Five Must-Visit Chinese Provincial Capitals
With more and more direct flights to provincial capitals, it’s time to discover the beauty of China beyond Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
With a population of more than 12 million and a fast-growing economy, the capital of Guangdong province is the third largest city in China. Guangzhou is best known for its authentic Cantonese cuisine (similar to what you’d find in Hong Kong), and the dramatic, 600-meter-tall Canton Tower, the tallest structure in China and the fourth tallest in the world.
Why now: The city has just welcomed the 44th member of the fashionable W Hotels family, W Guangzhou (26 Xian Cun Rd., Pearl River New Town, Tianhe, Guangzhou, China, +8620-6628-6628, www.wguangzhou.com). The 317-room hotel is the first property on the Chinese mainland for the brand, which is known for its cutting-edge design, and it is housed in a modern, glass-facade building near the Pearl River. Apart from the usual Woobar and The Kitchen Table, W Guangzhou also has three more restaurants serving East-Asian cuisine.
China’s eighth largest city offers a plethora of sight-seeing opportunities. Tourists mainly visit to take photos at The Great Hall of People, which was built in 1951 and resembles the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, cruise down the Yangtze River to the Three Gorges Dam, walk along the river bank to see the beauty of the city at night, and take a day-trip to visit the stunning UNESCO World Heritage-listed Three Natural Bridges.
Why now: Previously only Thai AirAsia flew directly from Bangkok to Chongqing, deterring some with an aversion to low-cost carriers. But now THAI Airways will start operating flights to Chongqing from Oct 27 onwards.
The capital of Hunan province has a rich 3,000-year-old history dating back to the Qin dynasty. As such, many of the main attractions are historic, such as Kaifu, Lushan and Taogong temples, which showcase the beauty of ancient Chinese architecture. Changsha is also the closest metropolis to Zhangjiajie National Park, about four hours’ drive away, which is better known as “Avatar Park” thanks to its amazing mountainous landscape which inspired the looks of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Why now: From Oct 27, THAI Airways will operate direct flights to Changsha.
Huzhou City rests on the south bank of Taihu Lake, China’s third largest freshwater lake, and offers a picturesque setting for nature lovers. The main attraction is Nanxun Old Town (aka Nanxu Water Town), a trading quarter famous for its ancient architecture and canals spanned by old stone bridges.
Why now: The newly-opened Sheraton Huzhou Hot Spring Resort (www.sheraton.com) is the most exciting new arrival in this peaceful town. Sitting on the bank of Taihu Lake, what makes this 321-room hotel stand out is its 26-level O-shaped main building that pops up from the lake—leading some to nickname it the “donut hotel.” The building glows beautifully at night and has become the city’s newest architectural landmark.
This lesser known city was the hometown of the great philosopher Confucius, reflected in the many historical attractions relating to him found here. The most important are the so-called “Three Confucian Sites”: the Temple of Confucius, Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion, all of which have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2004.
Why now: We hadn’t heard much about Qufu until Shangri-la announced the opening of the Shangri-La Qufu on the bank of the Yi River a few months back. The 211-room hotel is the city’s most luxurious hotel offering deals from RMB788 (B4,070), so you might want to plan your fancy trip before everyone else.
Direct flights are operated by Air China (www.airchina.com), China Southern Airlines (www.csair.com/en), Srilankan Airlines (cheapest; roundtrip from B9,590, www.srilankan.com), Air Asia (www.airasia.com), Air Madagascar (www.airmadagascar.com), Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com), Tiger Air (www.tigerair.com) and THAI Airways (www.thaiairways.com).
Direct flights are operated by AirAsia (roundtrip from B9,600) and THAI Airways (from Oct 27)
Direct flights are operated by China Southern Airlines (roundtrip from B10,800) and THAI Airways (from Oct 27)
The nearest airport is in Hangzhou but there’s no direct flight from Bangkok (you can fly on Cathay via Hong Kong, from B11,150), the second nearest is Shanghai and choices are China Eastern Airlines (cheapest; from B15,120, www.flychinaeastern.com), Srilankan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines (www.shanghai-air.com) and THAI Airways
The nearest airport is in Jinan but there’s no direct flight. You have to opt for either Air China (from B14,566 via Shenzhen) or China Southern Airlines (from B14,735 via Guangzhou
It’s been a month now since the Japanese government decided to relax the procedure for Thais entering the country. From July 1, Thai citizens visiting Japan for less than 15 days do not need to apply for a visa. The measure also applies to visitors from other countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. Thai tourists are already among the top six nationalities to visit Japan annually. And the Kasikorn Thai Research Center has estimated that the policy should see this rise by approximately 50%, from around 200,000 visitors in 2012 to 300,000 people in 2013. The policy is aimed at boosting Japanese tourism which has taken a hit since the tsunami tragedy in 2011. What we really want to know, though, is will other countries follow suit to tap into Thais’ increasing buying power?
We spoke to representatives from the UK, US and French embassies in Bangkok, three of the top countries visited by Thais, only to find out they don’t have plans to waive visas for Thai citizens any time soon. All three embassies stressed that issuing visas is still a key part of screening people entering the country, but explained that the visa application process is becoming easier and easier, with clear explanations offered on their websites (and on YouTube for the US, see Essentials).
Walter Braunohler, spokesman for the US Embassy Bangkok, explains that nowadays the visa application process should take no longer than two weeks. Though it requires you to supply a number of documents, in return you’ll get a visa that’s valid for 10 years.
As for the UK, 56% of applicants receive their visa within five days, and 99% within 15 working days. The UK Embassy is also looking to improve its services to respond to increasing demands for visas. According to the figures reported by UK daily newspaper The Times (June 2013), 75,000 Thai tourists visited the UK in 2012. Though outnumbered by Chinese tourists (179,000), “spending by tourists from Thailand in the capital [London] is outpacing all other nationalities.” It is estimated that Thai visitors spent £762 per person per visit. For that reason Thailand is considered “the next market to watch” and stores are now offering cultural training and hiring Thai-speaking staff, too.
Our experience with the French Embassy is that it is the slowest of the three. It’s also the only one to require an official certificate from your host in case you are staying at someone’s residence (as opposed to a hotel). Obtaining and mailing the original certificate can add over a month to the procedure.
People are always complaining that the visa application processes are too long and frustrating, involving many documents and interviews. “More than 85% of Thais who apply for a visitor visa to the US receive one,” says Braunohler. For the UK, this percentage was 94% in 2012. But applicants must read what’s required carefully and prepare the correct documents accordingly. The representatives from the three embassies are all in accordance, those who aren’t issued a visa are people who: (1) cannot prove that they have enough money to cover their expenses during their stay; (2) cannot show credible evidence they will return to Thailand after the trip; or (3) apply with fake documents.
Regarding what’s more important when reviewing an application, the US and French representatives stressed that both your documents and the interview are “equally important.” The UK embassy, meanwhile, “rarely interviews Thais who apply for a tourist or business visa,” but puts more weight on the application form and supporting documents to guarantee you will leave the UK after your visit.
How Much is Enough?
One of the main concerns for people looking to travel abroad is supplying a bank statement. But this fear is largely unfounded, at least in the case of the US. “You can have two baht in your bank account and still get a visa,” explains Braunohler, “as long as you can prove you are coming back to Thailand.”
The Embassy of France didn’t provide a determined amount, but says, “It mainly depends on how long the applicant wants to stay in France. What concerns the Embassy of France when the applicant does not prove she or he has a sufficient amount of money (or regular income) to be able to take responsibility for themselves for the length of their stay in France.”
It’s largely the same for the UK Embassy, which requires all visa applicants to demonstrate they have enough money to fund their trip and leave the UK at the end of their stay.
Despite the embassies’ best assurances, applying for a visa is an unpleasant, expensive and time-consuming hassle, where applying too late or forgetting a single document can ruin your vacation plans. At least, the US have made that painful process a rarer occurence, thanks to their 10-year visas. But the UK and Schengen-area countries like France are still making us jump through the hoops for every single visit. With biometric passports and Thais’ increasing affluence, the claim that screening is needed is getting a little old. If Japan doesn’t need it, why don’t other first-world nations follow suit?
USA, US$160. bangkok.usembassy.gov/visas.html and Youtube.com/USembassyBangkok
UK, B3,680. www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/countries/thailand
France, B2,419. www.tlscontact.com/th2fr