Experience Asia's traditions, crafts and way of life close-up. Katie McGonagle reports
Why stick to the sidelines, when you can get stuck in? Nothing makes a holiday more memorable than experiencing local culture first-hand, and Asia is bursting with exciting opportunities to get involved.
From bagging ringside seats to see sumo wrestlers in Japan, to training elephants or simply sitting down to dinner in a family home, there are myriad ways to get under the skin of this region – and make a break richer and more rewarding in the process.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Whether it’s finding out which ingredients are grown in the area or chatting with locals over a meal, food is an easy entry point to a country’s culture.
That concept is central to Trafalgar’s Be My Guest experiences, encouraging visitors to eat in local homes, farms and family-run restaurants such as the Vietnamese herb farm featured in its new 15-day Highlights of Vietnam and Cambodia (from £2,950 including flights). There’s also an optional cooking class in Hoi An for a £40 supplement.
Similarly, On The Go Tours’ Very Vietnam itinerary includes a cycle ride from Hoi An to plant herbs on a farm and sample home-cooking.
All that farm produce is sold in Vietnam’s street markets, where guests on Hayes & Jarvis’s Vietnam Culinary Experience go to shop for ingredients before cooking them at classes in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Those on tailor-made itineraries can go straight to the source too: the operator offers excursions such as a sunrise fishing trip in Hoi An on a bamboo basket boat, from £48.
In China, traditional tea in Beijing, noodle-making at a farmhouse overlooking the Great Wall, and dumpling-making in Yangshou all form part of Cox & Kings’ China Experience, a nine night escorted tour costing from £2,495 with flights. For clients who prefer Japanese flavours, the Japan Explorer tour takes guests to Nishiki food market in Kyoto before giving them a masterclass in sushi-making.
Collette Worldwide also offers lunch at home with a Chinese family – with a translator – on several China trips, while its new RHS Garden Holidays Japan tour includes meeting a tea master and taking part in a traditional tea ceremony.
The quickest way to learn about an area is through the people who live there, so take advantage of the trend towards homestays and community interaction.
Wendy Wu Tours’ Mekong Exploration visits a local school, monastery and orphanage in Kampong Cham, Cambodia, (from £1,490 excluding flights), with an optional homestay extension for £220. In China’s Shangdong Province, On The Go Tours supports the Bu Yang village school through its Change 4 Children project, and stops by to see its funds in action on the Mandarin Sunrise tour.
Home-grown community project the Koto Foundation, which provides training for some of Hanoi’s poorest young people, is a highlight of Travel Indochina’s new travel writing tour of Vietnam. The itinerary includes a Q&A session with the founder on each of its four departures in March, along with writing tuition from an award-winning travel journalist.
In Thailand, Buddhism plays a key role in society, and never more than in the ancient tradition of almsgiving, a silent ritual where locals donate food to monks. Visitors can take part too: Centara Karon Resort in Phuket and the Dusit Thani Pattaya are among hotels which help guests join in.
Some sporting activities are a must-see – think rugby in New Zealand, baseball in the States or ice hockey in Canada – and Asia is no different.
In Japan, sumo stretches back 2,000 years and was strongly influenced by the Shinto religion – hence the foot-stomping and hand clapping to drive out evil spirits. Kuoni offers a half-day excursion from Tokyo to the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku during its thrice-yearly sumo tournaments, from £88.
Regent Holidays has timed its new Highlights of Mongolia tour to coincide with annual sporting festival Naadam, devoted to the national pastimes of wrestling, horse racing and archery. The tour, departing in June 2014, costs £2,995 for 15 nights, without flights, and includes accommodation in traditional ger camps.
G Adventures’ Local Living Mongolia: Nomadic Life also stays in ger camps, and includes a game of archery against local players.
Watching craftsmen make their wares using traditional techniques or enjoying age-old forms of entertainment offer a glimpse into days gone by.
That’s why Gold Medal – which has released a selling guide to help agents promote its newest destination, Burma – includes a lacquerware workshop in Bagan, visits to see handmade woodcarving, kalaga tapestries and gold leaf in Mandalay, plus demonstrations of weaving and cigar-rolling near Inle Lake, on its eight-day Essential Myanmar tour.
Puppetry is also important to many Asian cultures, and Vietnam’s version originated in the paddy fields of the Red River Delta, where water puppets provided amusement when fields were flooded. Hanoi is now home to one of the most famous shows, where Travelsphere has secured exclusive backstage access for its Wonders of Vietnam tour.
In Cambodia, a shadow puppet workshop is one of several culture-focused excursions on A Journey Through Khmer Culture, a package organised by Raffles hotels Le Royal in Phnom Penh and Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
These majestic creatures are iconic across Asia, and the mahouts who look after them enjoy special social status. Find out why on a full-day Swimming with Elephants excursion, one of several commissionable trips offered by The Sarojin resort in Khao Lak, Thailand, where participants head to the hills to learn how to care for the animals, then trek across jungle trails (£110).
Thailand isn’t the only place to see these exotic animals. Laos is known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, so it’s fitting that Travel 2 offers an elephant trek and village visit as an extension to its eight-day Laos Experience tour (from £2,045 including flights), plus £565 for the extension.
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