Three highland Asia adventures

 - September 17, 2007, 9:37 AM

Thanks at least partly to Asia’s explosive economic growth, its once-mysterious lands are now jet-close and high-rise-familiar. That’s good news if you want to do business there, but it makes your search a bit tougher if you’re in the market for an exotic getaway. Particularly for those who’ve traveled often to Asia on business, cities such as Shanghai and Bangkok are today about as enigmatic as Los Angeles.

Of course, these modern mercantile hubs are not without their ancient attractions. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok and the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai certainly merit a visit. Once you’ve seen them, though, you’re back on the pavement in the Oriental versions of L.A. and New York, respectively. Still, the East remains exotic in spots. To uncover its charms, you have only to head for the hills–which gets you above the heat somewhat, as well as the fray.

Here we look at three hilly getaways–one each in China, Thailand and India– where the fascinations of culture, architecture and history remain relatively untainted by progress. Getting there doesn’t necessarily require roughing it, even if you travel pretty far off the beaten path. On the contrary, jet-capable airports and five-star hotels make the journey a first-class experience.

One caveat, though: Landing clearances and regulations related to private jet travel in Asia remain inscrutable. Anyone traveling to this part of the world would be smart to engage the assistance of a professional company of handlers to negotiate the logistical and clearance formalities.

Kunming, China:

Where Spring Goes on Forever

Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province is often referred to as the “city of eternal spring,” which isn’t much of a stretch. Sprawled out by the shores of Lake Dian Chi, barely outside the Tropic of Cancer, it remains frost-free most of the year and enjoys relatively low humidity, thanks to its elevation of 6,200 feet. With average temperatures ranging from the mid 40s in winter to the high 60s (Fahrenheit) in summer, it never gets severely cold or hot. Flowers bloom all year. The name of the province, “Yunnan,” translates as “south of the clouds.” Though it gets around 40 inches of rain a year, your chances of being greeted by sunny, spring-like weather in Kunming are good to excellent in any season. Considering how far Yunnan Province is from the dense industrial activity along China’s coast, you might also think of it as “west of the smog.”

As for history, Kunming is said to be about 2,300 years old. Human habitation, however, goes back much further. In the 1960s, the oldest known hominid fossil ever discovered in China was unearthed there during railway construction. Archeologists subsequently concluded that settlements have existed around the shores of Dian Chi since the Neolithic period, if not longer. The place fairly reeks with antiquity, even if some of the more interesting architecture and artifacts are “only” around 600 years old.

We left by car from central Kunming for a short ride to the Western Hills. The Chinese are never short of imagination when it comes to describing landscapes. They say the mountain skyline as seen from a distance resembles a beautiful maiden in repose, so the Western Hills are also known as the “Sleeping Beauty Hills.”

Traveling along the road into these mountains, you’re treated to sweeping views of Lake Dian Chi. Definitely worth visiting are the Hua Ting Buddhist temple and the Taoist Sanqing Pavilion nearby. In addition to the setting and architecture, they are fascinating for their statuary. Inside the Hua Ting Temple sit three “Golden Buddhas.” The nearby Sanqing (Three Purities) Pavilion–built as a summer house for a Mongol prince in the 14th century and later rebuilt in the manner of Taoist architecture as a shrine–is the site of statues of the Taoist deities, Zhen Wu and Taishang Laojun. On the pathway to it is a sculpture of one of these deities, carved in place from the native stone.

Another must-see in the Kunming area is its famous Stone Forest. Huge pillars of karst are packed together like a miniature city of skyscrapers, with a maze of footpaths among the canyons and crevices. Young people who belong to the many “minority nationalities,” dressed in modern versions of traditional tribal costumes, pose for photos and guide groups of visitors. However much this might be geared toward commercial tourism, the fact is that Yunnan has more minority nationalities–both in terms of population and number of distinct tribes–than any other Chinese province.

We took the opportunity to get a little farther from the city, to visit some of their villages. There have been times, in other regions of China, where I was received with a slight degree of suspicion by locals. In general, though, I’ve found the country’s rural villagers to be as friendly and welcoming as people anywhere on Earth. Getting off the beaten path in China is definitely worth the effort.

On the Burma Road from Kunming near the order with Myanmar, one finds the fabled city of Dali. Beginning in the eighth century, it was the royal city of the Nanzhao Kingdom, and the Kingdom of Dali following that. It has been said that Dali was the place on which James Hilton based his novel, Lost Horizon–the real Shangri-La. Going by road offers scenic views and a chance to see and interact with rural village life. Of course, it would be faster to fly the short distance from Kunming. Either way, once you’re in Dali you’ll witness fascinating architecture and culture in a mountain setting. If it was indeed Hilton’s model for Shangri-La, it’s easy to see why he chose it.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Hard-to-Beat Hospitality

The Kingdom of Lan Na was founded in Chiang Rai in the middle of the 13th century on the banks of the Mae Kok River. Its native people–related both racially and linguistically to other hill tribes across the northern part of Southeast Asia and southern China–reached as far west as the Tai Kingdom of Nanzhao, centered in the city of Dali in what is now Yunnan Province. While Dali might have been the basis for Hilton’s novel, the cousins of that city’s native tribal population, the Lanna Thai, inhabit a Shangri-La of their own.

Located in the far north of Thailand, close to the borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, the city of Chiang Rai is an excellent retreat for those inclined toward active sports–as well as those who simply seek a relaxing, luxurious and exotic getaway. Even in the humblest of hotels and eateries, it’s hard to beat the Thais for hospitality. At Chiang Rai’s higher-end establishments, the attention paid to guests is nothing short of superb.

A major source of active fun is the river itself. Tour boats run up and down the Mae Kok from Chiang Rai to the town of Ban Thaton. There you’ll find the Wat Thaton Theravada Buddhist temple, situated in a beautiful valley near the border with Myanmar. Whether you go upriver to Ban Thaton by boat or go there by car and take the cruise downriver, you’ll pass open land, dense forest and the occasional tribal village.

Many of the villagers raise elephants, the work trucks of the jungle, and it’s not uncommon to see the great pachyderms enjoying a splash in the river in late afternoon. Naturally, the river swells in the rainy season (during the Northern Hemisphere summer). In fact, it can become rather turbulent and whitewater rafting is one of the many recreational opportunities available during that time. The rapids generally don’t exceed grade four, so it’s more rollicking good fun than a seriously treacherous adventure.

A trip to Chiang Rai should include a stop at Doi Tung, the area’s highest mountain. At its summit is the Wat Phra That Doi Tung, a temple that is an important place of worship for Buddhists as it holds the left collarbone of the Buddha. For travelers, it’s also a good stop because the mountaintop affords spectacular views of the forested areas on the border with Myanmar.

While you’re there, you’d be well advised to visit the Doi Tung Royal Villa, built for the late Princess Mother when she turned 90 in 1990. Built in a mixture of northern Thai and Swiss chalet styles of architecture, it is the site of the Mae Fa Luang Garden, more than 14 square miles of flowers in a spectacular setting. Some of the buildings have been converted into a small, ecology-oriented hotel. The 10-mile route from the city to Doi Tung brings you past several hill tribe villages, with opportunities to mingle with the locals and check out their handicrafts.

Some 36 miles north of Chiang Rai, you’ll find the town of Chiang Saen, at one time the royal city of the Chiang Saen Kingdom, which had its heyday in the 11th and 12th centuries. Ancient architecture and artifacts will hold the attention of history buffs. Migratory waterfowl inhabit Chiang Saen Lake in winter (November through February). Five miles north of Chiang Saen is Sop Ruak, the famous Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, the point where the Ruak River from Myanmar flows into the Mekong.   

Mysore, India

A Gateway to the Jungle

Mysore is one of the few places left in India that can transport you back to the days of the maharajas–given a dash of imagination. For centuries, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore, the seat of power of the Wodeyar dynasty. The Wodeyars ruled the kingdom from its founding in the 14th century until its merger into modern India, when the country gained independence from Britain in 1947. Their headquarters toward the end of that period was the opulent Palace of Mysore.

Today, the palace is a museum featuring displays of antique accoutrements and assorted royal finery, including a magnificent jewel-studded golden throne. As the palace is maintained intact in a picturesque setting, conjuring up the grandeur of the past doesn’t tax the imagination much. This is despite the fact that a modern touch was added when they trimmed it with 97,000 light bulbs. However kitsch that might sound, it is a splendid sight to behold. Those thousands of lights really make the old palace dazzle. It is lit up on Sundays and holidays, as well as every night during the 10-day Dasara Festival, which takes place in late September and/or early October. Expect a crowd.

With an elevation of 2,500 feet, Mysore has a relatively pleasant climate for India (although generally not as cool as Kunming’s). The same autumn day that will produce temperatures in the mid-90s in Mumbai (Bombay) will likely result in much more enjoyable weather–upward of 20 degrees cooler with lower humidity–in Mysore. The town’s abundance of large shade trees only improves this favorable impression. Relatively clean streets, well-maintained public buildings and a desire to preserve their history and heritage sets the town apart from larger, noisier and busier Bangalore, with its headlong rush into 21st-century technological modernism.

We went east from Mysore about 20 miles to the village of Somnathpur, site of the well-preserved Sri Channa Keshava Temple. It was built in the mid-13th century in the heyday of the Hoysala kings, whose reign predated the Wodeyar dynasty. The Hoysala period is associated with a particular style of temple architecture, of which the Sri Channa Keshava Temple is one of the best examples.

The royal city of Mysore is set against the backdrop of the Chamundi Hills. A drive up into them will take nearly half a day if you stop at the hilltop temple devoted to the goddess Chamundeswari, presiding deity of Mysore and the personal family goddess of its maharajas. In addition to the temple, there is a relatively small nearby palace, Lalithadri, the property of the current scion of the Wodeyar family, descendent of the late maharaja. Not far distant is the colorfully painted 11-foot mortar statue of the monster Mahishasura, from whose name the city’s is derived.

Mysore is an ideal base for some classic Indian touring, meaning a chance to get out in the jungle among the wildlife. The Western Ghats are mountains that run north-south like a spine through southern India.

Where the Ghats meet the Nilgiri Mountains you’ll find the Bandipur National Park in the middle of a forest that was at one time the private hunting reserve of the maharajas of Mysore.

Today one can drive to it on the road that leads from Mysore to Ooty, the forest park being about halfway between the two cities. In addition to exploring the forest on the back of an elephant, there are more active pursuits available here, including whitewater rafting, canoeing and mountain biking. Several companies offer both lodging and activities. One is Jungle Lodges & Resorts (

You can travel through the forest in a chauffeured Jeep, but for tradition’s sake why not do the tour on the back of an elephant?

Tigers are becoming extremely rare, of course, and the only way to be assured of seeing one is to go to a zoo. On the other hand, you might get lucky and see one or more, as they do still exist in the wild and there is an active preservation program to keep it that way. Whether or not you see tigers, there is enough wildlife and scenery to make a trip through the forest worthwhile.