Travelling is all about taking time out of the craziness of modern life to experience new cultures, meet new people and to reflect. Here is a selection of my favourite places for peace, tranquility and some much-needed soul refreshment. So grab a good book and let’s go.
1. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Many people visit Bali searching for surf, sand and all-night partying on Kuta beach but less than an hour’s drive away lies the peaceful village of Ubud—one of Indonesia’s true charms. Ubud is regarded as the cultural centre of Bali and has recently found fame as the location in which Julia Roberts found love playing Elizabeth Gilbert in the movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. This has led to a massive increase in tourism, particularly female travellers searching for enlightenment or answers to love. I don’t know how successful they will be in their mission but Ubud is certainly a place that you can fall in love with. During your time in Ubud you can find inspiration amongst scenic rice-fields, visit ancient temples, feed the monkeys in Monkey Forest, haggle for local crafts – I bought two beautifully decorated wooden geckoes – or just absorb the atmosphere drinking Balinese coffee in laid-back bars.
Well worth a visit is a Balinese Kecak dance in which a group of men perform a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. The Kecak is named after the sound of the men who sit in a circle chanting and stamping their feet whilst beautifully decorated dancers perform in the ruins of ancient temples against an atmospheric backdrop of a setting sun. The dance culminates in a large fire being built in the middle of the ring of performers and spectators, this is then repeatedly kicked down and rebuilt by the performers. If you are sitting close to the fire, don’t be too surprised to find the burning remains kicked in your direction as the action intensifies.
If you fancy a cocktail with a view then take a ride out to the Four Seasons at Sayan, Bali at sunset where you can sit in the bar overlooking the dramatic jungle gorge.
By the way, am I the only person who finds ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ really irritating? I heartily recommend Ubud as a place to sit and read great literature so put that clichéd copy of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ down and read something more stimulating.
2. Hoi An, Vietnam
Vietnam seems to suffer from ‘Marmite Syndrome’ among the backpacker community—that is you either love it or hate it. Those who travel to Vietnam expecting an extension of the Thailand trail are often sorely disappointed, Vietnam does not wish to encourage the sex and drugs trade, and nor does it turn such a blind eye to it. Of course it exists but it is not as easy, open or accepted as Thailand (Gary Glitter was famously imprisoned in Phan Thiet after dabbling in the child sex trade). Clubs in Vietnam rarely have dance floors, police often close down bars just as things get going, and I have seen groups of guys who turn up with Vietnamese women in tow turned away at the door of popular night-spots. Many travellers I have met judge the quality of their destinations solely on the availability of cheap booze, excessive partying and plenty of marijuana. This is why I believe that many claim they don’t like Vietnam.
This is why I find Hoi An so refreshing, you don’t go there for a party. A visit to Hoi An offers stunning beaches, great food, fascinating culture, and the chance to relax in beautiful surroundings. Many guesthouses hire out bikes so that you can cycle out through the rice fields down to the beach for only a few dollars a day. The antiquated buildings of the old town guarantee some great photo opportunities. And of course there is always time for a spa treatment or two.
This is not to say that you can’t find a party in Hoi An—head down to ‘Before and Now’ bar and you can make arrangements to a late-night beach party away from the prying eyes of the police. The place we went to had the poshest buckets in the whole of SE Asia. Don’t expect a Thai-style party and you’ll have a good time.
3. Khajuraho, India
If you have travelled around India you will know that it is gritty, dirty and dusty. The humidity can be so intense that you can almost see the moisture hanging in the air around you. Simply moving can take more effort than a hard-core session at the gym. So after a few weeks in the cities we took a long train to Jhansi and then a taxi (we missed the only bus of the day) to Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
Khajuraho boasts the largest group of ancient Hindu and Jain temples in India, many of which are famous for their engravings depicting images from the Kama Sutra. Not all of the temples show such erotic scenes and they are all truly beautiful. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We spent many hours on a terrace overlooking the temples playing Canasta with the locals while the few days that we intended to spend in Khajuraho turned to weeks: one of my favourite memories of India.
4. Kyoto, Japan
Japan is the country of flashy technology and urban modernism and after a few months in Tokyo I was in need of a respite from the buzzing, bleeping, neon landscape that continually assaults the senses and so I took the Shinkansen down to Kyoto for a quick getaway.
Kyoto is 3 hours, but a whole world, away from Tokyo. It is still a large and busy Japanese city with an uber-modern train station, but walk along its riverbanks and you are transported into a past era of Japanese history. Wooden structures line the sides of the river, as simply built as they have been for many, many years. One of the main tourist areas is Gion, where hundreds of tourists gather around the tea-houses in the late afternoon/early evening, cameras poised, to get a much longed-for snap of a Geisha.
Another feature of Kyoto is the variety of temples and immaculately manicured Zen gardens. Don’t miss Kinkakuji, Kyoto’s famous golden pavilion which reflects beautifully in the lotus pond.
5. Suzhou, China
China is a country of contrasts with a fascinating history. Shanghai is hip, trendy and buzzing. I found Beijing hostile and somewhat aggressive. Xi’an is more laid-back, but the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province, close to Shanghai, is a peaceful haven amid the chaos of China. The city is famous for its gardens and canals, the latter inspiring Suzhou to be often named ‘The Venice of the East’.
Some of Suzhou’s gardens, such as Zhuozheng Yuan (Humble Administrator’s Garden) are listed among China’s most classical gardens and a walk around the lush greenery and scenic temples truly refreshes the soul.
Suzhou is still a bustling and modern Chinese city where you can enjoy the peace and tranquility of old China and then appreciate the urban pulse of modern China.
This is just a selection of Asia’s many beautiful and relaxing places. Please use the comment section below to tell me of your favourite chill-out zones!