Travel for Tet: Vietnam’s Lunar New Year

In many parts of the world, the New Year is all about clinking champagne glasses, lavish parties and making (and ultimately breaking) New Year’s resolutions. But in Vietnam, the New Year — called Tet holiday locally — is less about celebration and more about reunion, and is often written off as a time to travel in Vietnam. After all, most of the country’s public spaces all but shut down for the days following Tet, and locals across the country spend the holiday in their family homes.

But in the weeks before Vietnam’s most important holiday, the country is in the midst of preparations for family reunions, long journeys home and age-old traditions passed down through generations. Here at Absolute Asia Tours, the energy and excitement of urban Vietnam during the weeks leading up to Tet holiday is part of what makes it one of our favourite times of the year! We love helping our guests discover the country during Tet holiday preparations, too, since it’s a perfect time to experience Vietnamese tradition and heritage at its most colourful.

These are just some of the things we love about Tet in Vietnam — and what we think makes a journey to Vietnam during this magical time of year so worthwhile!

The History of Tet

Vietnam’s New Year is closely linked to its Chinese counterpart, and much like their northern cousins, each of Vietnam’s lunar years are named after an animal. In the lead up to a new lunar year, the animal symbol of the coming year is woven into the decorations on homes, buildings and ancestral altars.

Despite its close connections to Chinese New Year, Vietnam’s Tet holiday is distinct not only in geography, but in its traditions and history, too. Like almost all Vietnamese holidays, Tet is steeped in tradition and folklore that has been passed down through generations, and these stories are unique to Vietnam.

The Tale Behind the Traditions

The tale centers around a young married couple — named Trong Cao and Thi Nhi — who, after a long marriage, remained childless. After years of ceaseless arguing, Trong Cao is said to have cast out his wife, who goes on to marry a new man named Pham Lang. But after a period of remorse, Trong Cao is realises his fault and sets off on a journey to win back the heart of his former wife. This journey claims the last of his money and eventually forces Trong Cao to become a beggar — but shortly after, he reunites with Thi Nhi by chance, only to spend hours recounting the past with her.

But when her new husband returns home, Thi Nhi instructs Trong Cao to hide in a stack of straw. Tragically, Pham Lang sets fire to the straw in an attempt to make ashes for fertilizing the field, unknowing killing Trong Cao in the process. But in the valiant final moments of his life, his former wife Thi Nhi throws herself in the fire to die with him, leading Pham Lang to take his own life out of sorrow from witnessing his wife’s demise.

As their souls enter heaven, the Jade Emporer takes pity in their story and dubs the three as the Trio Deities, or Tao Quan — Pham Lang as the Deity of Kitche, Trong Cao as the Deity of Land and House and Thi Nhi as the Deity of Market. Together, they look after the well-being of mortals’ homes and property on Earth, returning on the 23rd day of the final lunar month to the Heavens.
Celebrating Tet Today
Tao Quan Festival

The story of the Trio Deities is now central to Vietnamese celebrations of Tet, with the tradition of Tao Quan Festival at the heart of the holiday preparations. Celebrated as a “farewell ceremony” to the deities on the 23rd day of the final lunar month, Tao Quan Festival is perhaps the most significant tradition in Tet celebrations.

On the evening of Tao Quan, Vietnamese women traditionally cook Vietnamese delicacies, clean their homes and decorate their ancestral altars with flowers, fruits, and three votive paper caps — one for each deity.

Alongside altar decorations, a large bowl of water with live carp fish is kept within the home as well, based on the belief that carp (especially good swimmers) are best able to help the three deities on their travels. By releasing them into a pond, lake or river, they transport Tao Quan back to the Heavens. And beyond just the belief that carp have a spiritual purpose, this release also shows respect to animals and is a wish for good fortune in the coming year.
Chung Cake

Much like the tradition of the three deities, Chung Cake is a central element to Vietnamese Tet celebrations. Since Tet is often a time when families reunite at home for ancestral recognition, these cakes are often a part of the traditions surrounding ancestral altars in homes. Invented by Prince Linh Lang during the Hung Dynasty, these cakes symbolising earth have been part of Tet celebrations for centuries.

Shaped in squares and made of a unique blend of sticky rice, rong leaves and mung beans, the iconic “fatty pork” taste of Chung Cake is linked closely with the Vietnamese celebration of Tet. Traditionally they are made within family homes, but Chung Cake is often sold in pop-up standards around the country in the weeks leading up to the New Year.

How to Experience It: If you have a local guide with Buffalo Tours, they will gladly show you where to find traditional Chung Cake, and even show you how to cut it with a bamboo string instead of a knife! Otherwise, Chung Cake is available at many markets throughout the country, but is best when served at a local home.
Spiritual Cleansing

But beyond ancestral offerings and cake making, Tet is the holiday closely linked with spiritual cleansing. Often, this spiritual cleansing goes hand-in-hand with literal cleaning, and the country’s residential homes often descend into a frenzied “spring cleaning” of sorts to rid their homes of clutter. This symbolises a cleansing of the misfortunes of previous years, and starts locals’ lives anew for the New Year.

And just like the homes of locals, many Vietnamese believe that the New Year is a time for not just literal clean slates, but also metaphorical. Forgiveness of misgivings of others is part of this clean slate, and many families and friends will use the Tet holiday as a time to wash away their own sins (as well as others’) in an effort to start the New Year anew.

This same cleaning extends to ancestral altars, which are cleaned meticulously in the lead up to Tet. Since nearly every traditional indoor space has an ancestral altar — with offices, banks, and shops included — it’s likely that you will see uncommonly clean and tidy altars for yourself when travelling through Vietnam during Tet, too.
Altar Decorations and Prayer

More than any other time of the year, Tet marks the season that ancestral altars are at their most vibrant. Traditionally, Tet decorations for altars includes five fruits with five distinct colours. They each represent a different natural element, which in turn are symbols for health, wealth, peace, luxury and longevity.

But most important during Tet is ancestral prayer, which centres around the calling forth of deceased ancestors to celebrate the New Year with their family. This is also a time when Vietnamese locals pray for good fortune in the year ahead, for freedom of past misdoings and health, happiness and joy for their families.

How to Experience It: Ancestral altars are kept within many buildings, shops and residential homes. In the days before Tet, keep an eye out for these altars which will often be decorated with an incredible array of exotic fruits, Chung Cakes and flowers. Better yet, the Tet season is by far the most beautiful time to visit local temples and pagodas, since each will decorate their altars in the country’s most elaborate displays. Head to Tran Quoc Pagoda and Phu Tay Ho in Hanoi and Vinh Nghiem Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City for the most extravagant displays. You can even ask us to help you visit these pagodas during your customised journey through Vietnam with Absolute Asia tours!

Travel During Tet

In the days following Tet holiday, most public buildings including museums, schools, shops and restaurants close for celebrations. This often means that the city grinds to a glorious hault for a day or two, which can be an experience in and of itself to see Vietnam’s usually frenetic streets nearly empty. But for most, travel during Tet celebrations isn’t advised as it can limit travel opportunities. The best time to experience Tet traditions is in the weeks leading up to New Year.

For travellers to Vietnam, Tet might be the most illuminating portrait of traditional Vietnamese culture in modern times. A journey through the heart of the country during the magical season promises what will surely be an unforgettable experience!

With a team of local guides and destination experts, Absolute Asia Tours is a perfect way to experience the best of the Tet season like the locals. Contact us to get started in creating a customised tour through Vietnam that will prove an unforgettable experience exploring Vietnam’s most beautiful and spiritual holiday!

How Overland Journeys in Asia Changed My Perspective on Travel

How can changing the way you travel, change the way you see the world? Our travel expert shares her story about how overland journeys in Asia changed her perspective on travel.


I remember the very first time I started planning a big trip across Asia. It was Tet holiday in Vietnam, which meant I had two and a half weeks of spare time to plan my very first cross-country and cross-border trip. I had about 20 days to fill – and like most aspiring explorers, my first thought was just how many of my bucket list destinations I could cram into a single itinerary.

Over the span of a few days, I created what could only be described as an absolute whirlwind of an adventure through Vietnam and Cambodia. Hanoi to Hue to Ho Chi Minh City and into Cambodia – I was ticking off no less than eight of my ultimate bucket list spots. At first, that seemed like a great idea!

Until, of course, I considered how much time I’d be spending in an airplane along the way. No less than 10 hours combined on six different flights.

I was no stranger to long-haul flights from hemisphere to hemisphere, but the prospect of huffing to and from airports so many times in a single journey was beginning to eat away at my excitement for the trip. But if I wanted to see everything, how else would I do it?

After some serious contemplation (and a little bit of reigning in my bucket list ambitions) I realized something important: travel isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. This is a lesson that some travellers don’t learn until they have at least a dozen trips under their belt. Some have a lightbulb moment about halfway through their first time travelling overseas.

For me, it happened when I tore up my initial itinerary and asked myself: what did I want to experience?

The answer? Something real. I wanted to see what life really looked like in Vietnam and Cambodia. I wanted to explore cities and small towns. I wanted to see the highlights and the stuff beyond them. So, I scrapped my original plan with a new goal in mind: if I ditched the planes entirely, what kind of itinerary could I build?

Since then, I’ve been an avowed enthusiast for overland travel. Four years and dozens of overland trips later, these are my favourite lessons learnt along the way.

True local lifestyles are found on the roads less travelled.

This lightbulb moment happened during a lengthy overland trip from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I connected the dots with both a boat and a bus, with a few hours’ stopover in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city. The boat ports and bus stops weren’t exactly travel destinations if I’m being honest, but the things I witnessed between them were well-worth the commute time.

Why? Because while I was lounging back on the deck of a rickety Mekong river boat, I had the rare opportunity to see bustling floating markets, fishermen sloshing through their fish farms, local Cham women washing their laundry in the river, effervescently happy children swimming after our boat and more than few beaming locals waving from the riverbank. I felt like I was watching a country unfold, slowly but surely – and this was a country I had been living in for going on three years!

“While I was lounging back on the deck of a rickety Mekong river boat, I had the rare opportunity to see fishermen sloshing through their fish farms, local Cham women washing their laundry in the river, effervescently happy children swimming after our boat and more than few beaming locals waving from the riverbank.”

The thing is, in a place like Asia, life is happening everywhere. You’ll rarely go through an area that’s completely devoid of human life. Asia is chock full of fascinating rural communities that rarely get to meet outside visitors, mostly because their communities aren’t along a beaten track. Taking the road less travelled means getting up close and personal with people who carry on with their daily lives far from the tourists’ eye. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll come across more picturesque, postcard-worthy scenes than you can count.

Reflection is best enjoyed at a snail’s pace.

Being from the Southwest United States, I have a soft spot for the wide open road. In a country as vast as mine, it’s hard not to find something special about those great big, endless views that only a great road trip can afford. In Asia – after what’s usually whirlwind exploration in bustling cities and frenetic markets – we sometimes forget to take a second to reflect on what we’ve experienced. Thankfully, that’s what those great big open spaces are perfect for.

This was something I learned on a road trip in northern Vietnam, after I’d spent a full week checking off bucket list experiences in Sapa. I had gotten so caught up in the photo-taking and the flurry of the markets here that I’d forgotten to look back on all that I’d seen. Only during a slow, inching drive by bus (staring out of the window the entire way) did I realize how incredible it was to see what I had seen.

“In Asia – after what’s usually whirlwind exploration in bustling cities and frenetic markets – we sometimes forget to take a second to reflect on what we’ve experienced.”

In that time that I wasn’t flipping through my phone, Instagramming every possible thing I could snap a photo of and slurping up every bowl of pho I could find, the impact of the trip really hit home. I had witnessed the lifestyles of ethnic communities that were unmarked on a map a century ago. I’d learned how to paint Batik, I’d talked to a Hmong woman who grew everything she ate and trekked along terraced rice fields that were centuries old. What I’d seen was incredible! A five-hour drive spent gazing out the window at incredible Sapa scenery was when that really sunk in.

Surprises don’t happen in airports.

I’ve been to my fair share of airports, and never have I had a truly memorable experience in any of them. It’s easy to settle into the comfort of a really great international airport, but let’s be honest – they aren’t travel destinations (though some stopover cities are). Yes, you might be able to get from one city to the next in record time, but what surprises could you have passed up along the way?

I once had the option of flying from Luang Prabang to Vientiane in Laos – a relatively short distance that would have been pretty easy and painless had I opted for the flight. But in a comical combination of poor planning and sense of direction, I ended up making the journey by bus instead. And let me tell you, I’m glad I did!

“I have never felt more connected with a local culture than I did there, in a stranger’s home, not saying a word.”

On a quick stop over at an unassuming little town for a breather, I wandered carelessly into a little hut where a family was making their dinner. Two toddlers were sitting on upside-down wooden stools, making whizzing sounds and sliding them across the dirt floor. It took me a second, but I realized that they were pretending to race motorbikes. Apparently my face showed my excitement, since the mom immediately forgot her vegetable cutting duties, stood up and put her arm around my shoulder with a toothy grin. We stood there watching her kids play for what felt like an hour, in silence. I have never felt more connected with a local culture than I did there, in a stranger’s home, not saying a word.

That was probably the most poignant moment I’d ever had on the road, and it would have never happened had I been in an airplane. So, from this traveller to you: Don’t underestimate the promise of a great overland trip. There are some incredible things waiting for you on the road.

Add something special to your itinerary in Asia with Absolute Asia Tours’ expertly-planned overland excursions – each tour is customised especially for you!

6 Unforgettable Cruises in Asia for 2022

The hot way to explore Asia this year is with a cruise! For this year, we’ve got our roundup of the best Asia river cruises for 2022 – and what makes each of them special.

Travellers to Asia are usually faced with a conundrum: after making such a lengthy journey to this exotic and fascinating region, how do you make the most of your trip without wearing yourself out with countless flights and overland journeys?

We’ve said in the past that a great way to get off-the-beaten-track in Asia is with overland journeys – but not all of us have the energy nor the time to swap flights for bus and train trips. So what’s the happy medium between non-stop flights to major destinations, and slower overland journeys throughout the region? An Asia river cruise!

Cruises in Asia might not be aboard a shiny cruise liner complete with a water slide and on-board theme parks, but what Asia’s cruise vessels lack in extravagance they more than make up for in culture and experience. Rivers, tributaries and stunning coastline makes Asia the destination worth cruising in 2022. To help you get started, we’ve rounded up some of the best ways to set sail in Asia this year.

Bangkok Klongs by Longtail Boat, Thailand

Not all cruises in Asia have to be multi-day journeys to be well-worth the experience.

Bangkok is a metropolis that’s a must for any Asian itinerary, but one often overlooked element reveals the true network of the city: its canals. Known as Bangkok’s klongs, this web of waterways explores the vast reaches of the city that still radiate historic charm – mostly because they’ve played a major role in the Thai capitals development for centuries.

Starting out as irrigation canals, Bangkok’s klongs soon became major routes for trade and commutes. Nowadays the canals are slowly disappearing as the city erupts in urban development – but a canal cruise promises a first-hand glimpse at Bangkok’s maritime past and some of its best traditional architecture along the banks.

Journeys in Bangkok’s canals are great for first-time city visitors, since most drift past iconic sights like the Temple of Dawn along with lesser-visited gems like the Artist Village. Our favourite takes in the top spots from the boat’s deck for a highlights journey with an off-the-beaten-track twist.

Borneo Rainforest River Cruise

Borneo’s long been a hotspot for adventurous travellers keen on discovering what no one else has. With one of the oldest rainforests in the entire world – not to mention towering waterfalls, incredible wildlife and enough heart-racing adventure to last a lifetime – Borneo generally doesn’t make it onto the radar of holiday-makers who’d prefer to skip the trekking boots.

These incredible rainforests aren’t off limits for more low-key journeys, though – and the answer is the river cruise. A cruise down the winding Kahayan River is the perfect way to explore Borneo without breaking a sweat.

Along the way, keep an eye out for orangutans near Rugan River and collections of rustic villages that make for great day trips off of the boat. The intriguing rituals of the resident Ngaju tribe are on full display during the trip, so this is as much a cultural cruise as it is a scenic one.

Halong Bay by Private Junk, Vietnam

Hardly anyone heading to Vietnam will manage to arrive without knowing about Halong Bay. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a must-see in northern Vietnam, and best explored by boat. Making the most out of a visit here, though, comes down to just what kind of cruise you book – since even in this tourist hotspot, it’s possible to feel like the only person for kilometres in any direction.

The key is the private boat – or, more specifically, a private wooden junk boat. These traditional cruisers have a certain rustic charm about them, and having one all to yourself means plenty of time to take in the sights and silence of the Bay. A private junk means more opportunities to customise your visit, including optional visits to coves, kayaking journeys and caves.

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, add a seaplane journey from Hanoi that lands directly in the Bay’s water and includes a scenic journey from above the Bay!

Mighty Mekong River Cruise, Southern Vietnam to Cambodia

Few cruises can connect so many world wonders and cultural surprises as a trip down the mighty Mekong River. Departing from the Mekong Delta, the real charm of a cruise in this region is the opportunity to see the languid lifestyles of the river firsthand. Southern Vietnam’s delta region is famous for its countless tributaries that are home to fish farms, orchards and stilted houses unique to the region.

Better yet, the trip following the meander of the river all the way to Siem Reap in Cambodia – home to Tonle Sap Lake and incredible Angkor Wat. Generally this journey is done by flight connecting Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, which misses out on all of the cultural wonder in the space between the two. This journey means a comfortable front-row seat to the region’s unique beauty.

Komodo Trails Cruise, Indonesia

Not all river cruises are created equal, and the Komodo Trails cruise is a great example. A special blend of trekking adventures on land and relaxation on deck, the Komodo Trails cruise is a great example of how river cruises are for natural adventurers, too.

After a cruise from Rinca Island to Komodo Island, this journey takes you by foot to the natural habitat of the Komodo Dragon – one of the biggest reasons this spectacular island is so famous. Along the way, pay a visit to Labuan Bajo fishing town as well for a dose of cultural discovery, too!

Song Xanh Mekong Delta Sampan Cruise, Vietnam

Time travel might not be possible, but we can come pretty close with a few of Vietnam’s most spectacular post-colonial destinations. Many of these fascinating places are deep within the Mekong Delta and otherwise forgotten on the standard tourist trail in Vietnam – but the right river cruise can get you up-close and personal with the country’s colonial past.

And in the interests of historical discovery, this journey is aboard a restored sampan – one of Vietnam’s coolest traditional boats. Expect some fascinating sights along the three-day journey of Cai Be’s floating market and what many call Vietnam’s very own “little Venice”.

Ready to set sail? Start building your perfect cruise itinerary in Asia with the help of our travel experts!

Travel Packing List Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia can be a tricky place to pack for with different climates, cultures and activities across the region. We’ve put together a list of packing essentials that should be in every suitcase en-route to Asia.
You’ve got your sunglasses, swimsuit and flipflops, but what else do you need to pack for a trip to Southeast Asia? We’ve put together of commonly forgotten packing essentials, including clothes, toiletries and electronics.
It’s easy to assume that you won’t need much more than shorts and t-shirts for a trip to Asia. However, weather fluctuates throughout the region and can sometimes be unpredictable. There are also different cultures, religions and social norms in every country. On top of our essential items below, we recommend relatively modest clothing – you are less likely to offend locals and will feel more comfortable as a result!
– Raincoat – Many destinations in Asia have monsoons during the summer so it’s a good idea to carry a light raincoat or rain poncho in case of any sudden downpours.
– Scarf or Shawl – To enter most temples in Asia, you will need to cover your shoulders. Carrying a scarf or shawl with you provides a quick way to cover up without having to change your wardrobe.
– Long Trousers or Skirt – You will also be expected to cover your knees in temples, so long trousers or skirts are a must. Long clothing is also a good way to avoid sunburn during the day and insect bites in the evening.
– Light Jacket – There are lots of places in Asia that are not as warm as you might expect during summer, especially if you’re staying in hilly or mountainous areas.
– Closed-Toe Shoes – If you’re planning on trekking, a pair of closed-toe shoes are a much needed investment to avoid cuts and scratches.
You’ve got your toothbrush and shampoo at the ready, but what are you missing? A few carefully chosen items will make sure you have a much more comfortable and enjoyable trip. Make sure to also pop these items into plastic bags to avoid leaks and carry travel-sized bottles if you are taking them in your hand luggage.
– Sunscreen – This may seem like an obvious one but we just can’t say it enough; wear sunscreen! 50+ is best for summer in Asia as temperatures can be over 45°C.
– Insect Repellent – Buy spray that contains DEET is the best protection against mosquitoes. Make sure to read the instructions though as it can irritate the skin if not used properly and children are advised to use repellent with a lower concentration of DEET.
– Hand Sanitizer – You’ll be trying, touching and tasting lots of new things on your trip, so a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer is a great way to avoid picking up germs.
– Skin Products – Many skin products contain whitening agents in some parts of Asia. Bring your own travel-sized bottles of skin products from home to avoid damaging or irritating your skin.
– Feminine Hygiene Products – It can be difficult to find feminine hygiene products in some parts of Asia. Be sure to pack tampons and sanitary towels, especially if you will be travelling in more remote areas.
– Laxatives and Anti-diarrheals – A new country comes with lots of tasty new dishes. Unfortunately, sometimes our stomachs don’t agree with the change, so it’s always safe to carry some digestion medication from home.
We’re sure you’ve already got your camera and phone packed. There’s a few more items that are essential for a trip to Asia, though. These nifty gadgets will keep you charged, organised and easily contactable.
– Portable Charger – If you plan on going on tours where you will be away from power outlets, a portable charger is a great way to charge your gear on the go.
– Surge Protector – Sometimes the electrical currents of outlets fluctuate which can put your electronics at risk, a surge protector will protect your gadgets against this.
– SIM Card – Having a working phone in a foreign country makes travel much easier. Buy a foreign SIM when you arrive at the airport of your destination or buy a global SIM card in advance.
– Plug Adapter – Depending on where you are travelling from and to, you will need a different type of adapter. We recommend a ‘universal adapter’ which works in almost all countries.
Take a look at the different plug specifications for each of our destinations below.
Cambodia: 230V, 50Hz, Type A, C, G.
China: 220V, 50Hz, Type A, C, I.
Hong Kong: 220V, 50Hz, Type G, D.
Indonesia: 230V, 50Hz, Type C, F.
Japan: 100V, 50-60Hz; Type A, B.
Laos: 230V, 50Hz, Type A, B, C, E, F.
Malaysia: 240V, 50Hz, Type A, C, G, M.
Myanmar: 230V, 50Hz, Type C, D, F, G.
Singapore: 230V, 50Hz, Type C, G, M.
Thailand: 220V, 50Hz, Type A, B, C.
Vietnam: 220V, 50Hz; Type A, C, G.
Now your bags are packed, it’s time to organise your hand luggage. Assuming you’ve got your passport and travel documents ready, there’s just a few more things you need to acquire.
– A Good Book – WiFi isn’t always reliable in Southeast Asia and you won’t always have power points, so a good book is sure to keep you entertained on long journeys.
– Passport Photos – To acquire a visa in some countries, you will need passport photos handy. You may also need to organise a visa in advance and have foreign currency or USD in your wallet.
– Small Padlock – Keep your belonging safe by locking your bag with a small lock. Some attractions also have lockers to leave your belonging but they may not necessarily provide free locks.
– Day Bag or Dry Bag – Bring along a day bag for day tours and overnight stays away from your hotel. A waterproof bag, or dry bag, will serve you even better for cruises and boat trips.
– Ear Plugs, Eye Mask and Inflatable Pillow – Some journeys in Asia will require taking an overnight train or bus, but these three items can help you get a better nights sleep.
What NOT To Bring
There are so many things that go unused for entire holidays that we could write an entire list just on what not to bring! We’ll spare you the detail, though, and share just five items not to pack for your trip to Southeast Asia.
Travel Packing List Southeast Asia
– Numerous Guidebooks – One guidebook is enough! You will often find the best, most up-to-date information at your hotel or directly from your travel provider. Save yourself the extra weight in your luggage and ask questions instead.
– Expensive Jewellery – Flashing expensive jewellery is likely to garner unwanted attention from thieves.
– Food – There is plenty of choice of food across Southeast Asia, including both Western and local cuisine. You are sure to find snacks and meals to suit your taste throughout the region.
– Towels – A large fluffy towel takes up far too much space and is likely to go unused. If you plan to stay in remote areas, a travel towel is worth investing in, but nothing larger.
– Shoes – Uncomfortable, impractical or bulky shoes are not worth bringing to Southeast Asia. Lots of countries are not particularly easy to stroll around. Stick to comfy shoes for exploring and a pair of sandals for evening meals.
If you’re planning a trip to Asia, take a look at our tours across 11 destinations in Southeast Asia or speak to one of our knowledgeable travel experts.

15 Reasons Why You Haven’t Been to Thailand Until You’ve Been to Isaan

Think you’ve seen all that there is to see in Thailand? Think again! Our resident Thailand expert uncovers the top 15 reasons why you simply haven’t visited Thailand until you’ve explored Isaan, it’s least-visited and most fascinating region.


It’s no secret that travelers love Thailand –and for good reason! It’s one of the most culturally rich places on earth, has year-round tropical weather, abundant natural beauty, gorgeous beaches, great food, vibrant cities, friendly locals, and it offers exceptional value.

Thailand is such a great travel destination, in fact, that it has long held one of the highest rates of return-visitors in the world. In 2014 Thailand attracted nearly 25 million tourists and is projected to attract more than 28 million visitors by the end of 2015. Statistically speaking, 50% of those tourists will return for another go of Thailand at some point in their lives. That’s a pretty telling statistic. People love Thailand. Isn’t it ironic, then, that Thailand’s largest region – accounting for nearly one third of its landmass and one third of its population – is also the least visited?

Very few people, outside of those who have either lived in Thailand or spent a significant amount of time there, have ever even heard Isaan. Many of those who do know about it tend to discredit it as a poor area lacking in the sort of splendor found elsewhere in the country. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even if you’ve visited Thailand a thousand times, here are fifteen reasons why you haven’t really experienced Thailand until you’ve been to Isaan.

It’s the largest region of Thailand.

With more than 160,000 square kilometers of land, Isaan is nearly half the size of Germany and one third the size of Thailand as a whole. While the region does rely upon agriculture heavily, there’s more to the region than rice paddies. Landscapes you’ll find there range from dense tropical rainforests to rolling prairies, to arid grasslands.

Nearly one third of Thailand’s population is from Isaan.

With over 20 million people residing in Isaan, and untold numbers of “Khon Isan” (People from Isaan) residing elsewhere in the country, roughly one third of Thailand’s population hails from the region. As such, the influence of Isaan on Thai culture cannot be underestimated. The only way to really understand Isaan culture (and Thai culture) is to go to its source.

It’s home to some of Thailand’s most vividly delicious food.

With substantial Khmer and Lao influence, Isaan is home to some of Thailand’s most interesting and ethnically diverse dishes. It isn’t for the faint of heart, though. Even among Thais, who are famously adept at eating spicy food, Isaan food is known to be particularly fiery –so be careful! Anyone who has been to Thailand or eaten Thai food will instantly recognize Papaya Salad or “Som Tum.” It’s one of the country’s most pervasive dishes. While you’ll find it throughout the country in various forms, it is in facty an Isaan dish. As is the case with any ethnic food, if you want to have “real” Papaya Salad, you have to have it where it comes from -the spices and flavours will knock your socks off!

The drinks aren’t too shabby either!

One of the pleasant surprises you’ll find in Isaan is the bizarre and wonderful assortment of ethnic beverages on offer. Throughout the region you’ll find roadside stalls full of urn-like earthenware jugs brimming with what appears to be toasted sticky rice. Upon further inspection you’ll find that by plunging a wooden straw into the jar’s contents, a dark syrupy liquid will erupt from the surface.

This is Lao Hai, a curiously delicious and mildly sweet rice wine that’s dirt cheap and packs a surprisingly powerful punch. Adventurous drinkers will also discover the likes of Kaw Nam Lak, an alcoholic beverage made with orange juice and fresh chilies, and Lao Lao, a strong rice-whisky that’s commonly served as a cocktail named after the Pygmy Slow Loris –a slow moving animal native to the area that partakers of this drink are said to mimic after indulging themselves in it.

The architecture will blow your mind.

This one may shock some people. In a country riddled with magnificent temples, it’s no small thing to say that Isaan is home to what is probably the country’s most impressive architecture. One look at Wat Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol will validate this statement, and then some. To find architecture that is as visually stunning, or expansive, you’d need to look at places like India’s Taj Mahal or Myanmar’s Schwedegon Pagoda. It really is that impressive.

Nestled in the rural landscape of Roi Et (“One Hundred and One in Thai) province, the temple is built upon 101 rai of land, measures a staggering 101 meters in length, and is 101 meters tall. Every inch of the temple complex is littered with intricate sculptures and artwork. And that’s just the beginning. If that isn’t reason enough, Isaan is also home to the Thailand’s tallest standing Buddha statue at Wat Buraphraphiram, and a multitude of other, equally impressive, structures.

It’s home to some of Thailand’s (and the world’s) most amazing wildlife preserves.

This one may also come to a shock to the uninitiated. Animal and nature lovers visiting Isaan’s Nakhon Ratchasima province will discover what may very well be one of the world’s premier destinations for observing wildlife in Khao Yao National Park. Covering an expanse of over 300 square kilometers, its Thailand’s oldest nature preserve and its third largest national park.

Within the park confines you’ll find more than 3000 species of plants, 320 species of birds, and 66 species of mammals –including wild elephants, bears, and tigers. It’s one of the few places in Asia that you can go where you are virtually guaranteed to see “real” wildlife –not just a spattering of small birds and lizards. The park is literally crawling with Sambar deer and other creatures.

It has some pretty crazy landscapes.

Just in case you thought that Isaan’s landscape was boring, it happens to be the home of the so-called “Grand Canyon of Thailand.” Near the border with Laos, in the furthest reaches of the Ubon Ratchathani province, it’s a vast river gorge that’s reminiscent of a Martian landscape and well-deserving of the colloquial title endowed to it. Sam Phan Bok is one of the most unique landscapes in Thailand, and if there is anything that is slowly putting Isaan on the tourist map, it’s it.

The region has history…a LOT of it.

Isaan is considered by many to be the cradle of human settlement in Thailand. Isaan has so much history, in fact, that human settlement in the area predates our own species! Homo erectus fragments have been found scattered throughout Isaan and, even to this day, the evidence of their presence can be found in the form of some of Asia’s most incredible cave paintings at Pha Taem National Park and Hua Mountain.

Historically, Isaan is also one of the most contested areas of country. Nestled on the Korat Plateau, squarely between the influence of Laos, Cambodia, and the rest of Thailand, Isaan has been the rope in a tug-of-war match between these feuding kingdoms for millennia.

It’s home to the unique Lao-Isaan Culture.

Although Isaan people are proud of their unique heritage, and will fiercely defend any accusation that they are somehow not Thai, the vast majority of Isaan people are ethnically Lao. Even the language spoken in the region, Isaan, is so closely related to the language of Laos, that it is mutually intelligible. There are also significant parallels in the cuisine, music, and other cultural elements. What makes Isaan culture distinct, however, is the fact that it is an amalgamation of the three cultures that surround it –Thai, Laos, and Khmer.

It’s home to the unique Khmer-Isaan Culture.

The south of Isaan, near the border with Cambodia, is home to the region’s largest ethnic minority, the Khmer-Isaan. Known by locals as “Jungle Khmer,” these people were immigrants from remote northern outposts of the Angkor Kingdom. Having settled in areas surrounding Surin, in southern Isaan, centuries ago, they retain cultural elements of their Khmer heritage and are also able to speak Khmer. Like the Lao-Isaan people, though, they are also adamantly Thai.

You can’t help but be entertained by the music.

If there’s one thing that Isaan people have in common with their Thai brethren, it’s their light-hearted nature and fondness of having a good time. This will become abundantly clear as soon as you encounter locals listening to the upbeat and contagiously “happy” local music. With influences from both Laos and Cambodia, the music has a decidedly “ethnic” flair to it, and the style of dancing does, too.

If you’re in a social atmosphere and a local hit comes on, be prepared for one of the most hysterically entertaining performances you’ve ever seen. Young and old people alike are not averse to erupting into bouts of smiley arm-flailing whilst bobbing up and down in a dance that will have you bent over laughing and attempting to do the same.

It’s Thailand’s least-visited region.

They say that a tourist comes to see while a traveler comes to experience. If you relate more with the latter category, Isaan may very well be one of the most magical places in Thailand. Because so few tourists ever go there, Isaan truly is the Thailand’s “last frontier” when it comes to places that have more or less escaped the influence of modernity. While Thai people can fairly be described as friendly and congenial anywhere in the country, this is especially true in Isaan.

Quite simply, as a foreigner, you’re a novelty in Isaan whereas elsewhere in the country locals are more accustomed to seeing people from all over the world. You can expect to get a few inquisitive stares, and it’s entirely likely that locals will approach you to have their picture taken with you –usually a great indication that, as a traveler rather than a “tourist,” you’re in the right place.

It’s incredibly cheap.

Although Isaan is home to Thailand’s fastest growing economy, it’s still the country’s poorest region. This fact, combined with the fact that it sees so few visitors, means that most things can be found at an incredible value. Compared to the likes of Phuket, Pattaya, or other major tourist hubs, visitors to Isaan will find that prices are amazingly cheap and the culture of exploiting tourists for money is amazingly absent.

It’s pretty close to Bangkok.

Flying to the region’s largest hubs, Ubon Ratchathani or Udon Thani, Isaan is just short hop away from the frenetic urban chaos of Bangkok. From point to point it’s about a 45 minute flight that isn’t likely to set you back more than about $30, both ways.

You can’t say you’ve “seen it all” until you’ve been to Isaan.

If you have a couple of days to spare, there’s almost no excuse not to visit this beautiful and friendly region of Thailand. If you love Thailand, or even if you’ve never been before and want to say that you’ve had a unique experience, Isaan is literally one of the best experience you can have in the country. No matter how many times you’ve been to Thailand, you can never say you’ve “seen it all” until you’ve been to this jewel of a region and experienced it firsthand.

Explore the very best of incredible Isaan on an in-depth Isaan region tour of this lesser-visited region. Make this a part of your customised Thailand itinerary for the very best of the country in a single, enchanting journey.

Beyond the Highlights in… Bangkok, Thailand

In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.

Formidable Bangkok is undeniably a place of contrasts; a city bursting with modernity and yet still steeped in tradition. Here, you’ll sometimes find yourself speeding through the city on the sleek sky train while glancing up at the almost dystopian skyline, or peering down at the occasional ramshackle wooden house. Move gently along the river in the shadow of fabulous five star hotels that, despite their enormity, still fail to outshine the gorgeous Thai temples that glisten in the sunlight.

Upon closer inspection, these contrasting elements don’t compete with each other, but rather compliment one another. The city’s gloriously modern public transport system still reserves the prime seats for the huge number of orange robbed monks that care for the temples and monasteries; and shrines to the revered royal family can be found in even the priciest shopping malls.

“Many worthwhile neighbourhoods [in Bangkok] are completely missed, and it is surprisingly easy to slip through the cracks and explore something extraordinary even in the city’s most heavily visited areas.”

Bangkok – which is, arguably, the gateway to Southeast Asia – has been welcoming visitors for centuries, and recent political upheavals have only highlighted that city has an undeniable draw and remarkable resilience. People still come each year by the millions. In terms of going beyond the highlights, Bangkok’s massiveness works to the city’s advantage. Many worthwhile neighbourhoods are completely missed, and it is surprisingly easy to slip through the cracks and explore something extraordinary even in the city’s most heavily visited areas.

I could write for days about getting off the beaten in this great city, but I’ll focus on only two main areas: Chinatown, which is frequently visited but rarely properly explored; and Klong Bangkok Noi, a lesser-seen area that is hugely deserving of more attention.

Chinatown: Bangkok’s Charming Enclave

Chinatown exemplifies just how much there is so much to discover if you scratch beneath the surface in Bangkok. Often featured on whistle-stop tours of the city, Chinatown offers so much more than what most people get to see, and is worth a fair few hours of aimless wandering and shameless face-stuffing. But since every aimless wander needs a starting point, begin your journey with a coffee on Phat Sai Street, a short walk from Bangkok Railway Station and Hua Lamphong MRT.

Along this colourful street you’ll find Eia Sae, one of Bangkok’s only traditional coffee houses, which has existed at its current location for decades. Chinese immigrants were big coffee drinkers and traditional cafes can now be found in Chinatowns across Southeast Asia from Georgetown to Jakarta. Eia Sae gets most of the attention, but there are one or two more along the street so take a stroll up and down and see which one catches your eye.

The alleyways of Chinatown make the neighbourhood one of the few areas in Bangkok that can only be explored on foot. Walk down Yaowa Phanit, for example, and enter into a rabbit warren of intertwining alleyways, many of which hold hidden Chinese temples and ancient clan houses. Make sure you make your way through to the Pei-ing School on 831 Songwat Road – this European architectural beauty was established almost a hundred years ago to cater for the children of wealthy Chinese merchants.

Last but certainly not least: food. Food is everywhere in Chinatown, and many of your favourite Thai dishes may well have Chinese origins. While you could spend a few days with your nose in a guidebook tracking down the best places to chow down on the neighbourhood’s best dishes, a Chinatown street food tour through this fascinating area is as culturally rewarding as it is deliciously memorable – and it saves you plenty of time. Doing so is an absolute must for cuisine enthusiasts.

Khlong Bangkok Noi: A Little-Explored Gem

For a city that once went by the nickname ‘Venice of the East’, first time visitors are sometimes shocked (and appalled) that, save the Chao Phraya River, there isn’t much water in Bangkok. But actually… there is! You just need to find it, and escape the central attractions.

The best place to get to grips with Bangkok’s watery underbelly is in Bangkok Noi District, where several canals snaking into multiple directions makes for a strange but fascinating scene. Wooden houses are seemingly built half on land and half on water, and the noisy traffic that engulfs much of central Bangkok seems to be a world away. Along the Klong Bangkok Noi, you’ll get a feeling of what Bangkok may have once looked like many centuries ago.

The local atmosphere in this neighbourhood is unsurpassed, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this part of town makes for great temple hopping. They may not be as imposing as Wat Arun, or glisten quite as brightly as Wat Pho, but what the temples in the area lack in fame they make up for in quiet charm. Mostly small and understated, these temples see very few tourists and thus serve completely as places of worship. Temples can be found on both sides of the estuary, but a particularly interesting cluster, which includes Wat Mai Yai Paen and Wat Mai Yai Mon is possibly the best in the area.

Go beyond the highlights in Bangkok with an in-depth, guided tour through both city highlights and hidden gems. Make a Unique Bangkok City Tour part of your Thailand journey – or customise a multi-day journey through Thailand and beyond!

Tips from a Tour Guide: How to Bargain Like a Pro In Thailand

The Absolute Asia Tours’ team is full of seasoned travellers, destination experts and professed food fanatics – but no one knows travel and tours in Asia quite like our tour guides. That’s why, when it comes to Thailand travel advice, we go to our on-the-ground travel experts. Thankfully, we have a whole team of them!

This time around in our Tips from a Tour Guide series, we talked to our top Chiang Mai, Thailand tour guide Amy Somkran who helps visitors to her home city fall in love with its culture and people.

Amy gives her local tips on how to bargain like a true pro in Thailand – right down to the phrases, body language and jokes that will help you get the best price!

“If you are shopping for souvenirs in a big city like Chiang Mai or Bangkok, most souvenir shops will carry identical or similar stuff. Don’t feel like you can’t wander around and look for the best price – if you feel like you aren’t getting the price you want, move to another stall. But remember – most vendors know each other, so their prices will usually be about the same!”

“Thai people are very outwardly friendly, and will be kinder on their prices if you bargain with a smile! Looking tough or mean when you are bargaining won’t get you far in Thailand. Smile, laugh and try to have a good time while bargaining – the locals will appreciate it a lot more!”

“Bargaining is starting a conversation, so it is rude to simply ask ‘how much’. Start your conversation with a smile, eye contact and a friendly ‘sawasdee ka’. This will immediately show that you respect local culture, and will make it easier for the vendor to give you a nice discount!”

“There are lots of words in Thai to help you sound more polite. Just like in English when you might ask for a discount with a friendly ‘please’, we use the phrase “lod noi dai mai ka”, which translates to “please can you lower the price?” Using this phrase shows that you aren’t afraid to try to speak Thai, and might charm the vendor into giving you a ‘local’ discount!”

“I learned this one from Chinese tourists that I would show around Chiang Mai. Rather than staying at one shop and bargaining, if you aren’t doing as well bargaining as you’d hoped, move away to another vendor. If they really want the sale, they will come after you and give you a discount! Make sure you do it with a smile!”

“Thai people love having fun, and bargaining is no exception! Make bargaining a chance to play a game with a local vendor. If you make it stressful or mean, you will never get a discount. Don’t be afraid to make a joke or crack a sly smile while bargaining!”

“Body language in Thai is almost as important as the words you are using. If you want to show your sincerity or kindness when you say ‘lod noi dai mai ka’, do it with a “wai” – which is when your hands are folded in front of your face in what Westerners sometimes call ‘prayer’ hands. This makes your request extra polite!”

Experience the art of bargaining in Thailand for yourself by creating a custom itinerary with us!

Beating the Heat in Bangkok

Thailand is certainly feeling the heat this year, with last month seeing the longest heatwave in the country for 65 years. With Thailand weather heating up, we share the best ways to beat the heat in the capital, Bangkok.

Many countries across Southeast Asia are feeling the heat creep up with the reappearance of El Nino. Thailand is certainly no exception with temperatures reaching 42°C and over 70% humidity. Last month, many visitors could escape the heat with Songkran celebrations, Thailand’s yearly water festival. This month, however, there’s no excuse to throw buckets of water on each other. We share the best ways to escape the heat in Bangkok.

Hit the Shops

Your first point of action for keeping cool in Bangkok is to find air-con. Fortunately, the city has an array of malls which not only have a great choice of shops but delightfully cool temperatures. Browse over 2000 shops at the MBK Centre or visit the sixth largest shopping centre in the world, Central World. For those who aren’t into shopping, the malls have plenty more to offer; Siam Paragon alone is home to the largest movie screen in Southeast Asia and the largest aquarium in Asia.

Visit the Museums

Another great indoor activity is visiting Bangkok’s many museums. The city has a variety of museums to suit all tastes and interests, from the historic National Museum of Royal Barges to the eye-opening Corrections Museum, and the traditional Kamthieng House Museum to the impressive Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. All of these attractions are a great way to get out of the midday sun without having to hide out in your hotel room.

Take a Swim

As we all know, there’s nothing better than diving into fresh, cool water. Bangkok may not have miles of ocean coastline, but it does have a whole lot of waterparks. Most of these places can be found a little outside of the city centre, by they’re certainly worth the journey. Head to Siam Park City for exhilarating slides or Fantasia Lagoon for huge pools.

Relax in the Parks

Cooling down in Bangkok can be as simple as getting away from the stifling traffic and crowds. Escape the madness at one of the city’s lush, green parks. Lumphini Park is one the most popular spots in Bangkok for tourists and locals alike. It has an artificial lake where visitors can rent boats and plenty of evergreen trees for shade. King Rama IX Park is the largest park in Bangkok at almost 200 acres and has various features, including a botanical garden, museum and playgrounds, as well as ample shaded grass.


We all know that you need to drink lots of water to beat the heat, but what what about eating lots? Well, there are plenty of foods that can help you feel refreshed, especially food with high water content or fresh fruit. Fortunately, Thailand is full of delightfully refreshing desserts that hit the spot. We recommend Itim Kati, coconut ice-cream made with coconut cream, and Tub Tim Grob, a blend of water chestnuts and tapioca flour. Alternatively, wait until the sun has set and explore the food scene on a cooler evening street eats tour.

Hop on a Boat

Sometimes all you need to cool down is a fresh, river breeze. There are numerous canals and rivers to explore in Bangkok, many of them winding around some of the city’s most famous landmarks, such as Chao Phya River which passes by Wat Arun. The klongs (canals), on the other hand, offer a much more unique window into Thai lifestyle, cruising through artisan villages and hidden fishing spots. A boat ride is one of the best ways to explore Bangkok without having to work up a sweat!

Take a Class

Getting hands-on in Bangkok doesn’t necessarily mean working up a sweat. There are many leisurely classes where you can learn a local skill without feeling like you’re melting. Try a cooking class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School or stop by an artisan village to try your hand at traditional Thai crafts.

If you’re heading to Thailand soon, browse our tours or speak to one of our destination experts.

Introducing Local Life: Going In-Depth in China

This August, Absolute Asia Tours is proud to launch our brand new, in-depth line: Local Life. As part of our exciting new initiative to respect, support and celebrate the cultures and people that make each of our destinations unique, this specialised line is designed to get travellers closer to the heart of Asia – without sacrificing the comfort and ease of a classic Absolute Asia Tours experience. We sat down with Luke Mitchell – the man who created our China Local Life experiences – to talk culture, back alleys and conquering language barriers with Absolute Asia Tours.

You’ve lived in China for many years now. What’s the most intriguing thing for you about local culture here?

Definitely the communal spirit. I have seen it in all the countries I have lived in throughout Asia, but I found it much more obvious in China. People don’t spend time in their homes – they go to the local parks, streets, and restaurants; and they socialize all the time. Everything from tai chi, practicing calligraphy on the ground with water, dancing, singing and just sitting around chatting. I could never imagine going to the park in Australia, turning on some music and dancing to exercise with my neighbours! I love how it really builds a sense of community among people, and that’s an element of the culture I’ve made a point to highlight in these new experiences.

What was your inspiration for when you set off on creating these in-depth local life excursions?

Whenever I travel, I love to see the sights, but I always think: “what would it be like if I lived here? What would I do? Where would I go?”

I wanted people to see the regular lives of the people here; where they eat, where they relax, where they have fun. So, I have tried to include in each tour what it would be like just to go about a normal day as a local. Where would you buy your produce, what food would you eat, how would you socialize with your friends? I want the tours to show the side of these cities that is just a couple of streets away from the palaces and temples, but that may be daunting to venture into by yourself.

Why do you think visitors to China should make a point to dig into the local culture? What’s waiting beyond the highlights?

Beyond the highlights is one of the most friendly, warm and genuine cultures I have ever experienced. There is a saying by Confucius to “always look after friends from afar” and the local people will go out of their way to do this. Chinese people are flattered that you are making the effort to learn about them, and they really want to learn about you, too. They are just as fascinated by our culture as we are by theirs, so expect that once a guide is bridging the language gap that they will have just as many questions for you as you do for them. Dig into the local culture and the reward is a heartfelt experience that can be extremely humbling.

“I want the tours to show the side of these cities that is just a couple of streets away from the palaces and temples, but that may be daunting to venture into by yourself.”

One of your tours explores the culture within Beijing’s Hutongs. What’s so special about these places, and what makes them a great place to see Beijing locals as they live today?

Hutongs are the traditional areas that people in Beijing have always lived in. Most of them have disappeared in the name of progress, but the government has designated some areas that will not be developed. In these areas, life goes on as it always has. People have lived in these areas for generations, which gives the feeling that they are not just streets, but extensions of people’s homes.

You can see everything – from people sitting outside chatting with the neighbors under their fresh laundry, to tiny local shops that are still making their own products. People here still don’t go to supermarkets. Instead, they will go to the soy shop to pick up their tofu and soy milk that was freshly made that day, or the pickle shop or the sesame oil shop. It’s all made right there. They know the owners and their parents probably bought the same products from the owners parents, and so on. You can feel that it’s a community that is standing the test of time and is like one big, extended family.

We stay away from the tourist areas where the shops have been turned over for souvenirs, and see the genuine areas where people are surprised to see us walking down the street and are so happy and proud to show their local wares.

China is a notoriously difficult country to explore unguided, thanks to a language barrier and drastically different local culture. How do you think these new in-depth tours help with those challenges?

The language barrier in China is two-fold. There is the spoken language barrier which can be slightly broken with translation apps, and there is the written language barrier which becomes very apparent when you are in a restaurant and the whole menu is written in Chinese characters. There is so much to try and enjoy, but its often inaccessible without an understanding. These tours break down those barriers with either snacks along the way or meals in local areas. It’s not just the menu – sometimes it’s the whole process that would put you off. Sometimes you don’t know whether to order at the counter, or do they give you the food or bring it to the table! We try and make this process smoother so you can focus on enjoying yourself.

I wanted people to experience things that they can’t do themselves or with the help of a guidebook, but also learn from the experiences so that they can they try it alone after the tour. Like the little yoghurt pots you see sitting outside the shops all over Beijing – it is something unique to Beijing, and you always have to leave the pot behind once you’ve finished. Most visitors wouldn’t know that!

We will show you the little things that will give more depth to a China experience. It’s not just the food, it’s the people – like talking to the ladies in the park in Shanghai that exercise there every morning or the men that swim in the back lakes of Beijing. They are outside because they want to socialize and have a chat. There are so many things we would love to ask them but can’t. With the guide’s help, you can understand more about their lives. You will come away feeling like you have made new friends.

You’ve made a point to create tours that are responsible and sustainable – an important element to the Local Life line. In China, what does that mean?

This definitely means going small scale. Rather than eating in the big chain restaurants, you will visit shops that are owned and worked by parents and their grown kids. Everything is small scale and goes directly to the people you are interacting with. We aren’t just there to ogle them, but to try their products and talk to them through the guide. It makes it a two-way interaction.

Also, all of our tours are walking tours that start and end near metro lines in both Beijing and Shanghai. In cities like this that already have too many cars on the roads, we are keeping down our environmental impact by utilizing public transport – which in and of itself, is a cultural experience, too!

What do you hope travellers will learn from embarking on these new experiences in China?

I hope each and every person who embarks on these journeys with us will feel like you haven’t just seen the cities from the other side of a window of a tour bus or car. You will feel that you have created a genuine connection to how it is to live as a local, and see a destination through the eyes of a local. These are the moments and experiences that are more memorable because they have a human side to them. Every interaction is unique, so you will know that what you have experienced will be yours alone to remember.

You can customise your China tour to include these special Local Life experiences in Beijing and Shanghai. Create your own itinerary with the help of our expert sales team, and let them know that you want the Local Life flavour!

COMING SOON: Explore all of our Local Life tours in each of our 11 destinations on our website – coming August 7th!

Southeast Asia by Plane, Train and Sea

If you have ever read Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne, then you might have imagined yourself as a modern-day Phileas Fogg, travelling to exotic locales using ingenious modes of transportation. Today, travelling is easier than ever before: all you need is a plane ticket or fare for a taxi, but where is the fun in that? If you really want to try travelling in unique and exciting ways, then Absolute Asia Tours has you covered. Over the past several years, we have aimed to offer travellers an ever increasing choice of experiences, by acquiring our own range of transportation services. These include seaplanes, speedboats and even a luxury railway carriage, allowing you to tour Southeast Asia by Plane, Train and Sea.

Private Seaplane – Halong Bay

A private plane is waiting for you, ready to whisk you off to beautiful Halong Bay for a relaxing cruise of this ancient and mysterious natural wonder. On the way, you will get an impressive aerial view of sprawling Hanoi, the lush green countryside, and finally fly over the scenic “Bay of Descending Dragons” before landing gracefully next to your luxury “junk” cruise ship.

No mode of transportation is as symbolic of adventure as the seaplane and no experience is as iconic of oriental mystique as sailing a junk around the exotic karst islands of Halong Bay. After a few days of enjoying the breath-taking scenery, lounging on the sundeck, kayaking and exploring caves, your plane will pick you up and fly you off into the sunset, landing safely back in Hanoi.

Absolute Asia Tours acquired our own seaplanes under the brand name of Hai Au Aviation, in 2011. This allows us to ensure the highest standards of service and absolute safety for our clients. Travellers are able to conveniently fly directly from Noi Bai International Airport, straight to Halong Bay and back.

Luxury Train Carriage – Sapa

The Victoria Express provides unmatched luxury and comfort. Travelling in a wood-panelled cabin, like a precious jewellery box, drifting past scenes of soothing pastoral simplicity. Gold and emerald rice fields, flooded paddies glistening like mother of pearl; there is simply no better way to connect with the atmosphere and history of Northern Vietnam.

This luxury train to Sapa will transport you back in time, to an era of romance, elegance and charm. Originally a market town used by the local Hmong, Yao and Tay ethnic minorities, Sapa became a French outpost in the late 1880s. Due to the mild climate it quickly developed into a quaint little French-style town, and by the 1930s several private villas had been built, as well as a beautiful stone church.

For many travellers, the train journey from Hanoi to Sapa has always been the most rigorous and inconvenient part of travelling in Northern Vietnam, but with the Victoria Express this is no longer the case. Instead, the journey by train is now an integral part of the experience and an opportunity to immerse yourself in the luxurious style and extravagance of a bygone era.

Speedboat – Phuket

Experience absolute freedom on board a private speedboat, sailing from island to island, stopping by a secluded beach in some uninhabited paradise. The wind in your hair, a drink in your hand and nothing but blue skies, white sands, and turquoise sea.

The islands around Phuket are ideal for day trips, diving, snorkelling and relaxing on the beach. The lush tropical vegetation, coral reefs, and the rich marine life makes this an absolute favourite destination for many.

In the summer of 2019, Absolute Asia Tours acquired our own speedboats in Phuket. This was done in order to ensure that we can provide the best in terms of reliability and flexibility, giving our guests the highest standards of service.


Absolute Asia Tours is constantly seeking out new ways to improve your travelling experience. If you have any questions or suggestions, or if you are interested in combining your next adventure with any of these exciting transportation services, do not hesitate to leave a comment or to contact us directly.