With the year’s end approaching, it’s high time to think about a vacation. And with the holiday season running for months, Asia’s the place to be. From Tokyo’s Christmas lights to Singapore’s dragon-filled Chinese New Year festivities, we’ve pooled our top 10 destinations to explore over the holiday season.
Where to go over Christmas in Asia?
Whether you’re after a snowy yuletide or a getaway in the tropics, Asia offers endless twists on the traditional Christmas holiday. Here are three destinations we recommend adding to your wishlist – hopefully Santa will indulge you.
Tokyo’s even more brightly lit than usual during the Christmas season, when everything sparkles with fairy lights. Some of the best are the Starlight Garden in Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi, and Caretta Shiodome, which is aglow with stunning light projections. With their special events and fireworks, Disneyland and Disney Sea are great picks for families.
For some last minute shopping, try the European-inspired night markets at the foot of the Tokyo Sky Tree. When it’s time to sit down for your Christmas feast, make like the locals with a meal of fried chicken from KFC and whipped cream-smothered strawberry shortcake.
Recommended Tokyo hotel: Roppongi Hotel S
Seoul, South Korea
In South Korea, the whole month leading up to the 25th is a Christmas extravaganza. Join the crowds at Lotte World’s Christmas Festival, a huge parade of characters, performers and floats. For a spot of culture, book tickets to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet, which has been a Christmas must-see in Seoul since 1986 – tourists get a discount.
Make the most of the chilly weather with a spin around Seoul Plaza’s outdoor ice skating rink, a light-adorned setting overlooked by a massive Christmas tree – then head out for a fancy buffet dinner at the Ritz or the Millennium Seoul Hilton.
Recommended Seoul hotel: Somerset Palace Seoul
Dili, Timor Leste
A bit off the beaten track, Dili may come as a surprise Christmas destination. But with the vast majority Timor Leste’s population being Catholic, the holiday is a huge deal. Christmas nativity scenes built by local youths from recycled materials adorn each street corner, and the church bells ring out, drawing people to mass.
Come evening, everyone heads to the water – relax just out of town at Cameio Beach with a coconut or some sangria before enjoying a barbecue dinner and some bite-sized Portuguese egg tarts for dessert.
Recommended hotel for Dili: Plaza Hotel Dili
Where to go for New Year’s Eve in Asia?
Resolve to try something new this New Year’s, and usher in the first of January as never before, with a quick jaunt to Asia. Do away with Auld Lang Syne and party poppers, and opt for vibrant street-side parades or a quiet picnic atop a mountain instead.
Venture out of Kuala Lumpur and head to Penang for your Malaysian New Year’s festivities. As is true throughout the country, the air-conditioned shopping centers are a hub of activity. Head to Straits Quay for music, performances and views of the fireworks over the Andaman Sea, or to Gurney Paragon for fine dining and high-end booze.
Brave the humidity and head to the Esplanade for parades and entertainment – and the cheap and freshly made hawker food you won’t be able to get enough of. Enjoy a cooling dessert of chendol or ais kachang (the Asian equivalent to the ice cream sundae)’ as the night sky lights up overhead, and spend the following day at one of the picturesque beaches.
Recommended hotel for Penang: Bayview Hotel Georgetown
Usher in the New Year in relative calm in Baguio, a mountain resort town known for its lakes, gardens and surprisingly cool summer weather. You’ll get the essential fireworks display, but none of the thronging crowds that are the norm elsewhere. Party it up in sedate style; gorge yourself with a buffet meal at one of the hotels, test your voice with karaoke at The Rabbit Hole, or picnic like the locals.
Set aside some time to explore sights like the Baguio City Orchidarium, brimming with colorful flowers, and Camp John Hay, with its pine tree forests – both are right within the town limits. Baguio is just a few hours from Manila, but allow extra time to navigate traffic.
Recommended Baguio hotel: Camp John Hay
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A madcap place bustling with people, traffic and color, Ho Chi Minh City steps up its game even further for New Year’s Eve. The first sign is Abba’s Happy New Year, which plays on repeat everywhere you go. For serious partying accompanied by thudding music, head to District 1, home to the nightclubs and plenty of tourists.
The parks, including the Saigon Zoo, are brimming with concerts, activities and lively decorations, and can provide a respite from the club atmosphere. For great views of the fireworks, head to a rooftop setting like the Chill Sky Bar. Be mindful when booking a hotel for the night that rates usually include an expensive – and mandatory – holiday dinner.
Recommended hotel for Ho Chi Minh City: Grand Hotel Saigon
Where to go for Chinese New Year in Asia?
Sometimes one New Year’s just isn’t enough. Fortunately just about every country in Asia has its own take on the Lunar New Year, which follows a few months after. Experience the festivities with everything from a peaceful day of silence to loud-as-can-be dragon dances.
Singapore knows how to celebrate, and it does Chinese New Year in serious style. There’s the Chingay Parade, the largest in Asia, known for its striking floats, stilt walkers and vibrant dragons, and the Chinatown Street Light-Up, with its lion dancers and fire eaters. Don’t forget the River Hongbao, filled with massive lanterns, carnival rides and games.
Everything’s smothered in red, and the feasting is never-ending. The biggest is the “reunion dinner”, where families and friends come together to share a massive meal bursting with dishes symbolic of prosperity and longevity. Nosh on pineapple tarts, paper-thin “love letter” biscuits and coconut cookies – and be prepared to give and receive red packets filled with cash.
Recommended hotel for Singapore: Naumi Liora
Vang Vieng, Laos
Vang Vieng used to make headlines for its backpacker shenanigans, but it’s turned over a New Year’s new leaf. Following an anti-debauchery campaign from the government, the riverside rave bars have given way to restaurants, and home-made mulberry wine makes a nice change from Beer Lao.
Even the accommodations have been jazzed up with a yoga retreat vibe. If wholesome outdoorsy activities like kayaking, rock climbing and caving are on your to-do list, and limestone mountains and stunning lagoons are your thing, then make a resolution to see the new Vang Vieng.
Recommended hotel for Vang Vien: Thavonsouk Resort
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodia truly likes its New Year’s celebrations: in addition to New Year and Chinese New Year, the country also celebrates the Khmer New Year. Running over three full days, this celebration marks the end of the harvest season – and it’s also traditionally the birthday of all Cambodian citizens.
The streets are decorated with stars and fairy lights, and everyone is inside feasting, singing karaoke and celebrating turning a year older. The city shuts down, so it’s an ideal time to explore on the down-low; if you want to party it up, head to Siem Reap, which will be bustling with parades, celebrations, and strange challenges like the rice cake-eating contest.
Recommended hotel for Phnom Penh: The Plantation Urban Resort and Spa
Sometimes the idea of a “quiet one in” has its appeal. And Bali is all about quiet ones in. Prefaced by a New Year’s Eve that involves chasing away paper dummies of spirits with loud noises, Bali’s subsequent New Year, called “Nyepi”, is marked by a day of silence.
The idea is one of renewal, and the only noises you’ll hear are dogs barking and insects shrilling. People stay at home – and off the roads – unless it’s to make a pilgrimage to one of the stunning beaches. Bliss.
Recommended hotel for Bali: Inata Bisma Resort & Spa Ubud