The first step of preparation for a trip to Asia involves deciding when to go; the seasons there are often different from those of the U.S. and Europe, and require some planning and deliberation.
Asian countries fall into three general climatic zones. In the north—Japan and Korea—you are in a temperate zone of weather conditions akin to those of the U.S. and most of Europe. The weather of Tokyo is similar to that of Washington, D.C., the weather of Korea is closer to that of Fargo, North Dakota, and can get quite cold in winter.
The second great zone—all the way from Hong Kong and Taiwan down south through Southeast Asia and over to India—is tropical and subtropical, and you will generally encounter year-round heat in all places other than New Delhi and the north of India. While Hong Kong and Taiwan are slightly cooler December through February, they are not markedly so.
Finally, China is a zone all its own. Beijing has cold and windy winter weather, hot dry summers, and passable spring and autumn weather.
Shanghai is a bit more like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Worst weather in China are the cold months from December through February in Beijing, and the rainy season of July and August in Shanghai.
Therefore, the best and worst times to visit are as follows, country-by-country:
Korea: Best time is April, May, October and November, worst time is December and January.
Japan: Best time is the same as in Korea, worst time is June (heavy rainy season). But as it rarely gets too cold for comfort in Japan, there is really no bad time at all for visiting Tokyo, Kyoto and the other tourist “draws” of Japan.
Hong Kong: best time is September through November, and March and April. Although the “typhoon season” is theoretically any time from May through October, I find that the weather is rarely bad in those months.
Taiwan: the weather is similar to that of Hong Kong.
Philippines: Hot. In this sultry nation, best time is January and February (when it’s not too hot), and the time of the worst heat is in March and April. June is the month of monsoons.
Bali: always pleasant. Weather is virtually the same year around, and no months are much better or worse than others. It almost always rains at least a third of the time.
Singapore: very similar in climate to Bali, but with slightly less rainfall in June and July, making those months the best time to visit.
Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia): about the same as in Singapore. June through September, and January and February, have slightly less rain, and are therefore the best months for a visit.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand: best visited in November through February, when there’s less rain. Hottest and driest months are March through June.
India: best time to go is between January and March, plus September and October. Monsoons don’t hit New Delhi, but are very much in evidence in southern India from May through September. Delhi gets frightfully hot in summer, cool-ish in winter.
Japan is the most costly of all the Asian countries, followed by Hong Kong, then Singapore, then Taiwan and Bangkok (the latter two about the same). Bali and Chiang Mai are down at the very bottom of the list in terms of cost, and just above them is New Delhi, with Manila being just above New Delhi. In the middle range: Beijing, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Korea.
PREPARING TO UNDERSTAND LOCAL RELIGIONS
You should very definitely do advance reading on the religions of the countries you plan to visit. Keep in mind that Mahayana Buddhism (which allows priests to marry and have families) is the predominant religion of Asia, particularly strong in Thailand and Japan. In Japan, most Japanese are both Buddhists and Shintoists (the latter involving no gods or goddesses, but rather a value system, like that of Confucianism). It is said that the Japanese live as Shintoists and die as Buddhists.
The Koreans are equally divided between Buddhism and Christianity (the latter both Catholic and Protestant in about equal portions).
In countries or areas where the Chinese predominate (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), there are few practicing Buddhists, and most Chinese follow the teachings of Confucius. Tibet was Buddhist prior to the recent repression there.
In the Philippines, the greater part of the population is Roman Catholic, with a scattering of Protestants and Muslims, the latter especially in the south.
India is three-quarters Hindu, one-quarter Muslim, with a scattering of Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Bahai.
Bali practices a form of Hinduism; the rest of Indonesia and Malaysia are generally Muslim—the only Muslim nations in Asia, beside Pakistan on the Indian subcontinent.
PREPARING FOR LOCAL CUSTOMS
Far more so than for a trip to Europe or elsewhere, you must read up about particular Asian customs, like the usual practice of not touching another person—except, on rare occasions, when they will deign to shake hands, out of deference to your strange western ways. In Thailand, because of Buddhist teachings, the head in particular should not be touched, even to pat the head of a child, and you should be careful where you point the bottom of your feet. Never expose the sole of your shoes or the bottom of your feet at anyone, especially at a statue of Buddha or a picture of the King. It is polite to take off your shoes when entering homes and temples in these countries. Note that in most homes, there are also separate slippers for the toilet, found right outside the toilet.