EVEN if you’ve been almost everywhere in Asia, there is always more to see and hidden gems to discover. From China to India, Australia and New Zealand, this list could take you to a riverside town, a sandy beach, crumbling ruins or to meet wildlife in the Asia-Pacific region in the new year. Happy travelling.
The small town of Fenghuang, or Phoenix in English, in the Hunan Province is a fantastic way to step back a few centuries in Chinese history. It was built in 1704 and its cluster of buildings on the river front, classic clock towers and mix of Miao and Tujia minorities makes it one of the most beautiful and interesting towns to visit in China. Lonely Planet earmarked it in their best of lists for 2014 and it’s indeed worthy of a visit. Wander through the ancient cobbled streets and lanes, or down by the river and inspect more than 200 ancient residences. The locals are friendly and interactive and there are plenty of photo opportunities in this town. Many ancient walls, town gate towers, wells bridges and temples are still in their original state. These leftovers are from the original Ming and Qing dynasty, and Fenghuang is currently on the UNESCO’s tentative list for World Heritage listing.
In the northern state of Ladakh, the capital Leh is almost a world away from India’s hustle and bustle, and predominantly Hindu cities. Featuring a population of ethnic Tibetans and lying at a height of 3,524 metres, Leh has all the romance of an ancient trading route, remnants of the salt, grain, wool, silk and other goods that passed through here from India to China for centuries. The old centre of Leh contains a crumbling royal palace that was built in the 17th century, the wonderful 1430 mudbrick Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, the medieval Tsemo Fort and a number of atmospheric alleyways. There’s plenty of great Tibetan food to be eaten here and it’s a good starting out point to organise treks or further ventures into the region. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, will visit Leh from July 3 to 14, 2014 for the Kalachakra teachings.
The Lonely Planet featured Newcastle in its top 10 cities of 2011, which could make its inclusion on this list seem redundant.. But it turns out Newcasle, on the New South Wales coast of Australia, is still a largely undiscovered, beautiful place, and a definite hidden gem. It boasts sun-drenched beaches and amazing scenery, yet few travellers, Australians and international, actually make it there. Only an hour or two away from great tourist attractions like Sydney, the Hunter Valley vineyards, Lake Macquarie or the whale watching in Port Stephens, Newcastle is a must-see on the island.
Glenorchy, New Zealand
At the top of the beautiful expanse of Lake Wakatipu, bordering Queenstown, the tiny town of Glenorchy is gateway to a region that has been extensively used in filming Lord of the Rings and the Narnia movies. That description alone should set the scene without describing the snow-capped vistas, the translucent lake, the alpine meadows and wonderful forests of this area. Glenorchy also offers multi day walks like the Routeburn and Rees Dart that plunge into the passes and country beyond. It is all kind of postage stamp sized in Glenorchy but it’s a brilliant base for scenic driving and exploration in an area suitably named Paradise. Many activities are available, on top of the tramping, fly fishing, horse riding and 4WDing.
Far from the snow mountains that attract a lot of people to Nepal, Chitwan reveals another remote and wild side of the country. Not only are the rivers and forests boasting an incredible wildlife with elephants, hippos, birds, crocodiles and tigers; there are also interesting villages and plenty of cultural activities to take part in, like traditional Tharu tribe dancing and beautiful landscapes to see, like the Terai that borders India’s plains. The animal viewing opportunities remain perennially popular and nothing beats a ride on an elephant through the forest to hunt tigers or hippos. With the Maoist insurgency now a thing of the past, tourism numbers to Chitwan are on the increase again. Get there first in 2014.
The Philippines copped it badly in late 2013 with the ferocious onslaught of Typhoon Haiyan. Given the widespread and horrific destruction, many tourists think it’s completely closed for business. But while some areas did suffer horribly, only six of the country’s 7,107 islands were affected and since much of the country relies on tourism, they are keen to get numbers back up. The Department of Tourism issued a statement in the days after the typhoon that the country remained “a safe and fun destination” and many popular locations were still open and accessible to tourists. Resorts like Boracay, Palawan, Cebu and Bohol have all been hit by 30-40 percent cancellation rates, despite sometimes receiving minor damage to resorts and infrastructure. 2014 could therefore be a year in which visitors give back to the country. If you’ve never considered visiting the Philippines before this could be the year, with historical landmarks, wonderful beaches and islands, culture and tradition, arts, crafts, shopping and more to enjoy.
Escape the tourists over-satiated towns of Nha Trang, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An and head to Vietnam’s highlands for something different in 2014. Alpine in climate, look and feel, Dalat lies at 1,500m above sea level on the Langbian Plateau in the Central Highlands. So not only is it a place to escape the heat, it’s also home to wonderful lakes, forests, gardens, waterfalls and hill tribes. Highlights include the Hang Nga Crazy House, the pretty railway station and Dalat Cathedral, and there’s also wonderful local markets featuring some of the fantastic produce of the region – the strawberries are particularly good.
Most visitors to Burma take in the delights of the big four that includes Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan. But venture just a little off track and you’ll find hidden gems such as the delightful highland town of Hsipaw (pronounced Tee-bor). This laid back place is a popular base for trekking (either organised or with your guest house map) and meeting hill tribes or simply wandering around the town that features markets (go early), temples and monasteries. You could come across monks playing football, women weaving traditional bags or farmers working in the fields. While increasingly popular as an alternative to Lashio and Kalaw, Hsipaw is still off the beaten track given the distance from Mandalay.Direct buses now run straight through to Yangon.
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
KK, as it is affectionately known to locals, is often used simply as the gateway to the Kota Kinabalu Marine Park, Mt Kinabalu, or places further afield. While most people are keen to get further at some point, they usually have to spend a few days here getting their permits or organising travel arrangements. While you’re doing that, take a look around. The capital of Sabah is a great place to experience Borneo town life and will win you over with its fantastic markets along the waterfront where you can enjoy anything from freshly cooked squid to a fruit shake, an excellent array of kopitiam (coffee shops) and historic elements such as the old clock tower. You can take a boat out to the national park and enjoy a day or two diving, snorkelling or beach sitting, and Mt Kinabalu is only a few hours away for those doing the climb.
While perhaps not as beautiful as Luang Prabang or the islands in Lao’s south, Vientiane is a delightful place of noodle stalls, giant Buddhas, morning markets, great coffee and baguettes, a meandering river and friendly locals. It must be one of Asia’s most laid back capitals and while somewhat of a backwater, most travellers that have the good fortune to spend a few days here enjoy it immensely and are soon wooed by its charms. Not only are there museums, wats and monuments to keep the most active busy, but plenty of river side cafes and garden retreats for those with a more quiet bent, or needing a recharge to venture out again, plus it has all the services, hotels and good restaurants of an Asian city.
To see the recommended travel list for 2013 click here.