Asia is an amazingly diverse continent, a land of mystery, legend and a place where you can experience culture in its most magnificent form. The isolation of its beauty is perhaps what sets it apart from every place else in the world. There’s more to this region than the famous sights that we hear about so often in travel guides. If you have ‘’been there, done that » with the popular tourist destinations in Asia like Bangkok and Singapore and are now looking at new destinations to explore in this continent, try our pick of Asia’s most overlooked and off-beat tourist stunners.
Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam
The oldest and one of the most attractive capital cities in Southeast Asia, Hanoi exudes a rare sense of gracious charm and timelessness. Hanoi, the « City within the River’s Bend, » was founded by Emperor Ly Thai To in AD 1010. Today, Hanoi has emerged as an elegant, cultured, and affluent city, where museums and galleries coexist with chic shops and fashionable restaurants. It’s a city with a blend of Parisian grace and Asian pace, an architectural museum piece evolving in harmony with its history. One can wander in a few minutes from the narrow streets of the Old Quarter to the imposing mansions and buildings lining the leafy boulevards of the former French Quarter.
Spend a day learning about the culture of Hanoi and taking in the city’s top sights. Start by exploring Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum complex, home to his former stilt house residence, the presidential palace, and the one pillar pagoda. From here, you can walk to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, an archaeological site dating back to the 11th century. After a stop for lunch, visit the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university and Long Bien Bridge, built during the French occupancy. Then, take a cycle ride around Hanoi’s Old Quarter. End the day at a local café overlooking HoanKiem Lake.
The name « Halong » translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. Halong Bay features more than one thousand awesome limestone karsts and islands of various sizes and shapes along the 120-km coastline of Bai Chay Beach. This densely concentrated zone of stone islands, world famous for its spectacular scenery of grottoes and caves, forms the central zone of Halong Bay, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While exploring the bay, travellers will feel lost in the legendary world of stone islands which shapes change depending on the angle and the light. There are many names given to islands according to their shapes and forms such as Hon Dau Nguoi (Human Head Islet), Hon Rong (Dragon Islet), Hon Canh Buom (Sail Islet) and Hon Trong Mai (Cock and Hen Islet). The beauty of Halong Bay does not consist only in the forms of its mountains, islands and the colour of its waters, but also in its infinitely rich system of grottoes and caves such as Thien Cung (Heavenly Palace Grotto), Dau Go (Driftwood Grotto), Sung Sot (Surprise Grotto), Tam Cung (Three Palace Grotto) and Trinh Nu (Virgin Grotto).
Cebu & Boracay, Philippines
Cebu is the « Queen City of the South » on Cebu Island and is one of the most popular destinations in all of the Philippines for tourists. Cebu is the traveler’s dream of a tropical island come true: balmy weather, pristine beaches, and luxurious resorts with all the frills of modern living. Majority of its land area and population is in a long narrow major island, surrounded by more than 100 smaller islands, most notable of which are the Mactan, Olango, Camotes, Batayan and Malapascua islands. Cebu has narrow coastlines, limestone plateaus and coastal plains. It also has rolling hills and rugged mountain ranges traversing the northern and southern lengths of the island. Cebu’s highest mountains are over 1000 meters high. Condé Nast Traveler Magazine named Cebu the seventh best island destination in the Indian Ocean-Asia region in 2007, eighth best Asian-Pacific island destination in 2005, seventh in 2004 and in 2009.
Boracay is a small island of the Philippines located approximately 315 km south of Manila and 2 km off the northwest tip of Panay Island in the Western Visayas region. Boracay Island’s shape is somewhat similar to a butterfly, which aptly defines its beauty. Boracay Island and its beaches have received awards for their world-class attractiveness. The island is composed of three main ‘barangays’ or small districts which are called Manoc, Balabag and Yapak. Boracay has managed to pack its thousand hectare area with all the elements of a tropical paradise – crystal blue waters, powder white sand, liberal doses of tropical palms and flowering plants, and a healthy marine life underneath the seas.
Take a walk on Boracay’s white beach at sunset as the setting golden sun presents the most beautiful sunset in the Philippines and paints the romantic ambiance of the island, watch the kite surfers and their amazing prowess on the waters, opt to see the underwater landscapes that make Boracay famous by taking a Boracay tour in a glass bottom boat, go helmet diving or go snorkeling. Try the tasty treat of Balut – a must try for any visiting tourist on the island. Undertake zorbing – a ‘must do’ activity or try out the incredible Quad Biking to Mount Luho.
Angkor Wat & Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The masterpiece of Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most beloved and best preserved temple. The 500 acre site is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer Empire. This majestic structure lies at the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which covers 154 square miles and contains scores of other Khmer temples dating from between the 9th and 15th centuries. Originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its founding in the 12th century. Angkor Wat is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat the oceans beyond.
The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. Ta Prohm is one of the most photographed temples, deliberately left mostly unrestored and tangled by undergrowth. The temple is admired for the grandeur & harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs and for the numerous devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls. According to Maurice Glaize, a mid-20th-century conservator of Angkor, the temple « attains a classic perfection by the restrained monumentality of its finely balanced elements and the precise arrangement of its proportions. It is a work of power, unity and style. » Angkor Wat has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
Phnom Penh, once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, is the capital and largest city in Cambodia. Phnom Penh is located at the confluence of three rivers – the Mekong, the Bassac and Tonle Sap. The city is divided into three sections – the north, an attractive residential area; the south or the French part of the city with its ministries, banks, colonial houses; and the centre or the heart with its narrow lanes, markets, foods stalls and shops. The capital city exudes a sort of provincial charm and tranquility with French colonial mansions and tree-lined boulevards amidst monumental Angkorian architecture. Phnom Penh is also the gateway to an exotic land – the world heritage site, the largest religious complex in the world, the temples of Angkor in the west, the beaches of the southern coast and the ethnic minorities of the North-eastern provinces.
For a taste of Cambodian history and royal life, visitors can tour the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda located just next to the palace grounds. A short walk away, the National Museum beckons with room after room of Khmer sculpture, ceramics, bronzes, and ethnographic objects. To get a taste of city life, walk along Sothearos Boulevard, sampling local foods and patronizing a clutch of ‘antique’ shops that sell silver trays, betel boxes, belts, ancient coins, silver or wooden statuettes and famed marble carvings from the province of Pursat. Take leisurely strolls around Phnom Penh – boulevards peppered by elegant colonial buildings and a bustling riverfront lined with cafes and restaurants make this a truly beautiful city to see on foot or shop for antique pieces, sundry souvenir items, and factory over-run designer clothing at ‘Phsar Toul Tum Poung’.
Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chang Mai, one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom and currently the unofficial capital of Northern Thailand is a vibrant city with plenty on offer for the traveler. Chiang Mai is one of the few places in Thailand where it’s possible to experience both historical and modern Thai culture coexisting side by side: the city features centuries-old chedis and temples next to modern convenience stores and boutique hotels. This dichotomy is best appreciated within the moat-encircled old city, which retains much of the fortified wall that once protected the city center as well as the four main gates that provided access to the former Lanna capital city.
A not-to-be-missed experience in Chang Mai remains visiting temples. There are nearly enough temples in Chiang Mai to visit a different one every day of the year! Inside the city walls, you’ll find beautiful examples of 14th and 15th century Lanna style temples with intricate wood carvings and murals. Amongst the oldest and impressive ones are Wat Phra Singh (1345) and Wat Chiang Man (1296). Travelers can also try a varied of cultural experiences – Take a Thai cooking course, learn massage, practice yoga, visit temples (of which there are over 300!) and lap up a bit of Thai heritage that can be harder to find in the more touristy places. If you’re an active traveler you could trek to a waterfall, visit hill tribe villages, float down a river on a bamboo raft or ride an elephant. You can even learn how to ride an elephant and help to wash them in the river on a Mahout course.
A friendly and charming city, Chiang Mai’s little brother, Chiang Rai is a land of outstanding natural beauty. Chiang Rai has been inhabited since the 7th century, but it was not until 1262 that King Meng Rai established it as the first capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The capital was later relocated to Chiang Mai and since that time Chiang Rai has lived in the shadow of its neighboring province.
Today, Chiang Rai is a traveler’s paradise, endowed with abundant natural attractions and antiquities. Attractions range from ruins of ancient settlements and Buddhist shrines to magnificent mountain scenery and hill tribe villages. For those interested in the natural side of Chiang Rai, jungle trekking is a magical experience; explore the mountains of the north along various hiking trails, many of which access the villages of diverse hill tribes groups, many of whom maintain their traditional lifestyles. Chiang Rai town, which tends to be a little more ‘laid back’ than its more popular neighbour, now competes with Chiang Mai as a tourist attraction. Also visit the two very unusual pieces of temple architecture within half an hour of each other, the white temple and black house which are known as the ‘heaven and hell’ of Chiang Rai. In addition, the province offers opportunities for boat tours (on the river Kok and on the Mekong), elephant rides, hill trekking, and sightseeing. Combine all these and you’ll know why it’s a worthwhile destination for travelers.
Sabah & Sarawak, Malaysia
Sabah is a picturesque state of Malaysia; one of the thirteen that make up the whole country. This eastern most state is best known for its natural tropical beauty, a far reaching history and its art & culture. Surprisingly, it is also known as the land below the wind, because of its closeness to the typhoon region of Philippines. Sabah is a rugged place for adventurers, a playground for divers, and a trove for anyone with the adventure to explore.
The most unforgettable experiences to try out in Sabah would be: Climbing Mount Kinabalu, an once-in-a-lifetime experience and something all adventurous travelers should try! If you prefer to get your action under the water, Sipadan Island is the spot for you. Sipadan Island is not only Malaysia’s only oceanic island; it’s regularly voted one of the top places in the world for scuba diving. Here you can dive with swirling schools of barracuda, graceful turtles, white tip reef sharks and bumphead parrotfish amongst many other species that frequent the island. Take a cruise down the Kinabatangan River – from orangutans, to elephants, to rhinoceroses, a cruise up the banks of the Kinabatangan River offers a unique opportunity to spot some of Asia’s most diverse wildlife. Get to know Sabah’s official mascot – The Orangutan. At the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary you can see and learn more about these amazingly human-like creatures and watch them as they go about their curious daily business.
Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia covering an area of nearly 125,000 square kilometers in the Borneo land mass. With such a large land area, Sarawak is home to an incredible range of tropical bio-diversity. The rich flora and fauna include the world’s largest flower Rafflesia, squirrels and snakes that fly, plants that eat insects and various other species of plants and insects that are yet to be discovered.
The experiences not-to-be-missed out in Sarawak are: Marvel at the caves in Mulu National Park – The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mulu National Park offers travelers one Indiana Jones adventure after another. Mulu National Park is Sarawak’s largest, and offers everything from quad biking, to jaw-dropping views from the world’s longest tree-canopy walk, to fascinating treks through the lush forest. Visit Bako National Park – The Park contains an incredible variety of plant species and vegetation types, and is home to 275 rare proboscis monkeys. Sarawak is a land of colourful cultures boasting 27 ethnic groups, and a significant percentage of Sarawak’s population still live in longhouses and villages in remote areas. Discover their way of life and stopover the most popular Iban longhouses – Skrang River, Lemanak River and Batang Ai. Also visit the state’s quirky capital, Kuching. This ‘city of cats’ is full of history, old world charm, and is the perfect city to discover by foot. Highlights of Kuching include the Cat Museum and the gigantic cat statues peppered across the city, the Tua Pek Kong Temple, Fort Margherita, the Astana, the waterfront and nearby Bazaar, and the Sarawak Museum.
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