Did you know it’s possible to have a private candlelit dinner in an ancient temple at Angkor Wat? Get inside the largest excavation pit of the ancient Terracotta Warriors in China? Take a hard-hat tour of the Louvre and Guggenheim Museums being constructed in Abu Dhabi? Meet the royal family of Bhutan?
Such magic can happen when you book your trip through the right insider—such as the Trusted Travel Experts on my WOW List. They’re the people you reach out to when you realize that life is too short, and your vacation time too precious, not to make your next trip extraordinary. They can get you into places that are normally off-limits, introduce you to fascinating locals you’d otherwise never meet, and guarantee you return home with profound insights and priceless memories.
Here are 18 examples of what they can pull off in Asia. (You already know what they can pull off in Europe.) They usually arrange such experiences as part of a larger itinerary, so that they can guarantee a superlative trip from start to finish. Reach out to them by clicking on their name in each entry and filling out the trip-request form: That way they’ll know I sent you and mark you as a VIP.
1. Explore Viet Cong tunnels with a Vietnam War veteran.
Near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tour the Cu Chi Tunnels—the secret corridors used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War—with a Vietnamese veteran, followed by dinner in his home. You’ll hear all about what it was like to help build—and then live inside—this elaborate tunnel system.
2. Meet Jaipur’s top fashion designers.
Rajasthan’s capital city is a shopping mecca, with magnificent textiles, jewelry, and bazaars—but it’s also a befuddling maze. Let us lead you to the best shops and introduce you to fascinating people. You can discuss gemstones with Sanjay Kasliwal, whose family owns the Gem Palace, and textiles with any number of experts, including Theirry Journo of Idli, Muba and Muza of Andraab, and Lala and Vishal at Tholia’s Kuber. We love the hand block-printed quilts and beautifully soft summer sheets at Ridhi Sidi Textiles, a little shop just outside the old city. This customized tour—a favorite of designers in the fashion industry—is a window into a complex and fascinating city.
3. Visit a sheikh in his palace (by helicopter).
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Departing from the helipad suspended at the top of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, take a luxury helicopter to the private palace of a prominent sheikh. Enjoy a behind-the-scenes tour that shows what life is like for a sheikh in the region. If you want to know more, you’ll just have to visit—the sheikh has sworn us to secrecy!
4. See unique biodiversity in an off-limits nature preserve in China
Yunnan Province, China
Only a small part of Gaoligong Mountains National Park is open to the public. There is a beautiful ten-mile hiking trail that is reserved for park rangers and requires a special permit for anyone else to access. We can arrange for travelers to overnight at the simple ranger station at the trailhead and then head out the next morning with a local ornithologist or botanist to see the extraordinary species of plants and birds.
5. Tour Abu Dhabi’s still-under-construction Louvre and Guggenheim museums.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Take a private hard-hat tour of the museums being constructed on Saadiyat Island. With boldfaced names like the Louvre and the Guggenheim involved, this is sure to be the most amazing cultural district ever built entirely from scratch. (Slated for completion in 2020, Saadiyat will also be home to hotels by St. Regis, Park Hyatt, and Shangri-La.) Seeing the progress of this hugely ambitious project is a glimpse into Abu Dhabi’s concerted effort to transform itself into a great city of the future. For added flair, we can fly you in on one of the Sheikh’s private helicopters.
6. Meet the royal family in Bhutan.
Because we founded READ Global, a nonprofit that has been building rural library community centers in Bhutan, we have unique access and can arrange very personal get-togethers with key people in the country. Our travelers have met with members of the royal family, local mayors, medical officials, and other movers and shakers. For those romantically inclined, we can arrange a wedding that is astrologically perfect, complete with guests, catering, and Bhutanese finery for all of the wedding party. Just ask!
7. Feast in a palace.
Wind your way by torch and candlelight to the rooftop of City Palace in Udaipur, where a sumptuous feast awaits. A member of the palace staff will meet your party at the gates and escort you past the palace guards, resplendent in their uniforms, to a private rooftop terrace. There you’ll be attended by turbaned waiters and entertained with traditional music and dancing (the fire dance is amazing). The view is of the sparkling lake on one side and the city lights on the other.
8. Get exclusive access to China’s terracotta warriors.
Get inside Pit 1 at the Terracotta Army excavation site. Considered the single greatest archeological discovery of the twentieth century, this second-century B.C. mausoleum near Xi’an is one of China’s most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Access the floor of the excavation pit, where you’ll come face to face with the imperial army of unified China’s first emperor.
9. Spend the sunrise with monks in Cambodia.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Phnom Krom Pagoda sits on a hill overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake and Angkor Wat and is magical at sunrise, when you are invited to join the monks for their morning prayers and meditations. Leave your hotel just after 4 a.m. for the pagoda, where our old friend the abbot will meet you just before dawn, as the monks begin a purification ceremony that includes chanting, prayers, a sermon (which your guide translates), and a final blessing with holy water. The ceremony concludes just as the sun has risen and spread light throughout the Angkor plain, with the great lake and temples of Angkor in sight. Step out of the temple to a picnic breakfast that is waiting for you on an excellent perch overlooking it all. After breakfast, bid the monks goodbye, climb back down the hill, and return to your hotel with fond memories of this rare experience that, for many travelers, is the high point of their entire time in Cambodia.
10. Dine in an ancient temple at Angkor Wat.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Enjoy a private candlelit dinner amid temple ruins at the Angkor complex, including a three-course Khmer meal and traditional Apsara dancers accompanied by musicians. This dinner is perfect for special occasions like an anniversary or even a proposal. Unforgettable!
11. Get special permission to photograph inside the Taj Mahal.
Tripods and large-format cameras are strictly forbidden in the Taj complex. But we can obtain special permission for photographers to bring in a tripod for their 35mm or large-format field camera. The permits are valid for the Taj, Metab Bagh, and Itmad ud Daula. Under no circumstances are you allowed to take your camera with you inside the mausoleum.
12. Explore Chiang Mai’s Old Town with a walking encyclopedia.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
See the best of Chiang Mai with Becky Weldon Sithiwong, or “Khun Becky,” the first curator of the acclaimed Rai Mae Fah Luang Museum and a walking encyclopedia of Thai, Lanna, and Lao culture and languages. She has a master’s degree in museology from Amsterdam’s Reinwardt Academy, has worked for CARE and USAID, and opened Chiang Rai’s first guesthouse and art gallery. A day with Khun Becky can only be arranged by us and is a day you’ll never forget.
13. Design your own wearable art in Bali.
Puri Naga is a private home with a museum-quality assortment of treasures from throughout Indonesia, including the world’s largest collection of works by renowned Javanese painter Wahyoe Wijaya. Owner Nadya, an American clothing designer who has lived in Bali for more than 30 years, will show you around this magical place—an artist’s compound that is also home to the master painters, beaders, and tailors who create by hand Nadya’s works of wearable art. If you like, get a private lesson in Balinese painting with a master, or a one-on-one session to design your own jacket.
14. Meet Sri Lanka’s movers and shakers.
Depending on which aspects of the country you’re keen to delve into, we can arrange get-togethers with engaging local experts or connoisseurs. You might share a meal with Malik Fernando, owner and CEO of Dilmah, Sri Lanka’s premier brand and largest exporter of tea. Or camp at the border of Yala National Park and dine with Noel Rodrigo, a prominent wildlife expert otherwise known as the Leopard Man. Or stroll the Royal Botanical Gardens near Kandy and stop for lunch with botanist Bandara Plipana. You can also choose to meet prominent local architects, writers, and photographers.
15. Learn from Japanese masters.
Gain private access to Japan’s most venerated martial arts dojos (training centers). This can mean simply observing the practices of martial arts masters or receiving a lesson from one. This is not the world of ninjas but, rather, places to learn about the deep spiritual connection and meditative elements that are essential to Japanese martial arts. If visual arts interest you more, meet with one of Japan’s foremost lacquerware artists in his studio, learn how to craft the highest quality lacquerware, and have the opportunity to commission custom-made pieces. Or take a private cooking class with one of Kyoto’s most accomplished young chefs. His restaurant is known only to locals, and its few seats are almost exclusively reserved by regular customers. The chef is willing to close the restaurant for lunch and give our guests a hands-on cooking lesson. (Afterward, eat the dishes you just helped prepare.)
16. Picnic inside the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City’s eastern garden is rarely visited by tourists; most people don’t even know it’s there. But you can have a corner of it all to yourself—a lovely pavilion where you can sip Champagne and nibble grapes. You’ll feel like one of the emperor’s esteemed guests and enjoy a respite from the crowds and walking.
17. Meet the movers and shakers of Uzbekistan’s growing fashion scene.
Uzbekistan is becoming a hot destination for fashion and interior designers who are lured by the gorgeous fabrics, exquisite workmanship, and traditional designs in cotton, silk, and embroidery. We can arrange for you to meet with top Uzbek fashion designers who have participated in international fashion weeks, plus textile experts and jewelry makers who can discuss the use of traditional motifs in contemporary designs and the importance of appearance in Uzbek life.
18. Get married in a traditional Balinese Mejay-jaya wedding ceremony.
For honeymooners or couples interested in renewing their commitment to one another, I can set up a Mejaya-jaya ceremony, traditionally one element in a Balinese wedding, at a small rural temple. You dress in Balinese clothes (a requirement for entering the inner areas of a Balinese temple), and a Hindu priest offers his or her blessing to you and your significant other, in which he casts out the old negative energy and invites new positive energy into your life together. Though many hotels offer Balinese “weddings,” this ceremony is a true Balinese ritual, rather than a ceremony designed for tourists. And both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, married or unmarried, can participate in the Mejaya-jaya ceremony.