More than half the world’s population lives in Asia. And when traveling in the big urban areas of Asia, that is exactly the feeling you get: there are people everywhere. These people, their monuments, their culture, and their habits are exactly the reason to come to Asia over and over again. Of course, it is a huge area with a great variety of cultures that is covered by the term "Asia." As a region, each of the countries that make up Asia has its own special and individual allure. These enchanting destinations and beautiful people have, for hundreds and thousands of years, stirred the mind and excited the imagination.
Here's a look at some of the most popular cruise destinations throughout Asia and their unique characteristics:
China is a different world. From shop-till-you-drop metropolises to the epic grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China is a land of cultural and geographic diversity. The yin of revolutionary zeal is being balanced by the yang of economic pragmatism. China is a country of great contrasts, with picturesque rural landscapes and congested cityscapes, and natural beauty ranging from the untamed to the idyllic—from the windswept plains of the Gobi Desert and Mt. Everest's notorious northern face to Yangshuo's gorgeous karst scenery. China is huge and wild enough to satisfy your explorer instinct and is a great rollercoaster ride for anyone with a little time and an instinct for travel.
Japan is an intricate blend of East and West. Thus, that modern high-rise may look Western, but it may contain a rustic-looking restaurant with open charcoal grills, corporate offices, a pachinko parlor, a high-tech bar with views of Mount Fuji, a McDonald's, an acupuncture clinic, a computer showroom, and a rooftop shrine. Your pizza may come with octopus, beer gardens are likely to be fitted with Astroturf, and "parsley" refers to unmarried women older than 25 (because parsley is what's left on a plate). City police patrol on bicycles, garbage collectors attack their job with the vigor of a well-trained army, and white-gloved elevator operators, working in some of the world's swankiest department stores, bow and thank you as you exit. Because of this unique synthesis of East and West into a culture distinctly Japanese, discovering it is like peeling an onion - one layer is uncovered only to lead to more layers underneath. No matter how long you stay in Japan, constant discovery is one of the most fascinating aspects of being here.
One of Asia's great economic successes, Singapore has fused diverse cultures into one dynamic nation. Behind high-tech industries and high-rise buildings lives a society with an ingrained sense of conservative Confucian values. Beneath the westernized modernity beats a totally Asian heart. Strong beliefs center around extended families, filial piety, discipline, respect and Asian work ethics. Singapore's name, meaning "Lion City," can be traced to the 13th century, and today there is the mythical Merlion, half-lion, half-fish, standing guard at the mouth of the Singapore River as the symbol of Singapore. A recent advertising campaign billed Singapore as "A Fine City."
China, the world's third-largest nation in terms of land mass, encompasses virtually every type of terrain imaginable, from the steamy lowlands of the southeast to the Himalayan peaks of Tibet to the Gobi Desert in the north. Most of the country's major rivers, including the Yellow and Yangtze, flow from west to east. China is bordered by 14 other countries.
Japan consists of four main islands (from north to south: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu), plus the Ryukyu Islands and thousands of smaller ones with a combined total of 17,000 mi/27,000 km of coastline. Mountains cover two-thirds of the country, including more than 70 volcanoes, many of them quite active. Japan's volcanoes are part of the Pacific's Ring of Fire, an enormous circle of volcanic activity along the edge of the Pacific tectonic plate that runs through the Philippines, New Zealand, California and Alaska.
Singapore's strategic location at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula has ensured its importance, which is greater than its size might seem to justify. Singapore consists of the island of Singapore and some 63 islets within its territorial waters. The main island is about 26 mi/42 km from west to east and 14 mi/23 km from north to south. Total land area is 264 sq mi/683 sq km, about three times the size of Washington, D.C. It's a mostly undulating country with low hills (the highest, 540-ft/166-m Bukit Timah Hill, is to the northwest of the city).
China is one of the oldest nations in the world. Its recorded history dates back 5,000 years. For most of that time, China was ruled by a succession of dynasties, and each left its mark on the country. For instance, the Qin began construction of the Great Wall and Xi'an's army of terra-cotta warriors, the Sui built the Grand Canal, and the Tang period is known for its artistic achievements.
The first Europeans to reach China were the Portuguese, who began trading at the port of Macau in the 16th century. The British soon followed, but their efforts were largely unprofitable until they began pushing opium in the mid-1800s. The Opium Wars eventually led to British control of Hong Kong, a place that was not returned to China until 1997. (Macau was handed back to China in 1999.)
The last dynasty officially ended in 1911. The ensuing years devolved into a struggle between the urban, capitalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong's rural Chinese Communist Party. Chiang Kai-shek held control through the 1930s, but after World War II, Mao's guerrilla army began winning the battle. In 1949, the People's Republic of China was born and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan.
Led by Mao Zedong, the new government transformed China into a communist nation. Land was redistributed, industries were absorbed by the state and political opposition was not tolerated. Tibet was brought under Beijing's control in the 1950s. Thousands of writers, artists, teachers and others were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-70. In 1989, 13 years after Mao's death, students demonstrating for democracy in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were overrun by soldiers and tanks.
Although Mao's legacy of intellectual oppression remains intact, China's recent leaders have embraced free trade. The country was admitted to the World Trade Organization in 2001, officially opening China for global business. Seven years later, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing put China at the center of the global stage.
Japan According to oral tradition, the country was founded in 660 BC by Jimmu, a descendant of the Shinto sun goddess. Also according to lore, Jimmu was an ancestor of the emperor. Historians, however, place the date of Japan's founding closer to AD 500, when Yamato priest-chiefs established control over the main island of Honshu. During the following 300 years, the country was greatly influenced by China and neighboring Korea, adopting Chinese forms of Buddhism, government and written language, but then changing them to forms that were uniquely Japanese.
After the capital was moved from Nara to Kyoto in 794, the imperial court gradually became weaker. Following a long power struggle, the strongest warlord seized power from the Kyoto court and assumed the title of shogun. From this point on, the emperors were marginalized and the country was ruled by a succession of shoguns. Civil war left the country exhausted, and Kublai Khan's Mongols twice tried to take advantage of this weakness. Two invasions were cut short when the fleets were destroyed by typhoons (miraculous occurrences attributed to the kamikaze, or divine protective winds).
The first Tokugawa shogun completed the unification of the country and established his administrative base in Edo (present-day Tokyo), while the emperor's court remained in Kyoto. The shogun's descendants controlled Japan from 1600 to 1868 (usually known as the Edo Period).
Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, introducing guns and Christianity to the island. By the 17th century, Japan had had enough of both and closed itself off from the outside world, a period that led to the development of many of its distinctive customs and traditional arts. The country remained isolated until 1853, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with a squadron of warships and forced the reopening of trade.
After a brief civil war, the forces of the last shogun were defeated by rebellious warlords, who called for the restoration of imperial rule. The shogun resigned a few years later, and Emperor Meiji assumed control of the country. During Meiji's reign, Japan became the leading military power in Asia. After victory over China (which ceded Taiwan) in 1894, Japan defeated Russia in 1905. Japan's imperial ambitions led to the annexation of Korea in 1910, along with the invasions of Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937.
Finally, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 brought the U.S. into World War II. Japanese and Allied forces battled fiercely for control of island after island across the Pacific. Then on 6 August 1945, the world's first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second atomic bomb devastated Nagasaki, and six days later, the Japanese surrendered.
The country was occupied by the Allies for the next five years, although Okinawa did not revert to Japan until 1972. During the 1950s, Japan accomplished what can only be described as an economic miracle: The country was transformed from an exhausted, occupied nation into an economic powerhouse in just a few decades. A hyper-inflated "bubble" economy built up during the overheated real-estate boom of the 1980s.
But in 1990, the bubble burst and Japan's economy collapsed, with stock and real-estate prices plunging. Throughout the '90s, Japan suffered from economic stagnation, leading to many bankruptcies and unprecedented unemployment rates. Saddled with massive bad loans and administrative inertia, the economy was slow to recover, with little growth until 2003. Although the government says the recession has bottomed out and consumer spending is rebounding (especially in central Tokyo), Japan remains dependent on its export industries, and future economic prospects are still uncertain.
The earliest records of Singapore date back to the second century AD, where it was identified as a trading post. In the 11th century, it was part of the Indian Srivijaya Empire, and in the 14th century, it was ruled by the Javanese Majapahit empire. It was an important trading centure of the Sultanate of Johore in the 16th and early 17th century, until Portuguese raiders burned it down. It faded into obscurity until 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles established the British East India Company's presence in Singapore. This began the city's status as a free port and British colony. As thousands of Chinese, Indians and Malays flocked to the island, Raffles maintained control by segregating the city into ethnic neighborhoods: the Chinese in Chinatown, Indians in Little India and Muslims on Arab Street. This division had the unintended effect of preserving the distinct cultures you can find there today.
Singapore flourished during the mid-1800s, as the Industrial Revolution in the West created a demand for rubber and other Asian raw materials. The introduction of steamship travel and the opening of the Suez Canal brought the East and West closer than ever. Thanks to its strategic location and port status, Singapore boomed.
The country remained under the control of the British until it was captured by the Japanese at the start of World War II—one of the most embarrassing defeats in British history. After the war, the Allies' plan to unite Singapore with Malaysia was scuttled by Malaysian nationalist groups who feared that the ethnic Chinese would dominate the less populous Malays. The plan for a union was revived in the 1950s by Singapore's prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who believed his country could not survive without the natural resources of Malaysia. Lee realized his dream in 1963 when Singapore was united with Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak. But the union lasted only 23 months with much racial and political tension—Malay leaders, shocked to see Lee's party attempt to become a national force, unceremoniously tossed Singapore out of the federation.
Since then, and contrary to Lee's fears, Singapore has done very well on its own. Under the stable authoritarian leadership of Lee and his handpicked successor, Goh Chok Tong, the country has averaged more than 8% growth annually and become a major service and transportation hub. Although much of the rest of Asia suffered a steep economic decline at the end of the 1990s, Singapore's bustling economy merely slowed down.
In 2004, Singapore elected a new prime minister to succeed Goh Chok Tong, Lee Hsien Loong, who had been groomed for the role by his father, Lee Kuan Yew. The Singapore government continues to be ruled by Lee's party, with little tolerance for dissent. However, corruption is very low, and the economy is back on track. The government maintains a firm grip on politics but has allowed greater expression in media and the arts, a signal of its emerging understanding that creativity is essential to the kind of technological innovation Singapore seeks.
Today, Singapore's melting pot continues to draw new immigrants. The Economic Development Board has successfully spearheaded initiatives over the past decade to draw some of the world's top talent in industries critical to Singapore's economic vitality, particularly in areas such as finance, wealth management, higher education, and research and development. An influx of high-net-worth individuals (such as Facebook co-founder Eduardo Savarin) has driven the market for luxury housing sky high, with new, super-luxury apartment buildings mushrooming in every corner of the city's downtown, posh neighborhoods and waterfront districts.