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While many of us know Asia quite well, it’s only now that we are discovering the delights of cruising in Asia. That’s ironic, as many of the cities we now visit by air were established as ports for sea trade – notably, Singapore and Hong Kong. While the clippers and windjammers may be gone, traditional junks can still be seen in their harbours, and the number of ships waiting their turn at port shows that the docks are as busy as ever.

There’s infinite variety across Asian cities, from gleaming Singapore to picturesque Hong Kong and culturally exotic Tokyo, Shanghai and Bangkok. But the coast isn’t just cities, and the islands of Phuket and Penang, Langkawi and Ko Samui are matched by the delights of Nha Trang, Ha Long Bay and other natural highlights.

While Asia may no longer seem as mysterious as it did a century ago, each country maintains a respect for its past and its culture that’s reflected everywhere you turn: in a Japanese tea ceremony, a Thai temple ritual, a Balinese dance. While the cities, it seems, are in a headlong rush towards the future, rural Asia can seem locked in the traditions of an ancient past. For the traveller, it’s a wonderful contrast.

Of course, seasons in North Asia are the reverse of Australia’s, so you can escape winter while discovering different cultures. While cruises in this area are available for most of the year, those travelling onwards to North America operate mainly during the Northern Hemisphere spring.

Conveniently, most voyages around South-East Asia take place over the Australian summer holidays. Better still, distances between ports of call aren’t great, so you can return to the ship in the evenings knowing you’ll awake next morning in another exotic locale.

The sensory impact of arriving in Asia is immediate: it’s a warm, welcoming world of neon and bustle, with the fragrance of strange spices wafting through the air and a juxtaposition of crowds and courtesy.

Then there’s the shopping: China and its neighbours are the factories of the world. In Japan, you’ll see Australia’s electronic and entertainment future; in Taiwan and Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, technology you didn’t yet know existed is rapidly being developed.

Crowded, complicated Asia defies simple description; it’s a region that’s infinitely complex and changing rapidly. A cruise through Asia is a genuine voyage of discovery.

Popular Ports

Shanghai, China

Shanghai is one of the world’s most important seaports, a city in which old and new capitalism collide. Situated on the East China Sea, it’s also China’s most populated urban area, one of the world’s fastest-developing cities and the world’s busiest cargo port. Here, you’ll find China’s premier shopping street: Nanjing Dong Lu. The French concession area still has some nice colonial buildings dating from the period after China reluctantly opened its doors to foreigners following the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. Take a walk along the riverside Bund, lined with the colonial offices of an earlier age, and look across to Pudong, where imaginative skyscrapers seem to rise right out of the market gardens.

Hong Kong

Sailing in or out of Hong Kong is memorable, the mountains of the island forming a spectacular backdrop to the city’s skyscrapers. The city bustles with life, and much of the action is centred on the harbour. Cruise passengers could not have a more central location than the Ocean Terminal, set at the foot of Kowloon Peninsula. It’s very close to the Star Ferry terminal, with boats bound for Hong Kong Island, to the shops of Nathan Road and the gigantic Harbour City shopping complex. Kowloon is the city’s retail heart and Hong Kong Island is the business heart. Take the tram up to the Peak at sunset to absorb one of the world’s best city views.

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok sits on the Chao Phraya River about 40 kilometres upstream of the Gulf of Thailand; its port, Laem Chabang, is about a two-hour drive from the city. This is one of the most entertaining cities in Asia, with its fabulous food, bargain shopping, exciting nightlife and wide range of attractions old and new. You should allow at least a full day in Bangkok, where the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) will be at the top of your ‘must-visit’ list. Even when you’re fresh off a ship, it’s worth taking a cruise along the Chao Praya River and Bangkok’s many klongs (canals) to see life as locals live it, a world away from the urban cacophony.

Phuket, Thailand

While Phuket is about the same size as Singapore, it could hardly be more different in character. In fact, it still has a lot of jungle and even some pristine beaches. The island’s dock is at the Deep Sea Port (Port of Phuket), about 20 minutes’ drive from Phuket town. Both are cast into the shade by the main tourist area, Pa Tong beach, 15-odd kilometres to the west. Here you’ll find endless options for beach activities as well as a good range of restaurants, bars and cafés. Only a small stretch of water separates the island of Phuket from the mainland of southern Thailand, but it has certainly developed a distinctive personality as the nation’s island in the sun.

Singapore

Like everything in Singapore, the Singapore Cruise Centre is very well organised, efficiently handling more than six million cruise and ferry passengers annually. It’s also just a short distance from an ultra-modern downtown area that positively gleams. For many visitors, Singapore can be summed up in one word: shopping. But there’s more to see than the vast malls and designer outlets of Orchard Road. Chinatown, Arab Street and Little India are colourful dining and cultural districts; Singapore Botanic Gardens incorporate the unequalled National Orchid Garden collection; Jurong Bird Park is impressive; and Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari is well worth taking. Change Alley might be gone, but its spirit lives on.

Super Shore Excursions

The diverse cultures of Asia make for exotic and enriching shore excursions steeped in history, scenery, colour and culture, each quite different from the next.

Hong Kong – Harbour Cruise

The perfect way to see the beauty that is Hong Kong Harbour is from the water. This tour boat has an air-conditioned lower deck and an open-air top deck and narration that details the many sights of this historic port.

Cruise Line: Princess Cruises

Duration: 2.5 Hours

Nha Trang – Boat Cruise

From the base of the Po Nagar Cham Towers (Vietnam), take a boat trip past numerous brightly-painted fishing boats to a local village and farm where you can sample traditional fruits and drinks.

Cruise Line: Silversea Cruises

Duration: 3.5 hours

Phuket – Sea Cave Canoe Adventure

See picturesque Phang Nga Bay at water level from a canoe on this all-day excursion that includes lunch. The area’s limestone sea stacks and caves are simply spectacular.

Cruise Line: Star Cruises

Duration: Approx. 7 hours

Ho Chi Minh City ­– Cu Chi Tunnels

After a tour of the highlights of Saigon, head out of the old city to the remarkable 200-kiometre maze of tunnels built by the Viet Cong, Which housed more than 16,00 people at one time.

Cruise Line: Seabourne

Duration: 6.5 hours

Nagazaki – City Tour

From Nagasaki Peace Park, marking the nuclear bombing of the Japanese city in WWII, to tranquil San’no Shrine and the old Dutch enclave on Dejima, this tour takes in the main sights of the city.

Cruise Line: Costa Cruises

Duration: 4.5 hours