Asia ALL DESTINATIONS China: Japan: Singapore Beijing Kobe Guangzhou Kyoto Thailand: Hong Kong Osaka Bangkok Shanghai Tokyo Vietnam: Hanoi India: Nepal: Ho Chi Minh City Bombay Kathmandu Calcutta Delhi Philippines: Jaipur Manila Udaipur China: Beijing Guangzhou Hong Kong Shanghai Beijing Overview Beijing's historic, cultural, and political pre-eminence dates back nearly six centuries. Yet, in spite of devastating urban renewal, modern Beijing continues to convey an imperial grandeur. New temples to communism -- the Great Hall of the People, Chairman Mao's Mausoleum -- convey the monumental power that still resides within the city's secret courtyards. Its 12 million residents are a compelling mix of old and new. Early morning taiqi (tai chi) enthusiasts, bearded old men with caged songbirds, and amateur Peking Opera crooners still frequent the city's many charming parks. Cyclists, most pedalling cumbersome, jet-black Flying Pigeons, clog the roadways. But few wear padded blue Mao jackets these days, and they all must share the city's broad thoroughfares with trendy Chinese yuppies and their private cars. Mao-style propaganda campaigns remain a common mechanism for engineering proper behaviour. Slogans that preach unity among China's national minorities, patriotism, and love for the People's Liberation Army decorate the city. The result is an ironic mix of new prosperity and throwback politics: socialist mantras emblazoned on electronic billboards hung at shopping arcades that sell Gucci and Big Macs. Best of Beijing in 3 Days Itinerary Day 1 Begin day one at the dawn flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Stroll past the Monument to the People's Heroes, circle Chairman Mao's mausoleum, and then head for the nearby Grand Hotel for coffee or breakfast. At 8:30 walk through the Gate of Heavenly Peace and spend the morning at the Forbidden City. Take the audio tour, which offers an entertaining south-to-north narration. Depart through the Gate of Obedience and Purity (the north gate) and walk west to Beihai Park for lunch at the food stalls. Explore the park. Arrive at the north gate before 1:30 for a half-day hutong tour, a guided pedicab ride through a mazelike neighbourhood to the Drum Tower. Have dinner at the Quanjude Peking Duck Restaurant, south of Tiananmen Square. Day 2 On day two visit the Temple of Heaven, the Lama Temple, and perhaps the National Art Gallery or Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution. Allow time for shopping at Beijing Curio City, Silk Alley, and the Yihong Carpet Factory. For dinner, eat Sichuanese at Ritan Park. Day 3 Set aside day three for a trip to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall at Mutianyu, where a Japanese gondola offers a dramatic ride to the summit. Bring a brown-bag lunch. Weather permitting, enjoy an outdoor dinner at the Golden Cat, Beijing's premier dumpling restaurant. When to Go to Beijing Summer is the peak tourist season, and hotels and transportation can be very crowded. Book early-several months in advance if possible-for summer travel. The weather can be scorching in the summer in most of China. The weather will be better and the crowds not quite as dense in late spring and early fall, although be prepared for rain. Winter is bitterly cold and not conducive to travel in most of China. Avoid travelling around Chinese New Year, as much of China shuts down and the Chinese themselves travel, making reservations into and out of China virtually impossible to get. Guangzhou Overview During the 19th century the only place foreigners were allowed to visit in China was Canton, now referred to as Guangzhou, where they traded for silk, tea, porcelain, lacquer screens, lace shawls, ivory fans, and other luxury goods. Since the late 1970s this port city has again become a gateway to areas outside China. It all began with the Silk Road, when some merchants chose to take their caravans south and transport their silk and other luxuries by sea through the sheltered port of Guangzhou. From southeast Asia more merchants came to do business, selling pepper, nutmeg, and other spices, bird's nests for soup, and aromatic sandalwood for incense. Gradually they were joined by traders from farther afield. Dominated by Japanese silver; Chinese silk, porcelain, and tea; Indian muslin; Persian damascene; African ivory; and European manufactured goods, good trade flourished for a century, until Japan closed its doors to the outside world. The Portuguese lost their sea lanes and cargoes to the newly mercantile nations of Europe, led by Britain, which used Macau as a base for doing business in Guangzhou. The British called Guangzhou "Canton," an anglicized version of the Portuguese cantão. Guangzhou lost its pivotal importance as an international trading hub and went into decline. Times were tough for many Cantonese, and in the 19th century tens of thousands of them left in search of a better life, often on coolie ships. Among the scholars who found an education overseas was Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who was born a few miles north of the Macau border. He led the movement to overthrow the Manchus that culminated in the 1911 Revolution. Guangzhou next became a hotbed of revolutionary zeal and a battleground between Nationalists and Communists. Chiang Kai-shek founded the Whampoa Academy, and Mao Zedong taught at the Peasant Movement Institute, as did Zhou Enlai. Following the 1949 Revolution, Guangzhou reinstituted its biannual trade fairs (April and September) and welcomed foreign business, but it wasn't until the open-door policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1979 that the port city was able to resume its role as a commercial gateway to China. Since then the city has become an economic dynamo; in 1999 it had a population of about 6.7 million. Because of its rapid modernization during the 1980s and '90s, many parts of Guangzhou no longer evoke the original easygoing port city with its waterfront row of colonial mansions. Today high-rise blocks and new highways dominate the old town, while new suburbs, bristling with skyscrapers and shopping malls, advance toward every horizon along new expressways. Fortunately, the city has preserved some of its heritage in the splendid parks and busy temples, in some excellent museums, and, most of all, on Shamian Island. Sights & Activities Guangzhou can be roughly divided into six districts, each with unique sights to see and walks to take. Because of the logistics and time involved in moving from place to place around the city, it is best to concentrate on a neighborhood at a time. Colonial Canton consists of the area on and around Shamian Island and the Pearl River. The part of the city that was formerly encircled by the city wall comprises Ancestral Guangzhou. To the north of the former walled city is the Station District and even farther north, the airport area. On the eastern edge of the formerly walled city are sights related to Chinese revolutions, and farther east, the Eastern Suburbs and the Tianhe District. Hong Kong Overview To stand on the tip of Kowloon Peninsula and look out across the harbour to the full expanse of the Hong Kong island skyline -- as awesome in height as Manhattan's, but only a few blocks deep and strung along the entire north coast -- is to see the triumph of ambition over fate. Whereas it took Paris and London 10 to 20 generations to build the spectacular cities seen today, and New York 6, Hong Kong built almost everything you see before you in the time since today's young investment bankers were born. It is easy to perceive this tremendous creation of wealth as an inevitable result of Hong Kong's strategic position, but at any point in the territory's history things might have happened slightly differently, and the island would have found itself on the margins of world trade rather than at the centre. When the 78-square-km (30-square-mi) island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British after the Opium War of 1841, it consisted, in the infamous words of the British minister at the time, of "barren rock" whose only redeeming feature was the adjacent deep-water harbour. For the British, though, it served another purpose: Hong Kong guarded the eastern edge of the Pearl River delta, and with it access to Guangzhou (Canton), which in the mid-19th century was China's main trading port. By controlling Hong Kong, Britain came to control the export of Chinese products such as silk and tea, and to corner the Chinese market for Western manufactured goods and opium. The scheme proved highly profitable. If British trade were all Hong Kong had going for it, however, its prosperity would have faded with the rest of the empire. No, the real story of Hong Kong began in the 1920s, when the first wave of Chinese refugees settled here to avoid civil unrest at home. They were followed in the '30s and '40s by refugees fleeing the advance of the invading Japanese army. But the biggest throngs of all came after the 1949 Communist revolution in China -- mostly from the neighbouring province of Guangdong, but also from Fujian, Shanghai, and elsewhere. Many of these mainland arrivals came from humble farming backgrounds, but many others had been rich and had seen their wealth and businesses stripped away by the revolutionaries. They came to Hong Kong poorer than their families had been in generations, yet by virtue of their labour, their descendants are the wealthiest generation yet. Hong Kong has always lived and breathed commerce, and it is the territory's shrines to Mammon that will make the strongest impression when you first arrive. The Central district has long been thick with skyscrapers bearing the names of banks and conglomerates, and yet more continue to be built, squeezed into irregular plots of land that would seem insufficient for buildings half the size. When that doesn't work, the city simply reclaims more land from the harbour and builds on it almost before it dries. For a few years it will be obvious which land is reclaimed and which is old as the ground is turned and foundations laid, but soon enough the two will meld into one, just as they have before: you now have to walk four blocks from the Star Ferry Terminal, through streets shaded by office towers, to reach Queen's Road Central, the former waterfront. You may well ask what one can know for sure in this world if not where the earth ends and the oceans begin, but Hong Kongers have gotten used to such vagaries. Watching young investment bankers out on a Friday night in Hong Kong's nightspot haven of Lan Kwai Fong, revelling in their outrageous good fortune at being in this place at this time in history, you can't help but wonder whether this can possibly last. There's a heady, end-of-an- era exuberance to it all -- a decadence that portends doom ahead. Yet visitors to Hong Kong have felt this same sentiment for almost a century and a half and, save for the rare economic downturn, the day of reckoning has not come. One of those rare exceptions came within a month after Hong Kong's handover back to China. But the change of sovereignty was not the issue which many expected to be the source of problems. Rather, it was the Asian crisis which took almost everyone by surprise. For a moment during these uncertain times, it seemed Hong Kongers would have to permanently scale back their ambitions. But then the moment passed and the usual breakneck growth returned. Rapid change has not been limited to Hong Kong Island or the crowded Kowloon Peninsula, but extends up through the "new towns" of the New Territories. Some of these, like Sha Tin, were rice paddies 20 years ago and now form thriving cities of a half million people. The most ambitious project of all is the one you see on arrival: the levelling of Chek Lap Kok, an uninhabited island of rock and scrub, that made way for Hong Kong's stylish, ultra efficient international airport, the final legacy of British-ruled Hong Kong. Arriving in Hong Kong may now lack the rooftop-grazing shock of flying into the old Kai Tak, but you're whisked through the airport in no time and can then zip into Central in just 23 minutes on the Airport Express train. Amid all the change it can be easy (even for residents) to forget that most of Hong Kong has nothing to do with business or skyscrapers: three-quarters of it is actually rural land and wilderness. A bird's-eye view reveals the 236 islands that make up the lesser-known parts of Hong Kong; most are nothing but jagged peaks and tropical scrub, just as Hong Kong Island itself once was. Others are time capsules of ancestral China, with tiny temples, fishing villages, and small vegetable farms. Even Hong Kong Island, so relentlessly urban on its north coast, consists mostly of rolling green hills and sheltered bays on its south side. So whether you're looking for the hectic Hong Kong or the relaxed one, both are easy enough to find -- indeed, sometimes only a few minutes apart. Best in 3 to 7 Days If You Have 3 Days Day 1: Start with a trip to the top of Victoria Peak by taking the Peak Tram, the steepest funicular railway in the world. From here you'll be able to get a bird's-eye view of the Central district's sparkling high-rises, the densely packed streets of Hong Kong Island, the harbour, and all the way to the outer edges of the Kowloon peninsula. Spend the rest of your first day checking out the centres of activity on Hong Kong Island: the harbour districts of Central and Western with their upscale shopping and landmark skyscrapers, the Midlevels with its series of outdoor escalators leading up the steep mountainside, the hustling Wanchai district, and Causeway Bay and Admiralty with their megamalls and department stores. If you finish up your day in Admiralty, consider having dinner at one of the great restaurants in the Pacific Place shopping complex. Day 2: If you're staying on Hong Kong Island, take a ride on the Star Ferry to arrive in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood at the tip of Kowloon (if you're staying in Kowloon, use the ferry to arrive on Hong Kong Island on your first day). The view of the towering city from the water is always an impressive one. Not far from the Star Ferry Terminal on Kowloon are the Hong Kong Space, Science, Art, and History museums. Continuing up Nathan Road you'll come upon the Peninsula Hotel, one of the true landmarks of Hong Kong. Take a peek at the palatial lobby, stop in for a cup of coffee, or come back later for the justifiably popular afternoon tea. Continue up Nathan Road, crammed with stores big and small, on your way to the temples of Tin Hau, the oldest in Hong Kong, and Wong Tai Sin, an explosively colourful and noisy spot with a full concourse of fortune tellers. Also take this opportunity to visit some of the diverse markets that are unique to Hong Kong. The Bird Garden, with birdcages lining the walkways and busy vendors selling cricket treats for these beloved songbird pets, particularly stands out. Other markets in the area include the enclosed Jade Market, the Flower Market (most interesting in the time leading up to the New Year), and the Ladies and Night markets (the latter starts around 6 PM). Wrap up your day in Kowloon with a drink or dinner at the Peninsula's Felix restaurant for unparalleled views of neon-lit Central. Day 3: On your third day, take a hair-raising bus ride from Central to the south side of Hong Kong Island. You'll have an unforgettable view of the island's coastline as the double-decker bus descends from the peaks of the busy shopping and business districts into the sandy coves of Stanley and Repulse Bay. Try to sit in the front of the upper deck for a ride more exciting than any amusement park. Start your visit to the south side with Stanley, wandering through the market before it gets too crowded. If you haven't bought souvenirs yet, this is the best, and cheapest, place to do it. When you're ready for a break from the frenetic market, wander along the waterfront and choose a spot for lunch. In the afternoon, take the bus to the beachfront town of Repulse Bay for a relaxation break on the sunny sand. Then hop the bus back to Central in time for dinner. If You Have 5 Days Spend your first three days as laid out above, and on your fourth day venture out to the New Territories. Day 4: You could easily spend several days exploring the New Territories, but if you'd like to see a lot in a short time, the easiest way is through an organized tour sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Bureau (HKTB). You can also rent a car or taxi and driver and explore on your own, or if you'd like to use public transportation, the KCR train will take you to the eastern territories to visit Shatin, home of both a very modern racetrack and the time-honored Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas. In the western New Territories, you can reach the Sam Tung Uk Museum, a walled village, by MTR subway, and Ching Chung Koon Taoist Temple by train. Day 5: Take the ferry from Central to the western side of Lantau Island, then take a bus (or hike) to Po Lin Monastery, where Tin Tan Buddha, the world's tallest outdoor bronze Buddha, is located. From here take the bus to Tai O, a quaint fishing village where you can have a seafood lunch. In the afternoon, take the bus back to the harbour and Silvermine Bay where you can rent bikes to explore the small village of Mui Wo before taking the ferry back to Central. If You Have 7 Days Spend your first five days in Hong Kong as suggested above, then pack a small bag and head out to Macau for an overnight stay. Days 6 and 7: Macau is easy to reach on the super-fast ferry and can easily be seen in one day, but to really get a feel for its old-world charm you should spend the night. Give yourself time to explore the Old Citadel section of the city, where you'll find the fascinating Museum of Macau and the landmark São Paulo church. This Portuguese-influenced neighbourhood also has reasonably priced shops that sell everything from furniture to polo shirts. Also explore Peninsular Macau where you can visit the picturesque A-Ma Temple and the informative Maritime Museum. While you're in this neighbourhood, stop by the Pousada de São Tiago, a tranquil inn built into the ruins of a 17th-century fort, for a meal or a drink. For dinner make sure to sample the unique and tasty Macanese cuisine. At night you can entertain yourself in a casino, and the next day perhaps lie on the white sands of a Macau beach to end your stay in this part of the world. Shanghai Overview Shanghai, the most notorious of Chinese cities, once known as the Paris of the East, now calls itself the Pearl of the Orient. No other city can better capture the urgency and excitement of China's economic reform, understandably because Shanghai is at the centre of it. A port city, lying at the mouth of Asia's longest and most important river, Shanghai is famous as a place where internationalism has thrived. Opened to the world as a treaty port in 1842, Shanghai for decades was not one city but a divided territory. The British, French, and Americans each claimed their own concessions, neighbourhoods where their laws and culture -- rather than China's -- were the rule. By the 1920s and '30s, Shanghai was a place of sepia-lighted nightclubs, French villas, and opium dens. Here rich taipans walked the same streets as gamblers, prostitutes, and beggars, and Jews fleeing persecution in Russia lived alongside Chinese intellectuals and revolutionaries. But now Shanghai draws more parallels to New York City than Paris. A true city, it is laid out on a grid (unlike sprawling Beijing), and with a population of 16 million, it is one of the world's most crowded urban areas. The Shanghainese have a reputation for being sharp, open- minded, glamorous, sophisticated, and business-oriented, and they're convinced they have the motivation and attitude to achieve their place as China's powerhouse. Far away from Beijing's watchful political eyes, yet supported by state officials who call Shanghai their hometown, the people have a freedom to grow that their counterparts in the capital don't enjoy. That ambition can be witnessed firsthand across Shanghai's Huangpu River, which joins the Yangzi at the northern outskirts of the city. Here lies Shanghai's most important building project -- Pudong New Area, China's 21st-century financial, economic, and commercial center. Pudong, literally "the east side of the river," is home to Shanghai's stock market building, the tallest hotel in the world, the city's international airport, and the world's first commercial "mag lev" (magnetic levitation) train. Rising from land that just a few years ago was dominated by farm fields is the city's pride and joy, the Oriental Pearl Tower -- a gaudy, flashing, spaceshiplike pillar, the tallest in Asia. As Shanghai prepares to host the 2010 World Expo, Pudong is again immersed in a decade-long round of construction. Puxi, the west side of the river and the city centre, has also gone through staggering change. Charming old houses are making way for shiny high-rises. The population is moving from alley housing in the city centre to spanking-new apartments in the suburbs. Architecturally spectacular museums and theaters are catching the world's attention. Malls are popping up on every corner. In 1987 there were about 150 high-rise buildings in the city. Today there are more than 3,000, and the number continues to grow. Shanghai is reputed to be home to one- fifth of all the world's construction cranes. Shanghai's open policy has also made the city a magnet for foreign investors. As millions of dollars pour in, especially to Pudong, Shanghai has again become home to tens of thousands of expatriates. Foreign influence has made today's Shanghai a consumer heaven. Domestic stores rub shoulders with the boutiques of Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Ralph Lauren. Newly made businessmen battle rush-hour traffic in their Mercedes and Lexus cars. Young people keep the city up until the wee hours as they dance the night away in clubs blasting techno music. And everyone walks around with a cell phone. It's not surprising that the Shanghainese enjoy one of the highest living standards in China. Higher salaries and higher buildings, more business and more entertainment -- they all define the fast-paced lives of China's most cosmopolitan and open people. Best in 3 or 5 Days If You Have 3 Days Start with a trip to Yu Garden, sip some tea, and take a walk around the surrounding old Chinese city and its antiques markets. Afterward, work your way over to the Bund for a leisurely stroll, take a quick look at the historic Peace Hotel, and walk down Nanjing Lu to experience Shanghai's busiest street. For dinner, the exceptional M on the Bund offers good views of the river and the Bund lit up at night. The next day take a cab north to Jade Buddha Temple. Afterward, head back to Nanjing Lu if you didn't finish its sights the day before. Spend the afternoon people-watching at People's Square, taking in China's ancient treasures at Shanghai Museum, and swinging over to the nearby Bird and Flower Market. Day 3 can be spent walking in the French Concession, particularly around Huaihai Lu, for a view of old Shanghai and the city's new chic stores. Here you can also tour Sun Yat-sen's former residence and the First Chinese Communist Party Congress site. The evenings of Days 2 and 3 can be spent catching a show of the Shanghai acrobats, relaxing on a night cruise of the Huangpu River, or experiencing Shanghai's happening nightlife. If You Have 5 Days Follow the three-day itinerary and on the fourth day make a trip to Pudong and go to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower or the spectacular Jinmao Tower -- or both -- for a bird's-eye view of the city. On Day 5 go to the Hongkou District to stroll around the old houses and Ohel Moshe Synagogue, take a peek at Lu Xun Park and Memorial, and spend some time on Duolun Lu. Fill any spare time with visits to Shanghai's antiques markets, antique-furniture warehouses, and arts and crafts stores. Japan: Kobe Kyoto Osaka Tokyo Kobe Overview Kobe is a sophisticated and cosmopolitan port city that is known throughout Japan for its international character. Of its population of 1.5 million, some 70,000 residents are gaijin (foreigners). Most are Chinese or Korean, but a noticeable European contingent also lives and works here. Over the years foreign merchants, traders, and sailors have settled in the hills above the port area, and more recently on the man-made Rokko Island in the city's eastern precincts. Western-style houses built in the late 19th century are still inhabited by Kobe's foreign population, although others have been opened to the public as buildings of historical interest. So don't come to Kobe looking for traditional Japan. Instead, visit to experience a new, diverse Japan in a cosmopolitan setting with excellent shopping and international cuisines. Kobe's prosperity derives from its harbour. In the 12th century the Taira family moved the capital from Kyoto to Fukuhara, the western part of modern Kobe, with the hope of increasing Japan's international trade. Fukuhara remained the capital for a mere six months, although its port, known as Hyogo, continued to flourish. When Japan re-established trade with the West in 1868, after a long period of isolationism, the more remote port of Kobe was opened for international traffic, while the port of Hyogo was reserved for domestic shipping. Within a few years, Kobe, slightly northeast of Hyogo, eclipsed it in importance. Kobe's port now handles more than 2 million containers a year and about 10,000 ships. In the decade since the Great Hanshin earthquake, which struck in January 1995 killing more than 5,000 people and destroying some 100,000 buildings, Kobe has all but fully recovered. Indeed, the only cultural attractions completely wiped out were the half-dozen or so 19th- century sake breweries that had been converted into museums. Sights & Activities Kobe is a hill-and-harbour town that brings to mind San Francisco. Downtown Kobe, the site of most businesses, is near the harbor. The rest of Kobe is built on slopes that extend as far as the base of Rokko-san (Mount Rokko). In the middle of the harbour is the man-made Poto Airando (Port Island), which has conference centres, an amusement park, and the Portopia Hotel. The island is linked with downtown by a fully computerized monorail -- with no human conductor. The major nightlife area, Ikuta (a part of the Kitano area), is just north of San-no- miya Station. In the area known as Kitano-cho, wealthy foreigners in the late 19th century set up residences, bringing to Japan Western-style domestic architecture, referred to in Kobe as ijinkan. The district is extremely popular with young Japanese tourists, who enjoy the opportunity of seeing old-fashioned Western houses, which are rare in Japan. The curious mélange of Japanese and Western Victorian and Gothic architecture makes for an interesting walk in the hills of this neighbourhood. Many residences are still inhabited by Westerners, but more than a dozen 19th-century ijinkan in Kitano-cho are open to the public. Seeing all of them can get repetitious. To reach Kitano-cho, take a 15-minute walk north along Kitano-zaka-dori from San-no-miya Eki or a 10-minute walk west along Kitano-dori from Shin-Kobe Eki. Yamamoto-dori (nicknamed Ijinkan-dori) is Kitano's main street, and the ijinkan are on the small side streets ascending the hill. Kyoto Overview A stroll through Kyoto today is a walk through 11 centuries of Japanese history. Steeped in tradition, the city has in many ways been the cradle of Japanese culture, and is still the scene of such courtly aesthetic pastimes as moon-viewing parties and tea ceremonies. Of course the city has been swept into the industrialized, high-tech age along with the rest of Japan -- plate-glass windows dominate central Kyoto and parking lots have replaced traditional town houses. Elderly women, however, continue to wear kimonos as they make their way slowly along the canal walkways. Geisha still entertain, albeit at prices out of reach for most visitors. Sixteen hundred temples and several hundred shrines surround central Kyoto. There's rather a lot to see, to say the least, so keep this in mind and don't run yourself ragged. Balance a morning at temples or museums with an afternoon in traditional shops, and a morning at the market with the rest of the day in Arashiyama or at one of the imperial villas. For more than 1,000 years, from 794 to 1868, Kyoto was Japan's capital, though at times only in name. From 794 to the end of the 12th century, the city flourished. Japan's culture started to grow independent of Chinese influences and to develop its unique characteristics. Unfortunately, the use of wood for construction, coupled with Japan's two primordial enemies, fire and earthquakes, has destroyed all the buildings from this era, except Byodo-in in Uji. The short life span of a building in the 11th century is exemplified by the Imperial Palace, which burned down 14 times in 122 years. As if natural disasters were not enough, imperial power waned in the 12th century. There followed a period of shogunal rule, but each shogun's reign was tenuous. By the 15th century civil wars tore the country apart. Many of Kyoto's buildings were destroyed or looted. Not until the end of the 16th century, when Japan was brought together by the might of Nobunaga Oda and Hideyoshi Toyotomi, did Japan settle down. This period was soon followed by the usurpation of power by Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which lasted for the next 264 years. Tokugawa moved the political centre of the country to Edo, present-day Tokyo. Kyoto did remain the imperial capital -- the emperor being little more than a figurehead -- and the first three Tokugawa shoguns paid homage to it by restoring old temples and building new villas. In the first half of the 17th century, this was yet another show of Tokugawa power. Much of what you see in Kyoto today dates from this period. But such was Kyoto's decline in the 17th and 18th centuries that when the power of the government was returned from the shoguns to the emperor, he moved his capital and imperial court to Edo, renaming it Tokyo. Though that move may have pained Kyoto residents, it actually saved the city from destruction. While most major cities in Japan were bombed flat in World War II, Kyoto survived. And where old quarters of Tokyo have been replaced with characterless modern buildings -- a fate that Kyoto has shared in part -- much of the city's wooden architecture of the past still stands. Sights & Activities Most of Kyoto's interesting sights are north of Kyoto Station. Think of this northern sector as three rectangular areas abutting each other. The middle rectangle fronts the exit of Kyoto station. This is central Kyoto. Here are the hotels, the business district, the Ponto-cho geisha district, and the Kiya-machi entertainment district. Central Kyoto also contains one of the oldest city temples, Toji; the rebuilt Imperial Palace; and Nijo-jo, the onetime Kyoto abode of the Tokugawa shoguns. Eastern Kyoto, Higashiyama, is chockablock with temples and shrines, among them Ginkaku-ji, Heian Jingu, and Kiyomizu-dera. Gion -- a traditional shopping neighborhood by day and a geisha entertainment district by night -- is also here. You could easily fill two days visiting eastern Kyoto. Western Kyoto includes the temples Ryoan-ji and Kinkaku-ji, and Katsura Rikyu, a bit south. You need three days just to skim over these three areas. However, two other areas have major sights to lure you. West of the western district is Arashiyama, with its temple, Tenryu-ji. And north of central Kyoto are Hiei-zan and the suburb of Ohara, where the poignant story of Kenreimonin takes place at Jakko-in. Kyoto's sights spread over a wide area, but many of them are clustered together, and you can walk from one to another. Where the sights are not near each other, you can use Kyoto's buses, which run on a grid pattern that's easy to follow. Pick up route maps at the JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization) office. The following exploring sections keep to the divisions described above so as to allow walking from one sight to another. However, notwithstanding traffic and armed with a bus map, you could cross and recross Kyoto without too much difficulty, stringing together sights of your own choosing. Unlike other Japanese cities, Kyoto was modeled on the grid pattern of the Chinese city of Xian. Accordingly, addresses in the city are organized differently than in other parts of the country. Residents will assure you that this makes the city easier to navigate; confounded tourists may disagree. Many of the streets are named and east-west streets are numbered -- the san in San-jo-dori, for example, means "three." Nishi-iru means "to the west," higashi-iru, "to the east." Agaru is "to the north" and sagaru "to the south." These directions are normally given in relation to the closest intersection. Thus the restaurant Ogawa's address, Kiya- machi, Oike-agaru, Higashi-iru means, "Kiyamachi street, north of Oike on the east side." Admission to Kyoto sights adds up. Over the course of three days, charges of ¥400-¥600 at each sight can easily come to $100 per person. Osaka Overview Japan's second city in terms of industry, commerce, and technology, Osaka is known for its dynamic spirit, superb restaurants, and Bunraku puppet theatre. It's not a window to Japan's past -- go to Kyoto and Nara for that -- but a storefront display of what moves the country today. Anyone older than 70 in Japan remembers Osaka as an exotic maze of crisscrossing waterways that provided transportation for the booming merchant trade. All but a few of the canals and nearly all of the traditional wooden buildings were destroyed by the bombings of World War II. Architecturally, the city has leapt into the future with such buildings as the Imperial Hotel on the bank of the Yodo-gawa (Yodo River), the inverted U-shape of the Umeda Sky Building, and the enormous Ferris wheel on top of the HEP Five complex. The city is working hard to restore some of the beauty that was lost, with a strong movement for establishing green natural areas. Osaka is still a merchant city, with many streets devoted to wholesale commerce. For example, medical and pharmaceutical companies congregate in Dosho-machi, and fireworks and toys are found in Matcha-machi-suji, which is also famous for shopping. Head to Umeda, Shin-Sai-bashi, or Namba for the greatest concentration of department stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. The city's nightlife is also legendary. Be sure to stroll through the Dotombori-dori area, beside Dotombori-gawa (Dotombori River), which has more nightclubs and bars per square foot than any other part of town. Although Osaka may not have many sights of historical interest, it's a good, central starting point for trips to Nara, Kyoto, Koya-san (Mt. Koya), and Kobe. Sights & Activities Osaka is divided into 26 wards, and though the official city population is only 2.6 million, if you were to include the rest of Osaka Prefecture, this number would jump to nearly 9 million. Central Osaka is predominantly a business district, with some shopping and entertainment. The JR Kanjo-sen (Loop Line) circles the city centre. Osaka Station, the primary train station for the city, is at the north end of this loop. In front of Osaka Station, to the east of Hankyu Umeda Station, is the center of Kita-ku (Kita Ward), one of Osaka's major shopping areas. Although ultramodern skyscrapers soar above the streets, Umeda Chika Centre is an underground maze of malls, crowded with dozens of restaurants, shops that carry the latest fashions, and department stores that sell every modern gadget. If you continue south, you come to two rivers, Dojima-gawa and Tosabori-gawa, with the Naka-no-shima (Inner Island) separating them. Here's Osaka's oldest park, which is home to many of the city's cultural and administrative institutions, including the Bank of Japan and the Municipal Art Museum of Asian Ceramics. South of these rivers and Naka-no-shima are the Minami and Shin-Sai-bashi districts, though the boundary between the two is hard to distinguish. Shin-Sai-bashi was once Osaka's most expensive shopping street, but with the downturn in the economy in the 1990s it has become less exclusive, especially at its southern end. Nearby Amerika Mura, with its cubbyhole-size fashion outlets, and Yoroppa Mura, with continental boutiques, appeal to young Osaka trendsetters. Minami-ku has a wonderful assortment of bars and restaurants, especially on Dotombori-dori. The National Bunraku Theater is also close by, a few blocks southeast, near the Nippon-bashi subway station. If you come by train you're likely to arrive by Shinkansen at Shin-Osaka Station. Three kilometers (2 mi) north of Osaka Station, the main railway station, amid some of the city's most modern architecture, Shin-Osaka is close to Senri Expo Park. To get to the city center from Shin-Osaka Station, take either the Mido-suji subway line to Umeda or, if you have a Japan Rail Pass, the JR Kobe Line to Osaka Station. The Umeda subway station and Osaka Station are next to each other, on the edge of central Osaka. Tokyo Overview Tokyo is a state-of-the-art financial marketplace, where billions of dollars are whisked electronically around the globe every day in the blink of an eye. A city of astonishing beauty in small details, Tokyo also has some of the ugliest buildings on the planet and generates more than 20,000 tons of garbage a day. Life was simpler here in the 12th century, when Tokyo was a little fishing village called Edo (pronounced "eh-doh"), near the mouth of the Sumida-gawa on the Kanto Plain. The Kanto was a strategic granary, large and fertile; over the next 400 years it was governed by a succession of warlords and other rulers. One of them, Dokan Ota, built the first castle in Edo in 1457. That act is still officially regarded as the founding of the city, but the honor really belongs to Ieyasu ("ee-eh-ya-su"), the first Tokugawa shogun, who arrived in 1590. A key figure in the civil wars of the 16th century. By 1680 there were more than a million people here, and a great city had grown up out of the reeds in the marshy lowlands of Edo Bay. Tokyo can only really be understood as a jo-ka- machi -- a castle town. Ieyasu had fought his way to the shogunate, and he had a warrior's concern for the geography of his capital. Edo-jo (Edo Castle) had the high ground, but that wasn't enough; all around it, at strategic points, he gave large estates to allies and trusted retainers. These lesser lords' villas would also be garrisons, outposts on a perimeter of defence. Farther out, he kept the barons he trusted least of all -- whom he controlled by bleeding their treasuries. He required them to keep large, expensive establishments in Edo; to contribute generously to the temples he endowed; to come and go in alternate years in great pomp and ceremony; and, when they returned to their estates, to leave their families -- in effect, hostages -- behind. All this, the Edo of feudal estates, of villas and gardens and temples, lay south and west of Edo-jo. It was called Yamanote -- the Bluff, the uptown. Here, all was order, discipline, and ceremony; every man had his rank and duties (very few women were within the garrisons). Almost from the beginning, those duties were less military than bureaucratic. Ieyasu's precautions worked like a charm, and the Tokugawa dynasty enjoyed 250 years of unbroken peace. The shogunate was overthrown in 1867. The following year, Emperor Meiji moved his court from Kyoto to Edo and renamed it Tokyo: the Eastern Capital. By now the city was home to nearly 2 million people, and the geography was vastly more complex. As it grew, it became not one but many smaller cities, with different centres of commerce, government, entertainment, and transportation. In Yamanote rose the commercial emporia, office buildings, and public halls that made up the architecture of an emerging modern state. The firebombings of 1945 left Tokyo, for the most part, in rubble. That utter destruction could have been an opportunity to rebuild on the rational order of cities like Kyoto, Barcelona, or Washington. No such plan was ever made. Tokyo reverted to type: it became once again an aggregation of small towns and villages. One village was much like any other; the nucleus was always the shoten-gai, the shopping arcade. People seldom moved out of these villages. The vast waves of new residents who arrived after World War II -- about three-quarters of the people in the Tokyo metropolitan area today were born elsewhere -- just created more villages. People who lived in the villages knew their way around, so there was no particular need to name the streets. Outsiders rarely venture very far into the labyrinths of residential Tokyo. Especially for travelers, the city defines itself by its commercial, cultural, and entertainment centres: Ueno, Asakusa, Ginza, Roppongi, Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Tokyo is still really two areas, Shitamachi and Yamanote. The heart of Shitamachi, proud and stubborn in its Edo ways, is Asakusa; the dividing line is Ginza, west of which lie the boutiques and depato, the banks and engines of government, the pleasure domes and cafés. Today there are 13 subway lines in full operation that weave the two areas together. Tokyo has no remarkable skyline, no prevailing style of architecture. Many of the buildings are merely grotesque. In the large scale, Tokyo is not an attractive city -- neither is it gracious, and it is certainly not serene. The pace of life is wedded to the one stupefying fact of population: within a 36-km (22-mi) radius of the Imperial Palace live almost 30 million souls, all of them in a hurry and all of them ferocious consumers -- not merely of things but of culture and leisure. The city is a magnet, and there are very real reasons why it draws so many to its fascinating and busy core. Sights & Activities The distinctions of Shitamachi (literally "downtown," to the north and east) and Yamanote (literally "uptown," to the south and west) have shaped the character of Tokyo since the 17th century and will guide you as you explore the city. Tokyo north and east of the Imperial Palace embodies more of the city's history, its traditional way of life, whereas the fruit of modernity -- contemporary, international Tokyo -- generally lies south and west. For a place its size, Tokyo is an extremely easy city to negotiate. If you have any anxieties about getting from place to place, remind yourself first that a transportation system obliged to cope with 4 or 5 million commuters a day simply has to be efficient, extensive, and reasonably easy to understand. Virtually any place you're likely to go as a visitor is within a 15-minute walk of a train or subway station -- and station stops are always marked in English. India: Bombay - Mumbai Calcutta Delhi Jaipur Udaipur Bombay Overview There's plenty to see in Bombay, but not generally in the form of stationary monuments like those in London, Paris, or even Delhi. The art of experiencing Bombay lies in eating, shopping, and wandering through strikingly different neighbourhoods and markets. The best way to see Bombay is to immerse yourself in the city's pulsing life and soak up the aspects that blend and clash to make the city utterly unique. Bombay is essentially a 30-mi-long open- air bazaar. Churchgate and Nariman Point are the business and hotel centres. Major bank and airline headquarters are clustered in skyscrapers on Nariman Point. The district referred to as Fort -- which includes Bombay's hub, Flora Fountain, in a square now called Hutatma Chowk -- is the city's commercial heart, its narrow, bustling streets lined with small shops and office buildings, as well as a number of colleges and other educational facilities. Farther north, Kemps Corner is a trendy area with expensive boutiques, exclusive restaurants, and high- priced homes. Another upscale residential neighborhood, Malabar Hill, is older -- leafy, breezy, and lovely, with fine, old stone mansions housing wealthy industrialists and government ministers. Shopping and people-watching are most colorfully combined in Bombay's chaotic bazaar areas, such as Chor Bazaar, Zaveri (Jewelry) Bazaar, and Mahatma Jyotiba Phule (Crawford) Market. More recently, Bombay's suburbs have seen explosive business and residential development, as more and more people move out of Bombay centre to escape its soaring real-estate prices and simple lack of space. Many of the city's newest and trendiest shops and restaurants are out here. A number of travellers opt to stay in Juhu Beach, a popular coastal suburb between Bombay and the airports (about 20 km/12 mi north of the city centre). Alas, Juhu's beaches are polluted and unsafe for swimming, and the general look of the place is scruffy and honky-tonk, but staying out here is a nice way to observe everyday Indian life outside the shadow of Bombay's skyline. Sunday nights bring families down to the beach for an old-fashioned carnival, complete with small, hand-powered Ferris wheels, and lantern-lit snack stalls hawking sugar cane. Sights & Activities The most manageable, and probably the most colourful, walks in Bombay centre on the Fort district. If Bombay is the first stop on your first trip to India, remember that sightseeing here is nothing like touring, say, Europe -- the streets are packed, some lack sidewalks, traffic takes many forms, crosswalks are a rarity, and people may stare or call out to you with sales pitches as you pass. Stopping to take a picture can make you feel terribly conspicuous. You'll get used to it soon enough, however, and will quickly learn to revel in the whole masala whirlwind. Calcutta Overview Calcutta is a dynamo-exhausting and exhaustive-and a visit here is essential if you really want to experience India. It's the country's best city for walkers, with streets that tell stories: Old mansions, dripping with moss and spotted with mildew, remind us of its affluent history tied to cultures and people-Armenians, Bengalis, the British, and Marwari merchants from Rajasthan; vast bazaars reveal clues to today's Bengali culture; and the pavement dwellers show the daily rhythm and rigors of their own difficult lives. Sights & Activities Overview Calcutta's entire metropolitan district covers 426 square kilometers (264 square miles) and is home to over 12 million people. It consists of two municipal corporation areas, Calcutta and Howrah. They straddle the Hooghly River, with Calcutta on the east side and Howrah, a constantly expanding suburb that holds Calcutta's massive train station, on the west. In Calcutta itself, the Howrah Bridge spills into Bara Bazaar, a vibrant wholesale market area. North Calcutta includes Bara Bazaar and Calcutta University and extends to the distant neighbourhood of Chitpur and the Jain Temple in Tala. The heart of Central Calcutta remains B.B.D. Bagh, where commerce and government have been concentrated since British rule. Central Calcutta holds the Maidan park, the crowded bazaar at New Market, and the upmarket shops and restaurants on Park Street. At the south end of the Maidan are the Victoria Memorial and Calcutta's racecourse. South Calcutta has the Kali Temple and the late Mother Teresa's hospice in Kalighat and the National Library and zoo in Alipore. To the east is the Science City complex. Despite its congestion, Calcutta is a fairly manageable city. Take a cab to or from the area you're visiting, then rely on your feet or a sturdy rickshaw. It is not a good city for driving. Delhi Overview Delhi rewards the determined sightseer with more than a thousand monuments and two old capital building complexes -- including the present seat of the government, designed by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (born 1869-1944). Cosmopolitan hotels, shopping, and fine restaurants abound. Delhi also offers a glimpse into the real India: the labyrinthine street bazaars of Old Delhi, and the temples and monuments of India's checkered colonial past. In the deepest sense, from Old Delhi's Red Fort and Jama Masjid mosque to New Delhi's chic art galleries and nightclubs, Delhi is a profoundly Indian city. Turbaned shepherds still lead goats and sheep through ravines in Delhi's remaining open fields and near the airports. In Delhi's golf course, Muslim monuments share the fairways with peacocks. Eunuchs sashay past shops that sell Western products on Connaught Place. Rajasthani women in bright saris and men in lungis (skirtlike wraps) work with outdated tools on construction sites while executives work out on computerized equipment in health clubs. By day, temples are packed with the devout, and by night, hotel discos are packed with the affluent. You'll see sadhus (Hindu holy men) walking along the streets while young men zoom around on motorcycles. Delhi is a city on the move -- it's the gateway to the northern regions, and the seat of India's government. Don't be surprised if you see cavalcades of cars forcing traffic to the side of the road. These are the many VIP, VVIP, and VVVIP politicians of India's Parliament. It's no secret that movers and shakers predominate here -- the decisions and behaviour of Delhi's political big shots are the talk of the town. You can say a lot of things about Delhi, but you can't accuse it of being a humdrum town. Sights & Activities Except for Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, where lanes are too narrow for cars, Delhi is not a walker's city. But even in Chandni Chowk, watch out for fast-moving carts and overloaded humans who plow through whatever is in their way. The city has few sidewalks, and even these are subject to open manholes, dangling electric wires, and excrement. To make it easier on yourself, hire a car, taxi, or auto-rickshaw to get around. The geographic centre of Delhi is Connaught Place. South of Old Delhi, this was the commercial hub of the British Raj. Every attempt to spruce up this district seems to grind to a halt; the old buildings that ring the green traffic circle are getting a face-lift, but there's still plenty of trash and not a single trash basket. Connaught Place is also a haunt of beggars, unlicensed money changers, and others engaged in dubious pursuits. About 2 km (1 mi) south of Connaught Place is the Imperial City. Designed by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), it includes Rashtrapati Bhavan (the Presidential Palace), the North and South Secretariats, and the Sansad Bhavan (Parliament House). Just southwest of here is the Diplomatic Enclave; to the east is India Gate, a monument to British Indian Army soldiers killed in World War I and the Afghan wars. Southeast of India Gate and not far from the Oberoi hotel are the Purana Qila (Old Fort) and Humayun's Tomb; almost due south of India Gate is Lodi Gardens. The entire area surrounding these landmarks is filled with tree-lined boulevards, lovely old bungalows, and affluent residential neighbourhoods. Be prepared to remove your shoes when visiting religious institutions, including the Charity Birds Hospital. Women should bring a scarf to cover their heads. Shorts are not appropriate for adults of either gender. Rajasthan: Udaipur & Jaipur Overview Once called Rajputana -- "Abode of Kings" -- this vast land consisted of more than 22 princely states before they were consolidated into modern Rajasthan in 1956. Each state was ruled by a Rajput, an upper-caste Hindu warrior-prince, and the Rajputs were divided into three main clans: the Suryavanshis, descended from the sun, the Chandravanshis, descended from the moon, and the agnikuls, who had been purified by ritual fire. When they were not fighting among themselves for power, wealth, and women, the Rajputs built the hundreds of forts, palaces, gardens, and temples that make this region so enchanting. With its stark colours and rich folk traditions, Rajasthan is one of India's most popular tourist destinations. The region is home to numerous cultural festivals, crafts fairs, and religious gatherings throughout the year. In the last decade, Rajasthan's poverty rate has plunged and the literacy rate skyrocketed to almost double what it was. Tensions with Pakistan have, in the past, made some people wary of coming here, but there is really nothing to fear. The cities and people remain lively and unaffected. If You Have 3 Days Fly into Udaipur and spend the day wandering the narrow, hilly lanes of the old city and visiting the vast City Palace. That evening, take a boat ride on Lake Pichola or a cab up to the Monsoon Palace at sunset. If you can, stay at the Lake Palace Hotel, smack in the middle of the lake -- it's a sight in itself. The next day, fly to Jaipur and explore the pink-hue old city. Take a taxi out of town to the Amer Fort and Palace, then spend the night in one of Jaipur's havelis or palace hotels. On your third day, hire a car and driver to explore Shekhavati, stopping in villages such as Jhunjhunu and Mandawa to see the lovely havelis, some with magnificent frescoes. Treat yourself to a meal at one of the Heritage Hotels. From here you can easily drive to Delhi. If You Have 6 Days As on the three-day itinerary, fly into Udaipur and spend a day and a night here. Try to pop outside the city to the crafts village of Shilpgram. The next day, drive northwest to the Jain temple at Ranakpur, and spend a few hours exploring the temple and the surrounding countryside. Continue on to Jodhpur and spend the night in one of the city's splendid hotels. Head up to the fort the next morning, then spend the day exploring Jodhpur itself. Take the overnight train to Jaisalmer and spend Day 4 and the following night here. The morning of Day 5, embark on a half-day camel trek. Return to Jaisalmer in time for dinner and the overnight train back to Jodhpur. On your last day, fly to Jaipur to see the Amer Fort and Palace and the delightfully pink-colour old city. If You Have 10 Days Spend your first day exploring Jaipur. After a night in one of Jaipur's luxurious hotels, hire a car, and leave early for a trip to one of Rajasthan's wildlife parks. Bharatpur, on the eastern edge of the state, is one of the finest bird sanctuaries in India; if you prefer tigers, head to Ranthambhore National Park. Spend the afternoon in the great outdoors and the night at a park lodge, then venture out early the following morning to watch the animals as they wake. Leave the park on Day 3 for Shekhavati (it's a long, approximately 300 km (185 mi) drive from Bharatpur or Ranthambhore to the heart of Shekhavati). Spend your third night at one of the Heritage Hotels in this region, and drive back to Jaipur on Day 4. From Jaipur, fly to Jaisalmer and consider devoting Days 5 and 6 to a camel safari, which means you'll be sleeping in the desert those two nights. Fly or take the overnight train to Jodhpur for Day 7. Fly the next morning to Udaipur, and splurge on one of the city's magical hotels for your last two nights here. If you like temple architecture, make a detour to the Jain temples at Ranakpur and Mount Abu or the Hindu temples at Nathdwara. Leave Rajasthan on Day 10. This is a crowded schedule, but you'll get to see most of Rajasthan's highlights. Nepal: Kathmandu Kathmandu Overview Kathmandu wears its past like a proud diva showing off a string of pearls: It is home to dozens of shrines and temples and a citizenship rightly proud of their glorious, artistic past. Artisans still create beautiful woodwork, metalwork, and handicrafts using ancient tools and techniques. For hundreds of years Kathmandu was one of three rival royal cities of Nepal, along with Bhaktapur and Patan. Kathmandu has been the sole capital city since Prithvi Narayan Shah unified the country in 1768. Today, home to 700,000 people, it is a painter's palette of brilliant, colourful saris, and a cacophony of languages and dialects holding trading matches at top pitch, while motorcycles, trucks, buses, and cars zoom past. Each street smells of a different curry, a new incense. It is a vibrant valley of life, where you can stand on any city street and watch a hundred minidramas unfold around. According to legend, Kathmandu was founded by King Gunakama Deva in the latter half of the 10th century. In a dream, the goddess Mahalakshmi told the king to build a city where the Vishnumati flows into the Bagmati. The new city was named Kantipur and built in the shape of a kharg (the goddess' sword), which was a symbol of enlightenment. The king moved his palace from Patan to Kathmandu and established the city. The Mallas would later build temples in this city, but it was not until Prithvi Narayan Shah came along that Kathmandu really took charge. A wide street, Kantipath, was constructed, with palaces, schools, and barracks built off this road. More palaces were built by the Ranas in the 1900s, but many were destroyed in massive earthquake in 1934. New Road was constructed after the earthquake, linking Kantipath with Old Kathmandu, a route taxi drivers still use to get to Durbar Square. Kathmandu, for many travellers, is also the gateway to the Himal. These mountains have inspired, crushed, awed, and subdued mountaineers from around the world, and are perhaps Nepal's greatest asset. Home to eight of the world's ten highest peaks, the Himal dominate Nepal. They fill the rivers with life-supplying water, yet crush villages with the slides that often follow storms. When clouds shroud the peaks, locals seem to slump into a depression, as if a faithful friend has gone away. When the weather is clear, visitors who curse at alarm clocks at home are up before dawn, awaiting the sun's first beams to give them a glimpse of the stone giants. Sights & Activities Starting from Durbar Marg or Thamel, pick any lane heading southwest, and walk toward Durbar Square. To and fro -- you will wander through the walkways of Old Kathmandu. There are almost always four or five routes to the same site, so trust your instincts and follow the sights, sounds, and scents of Kathmandu. Do not worry about getting lost; bicycle rickshaw drivers abound. They can take you back to familiar routes or your hotel if you find yourself spun around in a maze of alleyways. The driver probably will not speak English, but he will understand if you signal with your hands that you want to go around the Durbar Square area, or if you read off the names of the sites from your map. You might prefer this conversational struggle to hiring a guide, because in these alleys you really want to be able to spend as much or as little time as you like lingering. The Kathmandu Valley is often labeled a "living museum," as there is plenty to see. In the poorest sections, where you might expect life to be drab, you will find houses with potted plants set along the ledges. Brilliant, jewel-colour saris cascade down from window sills, drying in the wind. Women, wearing saris or Tibetan chubas (wraparound dresses that are a uniquely practical ethnic costume) ride sidesaddle on the motorbikes, a balancing act only outmatched by the huge piles carried on peoples' heads. A funny sight for sure: men walking ducks or goats on a rope lead, weaving their way around the free-roaming cows who sleep in the road. Philippines: Manila Manila Overview The urban sprawl that is metropolitan Manila (it's made up of the cities of Manila, Makati, Pasay, Quezon, Caloocan, and Pasig, plus 12 towns) is a fascinating, even surreal, combination of modernity and tradition. In Manila's streets you'll see horse-drawn calesas (carriages) alongside sleek Mercedes-Benzes, Japanese sedans, passenger buses, and the ubiquitous passenger jeepneys -- once converted World War II Jeeps but now manufactured locally. Built by the Spanish conquistadors in 1571 as Intramuros, a fortified settlement on the ashes of a Malay town, Manila spread outward over the centuries, so that the oldest districts are those closest to Intramuros. Yet very few buildings attest to the city's antiquity, since it suffered extensive damage during World War II, more than any other city except Warsaw, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Because Metro Manila is a conglomeration of cities and towns, it lacks a defined center, and you certainly won't find an easy-to-navigate grid layout. Adding to the confusion is a lack of consistent urban planning. Like many cities in developing nations, Metro Manila has its share of congestion, pollution, and poverty. The large slum of Tondo is dominated by a huge pile of garbage known as Smoky Mountain for the endless burning of trash fires. Here the poor live in cardboard shanties and scavenge for a living. But the 10 million inhabitants of the "noble and ever loyal city" -- as Manila was described by its Spanish overlords -- have a joie de vivre that transcends their struggles. Sights & Activities Metropolitan Manila has a roughly crescent shape, with Manila Bay and the scenic Roxas Boulevard forming the western boundary. The Epifanio de los Santos Highway (EDSA) forms the eastern border. The Pasig River divides the city into northern and southern sections, with the oldest districts, including Intramuros, near where the river empties into Manila Bay. Intramuros, Manila's ancient walled city, was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century. It's a compact 7.5 square km (3 square mi). Within this small area, churches, schools, convents, offices, and residences were constructed -- the latter reserved for the Spanish and Spanish mestizos only. In its heyday, Intramuros -- with its seven drawbridges and encircling moat -- must have presented a magnificent sight to visiting galleons. The moat, filled in by the Americans to prevent the spread of disease, is now a golf course, but the walls are still formidable, with cannon emplacements and a strategic location facing the bay. North of the Pasig River, Manila is poor and crowded, but also full of the past. The streets are narrow, with a mix of small businesses and residential buildings. Manilans say a foreigner should come here to get a true feel for down-home Philippine neighbourhoods. North of Pasig lie the Ermita and Malate districts, which form the so-called Tourist Belt. The districts are bordered by Roxas Boulevard to the west, Taft Avenue to the east, Intramuros to the north, and Pablo Ocampo Senior Street to the south. On Roxas are nightclubs, the Cultural Center of the Philippines complex, hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, Rizal Park, and Intramuros. On Taft Avenue are the Light Rail Transit line, universities, shops, stores, and several hospitals. In between are bars and cocktail lounges, the infamous go-go joints, massage parlours, and shopping malls. Singapore Singapore Overview To arrive in Singapore is to step into a world where the call to prayer competes with the bustle of capitalism; where old men play mah-jongg in the streets and white-clad bowlers send the ball flying down well-tended cricket pitches; where Chinese fortune-tellers and high-priced management consultants advise the same entrepreneur. This great diversity of lifestyles, cultures, and religions thrives within the framework of a well-ordered society. Singapore is a spotlessly clean -- some say sterile -- modern metropolis surrounded by green, groomed parks and populated by 4 million orderly and well-regulated people, including many foreigners. Although the Malays, Chinese, and Indians account for 98% of Singapore's population, other ethnic groups -- from Eurasians to Filipinos and Thais -- contribute significantly to the cultural mix. Understandably, the heritage of the British colonial stay is profoundly felt even though Singapore became fully independent in 1965. Sights & Activities The main island of Singapore is shaped like a flattened diamond, 42 km (26 mi) east to west and 23 km (14 mi) north to south. Near the northern peak is the causeway leading to peninsular Malaysia -- Kuala Lumpur is less than four hours away by car. At the southern foot is Singapore city, with its gleaming office towers and working docks. Offshore are Sentosa and some 60 smaller islands -- most of them uninhabited -- that serve as bases for oil refining or as playgrounds or beach escapes from the city. To the east is Changi International Airport, connected to the city by a parkway lined for miles with amusement centres of one sort or another. Of the island's total land area, more than half is built up, with the balance made up of parkland, farmland, plantations, swamp areas, and forest. Well-paved roads connect all parts of the island, and Singapore city has an excellent public transportation system. The heart of Singapore's history and its modern wealth are in Colonial Singapore. The area stretches from the skyscrapers in the financial district to the 19th-century Raffles Hotel and from the supermodern convention centres of Marina Square to the Singapore History Museum and Ft. Canning. Although most of old Singapore has been knocked down to make way for the modern city, in Colonial Singapore most major landmarks have been preserved, including early-19th-century buildings designed by Irish architect George Coleman. Thailand: Bangkok Bangkok Overview There are two Bangkok's, the ancient soul of Thailand with its long and fascinating history and the frantic modern metropolis that embraces the latest trends both Eastern and Western. The two blend together remarkably well -- even the most jarring juxtapositions of old and new will start to make sense after a few days, and shrines in front of car dealerships or monks on all manner of public transportation will be sights soon taken for granted. Bangkok is not only the biggest city in Thailand, but also the most mesmerizing, with some of the country's most beautiful temples and shrines. Sunset at Wat Arun on the river is downright humbling, and even people with no interest in history will be impressed with the Grand Palace. The city's energy is palpable, especially at night, when traffic opens up a bit, its famous markets get going, and everything seems lit up from its proudest monuments to its seediest streets. While tourism is huge in Bangkok, the city's identity and its economy is not as dependent on it as some other places in the region. This can be a good thing for visitors because they get to experience a real city -- with all its problems and advantages -- not a theme park. The Grand Palace may be a world-class attraction, but it's not there for tourism; it's Bangkok's most revered and often-visited site, and Thais enter for free. That's not to say Bangkok is perfect. There's much to criticize about this city of 12 million people (nearly one-fifth of Thailand's total population). It's hot and humid and the pollution is so bad, traffic cops often wear gas masks to protect themselves from the fumes. But other problems are improving, the canals (klongs) are slowly being cleaned, the number of trees has dramatically increased and more green areas have been set aside. The biggest improvements to the city have been the Skytrain, which opened in 1999, and the subway, which opened in 2004. Coupled with the river express boats, moving around most parts of Bangkok has become relatively easy. While traffic continues to be nightmarish, the Skytrain breezes people along, high above that gridlock. The Skytrain and subway also help organize the city, which, with its multiple city centres, can be rather confusing. Perhaps a bigger critical issue is that a disproportionate amount of Thailand's wealth is in Bangkok. It's the financial, business, and entertainment capital of the country, as well as its government centre. It's like Washington D.C., New York, and Los Angeles wrapped into one. In many respects is has grown apart from the rest of the country. The national government often acts like a city administration dealing with city development issues while the country at large can appear neglected. The city's wealth speaks, and the city residents demand attention. As much of the country keeps its traditions, Bangkok seems more brash in abandoning them. Some social critics say in Thailand people revere the Buddha, but in Bangkok they worship the Baht. Thais call their capital Krung Thep, which means "City of Angels." The full name actually means a bit more than that and has 280 letters or so, depending on the translation. The city went through several name changes until 1972 when a new government administration named it the first two words of the original name, Krungthep Mahanakhon. King Rama I named the original city after founding the capital in 1782. Rama I also founded the Royal House of Chakri, under which the present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the ninth king. Rama I moved the capital across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi because he felt "the village of the wild plum trees, " as he called Bangkok, would be easier to defend against possible Burmese attacks from here. Rama I set out to build a city as beautiful as the old capital of Ayutthaya was before it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767. Though some may contend that Bangkok's beauty has faded in the face of so much concrete, there certainly is no shortage of things to marvel at -- from the requisite temples to fierce Thai boxing matches to the labyrinthine streets of the older neighbourhoods to the sudden shift of congested streets into a flower market. You may not fall in love with Bangkok, but you'll never forget it. Best in 2 or 3 Days If the jet lag and heat don't slow you down too much, you can cover a good number of Bangkok's attractions in three days. In another two days you can see more of the city or take short trips outside it. Between the Skytrain, subway, and express boats on the Chao Phraya River, you should be able to get most places with relative ease. Planning around Bangkok's traffic is a must, so look for sights near public transportation or close enough to one another to visit on the same day. If You Have 2 Days Start Day 1 with the most famous of all Bangkok sights, the Grand Palace. In the same complex is the gorgeously ornate Wat Phra Keo. Not far south of the Grand Palace is Bangkok's oldest and largest temple, Wat Po, famous for its enormous Reclining Buddha and for being the home of the development of traditional Thai massage. Later head toward Banglamphu to take the river walk from Pinklao Bridge to Santichaiprakarn Park. That will put you on Phra Athit Road, where you can find many good restaurants and bars. If you feel up for more after that take a tuk-tuk the short distance to Khao San Road for some shopping and more strolling. Another option is to go from Wat Po to the National Museum and then head to Phra Athit for dinner. On Day 2 take a taxi to Wat Benjamabophit, which contains Bangkok's much-photographed Marble Temple. From there take a taxi to Wat Traimit so you can pay respects to its perfectly harmonious and glittering image of the Buddha. Your next stop should be Chinatown. Work your way to the Chao Phraya River and catch an express boat to the Saphan Taksin Skytrain stop. If it's a weekend head to Kukrit Pramoj Heritage House; if it's a weekday, visit Jim Thompson's House. Take the Skytrain in the evening to Sukhumvit Road, where there are many good restaurants. If You Have 3-4 Days Start Day 1 at the Grand Palace. Visit the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Keo, then walk to Wat Po to see the Reclining Buddha. Cross the river to Wat Arun, the beautiful Temple of Dawn, and climb the large spire for views of the entire city. Take an express boat upstream to the Royal Barge Museum; the barges displayed are used on ceremonial occasions. Return to the Bangkok side, and if there's time remaining spend the rest of the afternoon browsing around the National Museum, or stroll the river walk from Pinklao Bridge to Santichaiprakarn Park. From there you can walk down to Phra Athit to one of its many restaurants. Start Day 2 at Wat Benjamabophit. South of the Marble Temple is the golden dome of Wat Saket, and the metal temple of Wat Rachanatdaram. Now head to Chinatown for a little shopping before finding harmony at Wat Traimit. From there it's a short walk to the Hua Lamphong subway station, were you can go two stops to Silom station. Walk down Silom Road for great restaurants and night markets. Patpong Road also has a fun night market. On Day 3 buy a one-day Skytrain pass and start at Jim Thompson's House, then go to Suan Pakkard Palace. Get back on the Skytrain and go to the river for a klong tour in Thonburi, which your hotel can arrange. Head back to the Skytrain and go to Sukhumvit Road for dinner. Day 4 could easily be filled with shopping if you've seen enough sights. If it's the weekend, be sure to explore the madness of Chatuchak market. Another must-see weekend sight is Kukrit Pramoj Heritage House; you could start there and take the Skytrain to Chatuchak afterwards. Vietnam: Hanoi Ho Chi Minh City Hanoi Overview Hanoi, the self-appointed stronghold of "true" Vietnamese, anti-imperialist culture, has learned to covet satellite TV and blue jeans. The country's leaders let in a flood of overseas investment from China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, and even the United States and Australia, and now the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam relishes its newfound economic liberalization despite itself. Although Western fashions, music, and food have managed to elbow their way into the once-impenetrable north, Hanoi is appealing because it retains its ancient culture, French colonial architecture, broad tree-lined boulevards, and beautiful lakes. Sights & Activities Hanoi is divided into four main districts, or quan. The Hoan Kiem District, named after the lake at its centre, stretches from the railway tracks to the river, north of Nguyen Du Street, and is the hub of all local and tourist activity. Just north of the lake is the Old Quarter, a charming cluster of ancient streets. South of the lake you'll find the modern city centre, once the French Quarter, which houses grand colonial- style villas that have been turned into hotels and offices; the best examples of French-era architecture are around Dien Bien Phu Street and Le Hong Phong Street, where embassies line the road. The Ba Dinh District includes the zoo, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, and areas around West Lake. Stately buildings, fine hotels, and open spaces define the area. North of both Ba Dinh and Hoan Kiem is picturesque West Lake. The Hai Ba Trung District, which covers the southeast part of Hanoi, is a calm, elegant residential area; the primary attraction here is Lenin Park, in the northwest corner of the district. The Dong Da District, to the southwest, is where the Temple of Literature can be found (along its northern edge). Unlike Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi does offer a few places where you can have a very pleasant stroll, particularly around the edges of its many lakes. Hanoi's network of lakes is perhaps its most romantic asset. In the evenings groups of Vietnamese of all ages line the shores of Hanoi's biggest lake, West Lake (Ho Tay), and central Hoan Kiem Lake to soak up the calming breeze off the water. Getting around Hanoi on foot can be tiring, so if you intend to stick within the Old Quarter or elsewhere in Hoan Kiem District, break up your walks with a cycle ride or two. Otherwise consider taking taxis, or if the weather is good and you're feeling a little more gung ho, hop on the back of a xe om (motorcycle taxi). If you're feeling brave, consider renting a Chinese bicycle for a day and pedalling yourself around. Once you have seen the sights in Hanoi, it's time to jump off into the "real" Vietnam -- the countryside. Less than an hour out of Hanoi in any direction brings you to stretches of rice paddies interrupted only by villages and jagged rocky outcrops, which makes taking day trips, with the capital as a base, a very viable option. Ho Chi Minh City Overview Once romantically referred to by the French as the Pearl of the Orient, Ho Chi Minh City is still called Saigon by almost everyone who lives there. It is a modern city by Asian standards and has only been under firm Vietnamese control for a little more than 200 years. The city's character remains essentially French -- with wide boulevards, colonial villas, and a lively café society -- but also resolutely Asian. It has more of a cosmopolitan feel than Hanoi, although much of the old French colonial city is vanishing beneath the rapidly rising skyline and the sheer weight of recent history. Although the city has few historic monuments or ancient sights to see, its history has bequeathed it a melting pot of styles. Only in Ho Chi Minh City can you ride in a 1950s French Citroën, a 1960s Ford Mustang, a 1970s Russian Volga, or a brand-new Toyota. For dinner you have your choice of Vietnamese food, hamburgers, fine French cuisine, or black caviar at a Russian restaurant. Afterward, you can visit one of the city's many bars for a taste of its distinctive nightlife. At its teeming markets, tropical fruits, king cobras, barbecued dogs, and a hundred other such items are for sale. Sidewalks are crammed with noodle stands, cafés, and vendors selling fresh glasses of beer; roads are often gridlocked with motorbikes, scooters, bicycles, cyclos (pedicabs), buses, and a few cars (for now). All kinds of people travel by bicycle or motorbike: women in traditional ao dais, long gloves, and conical hats; and whole families -- mother, father, and two children -- all squeezed onto one seat. Combined with this vivacious street life, the city's French influences have bred a charm all their own. But it is the people even more than the city that you will remember most. Sights & Activities Ho Chi Minh City is not noted for its tourist attractions. Although there are several sights that shouldn't be missed, the particular appeal of the city is its street life. From early morning to late at night, streets and sidewalks are home to a startling range of activity -- from street hawkers and barbers to noodle sellers and street artists. It's a kaleidoscopic maze, where Western-style commercial activity takes place alongside traditional practices. The city has 14 districts, but most areas of interest are in either District 1 (downtown Saigon) or District 5 (Cholon). In District 1 major arteries such as Le Loi Boulevard, Ham Nghi Boulevard, and Pham Ngu Lao Street converge at the Ben Thanh Market, an important commercial and transportation hub. Northeast of the central market, at the intersection of Le Loi Boulevard with Nguyen Hue Boulevard and Dong Khoi Street, is a cluster of French colonial-style public buildings -- the Hôtel de Ville (now the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee); the Opera House (once again serving its original purpose after housing the former South Vietnam's National Assembly); and hotels like the Rex, the Continental, and the Caravelle, built by the French and made famous during the Vietnam War. Saigon's waterways have traditionally served as a means of commercial transport as well as a natural moat. District 1 is bounded on the east by the Saigon River and on the south by the Ben Nghe Channel. Not only do the rivers provide an alternative way of getting around, they also serve as convenient landmarks. The city's rather daunting layout and chaotic traffic tend to discourage leisurely walking. The intermittent taxi, cycle, or motorbike ride -- ranging 6,000d-10,000d -- is an unavoidable but enjoyable alternative to walking.