There are better ways to break up that long-haul flight to Asia than a nap in the VIP departure lounge. We round up our top four cities that far too many travellers pass through without ever leaving the airport – and explore why they’re worth a few spare days.
Book a ticket to visit Thailand, Malaysia, China or virtually any other Southeast Asian nation, and you’ll find yourself getting to know a few major airports pretty well. If you’re flying from Europe or the United States, it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself on a direct flight to your final destination. There are a few airports that are practically travel destinations themselves, seeing as they make it into so many Asia travel itineraries’ inbound and outbound flights.
Asia might be a great, big, exotic mix of countries and cultures, but getting there usually means stopping over in the same major airports time and time again. Most will sit back, pull out their tablet and watch a few movies safely within the confines of the departure lounge.
The clever travellers, though, won’t make the mistake of passing through so quickly.
We’ve done our research, and these are the four cities we’ve discovered getting passed over too many times to ignore. There’s a whole lot more to discover beyond their international terminals.
Anyone passing through Singapore’s Changi Airport will quickly recognise that this airport was built for one central purpose: a great stopover. Google the name and the description of Changi Airport reads “an airport worth being a destination in itself”. So loved is this international airport that an entire Twitter handle is dedicated to singing its praises (@FansofChangi has nearly 50,000 followers). All of this has solidly earned Changi Airport the title of the “Best Airport in the World” six times since 1999.
“All-in-all, Singapore is perhaps one of the best cultural melting pots in all of Asia, and its futuristic cityscape has to be seen to be believed.”
The airport may be doing Singapore a disservice, though, since there’s much more to see beyond the sterile international terminal interior. Tear yourself away from the airport’s rooftop pool and XBox 360 terminals and you’ll find a city with architecture so mesmerising, you’ll be certain you’ve stepped into the year 2050.
For foodies, the city’s hawker centres are street food paradise, and for cultural enthusiasts, Singapore’s cultural diversity and ethnic neighbourhoods are absolute must-sees. Prepare for plenty of neck-craning at Supertree Grove in Gardens by the Bay – 50 meter tall artificial trees connected by vertigo-inducing suspended walkways. All-in-all, Singapore is perhaps one of the best cultural melting pots in all of Asia, and its futuristic cityscape has to be seen to be believed.
Singapore is geographically small and the public transportation quick and efficient – which makes a shorter stopover possible. Set aside at least one full day if you’re content with just the highlights. For an in-depth taste of local culture and flavours, though, opt for two full days with one set aside for some local life discovery.
Merion Statue, Chinatown, Little India, Raffles Hotel, Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Orchard Road, Gardens by the Bay
Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok International Airport is located on an island about 40-minutes drive from central Hong Kong – and though transport is easy on regular buses into the city, the distance tends to be a deterrent for short-term stopover travellers. It’s a shame, since Hong Kong packs a notable punch among its 235 islands.
“Like good fusion cuisine, Hong Kong takes the best of the East and West and from it, has established a supercity that is so, so much more than an economic hub.”
The best of its charm is located on Hong Kong, Kowloon and Lantau Islands, where dim sum, rooftop bars and night markets rule the cosmopolitan landscape. Those urban explorers who venture into the city on an extended stopover are in for a cultural feast blending Eastern intrigue (read: Tiny Chinese pagodas squeezed between skyscrapers in the financial district) and Western sensibilities. Like good fusion cuisine, Hong Kong takes the best of the East and West and from it, has established a supercity that is so, so much more than an economic hub.
Stop over in Hong Kong and expect to be spoilt for choice for things to see and do. On any visit, though, don’t miss out on panoramic views atop Victoria Peak, some iconic Hong Kong dim sum and a trip aboard the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour. Foodies and culture vultures should make time for a wander through Mong Kok District on Kowloon Island, and for a taste of Hong Kong’s history and heritage, head to Aberdeen Fishing Village and the frenetic heart of Chinatown. Cap it all off with a harbour cruise to see the Symphony of Lights – a laser-light show that puts Vegas to shame.
With some careful planning, it’s possible to explore Hong Kong’s charms in a single day – but the transfer from the airport to the city should be a journey for its own day. Make sure you have from sunrise until sunset to really capture the best of the city. Extend it for another day or two, and you’ll have time for visits to outlying Islands like Kowloon and Lantau – a prerequisite for any history buff looking to explore the city’s past life.
Star Ferry, Symphony of Lights, Victoria Peak and Harbour, Aberdeen Fishing Village, Temple Street Night Market, Mong Kok District
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Of all of Southeast Asia’s forgotten-about stopover cities, Kuala Lumpur may be the most under-appreciated. Travellers heading to Malaysia are almost certainly bound for the sandy shores of its islands in the west, or for its wildlife-rich jungle scenery in the east. Either way, Kuala Lumpur is the consistent underdog when it comes to international visitors. Unbeknownst to them, though, passers-by are missing out on what is easily one of Asia’s most fascinating capital cities.
“Kuala Lumpur might be the most pleasantly surprising travel destination in your entire journey.”
Despite its lightning-fast KLIA Ekpres train connecting Kuala Lumpur proper to its airport, few travellers make a stop in Kuala Lumpur longer than their air ticket requires. Head into the city, though, and what’s waiting is a formidable foodie hub and epicentre of cultural diversity. With the rest of Malaysia being fairly conservative, Kuala Lumpur is a chic and open-minded city that balances religious diversity (read: some of the most spectacular mosques you’re likely to see outside of the Middle East) and a hip urban edge.
Don’t leave Kuala Lumpur without making time for a day’s walk around the city. This is the perfect pace to see Independence Square – the most historic corner of the capital. Plus, a well-planned route (or an expertly guided one) can connect the dots between Independence Square, Jamek Mosque, Sri Mahamariaman Temple, Little India and Chinatown – the ultimate cultural primer for first-time visitors. Sprinkle that with a taste of the city’s incredible street food, and Kuala Lumpur might be the most pleasantly surprising travel destination in your entire journey.
Thanks to its fantastic KLIA Ekpres high speed rail, getting to and from Kuala Lumpur Central to the airport is quick and super easy. It’s possible to head out for some exploration in Kuala Lumpur if you’ve only got one day to explore – and you could make it back to catch your flight if you wanted to avoid staying in a hotel. A little bit of extra time, though, and you’ll have a chance to explore the city’s famously tasty street food, which warrants a full night of Chinatown wandering.
Independence Square, Jamek Mosque, Sri Mahamariaman Temple, Petaling Street, Little India, Central Market, Petronas Towers
To be fair, most will spend at least a night or so exploring Bangkok – but nearly everyone is in a big hurry to head out to the southern islands or northern mountains. Bangkok International Airport is chock-full of travellers moving quickly in and out of the Thai capital – sometimes because they’re off to another Southeast Asian destination, and some because Bangkok feels entirely too big and angry a city to enjoy.
“Take the advice of the locals – if you’re in Bangkok for a short stay before heading south or north, make sure you know what you want out of your visit – and don’t be afraid to extend for a few days.”
Like many of the world’s biggest cities, Bangkok is best explored in doses of different districts. Even locals in Bangkok will attest to the city being a bit overwhelming, and will almost always tell you that they have a favourite district or two. Take the advice of the locals – if you’re in Bangkok for a short stay before heading south or north, make sure you know what you want out of your visit – and don’t be afraid to extend for a few days. Bangkok has more than enough to explore to fill the time!
Beyond the obvious landmarks in central Bangkok, the city has a few hidden gems on its further outskirts. For true culture vultures and urban-exploration enthusiasts, make time to head out to the Ekkemai and Thonglor neighbourhoods. These areas are known for having young and trendy residents, and all of the cafes and boutique hotels to match.
For a look at Bangkok’s canal culture, head out to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – or lesser-explored Amphawa – for a look at Bangkok lifestyles on the banks. For a night out, expect to end up somewhere in Sukhumvit – the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods where shopping is at its very best. Don’t visit any of these before heading to Ko Rattanakosin, though – as the city’s birthplace, this is absolutely a must-see on a visit to the city.
It’s entirely possible to hit the highlights in just two days, but Bangkok is one of those cities where you could discover something new every day for a month. Travellers to Thailand would be doing themselves a favour by extending their time in Bangkok to a week – and putting aside a full day for each district they want to see. If time allows, it’s also a great trip by boat to head to Ayutthaya, which is well worth an extra day.
Sukhumvit, Wat Traimit and Chinatown, Grand Palace, Reclining Buddha and Wat Pho, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Ayutthaya
Make the most of a long stopover in Asia’s cities with customised city break itineraries for as much (or as little) time as you have to explore!