One of the best ways to get to the heart of a place is to spend time with the people who live there, experiencing the rhythm of daily life. Our Destination Specialists learn a lot from chatting with the locals, sharing stories and getting the low-down on the best spots and sights off the beaten track. Your holidays will be enhanced if you do the same, so we’ve picked out six of the best places in Asia to hang out with the locals and get a taste of life outside the travel bubble.
Looking for an energising way to start the day in Hanoi? Then head down to the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake at sunrise to practice Tai Chi with hundreds of other early risers. This beautiful expanse of water in the city centre is an oasis where locals come for a bit of peace and tranquillity away from the urban hubbub. After the dawn Tai Chi crowds have gone, the park gets busy again around midday when small hawker stalls pop up selling snacks. A smattering of energetic joggers, leisurely strollers (and the odd person taking a sneaky snooze in the sun!) grace the park throughout the afternoon until, as the shadows draw longer, old friends take up their seats in the shade to play chess. With a hint of a ‘Central Park, New York’ community vibe, Hoan Kiem Lake is a great spot to chill out at any time of day.
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Galle Fort is a fascinating location that fuses centuries of Sri Lankan tradition and European influence. Far from being a distant and sterile monument, this UNESCO heritage site bustles with multicultural energy, and an artistic community reminiscent of Paris’ Montmartre quarter. Many people still live and work within the walls of the fort, and a variety of boutique accommodation options put you right in the centre so you can immerse yourself in the atmosphere. There are dozens of independent shops where you can browse the work of local artists, as well as craft workshops for kids and two literary festivals during the year. Take a walking tour around the fort and pop into the Maritime History museum to satisfy your sightseeing urges, then sit back outside one of the many cafes and watch the world go by.
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Further up Sri Lanka’s west coast, backed by Colombo’s mash-up of modern, traditional and Colonial architecture, Galle Face Green is an enormous strip of grass between the town and the sea. Being such a natural point of focus, several annual festivals are held here, including a huge kite festival in August (where thousands of kites are in the sky at once) and big celebrations at Sinhalese New Year. Local people gather here daily for picnics, to fly kites, ride their bikes along the promenade, or just sit in the sun. During the early evening, as street food vendors set up along the green selling ‘short eats’, the air is filled with spices and the sounds of people laughing and chatting at the end of the working day. Grab a bite to eat and soak up the atmosphere as the sun goes down over the sea.
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Despite its unusual location on the top floor of a multi-storey car park, Kuching's Top Spot food court has risen in reputation from hidden gem to must-visit venue due to the quality and variety of the freshly-cooked seafood on offer. Dozens of different vendors surround a central seating area, where you pick a seat and then gather a variety of delicacies from as many stalls as you wish. Ask the stallholders for their recommendations on the best eats of the day, and you might get some enthusiastic responses – this is a place for serious foodie talk! Top Spot is a fantastic place to get your teeth into the heat and noise of modern Kuching culture, being popular with both locals and visitors, while getting your fingers covered in sauce and seafood.– a multi-sensory whirlwind of an eating experience.
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Ask anyone for their tips on what to see in Yangon, and they will undoubtedly mention (possibly with a rather starry-eyed expression) the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. This huge curved temple, encrusted with gold and gems, glistens above the city skyline and is a truly awe-inspiring sight. It’s easy to see why it is a longstanding congregation point for local life – you can’t miss it! Once you’ve finished gazing, open-mouthed at the pagoda itself, you can take time to wander around the edges and experience how this extraordinary monument is still very much a living religious site. Locals come at sundown to pray at the surrounding shrines, meet with friends and perhaps have a bite to eat from one of the food stalls in the temple grounds. Try a few different dishes and wander between the stalls enjoying the evening buzz.
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Wherever you are in Asia, if you want to immerse yourself in authentic culture simply seek out the nearest market. From sunrise to sunset, along the coast and in the towns, in tiny clusters of stalls or giant labyrinths, the markets are guaranteed to be full of people buying supplies, chatting and hoping for a bargain. Nibble boat noodles with the locals at Amphawa Floating Market in Bangkok, feast on oyster omelettes in Taipei’s Shilin Night Market, or pick out some seafood at Noryangjin in Seoul. Stroll under silk lanterns in Hoi An, haggle over handicrafts in Kuala Lumpur or crunch a deep-fried tarantula in Cambodia. The possibilities are vast, and everywhere you visit there will be another market to explore. Enjoy losing yourself for hours as you wander, chatting with stall-holders and getting a feel for the local way of life.
Our sociable Destination Specialists have discovered some fantastic experiences where you can spend time with local people, from cookery classes and homestays, to games of petanque, to just having a drink with our friends. Get in touch to chat about the best places to experience local life in your chosen destination.