12 OF ASIA'S TOP HIDDEN GEMS
From endangered dolphins weaving between rickety wooden river towns to Mughal temples and islands dressed in primeval rainforests, this list of Asia's top 12 hidden gems is fuel for that fire we call Wanderlust.
1. Pushkar, India
While most backpackers head for the famous fort towns of Jodhpur and Jaipur, or dutifully flit between the Taj Mahal and old Delhi on the so-called Golden Triangle route, just a few make a detour to the fascinating town of Pushkar. Set out between the dusty ridges of Rajasthan, it hugs a mirror-like lake where the great creator god Brahma is said to have laid a lotus bloom. Temples of whitewashed stone crash down the ghats, lining the banks in a glorious display of Mewar and Mughal architecture. Meanwhile, yogis stretch in the sunrise and camels groan on the desert trails that shoot out into the wild backcountry of northern India.
2. Thakhek, Laos
Just head down to the riversides of this border town on the very edge of both Laos and Thailand and you'll experience the bustle of local life. Street vendors sizzle up noodle dishes here and trinket touts hustle their wares above the gush of the Mekong River there. Nearby, the wilds of the Phou Hi Poun National Bio-Diversity Conservation Area offer up deep, dank cave systems, while Buddhist pagodas and famous motorcycle roots cover the surrounding hills.
3. Sulawesi, Indonesia
Forget the raucous nightlife strips of Bali and the throbbing energy of modern Jakarta, because spider-shaped Sulawesi is a prime example of just what sort of wild and untrodden places can still exist in a country sprawled over more than 17,000 islands. Its interior is pockmarked with mighty volcanic peaks, or rock-hard ridges of stone that come dressed in dense jungles. Beaches fringe the whole coastline, shimmering with multicoulored corals here and peppered with rickety bamboo dwellings there. Yep, this is what remains of the Indo of old…
4. Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
There was a time when Koh Rong was really off-the-beaten-track; the sort of place you'd need to vie for electricity and hot water during daylight hours. These days, it's come a little way to adding in mod cons, and there are even clusters of air-conditioned bungalows replacing the tent camps along the beach. Still, this eight-shaped isle in the Thai Gulf is still largely untrodden. It's ringed by mile after mile of shimmering, truly (no hyperbole here) white beaches, where palm groves sway in the background and reefs entice divers to the shoals. Trekking, biking, snorkeling and even partying in the evenings are all now on the menu.
5. Khao Sok, Thailand
Hidden between the two famous coastlines of the Land of Smiles – the Andaman in the west and the Thai Gulf in the east – this vast and sprawling reserve has entered the travel radar for its untouched swathes of Southeast Asian jungle. Within its borders are misty bayous and dense forests, where just a few hiking tracks and kayaking routes reveal curious creatures like the Malayan tapir and the wild Asian elephant.
6. Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Although it's still visited by plenty of people, the sheer size of the Mekong Delta – a whopping 39,000-square-kilometers, no less – means that it's got oodles of off-the-beaten-track spots within its borders. Because of its uber-fertile soils, the region has been dubbed he bread bowl of the nation, and its drawn settlers for thousands of years. Today, travellers come to cycle the blooming meadows, hit the buzzing floating markets of places like My Tho, and to seek out the unique biodiversity on boat trips down the countless waterways.
7. El Nido, Philippines
Although El NIdo and its turquoise bays and jungle-topped karst scenery is slowly coming into the travel mainstream with overwater hotels a la the Maldives, it does remain something of an off-the-beaten-track choice for travellers in the Philippines. At the entrance to the impossibly-handsome Bacuit Archipelago, the place has all the sparkling waters, pearl-blue seas, empty lagoons and salt-washed fishing shacks you could hope for – it's the Asia of the holiday brochures.
8. Nakhon Si Thammarat, Thailand
Although it's just a short ride from here to the famous islands of the Thai Gulf – Samui, Phangan, Tao – Nakhon Si Thammarat remains largely unknown to tourists. Okay, so it doesn’t have the beaches – that might be why. But there is one whopping temple complex (the Wat Phra Mahathat Woramahawihan) here that's packed with glorious Buddha effigies and soaring stupas, not to mention lively street markets where locals might even still cast a curious look at a backpacker.
9. Lombok, Indonesia
Lombok is often called Bali's little brother, but there's things here that the much-trodden Isle of the Gods simply can't provide: secluded, salt-washed cabanas in empty bays; laid-back local Indo life; rolling surf that no one else knows about. Yep, while the boom in visitors to Bali has meant all its treasures are laid out bare – from the fascinating fire temples of Uluwatu to the misty jungles of Ubud – Lombok can still seem something of a mystery. Consider traveling to the paradisiacal stretches of beach that line the shore north of Senggigi, or go to Kuta Lombok in the south, where rough waves roll over the reefs.
10. Kratie, Cambodia
Nestled on the edge of the winding Mekong River as it drifts southwards through the very heart of Indochina, Kratie is a lazy little water town with plenty to see and do. Number one on the list is usually a trip out to see the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, pods of which splash and summersault in the currents nearby. However, there are also enthralling little markets and rickety wood-built longhouses to see, including the rural hamlets and rice paddies that abound around Sambor a little further inland.
11. Padangbai, Bali
A charming little fishing and transport town on the eastern coast of Bali, Padangbai sits in the shadow of mighty Mount Agung volcano. Mainly, the place ticks over with the influx of travelers coming straight off the Gili Islands. Some choose to linger, at which point they discover a happy place of seafood warungs (local taverns) and lively expat bars. To the north of town there are gorgeous white-sand beaches, while the coast to the south quickly turns into dark, black-stone coves and deserted seafront.
12. Vieng Xai, Laos
Hidden behind a battle-ready phalanx of dagger-like karst mountains in the extreme north-eastern corner of Laos, the little town of Vieng Xai is slowly coming into the spotlight thanks to its unique geological attractions. Top of the list are the fascinating Vieng Xai Caves, which are now even called the 'Hidden City' thanks to their place as the former hideaway of the Pathet Lao communists, who built eating halls and sleeping quarters below the earth. Of course, there's also oodles of trekking to do, so don't forget the walking boots!
Are you a veteran traveler of Asia with another hidden jewel to add to this list (we know there are loads more!)? We’d love to hear all about them in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you hit this awesome corner of the world on your own adventure, check out LBW's range of bucket-list-busting trips there…