Bangkok: Just like the rank-smelling but delicious-tasting fruit itself, the ‘Big Durian’ is an assault on the senses that can repulse and delight in equal measure – and often at the same time. Bangkok is sometimes overlooked as nothing more than a gateway to South-East Asia, but there’s more to this increasingly sophisticated city than sex shows and fake Rolexes – innovative dining, healing treats for mind, body and spirit and thriving creativity (check out the home-grown designs at Chatuchak Weekend Market) to name but a few.
Delhi: Encompassing the remains of several ancient centres, the sprawl of modern Delhi continues ever outwards. Centred around the grand hub of Connaught Circus, New Delhi is the British-built capital designed by architect Edwin Lutyens to be the ‘pearl of Hindoostan’ – head north to the narrow, bustling alleys of Old Delhi, aka Shah-jahanabad, to visit the city’s must-see Red Fort (Lal Qila), or leave time for a day-trip to the fascinating sites at the Qutb Minar complex and old fortress city of Tughluqabad.
Singapore: This is a city that runs a tight ship. It’s not worth finding out if a discarded wad of chewing gum will actually land you in the clink, but look at the positives instead: gleaming efficiency and the kind of order that’s not too common around this part of the world. Lest you forget where you are, the weather is always on hand with the humidity of multiple monsoon seasons -fortunately the vast, glittering department stores on Orchard Road provide a wonderfully air-conditioned escape.
Saigon: Plans to turn backpacker haunt Pham Ngu Lao into an ‘official’ tourist attraction may induce fearful premonitions of another Khao San Road, but they’re also testament to just how quickly Vietnam has become a traveller’s favourite: this bustling ‘backpacker alley’ was a quiet residential street 10 years ago. Flag down a ‘Honda ™m’ (motorbike taxi) and join the legions of death-defying boy and girl racers to zip around the city. Don’t miss the War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market and the pagodas at Cholon.
Highlights: Exploring Cambodian temples; seeing Vietnam’s Halong Bay; beach-bumming in Bali; climbing Borneo’s Mt Kinabalu, South-East Asia’s highest peak; teahouse trekking in Nepal’s Himalayas.
Central and North Asia
Tokyo: From the early morning clamour of Tsukiji fish market to the neon shopping mania of Ginza, the incense clouds and gong-clanging of Asakusa Temple to the unashamed excess of Roppongi Hills, Tokyo is a 24-hour head rush. Passengers travelling via Narita, Kansai and Central Japan International airports can make the most of their stopover with a choice of short tours starting from 2000 yen (about £10). Throughout May there are hundreds of cherry blossom festivals in different regions of Japan. Enjoy the beautiful Japanese ‘Sakura’ flowers. See www.japantravelinfo.com for details.
Hong Kong: Glowing neon, gleaming skyscrapers, money, money, money. For the bigger picture, head up the hillside or down to the waterfront and you’ll see how faded colonial elegance and a harbour setting add balance to the urban jungle. This is a city that plays as hard as it works and has the nightlife to prove it (partying has never been anything other than round-the-clock).
Beijing: As it gears up for the 2008 Olympics, China’s capital is moving into the 21st century at breakneck speed. A cyclo-tour of the narrow, ancient backstreets (hutongs) will take you back a few centuries in the opposite direction. After the essential tour of the Forbidden Palace (or haggling like hell in Silk Alley or Pearl Market), rest up in Tiantan Park to get your strength up for a night bar-hopping in Sanlitun, or eyeing up the culinary, er, delicacies on offer at the Donghuamen Yeshi night market.
Moscow: The Russians aren’t coming – they’ve arrived, and nowhere personifies the country’s powerful new cool than Moscow. You’re on Red Square, you’ve snapped St Basil’s Cathedral – if a designer spending spree at the GUM mall is out of budget, splurge on history and culture instead. Queue for a peek at an embalmed Lenin, marvel at the Kremlin’s treasures, peruse old Communist paraphernalia on Arkanskaya, or nab a bargain night at the ballet. Latch onto a savvy local to unlock the secrets of the city’s nightlife – but don’t expect it to come cheap.
Highlights: Russia’s Golden Ring cities; travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway; yaks and yurts in Mongolia; the Great Wall of China; traditional Japan.
TIP: Get your visas sorted well in advance before you go.
Rio de Janeiro: People-watching at ground level on the world-famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana or gazing down from Sugarloaf Mountain with the sun setting behind Christ the Redeemer – Rio de Janeiro is a gorgeous city, whichever way you look at it. Get an understanding of the carioca mindset with a tour of the favelas (hillside ghettos), or get lost in the madness
of a football match at Maraca–a stadium.
Buenos Aires: The economy continues to suffer but the Americas’ most elegant city still holds its dignified head high – for the traveller though, it’s more accessible than ever. Splurge
on the finest red wine and steak, check out the tango performances, or brave an afternoon milonga and try out some fancy footwork yourself.
Lima: Don’t expect llamas and panpipes just yet – this is a modern capital with all the trappings, both good (lots of cosmopolitan dining, drinking and nightlife) and bad (pollution, crime, fast-food joints). To make the most of the former, do as the lime–os do and head for the beaches, particularly Barranco and Miraflores.
Santiago: Orderly and efficient, the sober, neoclassical lines of Chile’s capital are a stark, westernised contrast to the rural pasture and desert that surrounds it – look up to the Andean peaks in the distance though and youÕre reminded how close to the main artery of South America you are. Plus, the nightlife jumps in true Latin style, but not until past midnight, when the locals really get moving.
Highlights: Climbing up to the lost city of Machu Picchu, Peru; Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia; cruising the Amazon River; seeing the mighty Iguassu Falls, on the border of Brazil and Argentina; visiting Tierra del Fuego, the southern-most point of South America and the jumping-off point for trips to Antarctica.
Los Angeles: Drop-dead gorgeous and shallow as a birdbath, the City of Angels is a magnet for stars and the terminally starry-eyed – everyone, it seems, is somewhere on their way to making the big time. If you don’t have your own wheels, base yourself in a neighbourhood and go exploring – cultural Downtown, super-hip West Hollywood, celebrity-studded Beverly Hills, or the out-and-out freak show of Venice’s Ocean Front Walk.
Chicago: At the heart of the Midwest is where you’ll find the ‘real America’ – Chicago is a gutsy, tell-it-like-it-is city with excellent and varied nightlife, all-American sports viewing opportunities, fine museums and galleries and, as the spiritual home of the deep-pan pizza and the ‘Chicago red-hot’ hot dog, a mean line in junk food. Make like Ferris Bueller and take the day off (to get fat).
New York: Eating at Katz’s Deli, walking through Central Park, strolling down Fifth Avenue – the Big Apple is so much the stuff of celluloid legend that it’s hard not to feel like there are cameras rolling. But film sets aside, this city of cities has so much to offer – world-class art, music, theatre, clubs, cocktail bars, museums, parks, shopping – that there’s only one question. Where do you start?
Miami: If you’re en route to the Caribbean or Latin America, chances are you’ll be heading via the Sunshine State. If you can tear your eyes away from the acres of flaunted flesh, check out the beautiful pastel buildings of Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District – or enjoy them from within, cooling cocktail in hand. Imbibe some Cuban flavour and practice your Spanish with a visit to Little Havana.
Highlights: Musical pilgrimage – blues, jazz, cajun, country, rock ‘n’ roll, it all started here; getting behind the wheel for a classic road trip; heading north of the border to experience Canada’s pristine natural splendour.