Discover the ancient and exotic landscapes of Asia on a cruise onboard Norwegian Jewel.

Eastern promise: Six of the best Asia cruises

Author: Sarah Freeman

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The Far East is finally open again to travellers, so make 2023 the year you discover some of the world’s most dazzling destinations.

From natural wonders to neon skylines, and ancient temples to sensational street food, the Far East is packed with amazing attractions – and it’s just made for exploration by ship.

As well as its coral-fringed shores, this part of the world offers two of the world’s greatest waterways: China’s mighty Yangtze and the mysterious Mekong, which winds through no fewer than six countries on its 3,000-mile journey from the Tibetan highlands to the sea.

Having enforced some of the world’s toughest Covid controls, the region is finally reopening to fully vaccinated visitors. So earmark next year for your Far Eastern adventure, ticking off rainforests teeming with wildlife, colourful floating markets, nodding palm trees and gilded temples on the cruise of a lifetime.

Asia has it all: beautiful beaches, vibrant cities, a fantastic food scene and unique cultures.

Good for scenery and tradition: Japan
As a nation of islands, the Land of the Rising Sun is perfect for cruising. From samurai castles to soaring sky scrapers, and steaming onsen springs to succulent sushi, Japan really does offer the whole package – with dramatic scenery and ancient history into the bargain.

Many cruise itineraries are bookended by foodie-favourite Osaka, which also claims one of the country’s oldest shrines, together with a vast aquarium and Japan’s Universal Studios. More culture awaits in Honshu, the biggest and most populous of Japan’s islands, where the city of Kanazawa offers a beautifully preserved geisha district with traditional teahouses. Further south, on Kyushu island, the great harbour city of Nagasaki serves up seafood markets and historic architecture along its scenic waterfront.

Landscape lovers are also in for a treat. Considered one of the most scenic ports in Japan, if not the world, Shimizu is your gateway to the eternally mysterious snow-capped Mount Fuji, while Miyako-Jimaon far-flung Okinawa island promises turquoise waters and world-class snorkelling.

Nothing can prepare you for the incredibly hi-tech mega-city that is Tokyo – but at least you know your ship will be docking in the capital’s ultra-modern four-level cruise terminal.

Get on board

10-night ‘Hong Kong to Tokyo’ cruise aboard Queen Elizabeth, via Manila, Hualien, Keelung, Ishigaki and Naha, departs April 9, 2023, from £1,469 per person.

Japan is very different from any other country you've visited. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for culture and wildlife: Malaysia
Situated just north of the equator, Malaysia is a land of tangled rainforests, idyllic islands and glittering skyscrapers.

The usual entry point for cruisers is Port Kelang, which serves the bustling capital, Kuala Lumpur – a true cultural melting pot, thanks to its Malay, Chinese, Indian and British heritage.

Highlights here include a Moorish-style mosque, the outlying Batu CavesHindu shrine, oh – and the world’s tallest twin towers. Another popular port of call is Penang, a former British colony on the Malacca Strait. Come for its golden crescents of sand and UNESCO World Heritage Site capital; stay for its unique Peranakan hawker fare – as much a culture as a cuisine.

This May, Penang unveiled the world’s first dual-powered roller coaster motorbike ride, as part of its new amusement park, Genting SkyWorlds (the bikes move with their own power as well as gravity – scary!) Thrill-seekers will also love Langkawi, an archipelago of 99 islands lapped by the Andaman Sea, where you can traverse the incredible Sky Bridge (125m long and 100m above the ground) or spot flying lemurs on a jungle trek.

More adventure awaits in the city of Kota Kinabalu on the South China Sea, where cruisers can scale its 4,000m Mount Kinabalu, or dive among WW2 wrecks.

Get on board
Princess' seven-night ‘Southeast Asia with Malaysian Peninsula’ cruise aboard Diamond Princess, round trip from Singapore via Malacca, KualaLumpur, Penang, Phuket and Langkawi, departs January 14, 2023, from £599 per person.

East meets West in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur

Good for nature and cuisine: Singapore
A one-time British trading post, this small-but-mighty city state is more than just an iconic skyline. Abundant green space has earned it the title ‘Garden City of the Far East’, and in a single day you can tick off its UNESCO-listed Botanic Gardens and 250-acre waterfront park (famous for its space-age ‘super trees’), then spot monitor lizards on a seven-mile walking trail at MacRitchie Reservoir Park.

Refuel with hot and spicy noodle soup from a street stall on Maxwell Road – or raise the stakes at one of the city’s seven Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurants.

In need of some retail therapy? You’ve come to the right place. Shop for souvenir tea-sets in Chinatown’s Temple and Pagoda streets; mall-hop along Orchard Road, or go antique-trawling in Dempsey Hill, a former British army barracks but now a green oasis of boutiques and craft shops.

For cruisers craving a beach fix, the city has its own 1,200-acre resort island. Once a notorious Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, Sentosa now receives 20 million visitors a year to its many attractions. Reachable from downtown Singapore by monorail, cable car and road bridge, the island recently launched a series of tours themed around sustainability and military history.

Get on board
Royal Caribbean's nine-night ‘Thailand &Vietnam’ cruise aboard Spectrum of theSeas, round trip from Singapore via Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, departs February 23, 2023, from £1,019.

Singapore packs a punch as one of the world’s wealthiest destinations. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for history and scenery: Vietnam
Stretching from its border with China in the north to the Gulf of Thailand in the southwest, Vietnam has one of the oldest continuous histories of any nation.

Visually it’s incredible – you’ll never tire of looking at those towering limestone crags (known as karsts) rising through the mist from emerald waters, and your camera won’t stop clicking as you cruise past riverside towns, colourfully decorated and built on stilts.

Mekong River itineraries usually start and finish in the country’s two major conurbations, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. French-colonial Hanoi blends southeast Asian, Chinese and Gallic influences, with some 600 temples and pagodas and a charming 13th-century old quarter that’s seemingly frozen in time. Ho Chi Minh City is better known for its pivotal role in the Vietnam War, though it has been a major trading centre since the 18th century. Here you can seek serenity along its Parisian-style boulevards or Bach Thao Park, where locals practise tai chi.

It’s the karsts of Halong Bay that top most cruisers’ bucket lists, and this amazing destination is served by two international cruise ports so it’s a fixture on countless itineraries. But swapping green waters for even greener jungles, those with a serious head for heights can brave the new 150m-high, glass-floored pedestrian bridge (whose name translates as‘White Dragon’) in the country’s northwestern Son La province.

Get on board
Wendy Wu Tours' 13-night ‘A Mekong Experience’ tour from Saigon to Siem Reap via temples of Angkor and Tonlé Sap lake, including a four-night cruise aboard Victoria Mekong from Can Tho to Phnom Penh, departs March 19, 2023, from £3,690 including return flights from Heathrow.

Explore the history and culture of the ancient lands of Vietnam and Cambodia and exotic regions along the Mekong River.

Good for beaches and adventure: Philippines
Sandwiched between the Philippine and South China Seas, this archipelago of7,000 islands and 110 million people is a patchwork of hidden lagoons, untouched reefs and UNESCO-listed rice terraces. Although English-speaking today, the Philippines was ruled by Spain for 350 years, and you can immerse yourself in the country’s colonial past at Vigan on Luzon Island, where horse-drawn calesas clip-clop along the city’s cobbled streets.

Intramuros is the old walled Spanish core of Manila, the country’s pulsating capital, which is also located on the main island of Luzon. Scheduled to open this year is a new pier within Manila’s ‘Entertainment City’ that will berth the biggest cruise ships.

The Philippines is also an adventurer’s playground, and cruisers can climb one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes or take a dugout canoe to Pagsanjan waterfalls on Luzon, or explore underground waterways at Puerto Princesa on Palawan. The latter, a sword-shaped island in the Sulu Sea that offers hot springs and sunken WW2 wrecks, is a focus for eco-tourism. But equally beautiful are the sugar-white beaches (all 17 of them)and crystalline coves of Boracay, the tiny resort island that regularly features in top 10 lists of the world’s most desirable destinations.

Get on board
14-night ‘Hong Kong to Hong Kong’ cruise aboard Silver Spirit, roundtrip via Vigan, Manila, Romblon Island and Palawan (Philippines) and Chan May, Da Nang and Ha Long Bay (Vietnam), departs February 12m 2023, from £4,050 per person.

Tiny Boracay Island is one of the Philippines' top tourist draws.

Good for bright lights and dark skies: Thailand
With its borders fully reopened from July 2022, the ‘Land of Smiles’ is once again welcoming visitors to its 1,500 sun-kissed isles.

Thailand has something for everyone, whether you dream of diving with whale sharks, touring magnificent palaces or taking your tastebuds on a tour of floating markets and sizzling street food stalls.

Cruise ships usually visit Phuket, Thailand’s island province on the Andaman Coast, where most tourists flock to see the 45m Big Buddha statue near Chalong.

But pastel-hued Phuket Old Town, an important 17th-century trading port, warrants a visit too. A little to the north lie the mangrove forests of Phang Nga National Park and nearby James Bond Island, famous as the main location for the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun. But if beaches are more your bag, head across the Gulf of Thailand to Krabi, where limestone cliffs shoot up from emerald waters like prehistoric skyscrapers.

Trading sandy toes for the bright lights of Bangkok, you’ll find Thailand’s capital a mesmerising blend of old and new. Once you’ve admired the jaw-dropping Grand Palace, make the trip to Wat Pho temple complex – reputedly the birthplace of Thai massage – where you’ll find the city’s famous reclining Buddha. A world away from Bangkok’s frenetic urban jungle are the 12 ‘dark sky conservation areas’ dotted across the country, newly designated as part of Thailand’s drive to attract star-gazing‘ astro-tourists’.

Get on board

Celebrity Cruises' 13-night ‘Thailand & Vietnam’ cruise aboard Celebrity Solstice, from Singapore to Hong Kong via Koh Samui, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Hue and Hanoi, departs November 3, 2023, from £1,420 per person.

When in Bangkok, make the trip to Wat Pho temple.

Good for culture and adventure: Indonesia
Rich in culture and customs, this vast chain of 17,000 islands, large and small, sprawls across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, begging be explored by ship. Remote jungle and the chance to spot orangutans lure cruisers to Balikpapan, gateway to Borneo’sKalimantan region, while muck-diving (exploring ocean-floor wildlife) is a must-do in the Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands, in eastern Indonesia.

In the far south of the country, sacred Bali delights with its cliff top temples, world-class surfing and culinary delights (it’s home to Mosto, a hugely trendy new bar serving organic, additive-free ‘natural’ wines and bistro bites in the popular resort of Canggu).

A firm favourite on most Indonesian cruise itineraries is Bali’s neighbour, the cultural melting pot of Java. Here you can explore Dutch colonial architecture and Arabian souks at Surabaya on its northeast coast, or make a pilgrimage to the world’s largest Buddhist temple Borobudur, which towers over rice paddies in the centre of the island.

Elsewhere in this huge archipelago of 273 million people, one of the least developed and most beautiful enclaves is Raja Ampat, a chain of 1,500 small islets and 25,000 square miles of pristine reefs in the biodiverse Coral Triangle, where you can snorkel with an estimated 1,500 species of fish.

Get on board
Holland America Line's
13-night ‘Indonesian Discovery’ cruise aboard Westerdam, round trip from Singapore via Jakarta, Probolinggo, Komodo Island, Bali, Surabaya and Semarang, with an overnight in Singapore, departs February 14, 2023, from £1,759.

Rice fields abound in Bali, Indonesia. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for river cruising: Cambodia
Centre of the mighty Khmer Empire for six centuries, this spell binding country of ancient temples, colonial townscapes, stilted fishing villages and sacred waterfalls is a jewel of southeast Asia.

While some itineraries feature the port of Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s pristine southwest coast, it’s the mighty Mekong River, along whose banks the way of life has hardly changed for millennia, that makes for a voyage you’ll never forget.

The starting point for many Mekong cruises is Cambodia’s charismatic, chaotic capital of Phnom Penh, nestled at the junction of theMekong and Tonlé Sap, southeast Asia’s biggest freshwater lake.

Must-sees here include the city’s sprawling Art Deco central market, gleaming gold Royal Palace (still home to the king) and park-like riverfront. PhnomPenh is also the gateway for overland tours to the buzzy resort town of Siem Reap and the jaw-dropping UNESCO-listed Angkor Wat temple complex, the world’s largest religious monument.

This sprawling 400-acre site is undoubtedly among the wonders of the world, but if time is short and you can’t see it all, make a beeline for mysteriousT a Prohm – the jungle-clad ruin that provided such a memorable backdropfor the 2001 adventure movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Get on board
Avalon Waterways' 12-night ‘Fascinating Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong River’ cruise aboard Avalon Saigon, from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City via Wat Hanchey, Angkor Ban, Kampong Louang and Kampong Tralach (Cambodia), and Chau Doc, Cu Lao Gieng and Vinh Long (Vietnam), departs August 14, 2023, from £3,436 per person.

Most travellers come to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, the crowning glory of the Khmer Empire. Credit: Shutterstock

Good for history and city life: China and Hong Kong
How to sum up a country as vast as China? Suffice it to say you’ll find millennia-old culture and modern marvels side by side, plus every kind of landscape and natural wonder you can imagine.

Combined cruise and land itineraries typically feature the Yangtze River, aka Asia’s longest waterway and China’s lifeline for thousands of years. A highlight of these is the Three Gorges Dam, an amazing a feat of engineering that stretches more than a mile across.

In the mega-city of Beijing (served by the port of Tianjin Xingang), you can walk in the footsteps of emperors through the imperial palace complex, while in the great port of Shanghai you can admire one of the world’s great skylines along the former waterfront promenade.

Another itinerary item to look out for is Xi’an, where 6,000 life-sized terracotta warriors render visitors speechless.

Despite its strict Covid curbs, Hong Kong remains a firm fixture on southeast Asia voyages. Not all glass skyscrapers, some 40 per cent of this former British colony is made up of green space and country parks. When you’ve eaten your fill of delicious dim sum, take the famous tram to The Peak (the island’s highest point) for the view, then hop aboard one of the iconic Star Ferries and cross Victoria Harbour to West Kowloon Cultural District, where the £375 million waterfront Hong Kong Palace Museum opened its doors this July.

Emperor Tours' 21-day ‘Legendary Yangtze’ cruise tour with Hong Kong extension, round trip from London Heathrow viaS hanghai, Yangtze River cruise, Xi’an, Beijing and Hong Kong, departs November 6, 2022, from £4,010 including flights.

Dreamy karst landscapes come as standard on a cruise along China's Yangtze River. Credit: Shutterstock
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