There's nothing quite like coming home from your holiday with a cool new hobby, and Asia offers a wealth of intriguing ways to skill up and expand your repertoire. From surfing to cookery, samurai sword-fighting to tea ceremonies, our Destination Specialists have shared some of the best places in Asia to learn something new.
How to diveAsia is blessed with some of the world's finest diving, and alongside this you'll find PADI accredited dive schools with courses to suit all ability levels. If you're a beginner, our resident dive expert Stephen recommends the stunning Philippines archipelago for great value, or Phuket as a solid all-rounder. Diving is good around the Thai island of Koh Tao, which is very much the backpacker's place to learn! For something a little further off the beaten track, try northern Sulawesi in Indonesia, where you can learn surrounded by all manner of weird and wonderful little creatures. Stephen points out that learning to dive will take four days of your holiday, so you might want to start the course at home and finish abroad. Read Stephen's blog post on how to get the best out of diving in Asia...
The performers of the Phare Circus in Cambodia are trained by an NGO which provides opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters to train in the arts - particularly pressing in Cambodia, whose culture and economy took a severe blow during the 20th century. On our Phare Circus experience, you'll get behind the scenes access to the performance space, and a 90 minute workshop taught by the performers, who are passionate about sharing their craft, and miraculously patient with our clumsy attempts to join in! Take your first steps - so to speak - in tumbling, juggling and balancing, before joining the audience for a dazzling performance by the professionals.
It's Asia's most significant cereal, and has been grown here for thousands of years, with many rural communities still dependent on their rice crop for security. If you like to get under the skin of your destination, there's no better way than rolling up your sleeves and joining in with daily life. The Rice Bank Project is a great community-run enterprise in Cambodia's Daem Po village, where you can join the farmers in planting or harvesting (depending on the time of year). At Living Lands Organic Farm, in Laos, a local farmer will teach you the 14 steps required to turn the grain into an edible product. Both experiences help you contribute directly to the local communities along with being superb insights into local life.
Still arguably the coolest of watersports, surfing can be tough to master - but once you get the knack, there's nothing quite like it for a sheer exuberant rush. Karl recommends Kuta on Lombok as a great place to start - also Seminyak on Bali, but only if the swell is suitable. Bali has a bunch of well known surf spots, but these can get quite busy, so you might prefer hopping along the archipelago to find good beginners' breaks off the Gili islands and around Java.
This is one skill you might not practise much once you get home! Nevertheless, it's an extraordinary opportunity to spend time with the Iban people, who've lived in Borneo's rainforests since before recorded history. Although these days they wear football shirts and enjoy a spot of karaoke in their longhouses, the Iban still thrive in the forests, and welcome a trickle of intrepid visitors for an adventure like no other.
We're hearing more about insect-eating in the West, but in Asia bugs are often part of standard cuisine, from a topping of crunchy ants on your Cambodian curry to juicy bugs as beer snacks in Vietnam. It might be a step or two out of your comfort zone, but boy does it make for a good traveller's tale. Who knows - you might even discover a few new favourite flavours! With an expert guide on hand to show you how to do it properly, you can learn to eat insects on our journeys in Cambodia.
You'll find something photogenic around every corner in Hoi An, which is one of Vietnam's most picturesque towns with its traditional wooden buildings and strings of colourful lanterns. Anna recommends including an expertly led smartphone photography tour in your Hoi An stay: along with teaching you how to improve your travel snaps, it really changes the way you look at the scenery, by pausing more often and searching for intriguing details. This is one of our tailor-made experiences - speak to a Vietnam Specialist about including it on your holiday.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, where you can spot locals enjoying a spot of target practise in every village, while their team-mates boldly saunter around the targets and deftly sidestep the flying arrows. Visit Thimpu or Paro to learn how to fire a traditional bamboo bow & arrows, and join a local team as they demonstrate a shortened version of a typical tournament (the real ones can go on for days!).
Originally a millennia-old component of ancient Shinto rituals, Taiko drumming has taken off as an exhilarating artform in its own right, with competitive groups growing across Japan. This noisy experience is particularly great on a family holiday, but we've found that everyone tends to get into it, regardless of age! Workshops are available in Kyoto and Tokyo, and begin with a demonstration from the pros, before you and your fellow students take the sticks and get stuck in. After a hands on lesson, you'll all join your teachers for a thrilling grand finale performance.
From the emerald tea plantations of Sri Lanka to the sacred tea ceremonies of Taiwan and Japan, tea is a distinctive feature of the landscape and culture of many Asian countries. Visit estates such as Tea Trails to taste some of the finest freshest tea you'll ever enjoy, and learn how to make the perfect everyday brew - or join a tea ceremony master in Japan to learn the ritual that's become so evocative of Japanese tradition. In the Fang region of Thailand, you can join in the tea harvest and learn how tea is roasted to create the perfect flavour, while a holiday in Taiwan - another famous tea-producing area - offers the chance to learn tea-brewing from a local expert.
You may have noticed us waxing lyrical about Asian food before (!) and when we're at home we do our best to conjure favourite flavours from our travels. There are cookery classes available in most of our destinations, so speak to your Specialist about including one in your itinerary. They usually start with a trip to the local market to pick ingredients and soak up a bit of local flavour, before heading back for a masterclass with an expert chef - followed, naturally, by a hearty meal! We particularly love Khum Lanna, a farming retreat in northern Thailand where you can get hands on in the organic garden before you learn to prepare local dishes in the property's renowned cookery school.
Japan takes the crown when it comes to meditative artisan hobbies, with calligraphy and origami probably amongst the most famous . To Westerners accustomed to learning more practical craft techniques, neither art has an immediately obvious purpose - but the benefit lies in the ritual precision and calming presence of mind required to master these ancient skills. You can learn either of them when you visit a typical Japanese home in Kanazawa, a picturesque town known for its historic buildings and love of the creative arts.
Ever been watching a Kill Bill fight scene thinking 'yeah, I could do that'? No, neither had we... but these Tokyo-based swordfighting workshops are run by the fight choreographer who masterminded Tarantino's dramatic Crazy 88 sword battles, and now you too can learn the ways of the samurai. Before you get too carried away, you will be using a wooden practise sword - we have a feeling the travel insurers might not cover the other sort - but this is still a tremendous chance to immerse yourself in one of Japan's most thrilling legends.
Presence of mind and spirit is... well, a bit of a knack, as many a mindfulness student will attest. Learning to meditate is a lifelong journey, and Asia is a fabulous place to practise. Spirituality is still part of Asian daily life in a way that is long gone for many Western cultures, and your visit will include numerous different ways to get in touch with the present moment. We particularly recommend walking the kora - i.e., circling the sacred site - at the Ganden Monastery in Tibet, learning to meditate on a riverboat in Luang Prabang, and staying overnight at Fo Guang Shan monastery in Taiwan.
Thailand's national sport is notoriously hardcore, with a reputation for being one of the toughest martial arts to master. You will probably want to visit the gym a few times before trying out this workshop, but if you're already a martial artist, it'll make a very interesting addition to your holiday in Thailand! Our colleague David tried out the experience on a recent trip, and you can read his account of it here...