Development is encroaching fast, so catch the sights while you can

As Asia rushes headlong into development, much of its old charm is being paved over with concrete. New bridges, tunnels, airports, superhighways, and apartment complexes are replacing huge sections of the exotic East that for centuries have lured and fascinated travelers. With little regard for restoration or preservation, most Asian nations are opting for the gleaming skyscraper over the tranquil pagoda. True, Singapore has spent big bucks restoring old sections of the city to retain the architectural legacy of colonial times. But that's the exception. Throughout Asia, ''there has been no compunction about tearing down old buildings to make way for development,'' says Taipei architect Carl Shen.

Given the swift pace of change, it makes good sense to seek out Old Asia now. And fortunately, there is plenty left within easy reach of a business traveler with limited time to spare. Beijing still harbors hutongs--traditional back-alley neighborhoods--among all the tacky modern buildings that have sprung up in the past decade. Batavia Square, Jakarta's old center of colonial administration, remains one of the few calm and clean spots amid the city's sprawl. And though reclamation is steadily shrinking Hong Kong's great harbor, the Star Ferry shuttles to and from Kowloon as charmingly as it did 50 years back.

PEDICABS AND YAKITORI. There are plenty of other old-time sights to see, too. But amid the urban jungles of Asia, how do you find the most enchanting parts of the Orient? BUSINESS WEEK's first Asia Business Travel Guide details how visitors can easily rediscover Old Asia. What's more, much of the continent has suddenly become a bargain as currency devaluations sweep the region. Although the Hong Kong dollar has continued to trade at a stable rate of 7.74 to the U.S. greenback, the currencies of Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines have all tumbled. The Thai baht alone is off 28% against the dollar over the past few months. Even the Japanese yen has weakened from 1995's all-time highs and is now trading at around 120 to the dollar. Southeast Asian nations in particular are hoping that tourist dollars will help replace the billions in foreign exchange reserves lost in defending their currencies over the summer.

In this special report, we steer clear of traditional tourist attractions, with the exception of Mt. Fuji. But our story tells you how to enjoy this symbol of Japan by climbing it, not viewing it from afar. Rather than recommend an obvious trip to the Great Wall or the Forbidden City in Beijing, we take you to the city's back alleys by pedicab.

Food is one of Asia's best offerings. Sprinkled throughout every Asian city is a taste of the past, from the wonton shops of Hong Kong to the spicy food stalls of Singapore. Never mind the lines at Din Tai Fung on Hsin Yi Road in central Taipei. It's worth the wait for one of Asia's best assortment of steamed dumplings. For the best yakitori--grilled chicken with vegetables in a teriyaki sauce--in a gritty, urban setting, head for a strip in Tokyo's central Ginza district under the elevated railroad tracks. And for great dim sum, there's the old-style Luk Yu Teahouse in Hong Kong. Its surly waiters are part of the ambience.

While today's Asians prefer buildings of chrome and glass, smatterings of architectural glories from a bygone era still exist. From the impressive restoration of Singapore's Raffles Hotel to the still-vibrant temples of Bangkok, small pockets of old-world elegance lie within nearly every Asian metropolis. In Manila, for example, the old walled city of Intramuros features a Spanish fortress. And amid Tokyo's prefabricated houses and nondescript skyscrapers, the elegant Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens is a golden spot for viewing cherry blossoms in the spring and chrysanthemums in the fall.

Sometimes it takes a day trip out of town to return to the Asia of yore. Hop aboard Taipei's new mass-transit system to visit the quaint fishing town of Tamsui with its historic fort of San Domingo, built by the Spanish in 1649. Ayutthaya, a mere 50 miles from Bangkok and best reached by boat, is home to the former royal palace with its lovely gardens. The ancient capital of Kyongju, a three-hour train ride from Seoul, is an oasis of royal tombs and stunning palaces.

Outside Kuala Lumpur, a cookie-cutter modern Asian city, you can take a half-day tour to the old rubber plantations and Malay houses on stilts. And it's only a short plane ride from Jakarta to historic Jogjakarta, the cultural heart of Java, with the awesome Borobudur Buddhist temple dating to 800 A.D.

COLONIAL HALLMARKS. You'd better hurry if you want to see some sights. If you have more than a weekend to spare, take a boat ride down the Yangtze River to view the three beautiful gorges that will be flooded once the Chinese construct a mammoth dam on the site. It's also worth a trip to Shanghai to inspect the old colonial architecture that was once the city's hallmark. The Bund, the waterfront area graced by European buildings, will remain a historic district, but other neighborhoods built when foreign powers divided Shanghai into settlements in the mid-1800s are rapidly disappearing.

Sleepy Hanoi, with its French colonial buildings and bougainvillea, has not yet been swept away by the developers' craze to raze. Neither has Burma, which despite its repressive military regime, is safe for tourists. The ancient capital of Bagan, with remnants of 5,000 temples, is a sight to behold. Just don't expect local residents to say anything critical about their government to visitors. But some spectacular places are best avoided right now. With rival Cambodian factions openly firing on one another, it just isn't worth the risk to your life to visit the breathtaking temple complex at Angkor Wat.

Living in the comfort of five-star hotels, travelers can easily miss the incense-filled temples, the savory noodle shops, or the best foot massage in town. There's a lot of Old Asia to be discovered after your last business meeting and before your flight home.

By Joyce Barnathan with bureau reports


Updated Sept. 4, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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