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Asia is made up of four dozen countries, offering everything from remote islands to mega-metropolises for enjoying nature, adventure, ancient history, culture and more. While the most popular places like Tokyo, Bangkok and Bali draw millions of tourists every year, there are countless others to explore. These up-and-coming destinations are some of the top places to explore before everyone else discovers them too.
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Gifu is a high altitude prefecture in central Japan. While it’s just a few hours from Tokyo by train in the heart of the country, it’s still relatively untouched with turquoise rivers and streams, emerald mountains and small towns like Gujo, with traditions and an authentic way of life still completely intact, providing a step back in history to another time. It’s also home to Sekigahara where a famously violent battle led to the unification of Japan. Explore the history along with mountaintop castles, old wooden buildings with original thatched roofs, charming cobbled streets, sake breweries and shops selling local crafts.
Sarawak - Borneo, Malaysia
Sarawak is a Malaysian state that’s home to dense rainforest and a significant amount of protected parkland. It’s home to impressive 19th-century landmarks like the former palace of the White Rajahs and Fort Margherita, built to prevent pirates. Visitors can do everything from viewing primates and crocodiles in the wild to meeting former headhunters in this relatively unexplored part of the world. One of the best ways to explore the culture is to visit Sarawak Cultural Village which focuses on the local cultures and lifestyles of ethnic groups via longhouse replicas, programs and performances. About 150 people live in the village and demonstrate traditional daily activities for visitors who can experience arts and crafts, games and the foods of seven major ethnic groups.
This ancient Buddhist city is located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar, a country that’s rarely visited but has been making its way onto traveler bucket lists in recent years. Old Bagan is an archaeological site with over 2,000 Buddhist monuments that tower over the plateau. It also hosts a sight that can rival even Machu Picchu with a backdrop of silver mountains in the distance, temples and other silhouettes built by the kings, rising from the plateau. The UNESCO-listed sites display carvings, Buddha statues and beautifully restored frescoes. In the main town, don’t miss the Mani-Sithu Market, a typical Burmese market with produce, textiles, street foods and souvenirs like woodcarvings and lacquerware.
Sumba Island, Indonesia
Sumba Island may not be known by many yet, but some say this “lost isle” may become the next Bali, so you’ll want to explore this unique destination in Asia before everyone else does. A fascinating and hauntingly beautiful place, as recently as a half-century ago, headhunting was practiced. The unspoiled white sandy beaches meet turquoise waves that draw surfers, divers and snorkelers, while waterfalls like Tanggedu Waterfall spill in stunning cascades of brilliant blue and green. Well-preserved traditional village culture can be experienced in Western Sumba, where traditional homes are clustered on hilltops surrounding vast stone tombs of ancestors.
Ella, Sri Lanka
Located in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, Ella is a small mountain town with stunning views in the heart of the serene countryside, enjoying a cooler climate at a higher elevation, with mist enveloped hills, tea plantations and waterfalls. It attracts many to hike its scenic trails and it also serves as the starting or endpoint of the famous Kandy-Ella train route, considered by many to be the most scenic train ride in the world. The Nine Arches Bridge, is one of the prettiest spots, bringing many to wait for the train and capture a selfie with it passing through.
Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia
Nusa Lembongan is another less-visited island in Indonesia, located just a 30-minute boat ride from Bali, yet worlds away, providing an ideal spot to disconnect with the chaos of modern life and reconnect with nature. It’s part of a group of three islands that make up the Nusa Penida district and offers pristine white sandy beaches with crystal-clear blue water, world-class snorkeling and surfing. You could easily stand in awe for hours at Devil’s Tears, watching the waves crash against the dramatic cliff formation. It’s the very best spot for a sunset, as well as being popular for cliff jumping and tide pool exploring.
Belitung Island, Indonesia
Dreamy Belitung is a secret island paradise in Indonesia, with postcard-perfect beaches, unbelievably clear aquamarine waters and coral formations ideal for snorkeling and diving, kayaking and paddleboarding. Just 10 minutes from the city center is Kaolin Lake, with blue-tinged rocks and white sandstone that provides a striking contrast that makes it seem as if it’s a volcanic crater, minus the smell of sulfur. You’ll find two giant granite rocks for hiking called Batu Baginde, and lots of little family-owned eateries called warungs serving all kinds of seafood and local delicacies.
One of the best places to visit in Vietnam, Sapa is located in the far north, surrounded by dramatic beauty with its rice paddies world-famous. It sits high up in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains and makes a great base for trekking or mountain biking tours with routes that will bring you past magnificent waterfalls, through rice paddies, and around charming mountain villages home to families known for making fantastic local handicrafts. When you travel to the villages you can see how these items are made and purchase everything from traditional weavings to carvings for gifts or souvenirs.
Okinawa Islands, Japan
Okinawa City is the gateway to a wonderful tropical paradise in Japan, the Okinawa Islands. While the islands have long been known by the Japanese, particularly honeymooners, international visitors are just starting to discover its dense jungle forests, white sandy beaches and mouthwatering cuisine. The group of about two dozen islands spread around the largest, Okinawa Main Island, enjoys pleasant weather year-round while being far removed from the busy mainland life. While the main island is home to sprawling resorts and a steady stream of tourists, nature and solitude seekers will appreciate the tranquil beauty and diversity of the smaller islands like Ishigaki.
Hoh Xil, Tibet
Hoh Xil is home to the renowned Hoh Xil Nature Reserve, one of the world’s best of its kind with crystal-clear lakes that reflect that endless blue skies, snow-capped mountains, vast grasslands and abundant wildlife. This extensive area of alpine mountains and steppe systems sits at 14,763 feet above sea level with unique geographical and climatic conditions that have nurtured unique biodiversity. Over a third of the plant species, and all the herbivorous mammals, are endemic to the plateau, including the endangered Tibetan antelope.
The Champasak Province of Laos is home to some of the most spectacular islands, jungles and waterfalls in the country. A hidden Southeast Asia gem that borders Cambodia and Thailand, it’s also home to Wat Phou, temple ruins that predate Cambodia’s world-famous Angkor Temple Complex. At the Si Phan Don, there are many little boulder-like islands that create waterfalls and rapids where you can watch for the endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. Swim in the pools beneath cascading waterfalls, learn about local village culture, and so much more.
Koh Kood, Thailand
Koh Kood is a nearly untouched paradise in Thailand, home to some of the world’s best beaches, just five hours from Bangkok and easily accessible. Home to over a dozen pristine beaches, all framed by Maldives-like clear turquoise water, there is relatively little development here. The rugged jungle interior is home to many impressive waterfalls, while the roads are mostly deserted and unexplored, making a trip to travel them on a scooter a real adventure. Unlike its larger neighbor Ko Chang, forget about noise, traffic or nightlife, this is where you come to do almost nothing but enjoy the scenery.
Shōdoshima Island, Japan
This beautiful island in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea is famous for being the first to successfully cultivate olives, on the south coast, olives grow in the hillside groves at Shōdoshima Olive Garden. It’s also known for its idyllic beaches, wild monkeys and a miniature version of the 88-temple Shikoku Pilgrimage. Just off the southern coast, a trail of three tiny islets overlooks the shore, with gentle waves lapping against both sides of a sandbar, twice a day, when the tide recedes, it connects the island to the mainland and is referred to as Angel Road, especially breathtaking at sunrise or sunset.
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Lying southeast of Hanoi, Ninh Binh is incredibly picturesque, yet it remains far less popular than its sister to the northeast, Ha Long Bay. It boasts hundreds of limestone monoliths that topped by vibrant greenery that rise from the ground, scattered throughout the city with rivers flowing through. In Trang An, you can ask a boat peddler to take you through some of the many caves in the limestone mountains. There are many pagods here too, including Bai Dinh and Bich Dong, the latter of which is built right into a cave. Bai Dinh pagoda serves as the Buddhist Center of Vietnam and is Southeast Asia’s largest pagoda.