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As the world’s largest continent, you should never feel stuck in the same old destinations in Asia. Yes, the likes of Thailand’s islands and the jungle retreats of Bali will always be popular, but going off the beaten path is also easy to do.
Where to start
Start by refocusing your expectations. It’s unlikely you’ll find plush five-star resorts and infinity pools edging the shoreline in lesser-known parts of the continent. Instead, macaque-filled jungles and remote mountain landscapes are the names of the game. Accommodation wise, you could be looking at bamboo-built beach bungalows or homestays. And for meals? Prepare to eat local.
But all that’s part of the joy of heading somewhere off-piste. All that’s left is to choose the right destination. Cue this piece, which hones in on just a few. Read on for a more in-depth intro to these lesser-known destinations in Asia, or enjoy a quick skim here:
- Central Asia – from the Hindu Kush to the Old Silk Road, this region is replete with awesome destinations in Asia.
- Hidden Indo – forget Bali, there are islands elsewhere with an off-the-beaten-track vibe.
- Oman – A timeless jewel of the Middle East.
- Myanmar – Monastery towns in the mountains.
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Where to start
What do Phuket, Koh Samui, and Bali all have in common?
Clue: It’s not paradise beaches. It’s not coconut-topped sands. It’s not swinging hammocks and sunset beers.
They are all among the most visited of Asian destinations. Millions upon millions of us whiz across to their surf breaks, coves, and hotels to get a fix of R&R each year.
But don’t go thinking that they’re the only choices.
A real variety of destinations in Asia
With a whopping 45 million square kilometers of territory, borders on the Sea of Japan and the fringes of Eastern Europe, one leg in the Indian Ocean and the other in the Pacific, Asia is one darn hefty character.
And it’s a veritable treasure trove for the budding backpacker. In one spot, you’ll encounter caravanserai cities leftover from the days of the Old Silk Road. In another, you find incense-plumed temples dedicated to Buddha. Beyond those are snow-capped mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Himalaya – and seas sparkling with multi-colored coral gardens.
The upshot is that travelers looking for something a little different should find themselves with loads of choices. And that’s where this list comes in. It focuses on five of the lesser-known destinations in Asia, the ones that’ll have you reaching for Google Maps or pulling down Dad’s dusty Atlas of the World from the top of the bookshelf.
Let’s get started on the lesser-known destinations in Asia…
The allergic-to-vowels Kyrgyz Republic is a secret kept by semi-nomadic herders. It was once a link in the chain of the Old Silk Road, and later a part of the vast USSR, whose Iron Curtain ensured it remained closed to visitors. The geography helped to keep it shut away, too. Wedged into the snowy massifs of the Pamir Mountains and the Tian Shan, it’s hardly the most accessible of countries on the map.
These days, it’s that unique history and culture, topped with some seriously jaw-dropping backcountry, that’s beginning to bring travelers back.
Coupled with a super welcoming visa regime (60 days entry for free, thank you very much), Kyrgyzstan is now well and truly back on the menu.
Highlights include the wavy waters of Issyk Kul Lake, set beneath a phalanx of snowy mountains. There’s Osh, oozing 3,000 years of history between bazaars and teahouses. And there’s the fertile Fergana Valley, where the courses of the Silk Road once ran.
Hugging a bend in the Thanlyin River deep between the mountains of Karen State is the charming little town of Hpa-an. Since Myanmar opened for tourism back in 1992, it has established itself as something of a chilled backpacker hub. Vegan kitchens, ramshackle riverside guesthouses, classic Burmese homestays – you’ll find the lot.
However, the real draw of Hpa-an is its setting. Crumpled Karst Mountains rise and fall like the fingers of giants all along the horizon. Hop on the scooter and explore those to find the colossal Saddan Cave, complete with a mystical effigy of reclining Buddha, and Mount Zwegabin, where a hair-pinning hiking trail reaches a monastery in the clouds.
Calling all wild campers and off-roaders, the dry wadis and high peaks of Oman are the perfect playground. For years, folk came to this corner of the Middle East to shop and dine their way through the glitz of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. No more. Adventure tourism has taken route and bloomed. And Oman – gorgeous, rugged Oman – is leading the way, making this one of the more popular but still lesser-known destinations in Asia
Charge the camera before you hop in the 4X4. The shifting sand seas of the Wahiba Sands are photogenic in the extreme. So are the cupolas and spires of the Hajar Mountains, with their dust-billowing canyons. And so is Salalah, a strange world that turns from desert brown to emerald green with the coming of the yearly Khareef monsoon.
You’ll be greeted by giants in Gilgit-Baltistan. Five of the world’s 14 8,000-meter-high mountains lurk here. They erupt from the Karakoram and the rocks of the Hindu Kush, topping out at the spine-tingling summit of Nanga Parbat and legendary K2.
Of course, intrepid mountaineers have been coming this way for years. K2 might have the highest kill/climb ratio going, but it still inspires people to attempt its ice-caked summit.
That said, in the last few years, a new breed of adventure tourism has brought other folk to the depths of Gilgit-Baltistan.
They come to unearth ancient Buddha carvings in hidden shrines in Skardu, to see ibex clamber over the canyons in the Khunjerab National Park, and see mists rising from the alpine lakes of the great Hunza Valley.
Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Move over Bali. Forget dodging crowds and surfers on the beaches and breaks of the famous Isle of the Gods. Head, instead, for the hidden regency of Raja Ampat. It speckles the Ceram Sea close to the rainforests of West Papua; a peppering of countless islets ringed by wisp-white sand, beset by aquamarine lagoons, and dashed with pristine coral reefs.
This is Indonesia at its most untouched. It’s a place where you’re just as likely to meet a whale shark or a bird of paradise as another backpacker. Tourism is starting to trickle in with a nascent scuba scene, though, so you might want to hurry with the booking.
Book flights to Kyrgyzstan
Direct departures go to Bishkek from Turkey. Travelers from more than 40 countries now enter visa free.
Book flights to Myanmar
Loads of flights link Myanmar to the rest of the world but you should look for arrivals into Yangon to be close to Hpa-an and its Karst Mountains.
Travel to Gilgit-Baltistan
Remote and cut off by mountains, this region isn’t the easiest to get to. Quick in and outs can be done on flights via Islamabad. More fun is the drive up the treacherous and legendary Karakoram Highway.
Get to Raja Ampat
Look for short-haul links from Jakarta to Dominique Edward Osok Airport in West Papua. From there, it’s a boat ride out to the wonderful islands of Raja Ampat.
Make sure you have what you need!
Check out our other popular posts to ensure you set off for Asia fully prepared to have a great time:
– Best Tech Items for Travelers
– Going on a Trip? Consider Travel Insurance
– How to Meet People While Traveling Solo
– The Thrifty Guide to Traveling the World on a Budget
About the Author
Since bagging his English and Ancient History degree, Rich has traveled from the canyons of Mexico to the surf-splashed bays of Bali, done five interrails, toured India, Indonesia, Thailand, and New Zealand, hiked in Italy and France, skied across the Alps, and lived in countless countries for a month or more at a time. Now at five continents and upwards of 50 countries (gaining a TEFL certification along the way), it’s safe to say he is a seasoned traveler.
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