready to hack through the jungles in Sumatra just yet or navigate the busyness of India, these seven great destinations are easy places to get in the groove as an independent traveler before traveling farther afield.
In more ways than one, Bangkok can often be a shock to the senses for the newly arrived.
The traffic, pollution, and pace of Thailand’s capital take some time to appreciate. Khao San Road, the backpacker area in Bangkok, is famous for crowds and late-night partying. Chiang Mai, the northern capital, to the rescue!
Although Chiang Mai has traffic and pollution issues of its own, many travelers prefer the walkable size and sights of the Old Town inside of the moat. The city is certainly more drivable if you're willing to learn on a scooter. Even the prices are slightly better in Chiang Mai than you’ll find in Bangkok or the Thai islands.
Weekend markets keep tourists and locals both delighted. Saturday and Sunday are days for walking, nibbling, people watching, and grabbing inexpensive, locally produced souvenirs.
Chiang Mai has a reputation throughout Thailand for excellent food and a friendlier vibe than locations in the south. And if the city still proves to be too much, you can escape to Pai — a pleasant tourist town in the mountains just four hours north of Chiang Mai.
Luang Prabang draws a big variety of travelers, from backpackers moving along the Banana Pancake Trail, to families attracted by the UNESCO World Heritage status.
Remnants of French colonization — including beautiful, riverside manors converted into guesthouses — contribute to a pleasant atmosphere along the banks of the Mekong River. The vibe is mostly serene.
Although Laos is an impoverished country, and plenty of scams target first-time travelers, the tourism infrastructure is easy to navigate as an independent traveler. Many sights such as the beautiful waterfalls just outside of town beckon. And if Luang Prabang feels just a little too easy, some exciting jungle trekking in Luang Namtha isn’t too far to the north.
If coming up from Thailand, there are many options for getting from Chiang Mai to Laos.
The mix of ethnicities living there mean that you’ll get to sample Chinese, Indian, and Malay culture all in one stop. Along with those three, there is plenty of Persian, Middle Eastern, and even European influence. Communication isn't a problem: you’ll be able to get around easily by using English.
Every time you think you've got a grasp on Kuala Lumpur, you'll accidentally stumble into a new neighborhood that surprises and excites you!
As a bonus, Kuala Lumpur's KLIA2 terminal is the hub for AirAsia: budget flights can be booked from there to all corners of Asia.
If the plan is to sample South Asia for the first time, Sri Lanka provides a far more relaxed experience than the behemoth Indian subcontinent just to the north.
Although some of India’s exciting vibe makes it down to the island, Sri Lanka is certainly far less frenzied and chaotic for first-time travelers.
Beautiful beaches all along the coast offer plenty of respite from busy Colombo, and Galle is a pleasant enough town to stroll. Hidden beaches offer great snorkeling experiences, and Sri Lanka is famous for birds and diversity of wildlife.
The interior of the island serves up some hard-to-believe trekking, adventure, and scenery for travelers who prefer to balance beach time with staying active.
Hong Kong’s years spent as a British colony mean that you’ll find English spoken widely and a great infrastructure. The Western influence is apparent in all directions, but the island still feels "far from home."
After the 1997 transfer of sovereignty, Hong Kong is now a Special Administrative Region belonging to China. First-time travelers find that starting in Hong Kong is easier than landing in Beijing and dealing with the initial culture shock of the Chinese mainland.
Aside from being so beautiful, there is another reason Bali is the most visited of Indonesia’s more than 16,000 named islands: it’s easy! Along with cheap flights to get there, the tourist infrastructure is solid and accommodating.
You can escape the party scene in Kuta for more laid-back beaches on the other sides of the island. And there’s still a pleasant vibe to be found in the busy-but-pleasant town of Ubud, a destination that exploded in popularity after being featured in the hit book and movie Eat, Pray, Love. Bali is also a top honeymoon destination in Asia.
Bali gets busier in summer when dry season begins and Australians start escaping winter in the nearby Southern Hemisphere. Regardless, even if you'll have to share the beaches, Bali truly is magic.
Singapore is safe, clean, and easy — also, impeccably clean and orderly compared to other capital cities in Southeast Asia.
Even arriving couldn’t be easier; Singapore’s Changi Airport is considered one of the best and most efficient in the world. It wins top awards each year.
Excellent public transportation makes getting around a breeze, and when you’ve tired of getting lost in the labyrinthine shopping malls and many museums, Singapore boasts loads of urban green space and park trails. There is a lot more to the little city-island-country than just concrete.
Singaporeans, in general, speak great English — or "Singlish" as they love to call it. A large number of foreign workers now call Singapore home, so you'll be exposed to a variety of people and cultures from all over the world.
Crime is low. The worst things you’ll have to worry about in Singapore are the exorbitant prices and taxes; food is an exception — it's cheap and delicious. But don’t even think about accidentally bringing prohibited items into the country.