Travel Goals Master Checklist: Part V – Asia

This portion of the Travel Goals Master Checklist series of blog posts focuses on Asia. Not surprisingly, much like its counterpart in the real world, it is the biggest in both size and number. Spanning a land area far beyond that of any other continent, Asia is a medley of cultures, technology and history that cannot be matched. From the ancient desert bastions of the Middle East to the frenetic metropolises of the Orient, Asia holds the lion’s share of destinations on the Travel Goals Master Checklist, and as I’ll go on to explain, that’s for good reason.

But before we do, if you’d like to catch up on the entries from some of the other continents, click the following links for North America and the Caribbean, South America and Antarctica, Africa, and Europe.

Bali, Indonesia

With its dazzlingly green terraced rice paddies, expansive beaches and Hindu temples, Bali is an amalgamation of natural beauty and a deep cultural heritage. Even just mentioning the name Bali is sure to conjure images of exotic beauty, so it was a sure-thing to rank a place on the top 72 world-class destinations.

Borneo, Malaysia

Speaking of exotic, Borneo is the epitome of off the beaten path, with ancient rain forests and Southeast Asia’s tallest peak. Add in some unique animal life, such as the orangutan and proboscis monkey, as well as prolific coral reefs, and it becomes readily apparent why I felt compelled to add Borneo to the checklist.

Cappadocia, Turkey

At the western edge of the continent, this region in Central Turkey is renowned for its surreal landscapes of eroded volcanic rock. Floating above it in a hot air balloon remains one of my favorite life experiences, and given its incomparable characteristics, Cappadocia is a must-see destination for anyone with an appreciation for history, unique architecture, natural beauty or all of the above.

Coral Atolls, Maldives

Though I had been dreaming of getting to the Maldives long before they became an Instagram phenomenon, I still haven’t managed to do so – yet. But that doesn’t make this idyllic archipelago of coral atolls surrounded by some of the most appealing water on earth any less worthy of their spot on the checklist. Just Google a few pictures and you’ll see why this remote destination in the Indian Ocean is the stuff that travel dreams are made of.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It’s hard not to be impressed by Dubai. Sitting on the crossroads between East and West, this glittering city is the world showcase of all that is glittery and artificial. Rising out of the barren wastes where the desert meets the Persian Gulf, this incredibly modern playground has become one of the most interesting – and indulgent – urban centers in the world. Love it or hate it, Dubai is a player on the world scene and earns its place on the Travel Goals Master Checklist.

Great Wall, China

In a land full of famous landmarks, the Great Wall of China was an easy Top 10 entrant on the checklist. My own travels brought me only to the Badaling section outside of Beijing, but seeing this famous structure snake its way across the hilly landscape does not disappoint regardless of where on its expansive length you choose to observe.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

While there are a number of beautiful karstic regions around the world, none are perhaps as famous as Ha Long Bay off the northern coast of Vietnam. Rising precipitously out of the water, these dramatic islands are home to caves, beaches and ancient temples. This geological feature is world-class and Ha Long Bay is a fitting nominee to represent it on the checklist.

Hong Kong, China

With the only skyline that can rival New York, and the cultural bones of its Chinese and British history, Hong Kong is a top contender among world cities, and a worthy destination to appear on the checklist. Despite the overwhelming modernity in its current iteration, there’s still a sense of original flavor despite the homogeny overtaking Asia that makes Hong Kong a must-see city.

Marina Bay, Singapore

While on the topic of must-see cities, the tiny island nation of Singapore has found a pleasant blend of urban necessities and natural spaces that makes it a top rated destination in Southeast Asia. This is particularly evident in Marina Bay and its signature showpiece, Gardens by the Bay; home of the Supertrees, lovely outdoor gardens, and artistic pavilions, all in the shadow of the impressive Marina Bay Sands hotel. I’ve yet to see a nighttime setting quite like this one, and felt impelled to include Singapore on the list

Mount Everest, Nepal

Of the 72 destinations on the Travel Goals Master Checklist, Mount Everest will likely be the last one I could mark off, assuming that I could even get to them all. Even the trek to base camp is far beyond my level of physical fitness. But considering its fame as the highest peak in the world and its role as a perennial bucket list favorite, there’s no way I couldn’t add it to the checklist, even if that’s one circle I’m unlikely to ever cross off.

Mount Fuji, Japan

Few natural landmarks are as inherently entwined with a national image more than Mount Fuji, Japan. This almost perfectly conical mountain on the outskirts of the megalopolis of Tokyo is a peaceful counterpoint to the modern megacities that surround it. I know I was quite impressed when seeing it for the first time from the window of a bus, and given its easily-recognized iconic value, it was a no-brainer for inclusion on the checklist.

Palawan, Philippines

Though my own travels in the Philippines did not take me to Palawan, travelers in the know recognize the island – and its main draw, El Nido – as a tropical playground that can easily be confused with paradise. The islands of the Philippines are simply stunning, and I chose perhaps the most famous of them all for the list in honor of this recognition.

Petra, Jordan

Even if you couldn’t care less about history, Petra, with its cities carved out of rock, is world famous thanks to its cinematic exposure. While you’re not likely to find the holy grail inside (see the previous sentence for context), this World Heritage Site has both the historic, architectural and recognition value to represent the wonders of the Middle East on the Travel Goals Master Checklist.

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket and the surrounding Phi Phi and Similan Islands are a convincing stand-in for paradise. With gorgeous beaches, tropical foliage and amazing dive sites, if peninsular Thailand’s most popular destination is not on your bucket list, it’s time to revisit your list.

Seoul, South Korea

It’s impossible to discuss the topic of major cities in Asia without mentioning Seoul. It has emerged as an economic and cultural powerhouse that punches well above its weight. I haven’t yet visited myself, but recognize that it is a player on the world scene, and deserves its spot on the master checklist.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Home to the sprawling Angkor Wat complex, Siem Reap is like something right out of an adventure movie. The remnant pagodas and temples smothered in rain forest draw visitors the world over, making this an indisputable candidate for the list.

Taj Mahal, India

In over 25 years of travel, I’ve yet to see a building that could match the splendor (yes, you read that right, splendor) that could equal the Taj Mahal. This is one of those places you can see a million times in pictures or on TV, but when you see it in person it makes a far deeper impression. Only the Pyramids and Eiffel Tower could be considered on par with the Taj Mahal in terms of recognizability, and as such, its place on the checklist was instantly assured.

Yangtze River, China

Had I not seen the Yangtze in person, I may have overlooked it as a candidate for this list. But after seeing not only the majestic scenery but also the major role the river plays in the lives of those who live alongside it, I was convinced that this impressive river and the region that surrounds it belongs on the checklist. See it for yourself and you’ll likely agree.

The Travel Goals Master Checklist

With Part V of the series I’ve now covered 65 out of the 72 destinations on the master checklist. How many can you check off? Even if that number is zero, the beauty of the checklist is that it inspires a person to new adventures and specific travel goals. If you’ve enjoyed the artwork and want a Travel Goals Master Checklist to display in your home or office, please visit my Etsy store to order a copy for yourself or the traveler in your life.

Coming soon, Part VI . . . Australia and Oceania

Have you been to any of these destinations? Or do you have a favorite in Asia that you feel should have made the list? Share it with your fellow travel lovers by leaving a comment!

I Never Knew I Suffered from Skyline Envy Until I Went to Hong Kong

When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?
When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

Having grown up just fifty miles outside of Manhattan, I took a certain pride in knowing that when it comes to skylines, my city had everyone beat. Then, in 2003, on the return leg of a trip to Thailand and Singapore, I had a three day layover in Hong Kong, where I was forced to re-think my earlier assumptions. I also had to concede – begrudgingly – that Manhattan may have met its match.

For any major modern city, its skyline is a source of pride and a veritable status symbol on the world stage. Long an economic hub, it’s no surprise that Hong Kong would be a contender. What surprised me was that when it comes to height and sheer impressiveness, the skyline lining the southern shore of Victoria Harbor might just be the world champion.

But first things first. Getting to Hong Kong is no sweat (if you don’t count the 15-19 hour flight time from the US east coast). Serviced by most major airlines as well as its dominant carrier, Cathay Pacific, there are plenty of flights that will get you there from all points on the globe. Getting into town is also a breeze, with arguably the most efficient dedicated rail service from the airport (on Lantau Island) to the center of town (appropriately called Central) that I’ve ever seen.

Historically a British outpost before its return to Chinese control in 1997, Hong Kong is considered a Special Administration Region within the People’s Republic of China, which grants them certain levels of autonomy and freedoms under the One Country, Two Systems policy. What that means is that for fifty years after the handover, the citizens and businesses operating in Hong Kong would remain under a capitalist system instead of the socialist state of modern day China. For this reason many consider Hong Kong to be its own ‘country’ and for all intents and purposes it would seem that in many ways it has been business as usual.

With exorbitant real estate values, the trend in local architecture has been to build up instead of out. The result is a forest of narrow, gleaming towers standing like a grove of pines nestled along the northern slope of rugged Hong Kong Island. The hilly backdrop gives the skyline a sense of scale, and I can only imagine what Manhattan would look like if smushed against a mountain. Regardless, the effect is impressive, and it is here in Central that you’ll find the territory’s biggest players.

Take the tram to Victoria Peak
Take the tram to Victoria Peak

Rising above the dense vertical development is Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island and a choice location for unparalleled views of the skyline and bustling Kowloon just across the harbor. Getting there is half the fun if you take the Peak Tram – a funicular that runs from Central up to a mall and viewing platform perched at the top. Considering the views and novelty of a city with a working funicular, this should be a must-see on any visitor’s itinerary.

While the skyline gets most of the attention, visiting the lesser-known towns on the south side of the island – many still with soaring towers – is a worthy day trip. Here you’ll find a few beaches along with the Stanley Market, a fun place to sharpen your haggling skills and procure items of all sorts.

Just as one can easily ‘not see the forest for the trees’, to truly appreciate Hong Kong’s towering skyline, you’ll need to view it from an outside perspective. The best place to do this is in Kowloon, located at the tip of a peninsula that makes up the northern shore of Victoria Harbor, and would be akin to looking at Manhattan from Brooklyn or Queens. With some interesting museums, a historic clock tower and a lovely promenade, this is the place to take your pictures of the city rising from the waterline to cover the imposing mountain backdrop. It is also here where you can best witness the world famous light show called A Symphony of Lights, where the cast of skyscrapers pulsate swirling beams of light and lasers synchronized to music at 8PM daily.

Kowloon itself makes for an interesting destination, especially for those who enjoy shopping along busy Nathan Road. At dusk the city comes alive with vendors and stalls popping up to cater to the crowds at the Temple Street Night Market, where you’ll find snacks and souvenirs aplenty. This is a far less-corporate section of the territory and therefore much more authentic. But if you don’t mind a little corporate influence, Hong Kong is now one of only three sites outside of the US that can boast a Disneyland.

Star Ferry, Hong Kong
Star Ferry, Hong Kong

Besides the convenience of getting to and from the airport, getting around the city is easy as well. The MTR – a.k.a. subway system – is cheap and easy to navigate, linking various parts of the island as well as Kowloon. But if you’re going to be in town, you should take the Star Ferry – a ferry service that has been in use since 1888 – at least once. Not only is it an inexpensive and legitimate option for getting across the harbor, but it also offers a great vantage point to gawk at the skyline that could rightly be considered numero uno, or whatever that translates to in Cantonese.

It’s hard for me to admit my skyline envy, but maybe it’s a good thing. Skylines aside, comparing Hong Kong and New York is like comparing apples to oranges (or mandarins to big apples?). Each has its own strengths and reasons to visit. Besides, whether or not New York still boasts the most amazing skyline in the world, I know it boasts the most impressive one in my hemisphere, and that’s good enough for me.


If You’re Going to India, Turn Right at Finland (And Other Stopover Ideas)

Many experienced travelers are familiar with the art of the stopover—that bonus destination on the way to your intended destination. For the novice, this is when your flight passes through another city on the way to your final destination, and you’ve arranged to stop over, and spend some time there before moving on. For many, any unnecessary stops are a nuisance, but if you play your cards right, you can use such stopovers to maximize your trip’s experience.


I’ll get into my “maximizing” concept in another post, but for now I’ll just say that those pesky stops on your way there or back can offer the chance to sample a destination you may not have initially targeted. And if you’re already in the neighborhood, why not take the time to stop over and smell the roses?


A Day in Helsinki Was A Free Bonus On My Trip To India
A Day in Helsinki Was A Free Bonus On My Trip To India

As a case in point, on my way to New Dehli, our flight (on Finnair) stopped in Helsinki, arriving at 8 in the morning and not continuing on until 8 that evening. What to do with that long layover? Why, head out into the city and explore, of course! Our group had coffee downtown, toured the sprawling World Heritage Site at the Suomenlinna Fortress, and navigated the subway system before returning for our onward flight. Did we see everything? No. Did we see enough? I think so. And in this case, the gray, Scandinavian orderliness served as a tremendous contrast for the colorful chaos of India. The best part? There was no extra charge for seeing firsthand another world capital and gaining some insight on another culture—albeit it one with far too many vowels.


Sometimes airlines will charge a fee for a stopover, but usually this isn’t much (less than a hundred dollars). Almost always it’s worth the price. Traveling on Iberia Airlines, my wife and I enjoyed a few days in Madrid on our return from Rome—for only about $45 apiece. Definitely worth it to see some original paintings by Dali and Picasso in the capital of a former empire. Not to be forgotten too is arranging stopovers on award travel. So long as the space is there, often airlines will be willing to oblige at least one stopover on your itinerary. And again, if you’re not paying for it, why not?


When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?
When in the neighborhood, why not stop in Hong Kong?

A key factor in effective stopovers is your choice of airline. Most national carriers have their hubs in key cities. So if you’re heading out to Bangkok and always wanted to see Hong Kong, try Cathay Pacific. If you wanted to see Singapore, use Singapore Airlines. I think you get the point. Your routing makes all the difference as to which stopover options are available.


So instead of selecting the nonstop only button when choosing your flights, why not expand your horizons and see where that stopover might take you? The bonus experience will be the icing on your trip’s cake, and allow you the chance to explore yet another small piece of the big wide world.


Have you ever deliberately arranged a trip to take advantage of a stopover? Leave a comment for us all to discuss.