Best Tours in Asia
Photograph by HP Huber/Huber/SIME
By Margaret Loftus
Iran: Behind the Headlines
Since GeoEx first dipped its toe in Iran 19 years ago, its tour business here has remained brisk despite the news stories coming out of Tehran. Returning clients regularly remark on “the warmth expressed by people on the streets,” says Jim Sano, the company’s president. This was the most popular Middle Eastern trip last year; it’s a carefully curated survey of the capital, Tehran; ancient Hamadan; the blue mosque and bazaar of Tabriz; the green gardens of Shiraz; and the elegant and ornate architecture of Esfahan. Guests are typically the only Westerners in Mashad, Iran’s most important Shiite pilgrimage site. Geographic Expeditions: “Treasures of Persia,” 21 days; $8,075.
China: Tea Trek
Walk portions of the Tea Horse Road, a legendary trading route that once linked the tea-growing regions of Yunnan and Sichuan to the Tibetan Plateau, with Jeff Fuchs, the first Westerner to retrace the 3,100-mile trail. Sip teas at their origin in Xishuangbanna, participate in tea ceremonies, and stay at a tea plantation. WildChina: “The Ancient Tea & Horse Caravan Road: An Expedition With Jeff Fuchs,” 10 days; from $3,745.
China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam: Down the Mekong
From the mountain gorges of China’s Yunnan Province to the South China Sea, this month-long odyssey wends down the Mekong River through six countries on a series of boats. Woven into the itinerary are cultural forays off the river—sharing a traditional dinner with a Laotian family or attending a service at a Cao Dai temple in Vietnam, whose adherents worship Jesus, Confucius, and Buddha. Journeys Within: “Mekong Experience,” 29 days; $7,499.
India: Southern Loop
Well before it became a Silicon Valley of India, Hyderabad was once a global center of the diamond and pearl trade. Discover the city’s lavish bazaars and royal heritage on the first stop of this history-focused voyage throughout the country’s less traveled south. Greaves India: “Diamonds and Dynasties,” 14 days; $3,090.
China, Nepal, Tibet: The World’s Rooftop by Bike
With rides up to 93 miles a day climaxing with big climbs at altitudes up to 16,000 feet, biking from Lhasa to Kathmandu isn’t for everybody. But hardy cyclists will be rewarded for their efforts with visits to the remote Sera Monastery and palaces of the Dalai Lama, as well as stunning views of the Himalaya, including the North Face of Everest. Exodus Travels: “Lhasa to Kathmandu Ride,” 20 days; $3,430 (plus $270 bike rental).
Israel, Turkey, Morocco: Threads of the Diaspora
Part of the outfitter’s Inspired Expeditions Collections program (in which destination specialists are tapped to create their ultimate itinerary), this trip explores the deep Jewish roots and traditions of the Mediterranean. Guests visit a private home in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City; tour Galata, a Jewish neighborhood in Istanbul; and enter the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca. Big Five Tours and Expeditions: “Foundations of Faith,” 19 days; $11,990.
Myanmar: Remote Northern Trek
As one of Asia’s most isolated countries, Myanmar has long attracted a trickle of adventurous travelers, but that’s about to become more of a steady stream now that relations with Washington have warmed. Here’s a trek that takes you far from the popular sites of Mandalay and Pagan into the Lisu and Rawan hill country at the base of the easternmost Himalaya. Only in recent years opened to foreigners, this region is the gateway to the 19,295-foot Mount Hkakabo Razi and home to tribes descended from Tibetans. Overnights are in village-style guesthouses. Journeys International: “Trek to the Last Village,” 11 days; $3,350.
Israel: Holy Land Multi-Sport
The Holy Land is not just for praying. This privately guided tour lets you play: You can scuba dive, horseback ride, mountain bike, climb, and rappel on this family-friendly spin through Haifa, Galilee, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Eilat, and Tel Aviv. Note that lunches and dinners are not included in the price of this tour. Horizon & Co: “Active Israel Adventure,” 13 days; $4,995.
Nepal: Off the Circuit
A twist on the traditional Annapurna Circuit trek, this route detours through the Nar and Phu valleys—only recently opened to commercial trekkers and thought to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of snow leopards. Here in the shadow of the Annapurna Range, you’ll explore ancient Buddhist monasteries and meet ethnically Tibetan villagers in remote communities at around 13,000 feet that have changed little in the past century. One World Trekking: “The Lost Valleys of NarPhu Trek,” 23 days; from $2,905.
Thailand: Sailing off Samui
Ply the glassy, emerald waters of the Gulf of Thailand aboard a staffed 37-foot catamaran, dropping anchor for the occasional snorkel, swim, and explore, such as at Koh Ang Thong National Park for a hike among gibbons and the island of Koh Phangan, famous for its full-moon party. G Adventures: “Thai Sailing Adventure—Koh Samui to Koh Samui,” 7 days; $1,599.
Japan: Land Before Time
Join archaeologist Simon Kaner on this exploration of archaeology through three of Japan’s four major islands, from the elaborate flame pottery of the Jomon period at the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History to the storied Osaka Castle. Andante Travels: “Japan Fiery Ceramics and the Citadels of the Shogun,” 18 days; $7,237.
These guided tours are part of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime for 2012 for the outfitters’ commitment to authenticity, immersion, sustainability, and connection.