Beat the heat and discover the perfect hillside haven and your very own room with a view. Cool off in the best Asian countries to visit with heavenly hill stations
Asia lays claim to the top 10 highest peaks on the planet but you don’t need to scale Everest-like heights to beat the heat. The best Asian countries to visit allow you to swap the sizzling city for a cool mountain retreat, where crisp breezes, misty mornings and calming views come as standard.
You can enjoy the high life without the sweltering city humidity, cooled by that rare commodity of fresh pollution-free mountain air along with million-dollar views. Erstwhile summer retreats for sweltering European colonials, many of Asia’s top hill stations still exude timeless history. Cool off and chill out with a refreshing weekend escape to the hills with these top 10 picks for a breezy break.
Tagaytay, the Philippines
Best for: Boutique BnBs, organic dining, volcanic adventures
Just a 40-mile escape from the carbon choking chaos of downtown Manila, Tagaytay will soon have your faith restored in the visual power of the Philippines’ dramatic natural scenery. Tagaytay is a breezy hill town strung out haphazardly along a high ridge looking down on Taal volcano and the huge Taal Lake. Although a fairly well developed settlement, Tagaytay exudes a laid back vibe, which can start off with a breezy brunch overlooking the lake, perhaps some light hiking or horse riding, and an afternoon spent sailing on the water.
Feeling a little more energetic? Strap on those boots and scale the tiny peak of Taal volcano or go zip lining at Tagaytay Picnic Grove. There is a little pampering bliss to be had too in a raft of hot springs and spas dotted close to the lakeside highway or in Tagaytay City proper. Tagaytay’s sleepy midweek demeanour is in stark contrast to the weekend when hordes of city dwellers arrive to escape the Manila meltdown. Then you can expect traffic clogged roads and price hikes, especially during long holiday weekends.
Best for: Colonial influence, family-friendly adventure, volcanoes
This old Dutch colonial outpost ticks all the boxes for a cool, calm rural idyll nestling in the clouds. At more than 1,100 metres above sea level, Batu has a pleasantly cool climate, which is just as well, as there are a host of fun activities to get stuck into. It is home to East Java’s premier paragliding scene, hot springs and stunning waterfalls, and there is access to several scalable volcanoes include the bucket list favourite Mount Bromo.
The area is known for its apple orchards and strawberry fields which you can survey from the comfort of your very own rustic treehouse. Batu fits the bill for a kid-friendly getaway too. With youngsters in tow, all roads lead to the Oro Oro Ombo Tourism Village, which comprises a wildlife park, interactive eco-park, aqua park and a bizarre pink coloured upside down house. If a treehouse is not quite your thing, there are also some fabulous colonial style wellness resorts nestling on the hills which boast priceless views. Come midweek to score bargain rates.
Best for: Shopping sprees, leafy restaurants, eco-adventure.
For sheer diversity alone, Indonesia may well be the best country to visit in Southeast Asia and Bandung is quite literally its coolest city. With a huge student population, there is a creative and intellectual buzz about the place but also a bucolic wonderland to escape to in the nearby hills.
Ringed by volcanic peaks, hot springs resorts and lush tea plantations, the journey to the plateau of Lembang is a visual treat. Hike the volcanic foothills where hidden swimming holes and icy cold waterfalls provide some much needed respite, and spend time scoffing on fresh delicacies at the floating market. The rolling jungle clad hills are dotted with wild, back to nature cafes and eco-resorts made entirely from bamboo, some of which are built precariously on stilts over serene lotus ponds.
Best for: A chance of pace, lake scenery, hot springs
There is a significant drop in temperature compared to the humid hustle and bustle of downtown Tokyo but that only makes Hakone’s famous onsen hot springs all the more pleasurable.
It takes less than one hour from the capital on Japan’s typically speedy, efficient trains and features wonderfully atmospheric Ryokan inns carved into the hillside, many with a priceless front-row view of Mount Fuji. The scenery is among the most stunning in all Japan and there are several ways to explore ranging from vertigo inducing cable cars to a kitschy pirate ship cruise on Lake Ashi.
Combined with a Tokyo city stay, Hakone is one of the best holiday destinations in Asia for a family. The town covers a relatively wide area with miles of walking trails where you’ll chance upon hidden shrines, open air art installations and local inns to sit awhile and sip amazake. In fact for a ridiculously indulgent onsen experience make tracks for Yunessun Spa Resort where you can even soak those tired limbs in red wine, green tea, coffee or even sake, all in the name of restorative wellness.
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Best for: Lazy picnics, fireplace chats, nature walks
Tea, scones and strawberries characterise Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s largest hill station, which was founded as a cool retreat for hot under the collar British colonials in the late 1800s. There are still very visible reminders of the days of Empire with mock Tudor mansions dotting the verdant landscape and genteel tea rooms to sip a brew and watch the world go by.
The scenery is an emerald green patchwork of picturesque valleys and rolling hills but at an altitude rising to 1,600 metres, expect unpredictable British style weather too with chilly nights. The settlement of Tanah Rata is the main focal point with lots of tea sipping options and access to insightful tea plantation tours.
Not a fan of tea and strawberries? Fear not, Cameron Highlands serves up other gems including dense jungle treks, bee and butterfly museums, haggling at street markets, indigenous art and temples. Best of all, Mother Nature’s greatest gift to the Cameron Highlands is the fabulous food. You get the full-on farm-to-table experience with mostly organic produce be it classic Malay food, Western, Chinese or Indian. There are some truly top notch eateries in town. In fact once the sun goes down there is little else to do except eat heartily.
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Best for: Cozy cabins, temple trekking, Thai massage
There’s nothing quite like waking up to chirping birds on your own private verandah with sweeping views across the hills of Northern Thailand. Among the top places to visit in Southeast Asia beyond the beaches, Northern Thailand oozes traditional charm and is not just limited to Chiang Mai.
Sister city Chiang Rai offers an alluring, more laid back alternative. With a mercifully cool climate, the leafy avenues of downtown are easy to negotiate on foot but you’ll find your zen in the surrounding hills of the Golden Triangle.
Amid the misty mountains of Doi Mae Salong, take a break from civilisation in a quaint bungalow resort and gaze at terraced tea plantations and fields of wild sunflowers. Treks take in the Akha hill tribe villages, waterfalls and forested hill trails that seems to meander forever. The journey up from Chiang Rai city and eastward towards the Lao border has to be one of the most epic short road trips in the Land of Smiles with insane curves and dizzying undulations.
Baguio, the Philippines
Best for: Log cabins, parks, artsy cafes and romantic nights
Beat the heat and dust of lowland Luzon at Baguio, the jumping off point for pine-studded peaks and cool mountain air. As one of the best Asian destinations to avoid the tropical heat, it is becoming increasingly traffic clogged, yet Baguio is mostly green and clean, with large swathes of parkland including Camp John Hay and quaint Burnham Park. Stock up for a picnic of strawberry tofu at one of the myriad street side vendors and watch the big-city stress simply wash away.
There are no less than five picturesque mountain peaks to scale including Mount Pulag, poking through the clouds as the tallest summit in Luzon. You can then rest those weary bones in one of the cool and cutesy inns or chalet resorts dotted around town. Check out the boutique-chic bars and lounges to snuggle up as the night time chill descends.
Best for: Long evening strolls, hilltop cafes, cable car rides
A welcome respite from the steamy streets of Saigon, French colonials knew a thing or two about style and Dalat remains arguably Vietnam’s most cultured hill station. Dubbed ‘Le Petit Paris,’ the Gallic influence is still vey evident – striking French colonial villas and the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked croissants each morning. For a bracing stroll head for the trails circumnavigating Xuan Huong Lake, pausing at a waterfront café for a caffeine fix.
In the surrounding hills cascading waterfalls and hill tribe villages dot the area or hack away on one of the verdant golf courses. There are a couple of unique ways to get out and about in Dalat. Glide above the forest canopy by cable car or don a leather jacket and hit the open road on a motorcycle adventure tour. If you like things cool and calm, Dalat is definitely one to tick off the bucket list of places in Asia.
Best for: Charming heritage districts, pretty gardens, seafood
Often dubbed ‘Little Kyoto’ it is easy to see why Japanese travellers rave about Kanazawa, yet it remains something of a secret to foreign visitors. It is a cool coastal city in every sense, a three-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo. This striking yet compact city is dominated by Kanazawa Castle and Kenrokuen, arguably the finest of all Japanese landscaped gardens. It’s a must during cherry blossom season. Conversely, it is also one of best places to visit in November in Asia for the famous natural displays of autumn foliage.
Noted for its ancient samurai, geisha and tea districts, Kanazawa is also an animated small city with top-notch shopping and a great food scene. They even say Kanazawa’s sushi restaurants are among the finest in Japan. Art, history and culture are the big draw but a short trip up the coast throws up dramatic scenery. Make the Noto Peninsula an essential add-on to a city stay. This rugged coastline features weird and wonderful rock formations carved up by the Sea of Japan’s powerful swells.
Best for: Rice terrace trekking, textiles, photo opps
This chilly hill station is rightly lauded as one of the most picturesque Asia destinations for its serene beauty but also the striking sight of Hmong townsfolk in traditional dress. It sits above a deep valley with dramatic peaks on all sides but is highly walkable with numerous soft trekking options. When the stunning vistas present themselves, don’t waste a second lining up those selfies – dense mist can envelop the area at a moment’s notice.
Like the weather (to experience Sapa is to experience four seasons in a day, they say) the landscape is just as varied. A leisurely trek can happen upon hidden waterfalls or caves, forests of bamboo, and at the right time of year, dazzling fields of orchids. For a unique wintery perspective, it may well be one of the best places to visit in Asia in December.
Temperatures plunge but you may be lucky enough to gaze at a tropical landscape blanketed with white snow beneath a mist shrouded sky. Despite the obvious popularity, Sapa is just the place to linger for a few days and kick back 5,000 feet above sea level, soaking up the breath taking views and friendly vibe.
Conclusion – Discover Asia’s coolest weekend retreats
I adore barefoot strolls on pristine tropical beaches and dynamic Asia cities as much as the next person, but for me, there is no substitute to a cool and calming weekend in the hills. The views are to die for, the food tastes so much fresher and with little or no use for air-conditioning, it is so much more ethical too. Find your inspiration with these handpicked hillside getaways.
Ray Montgomery is a seasoned travel copywriter and journalist based for more than a dozen years in Southeast Asia. Ray’s big passions are eating, tweeting and constantly seeking the next perfect ocean sunset.