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best time to visit kerala

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best time to visit kerala

India’s water-drenched southwestern state of Kerala is a feast of natural beauty and culture.
  Fog and clouds intersperse with jungle, the sun melting over the distant horizon, to a tune of insects and swishing water. When speaking of their home state, Keralans’ eyes often light up and one word springs to mind: beautiful. Stretching 580 kilometres (360 miles) along India’s southwestern coast towards the Arabian Sea, its highlands slope down from the Western Ghats into the valleys and hills of the midlands all connected by a network of 44 rivers and their offshoot canals and backwaters.
  Kerala’s demographic diversity is on full show at Kochi, a historic trading port, welcoming Arab and Chinese merchant alike later joined by the British, Dutch and Portuguese. Modern Kochi is a fascinating mishmash of colonial churches, synagogues and mosques, the oldest European fort in India, Chinese fishing nets drooping over the coast, and palaces showcasing Indian prestige and wealth.
  Further south, the coastal hamlet of Varkala prides itself on its beach where a natural spring, (believed to have healing qualities) offers relief to weary wanderers. The area is a hub of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, with retreats and resorts offering the uninitiated holistic physical, mental and spiritual relief. Sat atop the cliffs is the 13th-century Janardana Swamy Temple, joined by the nearby Sivagiri Mutt an annual pilgrimage site for followers of the social and religious reformer Sree Narayana Guru.
  The Keralan backwaters run parallel to the coastline, bleeding a laid-back lifeline into the state. One renowned beneficiary, Alappuzha, is often called the ‘Venice of the East’ and serves as a port for backwater adventures, boat races and local maritime and coconut industries. While the city centre is hectic, its outlying waters offer a serene meditation on the state's natural splendour. Here, visitors embark on cruises, aboard modernised kettuvallam houseboats, with thatched roofs and wooden hulls - traditionally used to carry rice and spices.
  Just down the backwater is Kumarakom, a village spread over numerous small islands within Vembanad Lake's mangroves and paddy fields, watched over by tall coconut trees. Home to a 5.7-hectare (14-acre) bird sanctuary. from Siberian storks to herons and cuckoos to waterfowls, its colourful array of avian ambassadors have birdwatchers clutching at their binoculars.
  Deep in the state’s wild forests, animals are the main attraction. Thekkady’s Periyar Tiger Reserve covers 777 square kilometres (300 square miles), and is a tribute to nature at its wildest, with rich forests boasting almost 2,000 flowering plants. Though famous for its tiger population, the park is also home to more than 60 species of mammal, 265 types of bird and numerous reptiles and fish. Rivers and streams weave throughout, feeding its man-made lake. Boat trips take you amidst the overgrowth, past elephants, bison, leopards, snakes and frogs.
  The area also hosts a variety of cardamom pepper and coffee plantations. At Connemara Tea Factory, visitors can learn more about tea production and taste some of the region's finest brews. Meanwhile, the organic Highrange Spice Garden also doubles as a quaint homestay, tucked amidst the verdant magnificence of south India's favourite national park.

Angkor temples

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Angkor temples

Cambodia’s temples at the former Khmer capital are a living, breathing wonder of the world.
  For centuries, a masterpiece of power and prestige lay hidden within the jungle overgrowth of Siem Reap. Stretching over 400 square kilometres (154 square miles), the Angkor complex of temples remains a testament to the ingenuity, philosophy and wealth of the fallen Khmer Empire.
  One of the largest active archaeological sites in the world, the laterite temples of Angkor form an elaborate complex, founded by early-12thcentury king Suryavarman II, in dedication to Hindu deity Vishnu. Though the empire later converted to Buddhism, the temples continue to play a ritualistic role in the lives of local Khmer people, its chambers and squares filled with orange-robed monks and nuns in white.
  Traditional Khmer temples were built in two styles: the ‘temple mountain’ and the ‘galleriedtemple’. The most renowned, Angkor Wat, featured both. The largest religious monument in the world, it took hundreds of thousands of workers (including labourers, masons, sculptors and servants, plus 6,000 elephants) more than three decades to build.
  Grey and yellowish-brown sandstone bricks were most likely hauled over canals from quarries 35 kilometres (22 miles) away. These were encased around the laterite stone galleries, and carved with intricate bas-reliefs, depicting Hindu narratives most famously the Churning of the Ocean of Milk creation story.
  Surrounded by a 4.8-kilometre (three-mile) moat, with a long causeway, the temple was designed to mirror the five peaks of the sacred Mount Meru, with the tallest tower rising 213 metres (699 feet) high. Beneath, the temple houses a series of galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards, spread across different levels.
  The complex is a microcosm of the universe, with Mount Meru at the centre the walls the bounds of Earth and the moat, outer space. This theme binds Angkor Wat to its neighbouring temples, through solar alignments. The nearby complex of Angkor Thom was built as a ‘Great City’, the last Khmer capital, by the great conqueror, King Jayavarman VII. Housing royals, priests, officials and dancers, at its heart was the temple of Bayon an Indiana Jones-style labyrinthine monument, covered in 2,000 faces likened to the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and the king himself a Mahayana Buddhist.
  The city is also home to a number of other monuments, from the Terrace of the Leper King and Terrace of the Elephants, to the overgrown Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay temples.
  East of Angkor Thom, the temple of Ta Prohm (known casually known as ‘Tomb Raider Temple’) forms a unique bond with its natural surroundings. In places it is consumed by fig, banyan and kapok trees, growing atop walls, with thick roots spilling down into the earth below. Ta Prohm was built as a monastery and university, and like Jayarvarman’s other monuments its Buddhist iconography has been converted back to Hindu symbolism.
  Amidst the region’s many other surviving ruins, the temple mountain of Phnom Bakheng, originally built in the late 9th century, is uniquely situated atop a hill. The stepped pyramid, adorned with lions, mirrors Mount Meru its summit making for a stunning place to watch the sunset over the Khmer city of wonders.

ganga river

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ganga river

India’s sacred Ganges River is the spiritual lifeline that unites all along its banks.
  So much more than just a river, the colossal Ganges is a way of life. A lifeline for millions living on its shores, it’s one of the largest rivers on Earth. Born amid Himalayan glaciers, its waters travel 2,525 kilometres (1,569 miles), bringing alive the vast plains of north India, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
  Considered holy in Hinduism, the Ganges is worshipped daily, and personified as the goddess Ganga. Legend says that King Bhagiratha persuaded the goddess to travel from heaven to Earth, to wash away and rescue 60,000 long-forgotten trapped spirits. To break her fall, Ganga trickled down the tangles of Shiva's hair to Earth, where she was met by the king, who guided her from the Himalayas, across the plains of India to the ocean.
  Today, the fabled riverbanks teem with worshippers, eager to ablute their sins in the mystical waterway and take a small step closer to moksha-breaking free from the eternal cycle of life and death.
  From this sacred body springs an array of sprawling cities and rural villages, fiercely individual, yet bound together by the free-flowing vein of spirituality. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is a cultural and religious nexus. A magical spot where life and death rub shoulders daily. it attracts a tapestry of people some hoping to wash away their sins or pass away peacefully next to the sacred waterway, others to meditate or cremate  loved ones beside it.
  Over 100 ghats, stone platforms leading down to the water, line Varanasi’s banks. Each day they come to life as a gathering place for the city’s inhabitants where sadhus adopt the lotus position, morning bathers recline against sun-warmed stone, and boatmen usher visitors aboard wooden vessels.
  Come dusk, the Dashashwamedh Ghat transforms into a seven-storey stage for Ganga Aarti, an evocative religious ceremony where a fire offering is made to the goddess Ganga. Crowds gather to watch the highly choreographed ritual every night; some board boats for unobstructed views, while others fill the riverbank, nearby rooftops and balconies. The ceremony begins with a loud blast from a conch shell before bearded pandits, clad in golden robes, begin to move incense burners and flames in time to rhythmic chants.
  As the ceremony draws to a close, a priest pours water into Ganges, reciting a final ritual prayer before diya, small flower candles, are lit and set adrift downriver, often atop paper boats. The spectacle is also performed in the holy cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh.
  And while some festivities embrace life, others celebrate death. Hindus consider Manikarnika Ghat the most auspicious place to be cremated. The dead are carried on bamboo stretchers through the maze-like old town, past temples and sun-faded yellow and red houses, to the Ganges. Wrapped in coloured cloth, they are bathed in the river one last time, before the cremation pyre is lit.
  For those in search of solace, early-morning sunrise boat tours offer much-needed respite from the inimitable frenetic energy. As the morning mist rises to the steady swishing of oars, pink-bottomed monkeys swing from rooftop to rooftop, following close behind.
  With the mandarin sun edging up from the east, colour and life return to the riverbanks. Believers carefully lower themselves into the sacred waters, as the familiar sound of Hindu songs permeates the still morning air.
  To the north in the foothills of the Himalayas, close to the source of the Ganges lies Rishikesh, a small town thrust into the limelight when The Beatles arrived, seeking enlightenment from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. Since then, it’s become a spiritual enclave, attracting Transcendental Meditation devotees and yogis alike. Ashrams line the milky-blue river, offering classes and retreats for every Eastern interest.
  But Rishikesh is no longer all mantras and contorted appendages. Transformed from the epicentre of 1960s counterculture, today it is the country’s high-octane capital, where adventure seekers are drawn to glacial-pure 3  rapids, forested peaks and lightning-fast ziplines.
  A slower pace can be enjoyed on a multi-day cruise, following the natural ebb of flow of life on the river. While most operators stick to the Ganges’ tributaries, Assam Bengal Navigation braves the Ganges proper, thanks to its ships, specially built to navigate the shallow waters.
  Cruises, ranging from four to 15 nights, pass through picture-book rural India riverside wattle and daub villages and ramshackle towns rising from sun-baked earth, clear the way for terracotta temples and long-abandoned palaces. Chugging along the coffee-coloured waterway to rarely seen but vibrantly rich regions, daily excursions continue on land. The journey follows the footsteps of history, taking in Mughal mausoleums, Raj monuments and majestic mosques, with particular attention paid to Jaunpur and Chunar Forts, Atala Mosque, the battlefield of Plassey and Lord Cornwallis’ Ghazipur tomb.
  In Kolkata, known as The City of Palaces, the old Dutch, French and Danish quarters have each retained a distinctive flavour, but it’s the Missionaries of Charity’s Mother House that still draws the crowds the site of Mother Teresa’s grave, as well as the area where she lived and worked for more than 40 years. Elsewhere, Murshidabad, the 18th-century capital of Bengal, is studded with abandoned mosques, ornamental tombs and crumbling palaces. Not far, Baranagar charms with its hand-carved terracotta temples.
  The beating heart of Buddhism, Bodh Gaya is believed to be the place where, 2,600 years ago, Prince Siddhartha achieved enlightenment under a Bodhi tree and became the Buddha. To this day, a descendant of the sacred tree still flourishes, and can be visited at Mahabodhi Temple. In Sasaram lies the Afghan-style tomb of the warrior-cum-emperor Sher Shah Suri, who defeated to the Mughals in 1538. Rising from an artificial lake, the domed sandstone mausoleum is nicknamed the second Taj Mahal.
  Back aboard the wooden boat, glimpses of rural India continue, as do rare sightings of Ganges river dolphins, breaking the surface. Completely blind, the rose-hued mammals are among the most endangered on Earth. The river’s many spectacles can be enjoyed with a cup of musky Darjeeling or a strong Assam brew. The mode of travelling is slow, desperately slow, but such is the nature of the beast.

best place to visit in sarawak

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best place to visit in sarawak

On the Malaysian island of Borneo, Sarawak is a showcase of natural beauty and fragile ecology.
  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is the fragile and delicate balance between humanity and nature more evident than in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. Verdant jungles abound and roaring rivers weave a tapestry of unspoiled nature throughout the countryside, and while commerce and industry have gained ground, the movement for preservation is working in tandem to protect fragile ecosystems while maintaining the prospect of future economic growth.
  The largest of the Malaysian states, Sarawak is the home of such diversity in flora and fauna that their threatened existence has resulted in the establishment of at least ten national parks. Here, rare species of animals and plants are sheltered in sanctuary and visitors have the opportunity to observe but not disturb these wonders. Gunung Mulu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the best-known of these parks. Attracting more than 120,000 visitors annually, the park is home to over 3,500 species of vascular plants along with 270 species of birds and 81 mammal species. The towering peak of Gunung Mulu, soaring approximately 2,377 metres (7,799 feet) above sea level, dominates the lush landscape, while caves, waterfalls and stunning vegetation are visible at every turn. The easiest way to reach Gunung Mulu is by flying into a regional airport in the northeast or taking a quick trip from the coastal town of Miri. There are several other national parks worthy of exploration scattered across Sarawak, including Loagan Bunut, Kubah, Bako, Niah and Tanjun Datu.
  Many visitors are lured to Sarawak each year to catch a glimpse of wildlife that may be seen in their natural habitat nowhere else on Earth, including the orangutan and Borneo pygmy elephant. Bako is the oldest national park on Sarawak and is widely renowned for its population of proboscis monkeys.
  Most visitors begin their exploration of Sarawak in the capital city of Kuching, the centre of local commerce and a focal point of the ethnic diversity that is readily apparent in the region. including indigenous native peoples and others of Chinese, Malay and varied origins. The city is served by numerous airlines flying from major cities across Southeast Asia: moderately priced and upscale hotel accommodations are readily available; and short, regional flights to more remote destinations are easily obtained. Kuching is nestled along the banks of the Sarawak River. Its name translates to English as ‘cat’, so varied locales within the city pay homage to the feline, including several museums. Transportation is always nearby, with taxis and cars for hire. Visitors may stroll the streets and experience the local sights and sounds, while examining crafts and wares from vendors and storefronts.
  Adventurous visitors may choose to take a short air or river excursion t erior of Sarawak, experiencing native villages whose inhabitants still pursue the ancient ways of living, hunting and gathering for sustenance and residing in native longhouses. Book these excursions early and be prepared to negotiate challenging conditions, including hikes and crossings of uneven terrain.
  The Gawai Dayak festival occurs each June. and is a popular event for visitors to revel in. Celebrating the harvest and the beginning of another prosperous year, the festival includes costumed dancers, exotic cuisine and a whole month of celebration.

places to visit in kathmandu for couples

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places to visit in kathmandu for couples

Become absorbed by Asian culture with a memorable trip to Nepal’s exciting capital.
  Kathmandu is awash with smells, sights and sounds that keep excitement levels at a maximum. Narrow, intertwining streets make way for streams of loud, pushy traffic. Dusty dirt tracks, pot-holed pavements and smells of fragrant spices hit you as you ride down the busy corridors of Nepal’s fervent capital.  
  Anyone who has experienced Kathmandu first hand will happily regale you with stories of how welcoming and friendly Nepalese people are, and how special this capital city is.
  From the main airport, jump into a taxi and head straight for the bustling district of Thamel; the commercial heart of the city. This vibrant, noisy district is filled with motorcyclists and cars striving to get ahead of each other, and they are not shy to use their horns. Getting around Kathmandu is best done by foot. You can browse as you pass by numerous shops selling trekking gear, warm clothing and camping goods. For a more laid-back journey, however, you could step aboard a rickshaw peddled by a local tradesman who’ll wind you through the streets towards your next destination.
  If all this gets too much, take a stroll into the neo-classical historical Garden of Dreams, situated on the outskirts of Thamel. This is where you can escape from the noise and commotion of the centre in a relaxing outdoor setting.
  When you’re not planning for the next big adventure into the mountains, explore the plethora of stupas, monasteries and religious temples adorning Kathmandu’s streets. Gain a stronger insight into how numerous religions (predominantly Buddhism and Hinduism) live in harmony and run deep through the veins of the people and their city. Head out on a tour around the ancient royal complex of Durbar Square to witness grand palaces and their courtyards; or walk the many steps to Swayambhunath temple, also known as the ‘monkey temple’, for spectacular views over the city’s rooftops. Take a trip up to the impressive World Heritage Site of Boudhanath stupa and spin prayer wheels as you pass on by. Enjoy hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving up local dishes such as dal bhat, a lentilbased rice meal, as well as spectacularly spiced curries cooked in plain sight in open ovens.
  For those looking to explore further afield, Kathmandu makes for a great starting base. Treat your city break as a stepping stone into the Himalayan mountain range. You could end up exploring routes up to Everest Base Camp, or deeper into the Annapurna mountain range for a longer excursion into the snowy wilderness. Tours take off from Tribhuvan International Airport, flying via Lukla to Base Camp, and can last up to two weeks. Planning well ahead of time is essential so as not to lose your spot. Coaches operate from Kathmandu to Pokhara for excursions into the Annapurna Circuit. Alternatively, book a tour down to Chitwan National Park to enjoy a range of activities such as canoeing, rhino and tiger spotting, as well as elephant riding before heading back to the busy streets of Kathmandu.

best places to visit in tokyo

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best places to visit in tokyo

Beneath the bright lights, Japan’s capital is an endless trove of cultural treasures.
  Tokyo is a city of impossible contrasts. An endless labyrinth of skyscrapers, bordered by mountain and sea; a neon, retrofuturist dream throttling past pockets of serenity scattered with historic castles, temples and parks. One of the world’s most populous cities, it is understandably among the hardest to truly penetrate. It is Japan at its least nuanced, a window dressing of stereotype, cloaked precariously over an incredibly rich culture, largely unknown to those beyond its bounds. 
  Among the city’s best-known wards is Shinjuku; a microcosm of the city itself, home to its largest railway station, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Nestled within its claustrophobic streets is Kabukicho, Japan’s grittiest and seediest neighbourhoods though, tellingly, oft-called one of Asia’s ‘safest red-light districts’.
  Marked by large, red gates, it is a surreal cluster of bars, eateries and restaurants, drenched in artificial light most notably the Robot Restaurant, where food takes a back seat to spectacle. One of the world’s most unmissable shows, Robot Restaurant is a celebration of Japanese stereotype turned up all the way to 11. A feast for the senses does not even begin to explain this bizarre, explosive battle between robot and dancer.
  The adjacent area of Golden Gai presents a rare example of older Tokyo architecture, surviving both natural disasters and war. Engulfed on all sides by looming skyscrapers, it is a time capsule, filled with numerous tiny bars, frequented by the city’s actors, artists and musicians looking for a peaceful escape from the metropolis beyond. Offering an even quieter break is Shinjuku Gyoen, a stunning park with three main gardens. The first, in traditional Japanese style, features 1,500 cherry trees, two ponds joined by a small river, and a pavilion built to commemorate the royal wedding of Emperor Hirohito. Elsewhere, a French garden mimics the splendour of Versailles with roses aplenty, while an English garden brings a touch of British charm to the Japanese archipelago. A curious greenhouse also boasts a tropical cocktail of flowers and plants.
  The adjacent ward of Shibuya is home to the infamous Shibuya Crossing, an intersection outside the station where, at the turn of a light, seas of people flood across the road, heading towards homes, offices and shops. The area hosts an array of department stores, housed in skyscrapers with floors of restaurants. Shibuya is also considered to be a major driving force behind the country’s fashion industry, with many new trends starting here.  
  Nowhere is this clearer than in Harajuku, an area made famous for its namesake ‘Harajuku style’ a wacky hotchpotch of punk, cosplay, kawaii cute, bold colour and all things over-thetop. Beyond a thicket of trees, the spectacular Shinto shrine of Meiji-Jingu is dedicated to Emperor Meiji, whose ascendance stripped power away from the samurai class and thrust Japan into an era of modernisation.
  One of Shibuya’s more curious landmarks is Love Hotel Hill, where you’ll find the capital’s highest concentration of love hotels frequented by couples who don’t have anywhere else to spend time alone.
  To the east is Tokyo’s centre of ultraluxe chic, Ginza. Formerly a silver coin mint, the area was rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Today it houses some of the city’s most prestigious brands and malls. Topped by an iconic clock tower, Seiko’s Wako building survived the intense firebombing of World War II, an architectural legacy that is today full of designer brands, a delectable tea salon and an art gallery. The ultramodern Tokyu Plaza, meanwhile, offers a bold contrast, with a kaleidoscopic entranceway symbolising the country’s world-class contemporary design.
  A very different shopping experience can be had in Akihabara, a nexus of all things anime. Manga cafes sit alongside shops, overflowing with anime and video-game figurines, alongside electronic shops hawking retro Famicoms and assorted gadgets. Akihabara’s 1,300-year-old Kanda-jinja Shinto shrine was famously where the notable rebel Taira no Masakado was enshrined in 940 and deified. Today, it is also represented by the mascot Nozomi Tojo, a shrine maiden from the anime Love Live!. 
  The nearby Ueno Park, originally part of the powerful Kaneiji Temple and one of Japan’s earliest Western-style parks, features a long corridor of 1,000 cherry trees prime hanami, or‘cherry blossom viewing’, territory. The park’s lotus-covered Shinobazu Pond, boasting an octagonal temple hall, is inspired by Lake Biwa beneath the Kyoto temple that Kaneiji modelled itself after. Ueno also hosts an array of museums, including Tokyo National Museum and Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, as well as Ueno Zoo the country’s first.
  In Sumida to the east, a bizarre, huge building rises as if on stilts. This modern behemoth, fashioned after a traditional storehouse, is home to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, a fascinating journey through the 400-year history of Japan’s capital. The atmospheric museum offers insight into the development of the city, formerly known as Edo, and the lives of those who inhabited it examining Japanese architecture and the nation’s cultural heritage.
  The nearby (ironically small) Sumo Museum makes for a smooth introduction to the sport, which can be enjoyed at the Ryogoku sumo stadium, with a hearty helping of katsu curry and a dizzying drink of Chuhai. Tournaments are held during certain points of the year, and each day wrestlers do their best to throw their opponents to the ground, or push them out of the ring. By the end of the day, the atmosphere is electric, as pairs of Yokozuna duel to a cacophony of shrieking fans and camera flashes.  
  In the 17th century, sumo tournaments were held in the district of Asakusa, just to the north then, the centre of entertainment and kabuki. Sensoji Temple is among the city’s oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples. It is preceded by the 200-metre (656-foot) shopping street, Nakamise, where vendors sell souvenirs and distinctive treats, such as amezaiku elaborate, hand-crafted lollipops.
  Just across the Sumida River is Tokyo Skytree, the world’s second-tallest structure at 634 metres (2,080 feet). With two observation decks at 350 metres (1,148 feet) and 450 metres (1,476 feet), it makes for a stunning place to take in the city from up high. From here, Tokyo stretches out towards the horizon, a neverending expanse of light and life.
  Japanese culture varies greatly from region to region, but the capital of Tokyo is a brilliant gateway to some of the country’s most beloved artistic heritage. 
  Among Japan’s most recognisable forms of theatre is Kabuki, which originated during the Edo period, beginning in 1603. Performers don elaborate costumes and makeup, acting out historical dramas on intricate stages, with trapdoors and revolving platforms.  
  Bunraku theatre, meanwhile, sees a narrator tell a story, accompanied by a shamisen, acted out by puppets. The puppeteers, dressed all in black, animate not just the puppets’ limbs, but facial expressions too requiring a great deal of training and expertise.  
  Music is also central to Noh theatre, which was developed by 14th-century actor Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and his son Zeami. It is a minimalist, slow and ponderous reflection of themes, narrated by masked performers, often representing supernatural beings.

best time to visit bentota sri lanka

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best time to visit bentota sri lanka

With endless beaches uncorrupted by traditional trappings, Sri Lanka’s Bentota is a tropical paradise.
  Broad sandy beaches run alongside a frame of thick foliage and paddy fields, quiet enough for one to hear bird calls and the whirring of bicycle wheels against a soundtrack of lapping waves. Despite an abundance of beautiful hotels and resorts, Bentota strikes a rare balance: a tropical paradise, with comfort and luxury in all the right places.
  Just a two-hour drive south from Colombo, Bentota’s strict building regulations have left its beaches largely clear of bars and restaurants. Intersected with a colourful railway, it is a place that sacrifices convenience and crowds for the sake of splendour and tranquillity.
  A careful selection of small boutique hotels and opulent resorts, sprawled along the southern beach, cater to the varying whims of adventurers, hippies and families alike. Perhaps most notably is the hallmark style of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, whose hotels (such as Lunuganga, Club Villa and Villa Bentota) have breathed a touch of contemporary design into the natural landscape a form often called ‘tropical modernism’.  
  To the north is Aluthgama, a small town boasting a little more bustle, in the form of stalls and a fish market. It sits on the mouth of Bentota River, opposite a thin strip of land, known as Paradise Island. Staring out over the crystalline Laccadive Sea, this is Bentota’s go-to hub for watersports a bonanza of fishing trips, jet skiing, deep-sea fishing, banana boats and windsurfing not to mention lagoon trips.
  A sleepy river safari takes guests cruising past crocodiles, water monitors, chameleons, more than 100 types of bird and other critters hiding in the luscious mangroves. Elsewhere, the Induruwa Sea Turtle Conservation Centre offers the opportunity to learn about endangered sea turtles and watch them hatch.
  The river feeds into Dedduwa Lake, overlooked by the 12th-century Galapatha Raja Temple, home to some truly curious Buddhist relics such as the canine tooth of Buddha’s disciple, Kasyapa within a 2,500-year-old stupa. The lake is also the site of Geoffrey Bawa’s country home, Lunuganga Estate. Bawa spent half a century transforming the rubber estate into a landscaped garden, his very own experimental canvas which remains a stunning testament to his philosophy, life and works.
  His brother, Bevis Bawa, who began his working life as a planter on a rubber estate, curated his own magnificent garden at the nearby Brief Garden a two-hectare (five-acre) madcap jungle masterpiece north of the river. He, too, spent 40 years playing with form and space, producing one of Asia’s most beloved gardens, which features sculptures, artwork and antique furniture.
  For a change of pace, set between Bentota’s river and beach is the bazaar, an eclectic market hawking local trinkets, textiles, carved woodwork and brassware. Just to the south is the Ranra Tea Centre, a colonial-style estate serving up pipinghot brews of its signature Ceylon tea on the picturesque veranda.
  While Bentota remains a sleepy paradise for most of the year, at the end of December visitors are treated to the annual Buddhist festival, Perahera. During the celebrations, the town is overrun by spectacular fire jugglers, musicians, dancers, elephants and torch bearers.

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Places To Visit In Hong Kong

From the busy markets of Kowloon to the serenity of Lantau Island, Hong Kong is full of surprises.
  Since the First Opium War of 1842, Hong Kong has remained a land of promise and adventure, first as a vibrant British trading post, and now a Chinese special administrative region. At its heart, it is a vibrant megacity, with a distinct architectural heritage immortalised by virtually every fictional cyberpunk metropolis from Blade Runner to Ghost in the Shell.
  Its distinctive skyline forms a corridor along southern Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, where a 44-metre (144-foot) high clock tower memorialises the region's colonial past, beside the Avenue of Stars, paying tribute to the giants of Hong Kong cinema. Further inland, Nathan Road forms the spine of an eclectic mishmash of high-end luxury stores, enthusiastic restauranteurs, Bollywood-themed merchandise hawkers and Shanghainese tailors.
  In the adjacent area of Yau Ma Tei is Temple Street, home not only to a Tin Hau temple, but the Night Market, a sprawling assortment of vendors and traders, featured in many a film. Street food is in no short supply, with piping-hot noodles and fresh seafood on hand to rejuvenate  weary shoppers for a second wind of haggling.
  Just north, in what was once the triad heartland of Mong Kok is the Ladies’ Market, awash with inexpensive clothes for both women and men, as well as gadgets, gizmos and all manner of delightful knick-knacks. While the nearby Tung Choi Street features an array of Chinese pubs, on the opposite side of Victoria Harbour, Wan Chai is marked by its distinct colonial-style bars a short trip from the upmarket restaurants, boutique art galleries and antique shops tucked along the historic streets of SoHo.
  The city’s most exclusive postcode, The Peak, is aptly named, whether enjoyed aboard the charming Peak Tram (which has run since 1888) or from 428 metres (1,404 feet) above sea level atop Peak Tower. The area offers a vantage point to reflect on the island’s fascinating history.
  However, there is much more to Hong Kong than just the city. In the east and northeast, New Territories is Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark, a marvel of the natural world, with hexagonal and twisted volcanic columns crawling upwards, alongside a coastline of volcanic rock.
  At Central Star Ferry Pier, visitors can catch a ride out to Hong Kong’s southern Islands District. From the hiking trails, beach barbecues and rolling hills of Lamma Island to the bun-snatching festival of the tiny Cheung Chau, each of these laid-back isles is a testament to Hong Kong’s natural beauty and time-honoured traditions.
  Hidden within the verdant mountains of Hong Kong’s largest outlying island, Lantau, Po Lin Monastery is given away by a curious landmark the enormous 34-metre (112-foot) tall, bronze ‘Big Buddha’. A pilgrimage site for Buddhists across Asia, the statue sits atop 268 steps, with a peaceful garden and a vegetarian restaurant to boot. Elsewhere, 38 monuments are aligned in an infinity pattern, adorned with the Heart Sutra in Chinese calligraphy forming Wisdom Path. On the western side of the island is Tai O Fishing Village, a rare collection of traditional stilt houses, with a fish market, cafés and restaurants.

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Visit Vietnam’s splendid Ha Long Bay and explore caves and beaches.
  Along the northeastern coastline of Vietnam, and 175 kilometres (109 miles) from the city of Hanoi, is Ha Long Bay; an area of more than 1,600 islands and islets covered by rainforests and lined with golden beaches. The giant limestone rocks are a hot spot for cave exploration, swimming, snorkelling and trekking.
  Staying on a boat is the best way to experience everything that Ha Long Bay has to offer, and whether you choose a rough-and-ready junk boat, or the more comfortable all-inclusive cruiser option, it’s worth staying for at least one night on the water to make the most of your trip to Ha Long Bay and the surrounding attractions.
  Organised group tours run out of Hanoi, taking you on a round trip to Ha Long Bay with full-day excursions starting at a reasonable £25 ($32). This often includes transfer from Hanoi, and lunch is also provided. Once in Ha Long Bay, expect a four to five-hour boat trip that will take you on a guided tour of some of the most exciting parts of the Bay. Visit floating villages to see how the locals live in homes built on water and explore hidden caves around the likes of the Thien Cung Cave and the Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave, taking you through underground passages and corridors to see what these giant limestone rocks are hiding. And, when you’re not cruising along on a boat, kayaking is the best way to get around the Bay. If you opt for a tour, then kayaks are usually included as part of the excursion.
  The island of Tuan Chau is host to beautiful sandy beaches lined with palm trees, as well as resort complexes and tourist attractions that draw in crowds all year round. Accessible via the two-kilometre (1.2-mile) road from the mainland, Tuan Chau is the perfect place to stop off for a few nights in a comfortable two or three-star hotel and to explore Ha Long Bay or to just kick back, relax and take it all in. 
  When you’re not kayaking through caves or exploring beaches, take a visit to the Sun World Ha Long Park the biggest amusement park in Southeast Asia. The park sits just on the shores of Ha Long Bay, providing entertainment and rides for all the family. Enjoy a ride on the impressive cable car across to Dragon Park, or check out the Typhoon Water Park to experience a selection of thrilling rides.
  Trekking should also be a part of your itinerary while visiting Ha Long Bay. Make it to the top of Poem Mountain for rewarding panoramic views over the surrounding area, and visit Cat Ba Island for a quieter, less crowded escape. This is where you can rent a scooter and ride up and down the incredible island to witness spectacular mountains and breathtaking coastal roads. Staying on Cat Ba Island for a night or two is recommended before heading back to the bustling urban sprawl of Hanoi.

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Experience the luxury of tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean.
  Powder-soft sand with coconut trees wafting in the gentle breeze. Crystal-clear water washes over colourful coral reefs, through which even more colourful fish swim. Devoted and smiling waiters have cold cocktails and a platter of succulent fruit ready. If ever a destination lived up to the stereotype of a tropical paradise, it is the Maldives.
  The past few decades have seen this small nation, a line of 1,190 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean, transform into a tourist fantasy. There is no better place to escape from a busy world and submerge in luxury. The sense of seclusion is heightened by each resort being housed on its own island, reached by seaplane or boat. Yet the dutiful service is as good as you will find in any five-star city hotel, as are the spa facilities.
  Such paradise has made the Maldives a popular choice for newlyweds. Yet the Maldives is increasingly a family destination, too. Although some might baulk at the thought of kids rampaging across the beach and ruining the ambience, an increasing number of hotels and resorts are pitching to parents by offering kids’ clubs, plenty of watersports and family activities. Crab racing, anybody?
  Those in search of the authentic Maldivian experience can see how locals live in their coastal villages most resorts offer trips to nearby inhabited islands or can experience the bustle of the capital, Malé (which is as bustling as a city of 133,000 inhabitants can get). But the Maldives is not a cultural destination for the vast majority of visitors. Most bypass the mosques and shops of the capital, and choose to fly and flop on the beach with an occasional break to flipper into the azure sea.
  With water making up around 99.7 per cent of Maldivian territory, those who stay on land are missing out on one of its star attractions. Every island in the nation sits in one of 26 coral atolls, with spectacular reefs providing a home to a wealth of underwater life. Those looking to find Nemo will find clownfish aplenty, not to mention 1,100 other species of fish, turtles, whales, dolphins and sharks. Keen scuba divers will find helpful guides in most resorts, while complete beginners can take their first breaths underwater with qualified instructors. Countless others are happy to slide into the water with a snorkel and watch the fish dart around the coral just below the surface.  
  However, that the Maldives bobs just above the surface of the sea is a curse as well as a blessing. As the lowest country in the world, with a high point only 5.1 metres (16.7 feet) above sea level, the Maldives is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. UN scientists suggest the entire country will have been submerged as early as 2100. Travellers who want the definitive tropical island experience should not wait too long.

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Between Thailand’s islands of Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, there is enough paradise for everyone.
  Tropical karsts rising from the glistening sea; pure white sand slipping through toes; the chanting of monasteries Thailand’s islands are the archetypes of tropical paradise. The country’s largest isle is Phuket, a former trading post called Jung Ceylon locally known as Thalang, now the name of its main northern town. However, the island, set in the southern Andaman Sea, is not quite untouched. In the 18th century, it successfully defended its tin mines, fending off a Burmese invasion. Soon after, Chinese, Arab, Indian and Portuguese businessmen began migrating, adding a little spice to the local melting pot.
  Those seeking solace will be best appeased in the island’s north a wildlife haven. Sirinat National Park combines coniferous forest, coral reef and 13 kilometres (eight miles) of white sandy beach. Forest meets soft sand at Hat Nai Yang, where baby turtles hatch and crabs scuttle from one shell to the next. The ocean here is a snorkelling gift from the gods complete with colourful coral reef. At Hat Sanambin, tourism has left more of a mark, with luxury resorts lining  up for some of the island’s best views.
  Further inland is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which aims to counteract the damage done by poaching and animal abuse healing and protecting a crucial member of the local jungle environment. Visitors are welcome, but are not allowed to take flash photography or interact with the animals, as is done in zoos or less responsible conservation projects.
  Further south, on the eastern side of the island, is Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, home to the angelic Bang Pae Waterfall. Just a short 15-minute hike, the verdant rainforest makes for a stunning picnic spot, and its swimming holes a refreshing break from the hot sun.
  On the opposite side of the island is Hat Bang Tao, an eight-kilometre (five-mile) stretch of beach widely considered one of its most beautiful. Though some of it remains a sparse paradise, there are plenty of amenities, such as the stunning Laguna Phuket, which drops a heavy dose of luxury right in the middle of the sun-kissed shoreline. In recent years, the untouched stretch has seen a spike in restaurants, bars, shops and beach clubs all marked by a higher-than-average price tag.
  Further south is a true hidden gem, only spoken of in whispers. A tuk-tuk ride and a precarious walk away, Hat Laem Sing is the tiny, virgin beach all island-hoppers dream of one day finding, yet never quite do.
  The stretch is not far from Patong Beach, the island’s nightlife capital. Its backstreets are awash with bars, most notoriously Bangla Road, where merry crowds spill into the street navigating a dizzying network of go-go bars, food vendors, market stalls, clubs and street performers.
  The island’s diverse cultural heritage is on full display throughout the eastern Phuket Town where the Old Town drifts between Chinese and Portuguese architecture, where gentrified cafes, art galleries and boutique hotels keep temples and shrines company. The Taoist Samkong Shrine was built by a wealthy Chinese family and continues to play a role in the lives of local villagers, who drop off offerings. It is also where, every year, during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, hardy devotees make a show of their faith, by piercing their faces with spikes and swords.
  Similarly, the small, 19th-century Shrine of the Serene Light is tucked in an alcove, surrounded by colourful, Portuguese-style buildings. The best place to start soaking in the Sino-Portuguese architecture, however, is Thalang Road, which runs through the Old Town, Talat Yai where the Thai restaurant, Blue Elephant, occupies a stunning restored mansion. It is also home to curiosities like Nguan Choon Tong, the island’s oldest herbalist, a novelty whose mystery can be smelled from the street outside.
  Not too far away is the resplendent Buddhist Khao Rang Temple, home to the island’s first large Buddha icon set atop Rang Hill, adjacent to the remarkable Khao Rang viewpoint. However, Phuket’s real Big Buddha lives near the stunning Chalong Temple, atop a flight of stairs solemnly looking over the island’s rich forest and glittering beaches, with perhaps the finest views of all. Once a quintessential hippie escape, Thailand’s secondlargest island of Koh Samui has been driven upmarket a must-stop destination for the region’s island hoppers. Mirroring the growing influx of visitors, Chaweng Beach is its busiest and largest with a mix of families and backpackers jostling for their own slices of paradise. In the main stretch, one is never wanting for a bar, beach club or simple wandering vendor, a saviour with ice cream in hand. Unsurprisingly, adjacent to the beach is the island’s centre of restaurants, souvenir shops and drinking establishments.
  Though still crowded, more solace can certainly be found at Bophut Beach the so-called Fisherman’s Village, named after its historic roots. Here, old Chinese shophouses converge with the rapidly extending fingerprints of modernism reimagined as a centre of artisanal cafes, quirky restaurants, quaint hotels and on-trend bars. Jet skis and go-karts are on hand for some excitement, and the beach is also the launching point for trips into Ang Thong Marine Park.
  The park is a cluster of 42 tropical islets, which can be traversed by speed boat and explored on foot. It is an absolute wonderland for the wanderlusty, with gloomy caves, steeped in stalagmite and stalactite formations, limestone cliffs, saltwater lakes, mangroves and dry evergreen forests to explore. The ocean here is teeming with life, just begging to be experienced by snorkeller and diver alike; from sea turtles to parrotfish and sting rays. On land, the forests boast white-bellied sea eagles, bats, monitor lizards and pythons. Some islands even allow for overnight camping, and kayaking expeditions.
  Back on the mainland, Maenam Beach offers up some true peace and quiet, with just enough restaurants to keep visitors happy and fed. Most of the local accommodation is high-end, which means hammocks and pampering.
  Although the island has reinvented itself, its hippie roots still run deep, with the tropical paradise a natural setting for many a wellness retreat. Luxurious resorts such as Kamalaya offer up suites and villas, with stunning views of the island’s natural wonders complete with holistic treatment plans, encouraging guests to detox, eat well, meditate and learn yoga.
  Meanwhile, the Dipabhavan Meditation Centre offers a slightly more intense, earthy option; a silent meditation retreat, where guests sleep on bamboo beds and wooden pillows, behind mosquito nets feasting on simple vegetarian dishes.
  For something a little less extreme, there’s always the lure of the yoga retreat offered in abundance across the island, from the Sunart Centre, tucked away in the mountains, to the Orion Retreat Centre. The latter offers a wide variety of holistic therapy options, such as Reiki healing, with visitors enjoying the comfort of beachfront bungalows and villas on the island’s west coast. With an irresistible Thai spa menu hidden away from the noise and crowds, it is a cross between the best of the old Koh Samui, and the new.
  For a true spiritual dalliance, Koh Samui’s magnificently colourful Wat Plai Laem temple sits atop a lake standing beside a spectacular statue of the bodhisattva of compassion, fanning her 18 arms, joined by a white laughing Buddha. Donations are rewarded with a bag of fish food, for the many hungry mouths encircling  the temple.
  The island of Koh Phangan was first made famous for its rambunctious Full Moon Party, where the crescent Hat Rin Beach is transformed into an enormous openair nightclub-cum-festival. Tens of thousands of neon-clad revellers flock to the event every month, notoriously drinking spirits mixed with energy drinks from buckets.
  However, for those who find even the miniaturised Half Moon Party too wild for their liking, the island takes care of its beaches diligently cleaning them, and avoiding the temptation to open the Pandora’s box of overdevelopment. Visitors generally arrive at the port town of Thong Sala, the island’s capital, packed with banks, markets, restaurants and other amenities. Martial arts curiosos can even stop by to watch a Muay Thai bout or two, though this is not for the faint-hearted.
  The town’s night food market sizzles and steams with a delicious array of made-to-order curries, noodles and banana pancakes. Travellers on a shoestring will also enjoy its many ‘All You Can Eat’ BBQ restaurants, for just £2.35 ($3) a head. Scooters are also available for hire, though it’s always a good idea to take photos before  leaving the premises.
  Of course, the island shines brightest away from the bustle, especially when the lunar partygoers have left. The northern fishing village at Chalok Lam bay sits along one of its prettiest beaches, kept company by an array of wooden and concrete shophouses, and a lingering smell of fish. However, this is no gimmick the fishermen still haul their fresh catches aboard colourful boats, ready to be enjoyed across the island’s various eateries.
  Just down the beaten path, where the forest grows wilder, the shrines of Wat Pho and Wat Nok are overshadowed by the island’s Yang Na Yai trees. One 400-year-old specimen, at 53 metres (174 feet), is often-called the country’s largest of its kind. It’s a staggering landmark for Wat Pho’s herbal sauna, initially set up by the temple’s abbot to heal monks and help them unwind. Today, foreign visitors can enjoy sitting in the sauna, while a stew of herbs bubbles away, feeding them natural goodness to replace the released toxins.
  A mountain hike away, on the opposite side of the island, is the stunning Hat Khuat, nicknamed Bottle Beach after the shape of its protected cove. Though it is not the easiest to get to, with its choppy waters often inaccessible to boats, it is well worth the sweat it takes to get there. Isolated and untouched, it is where the forested hills roll rapidly down to white, powdery shoreline; where rocks tease out of the translucent sea, and angelfish dance in the shadows. Coconut trees vie for supremacy, as birds soar heavenwards with the gentle breeze.
  Waterfall chasers looking for a change of pace are sure to enjoy the Than Sadet National Koh Samui’sBophut Beach, once a fisherman’s village, is today a hotspot, full of cafes,restaurants and boutique hotels Koh Samui’smodernWat Plai Laemtemple is among itsmostinteresting, completewith an 18-armed giant bodhisattva of compassion Park, where the Nam Tok Phaeng waterfall tumbles down a cliff face, feeding the luscious jungle below. Navigating the thickets, full of geckos, banded bullfrogs, monkeys and monitor lizards, is best enjoyed by hikers climbing up the path to the island’s highest point, the peak of Khao Ra mountain 625 metres (2,050 feet) high.
  However, one of the country’s best sunsets can be enjoyed at the dramatically nicknamed ‘Secret Beach’ a sandy cove to the northwest. Though the spot plays host to a scattering of subtle resorts and bars, serving up refreshing strawberry daiquiris, it is not hard to steer clear of the crowds. The reward for daring to venture this far afield is a slow and silent sunset, dressing all the world in its warmth.
Phi Phi Islands
  Phi Phi Islands boast some of the world’s most stunning landscapes. The smaller of the two, Phi Phi Leh is home to Maya Bay, featured as the idyllic tropical paradise in the 2000 film The Beach. Elsewhere, Viking Cave hides within a limestone cliff, harbouring swifts’ nests collected by sea gypsies and 400-year-old cave paintings, depicting various ships. Visitors can only stop over during the day, as there is no accommodation, and camping is prohibited. Last year, the Thai government closed the bay temporarily, in an attempt to undo some of the damage caused by the roughly 3,700 daily visitors.
  Phi Phi Don, the larger island, is rather more developed with no shortage of accommodation, bars and eateries. Though it remains roadless, one is never too far from thumping bass and strong cocktails. The half-hour, winding hike to Phi Phi viewpoint, brings some solace, with a panoramic view to die for at the top.  
  Phi Phi Island Village resort offers an escape to the island’s north, shielded by thick overgrowth. Further afield, Phi Phi Natural Resort creates even more distance from the crush of crowds and parties, tucked between the forested hills and a beautiful private beach.
Koh Lanta
  This archipelago is among Thailand’s trickiest to reach, a journey across air, land and sea. It is therefore among the country’s less visited a stunning set of 52 islands in the southern Krabi province. Although resorts cater to the discerning needs of ultra-luxe travellers, it is still very much a land of naked, pearlescent shores, crystal sea and colourful reef. Just south of the main Saladan Pier.
  Phra Ae Beach is dressed in pine trees, with sparse hotels, high-end apartments and delicious restaurants tucked neatly away from the views of paradise.
  However, the best beaches are all hidden further south. Klong Jark Beach is not only among its quietest, but a brilliant launchpad for expeditions into the jungle. The crowds continue thinning in the south, towards the Mu Ko Lanta National Park.
  As the smaller island of Koh Lanta, Noi is frequented even less by outsiders its empty beaches, rubber plantations and Muslim fishing villages ripe for exploration.
Koh Tao
  Set between the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, Koh Tao is smaller than both, but offers a little of each. Named ‘Turtle Island’, after its abundant population of sea turtles, its waters are prime diving territory swarming with the Gulf of Thailand’s finest. However, turtles are not the only seadwellers in town. While sharks and eagle rays encircle sunken shipwrecks, reef fish hurry among the coral.
  The island has 25 dive sites in all, many reached by fishing boat. Meanwhile, its shallow bays and limestone karsts make for stunning snorkelling territory. Lionfish zip by seahorses, gently rocking above zebra-stripe sea kraits, slithering along the sandy bed below. This underwater world truly resembles an alien planet, as flatworms ripple like paper, mingling with polka dot and rainbow-coloured sea slugs.
  Koh Tao also boasts abundant jungle hikes, and a party culture with its very own cocktail, the Sangsom bucket made of Sangsom Rum, Mekong Whisky, Coca-Cola, and the country’s beloved energy drink. M-150.

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Thailand’s Chiang Mai is a celebration of tradition and contemporary culture.
  Set amid the mountains and rainforests of northern Thailand, the coolest part of the country, literally and figuratively, is Chiang Mai. Once the capital of the Lanna Kindgom, which ruled northern Thailand for half a millennium, it is today the country’s secondlargest city, sitting along the border of Myanmar, surrounded by hill tribe villages.
  At its heart is the Old Town, a striking example of traditional Thai architecture, contained within a moat and a rare example of extant city walls. The sleepy centre makes for remarkable walking, through the eastern Tapae Gate and into Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest Buddhist temple built in 1296 by the first Lanna king, Mangrai. A classic example of Lanna architecture, it boasts a chedi, or stupa, held up by an elaborate group of stoic elephant buttresses.
  One of the city’s most beautiful temples is Wat Phra Singh, ‘The Temple of the Lion Buddha’, hosting hundreds of monks and novices. The 14th-century monastery’s assembly hall makes a lavish display of power with a teak exterior, adorned with ornamental accoutrements in gold and ochre. Inside, walls feature elegant murals, depicting local and Buddhist folklore, leading up to a rear wall of red lacquer and gold leaf. Here sits the highly venerated Phra Singh Lion Buddha, which is paraded through the city every April during the Thai New Year festival, Songkran, when revellers sprinkle it with water.
  Though the nearby Wat Chedi Luang is not the largest temple in the area, it boasts a magnificent chedi (pagoda), which stood as Chiang Mai’s tallest structure, at 85 metres (279 feet), until an earthquake knocked it down to 60 metres (197 feet). Commissioned by King Saen Muang Ma to hold his father’s ashes, it took a century to build, and once housed the Emerald Buddha the country’s most revered icon.
  At the edge of the Old Town, Somphet Market sizzles up local snacks. Beyond is a plethora of cafes, art galleries and modern restaurants, representing the simultaneous embrace of tradition and modernity that has transformed Chiang Mai into a tantalising foodie and coffee-lovers’ destination. Centred around Nimmanhaemin Road is the city’s capital of ‘cool’, awash with antiques, handcrafts, boutiques and Instagrammable cafes such as Gongdee, which fuses furniture, art and design with a strong brew.
  Just outside the city, the Baan Kang Wat artists’ village unites traditional and modern architecture, enveloped in greenery. Its eccentric vendors sell local, organic and sustainable goods, alongside hair salons, a library cafe and yoga studios many of which offer workshops for those eager to learn pottery and other crafts.  
  Chiang Mai has become a haven for the hungry-minded, providing a gorgeous natural backdrop for an endless array of courses, workshops and retreats. May Kaidee’s Cooking School, which started in Bangkok in 1988, teaches visitors about Thai cuisine, and how to make various traditional dishes, using only vegetarian or vegan ingredients. Meanwhile, Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School lets aspiring chefs choose which dishes they want to learn, on a farm outside the city. Others like to delve deeper into some of the other Thai arts, such as Muay Thai. Drawing upon traditional Thai Medicine, the Old Medicine Hospital teaches visitors how to deliver a back-walking Thai massage without sending anyone to hospital.  
  Chiang Mai is also a beacon for thirsty spiritual wanderers, with a wide variety of yoga, wellness and energy-healing schools.courses and teachers. With the city surrounded by beautiful temples, it is a natural lighthouse for the soul. From shamanistic healing to yoga, there are myriad outlets spread across the region. An hour outside the city, The Pavana Resort hosts a whole range of retreats, orientated around detoxification, healthy eating, exercise, breathing and clearing the mind.
  Elsewhere, Origin Thailand features a reconstructed traditional village, where guests can delve deeper into Thai etiquette, music, dance, flower arrangement and textiles. Back in the city, contemporary jewellery shop Nova also offers classes in Chiang Mai’s art of silversmithing. On Saturday nights, Wualai Road, once known for its silver and lacquer workshops, turns into a bright, colourful market a favourite walking trail among city-break pilgrims. A larger, one-kilometre (0.6-mile) market, complete with bars and food vendors, runs on Sundays between Tha Phae Gate and Ratchadamnoen Road, but this gets far busier.
  Though dizzying, Chiang Mai’s oldest bazaar, Talat Warorot, is a treasure trove of surprises from daily essentials and cooking utensils to delicious treats and trinkets. Set beside the Talat Ton Lam Yai flower market, it rests against the Ping River, which vendors traditionally used to haul in local produce. The river can be navigated by kayak, scorpion-tailed boat or even a full-on dinner cruise, with a quick expedition of a local riverside farmhouse, growing fruits, herbs and flowers.
  Adrenaline-addicted adventurers need not feel left out, with white-water rafting trips down the Pai River complemented with a zipline session through the rainforest. Those who prefer the company of birds and waterfalls will enjoy hikes through Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Doi Chiang Dao and Doi Inthanon National Park home to Thailand’s tallest mountain, with a modern temple sat atop.
  Aside from natural beauty, Chiang Mai is surrounded by hill tribe villages, migrated from various parts of China and South East Asia. The largest group, the Karen, are refugees from Myanmar. Women from the Karen subgroup, the Padaung, are instantly recognisable by their incredibly long necks, stretched slowly with a series of heavy brass rings, and colourful clothes. Many even have blackened or rotten teeth, from chewing betel.
  For those really looking to go off the grid and immerse themselves in a forgotten culture, homestays are available. The Chai Lai Sisters Karen Homestay remains a comfortable compromise, with limited electricity courtesy of solar panels, and profits going towards a charity for at-risk ethnic minority and refugee women. After an extensive exploration of the city, it could be argued, there’s no better way to immerse in the region’s natural wonders, culture and hospitality than a night under the stars in the middle of the rainforest.