Top 5 Destinations in Asia for Senior Travellers
Having lived in Asia for more than 20 years, I’m often asked by friends who have recently retired back in the UK or Australia what are the best places to visit in Asia. These are usually friends who have never been here – or have only spent limited time here - but now that they have more time to spare, they are keen to see more of this fascinating part of the world.
Asia is often one of the first parts of the world that they think about visiting after retirement because they may already have had some exposure to Asian cities on short stopovers whilst travelling between Europe and Australia, or vice-versa. Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok have for many years been well known transit cities on the 'kangaroo route'.
Trying to recommend the best destinations to visit for first-time travellers to Asia is not an easy task because there are more differences in culture, languages, foods and the types of experiences available to travellers in Asia than there is in any other part of the world.
And of course any such recommendations are subjective because what may appeal to one traveller may not appeal to others. Knowing whether these friends are happiest sitting on a beach drinking margaritas or touring art galleries or hiking mountain trails is the key to making sensible recommendations.
But being first-time travellers to the region, it’s advisable to start with destinations that provide a ‘soft landing’, and not ones like India that can be quite overwhelming for less experienced travellers.
Budget travellers won’t be able to spend a lot of time in Singapore because it’s the most expensive city in the world, but it has to be the number one choice for senior travellers to visit in Asia because there is so much to do here for visitors of all ages.
Our destination guide on Singapore lists some of the major attractions that can be visited in this clean and well managed city, but most of all it’s the fact that Singapore has achieved such a successful mix of western and eastern cultures, that makes it the best introduction to Asia for first-time visitors.
It’s also one of the safest cities in Asia too, so visitors don’t have to worry about the security issues that are often top of mind in the more developing countries of the region.
Some visitors from temperate climates do have difficulty adjusting to the year-round equatorial heat and humidity of Singapore, from which there is rarely any respite, but it’s possible to travel around Singapore in air-conditioned taxis or on the air-conditioned MTR, transiting between shopping malls through air-conditioned underground walkways, and timing outdoor activities for the late afternoon or evening when temperature and humidity levels are generally lower.
Even the two big conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay – the largest in the world – are fully air-conditioned, and living up to its reputation as a garden city, many of its outdoor attractions are landscaped with decades-old shade trees that cool the immediate environment.
Most senior travellers rate the Gardens by the Bay complex as a highlight of their visit. The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories can be visited during the day and the Supertree Grove at night, both a short walk from world class shopping, dining and entertainment facilities.
2. Hong Kong
The other city that will probably be most familiar to travellers who have previously transited through Asia is Hong Kong. This vibrant city, which was handed over to China in 1997, has a much faster pace of life than Singapore but is still well organised and not too intimidating for the first-time visitor.
Hong Kong was for many years considered the best shopping destination in Asia, but these days it has a lot of competition from cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Taipei. However, its street markets are still as busy as ever. The colourful flower market in Prince Edward, and the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden are well worth a visit.
Aside from shopping, there’s a lot to do for senior travellers in Hong Kong. For first time visitors, the hop-on hop-off open top bus tours are a great way to see the city sights in good weather. The distinctive red buses operate under the name ‘Big Bus Tours’ and run on three routes during the day and one at night.
The nightly ‘Symphony of Lights’, which can be viewed from the Kowloon side of the harbour, is another attraction, and of course no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without visiting Victoria Peak on the Peak Tram for an iconic view of the city, day or night.
Hong Kong is also a great base from which to do day trips to Macau or to one of the quieter offshore islands. Lamma Island has a good variety of eating places offering fresh seafood and other Asian and western cuisines, as well as many interesting craft shops, quiet beaches and hiking trails. There are also some excellent hiking trails on Lantau Island (where the airport is located).
3. Kyoto via Tokyo
Many airlines fly directly to Osaka, which is only an hour by bus or train from Kyoto, but for a much better Japanese experience, it’s best to spend a few days exploring Tokyo and then head down to Kyoto on a bullet train which takes only three and a half hours.
Tokyo is not as expensive as it used to be and has a myriad of things to do that will appeal to senior travellers. That’s largely because Japan’s population is aging more rapidly than most other countries, so the provision of services to older persons is more advanced in Japan than most other places.
But it is the old capital of Kyoto that will appeal most to first-time visitors because there is no other city in Japan that offers so much in terms of learning about the history and culture of the country, and at the same time providing all of the modern facilities to make a stay in the city a comfortable and relaxing one.
The city’s Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, imperial palaces, museums, art galleries, parks and gardens attract more than a million visitors every week, and for many years Kyoto has been rated by travel magazines as one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
However, if crowds of tourists put you off visiting Kyoto, and you have a little more time to spare, then organising an itinerary to visit Takayama and Kanazawa, two smaller Japanese cities between Tokyo and Kyoto, is a good alternative. These cities have a lot of Kyoto-type attractions but on a smaller scale and with fewer crowds.
China’s capital is a congested and polluted city despite its modern freeways and infrastructure, but for the first-time visitor to Asia the opportunity to see the remarkably well-preserved Forbidden City and the most famous of all China sights, the Great Wall, makes Beijing a top destination for travellers to Asia.
The Forbidden City is the largest and most well-preserved palatial complex in the world. Located on the northern side of Tian’anman Square, and within walking distance of Wangfujing Pedestrian Street, it comprises nearly 1,000 buildings and priceless collections of Chinese antiques, art and artifacts. An excellent guide on how to get the most out of a visit to the Forbidden City can be read here.
The Great Wall can be visited on a day tour from Beijing, or independently using public transport, or a hired car with driver, depending on your budget. Most tour operators take visitors to either the Badaling section about 50 km outside Beijing, or the Mutianyu section which is about 20 km away.
Avoid tours to the Badaling section because most of this is rebuilt and feels like a Disneyland version of the Great Wall. It is always crowded and you’ll be constantly pestered by souvenir sellers. A better option is the tour to the Mutianyu section which is less crowded.
Or even better, if time and budget permits, is to hire a car and driver to go to the Simatai section, about 120 km away, or the Jinshanling section, about 140 km away. These sections contain much more of the original wall and far fewer visitors. A whole day will be required for this trip because there will invariably be traffic jams getting out and back into Beijing.
There is a very memorable 10 km hike that can be done along the top of the wall between the Jinshanling and Simatai sections that offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside (see this photo gallery on PBase) and almost no other people in sight for much of the hike. However there are a lot of steps to negotiate up and down hills, so this would be suitable only for the fittest seniors.
The top four recommendations for places to visit for first-time visitors to Asia are big cities. These are all cities where senior travellers will have no difficulty getting around because they are geared up to catering to western travellers and visitors of all ages from other Asian countries. However, to provide some exposure to rural Asia, and experience life away from the big cities, there is nowhere better to go than Indochina.
Indochina is a term that back in the 19th century (then known as Indo-China) referred to the whole of the continental portion of Southeast Asia, but these days commonly refers to the former French colonies of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Cambodia is the home of another of Asia’s most well known temple complexes – Angkor Wat. For history buffs, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a logical fifth choice because it’s Asia’s equivalent of Machu Picchu in South America, and for some it might be the primary reason for a trip to Asia.
For those who may not be into touring ancient monuments, or those who just want an opportunity to see a rural part of Asia where they can relax and enjoy good food and spa experiences, Luang Prabang in northern Laos is an ideal fifth choice. Luang Prabang used to be hard to reach, but nowadays there are regular flights from Bangkok and Kunming, so can easily be incorporated into an itinerary after Beijing.
But for those with more time to spare, and a desire to visit mountains and beaches, as well as experiencing a different culture, a trip through Vietnam from Hanoi in the north to the Mekong Delta in the south fits the bill. See our travel guide to Vietnam for recommendations on places to visit there.
Vietnam though can’t be seen in 2-3 days like many of the previous destinations can. It requires a minimum of 7-10 days but is better experienced if the travellers can stay 2-3 weeks and make the journey from north to south at a leisurely pace.
Header image: Sasin Tipchai