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Hidden Hutongs & Secret Sois

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Deep in the heart of Bangkok’s old town, removed from the city’s gleaming skyscrapers and luxury malls, is the foodie paradise of the Bangrak district. In the narrow streets that extend like spidery arms away from the Chao Phraya River, vendors tend to woks, grills and weathered metal tureens, serving up alfresco banquets to hungry diners perched on utilitarian plastic chairs.

So delicious is the food that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were encroaching on a world-­famous pilgrimage site for visiting gastronomes. The truth of the matter is that culinary wonders like the neighbourhood in question remain very much a local concern.

Asia teems with areas like Bangrak, and while the profusion of blogs and online travel tips have made the more obscure nooks and crannies of destinations more accessible, they remain largely untapped by visitors.

In a sense this is understandable. Asia’s cities can represent a confusing collection of sounds, colours and culture shock to the uninitiated. Sprawling metropolises such as Bangkok, Beijing, Penang and Ho Chi Minh City are crammed with offbeat charms, but serious investigation of these requires time, and commitment – all things generally beyond the reach and inclination of the short term visitor.

While setting off on foot to explore is undoubtedly the best way to soak in a destination’s local sights, sounds and smells; there are barriers to accessing the very essence of a place.

Knowledge is an issue. Anyone can stick a pin in a map and wander off into the great unknown. What is generally lacking is the insight and understanding of a destination to put what is being observed into its correct context.

A failsafe way of truly immersing in a city or destination is by undertaking a walking tour conducted or devised by an expert.

Nobody knows Asia’s destinations better than EXO Travel’s Product Managers. These on the ground experts, many of whom have been resident in their specialist countries for several years, have carefully crafted a selection of walking tours designed to offer insider experiences that get to the very essence of a destination. “The backstreets of Phnom Penh contain a honeypot of life and culture, and walking through its beating heart, really gives you a sense of the ‘real’ city and the way the local residents live.” says Chris Greener, Product Manager of EXO Travel Cambodia.

“Phnom Penh has been my home now for almost 2 years and really, what an amazing place to live! Taking a walking tour is an ideal way to really get to see the city; meandering through its small backstreets, local neighbourhoods, small temples and street art communities.”

“Our insider tours vary wildly in scope. Some focus on food, others put the spotlight on architecture, spirituality, history and vivid local culture. What unites them all is the care and attention to detail that has gone into ensuring guests come away from them feeling both excited and enlightened”. Food is undoubtedly a major highlight of visiting Asia’s cities.

Sustenance seems to be everywhere you look, but like most things in abundance, it’s all about separating the delicious from the average. This is the main draw on foodie walking tours of Bangkok’s historic Bangrak enclave and the boisterous city of Osaka in Japan.

Flitting from humble food stalls to local restaurants under the guidance of city food experts, guests get to sample the authentic flavours of these culinary powerhouses and sample the delights of the carefully selected eateries that only many meals and multiple mouthfuls can single out.

The point of immersive walking tours is to open new windows upon familiar destinations, and that’s certainly the case in Yogyakarta where a guided investigation of the hidden corners of the Indonesian city throws up numerous surprises. Guests will learn more about jamu, (Indonesian traditional medicine) at a traditional Jamu factory, pilot a becak (trishaw) to a batik museum, and snack on local delights such as es rujak, a sweet and sour fruit salad topped with ice cream and coconut milk.

Similarly educational, is a stroll around some of the less charted parts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s buzzing capital, and a lesson in the architecture of Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage listed former capital of Laos, from an expert who has lived in the town for over 20 years.

In Beijing, China’s ancient capital, meanwhile, the focus of an entire series of tours is the city’s hutongs. These narrow laneways emerged during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th Century and have been one of the focal points for local life in the city ever since. Some of China’s greatest thinkers and literary figures have emerged from these warren-like lanes, which have also fostered a wealth of folklore and colourful traditions. The Hutong Walks series homes in on these individual strands, providing additional layers of detail to enliven an already charismatic scene.

It is this capacity to flesh out details that makes a well conceived walking tour an outstanding addition to any travel itinerary. With care, passion and insider knowledge informing their creation, these are experiences that are pedestrian in the best possible sense of the word.

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