By Elaine C
You may think you know Asia, but there’s a lot more to the continent than its more famous tourist destinations like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. After all, no two countries in Asia are exactly the same.
Here’s a list of seven countries located on the continent that may have missed your radar, but have much to offer for holidaymakers who want to take the road less-traveled.
1. Sri Lanka
Legendary traveler Marco Polo once described Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as the finest island of its size in the world – and there’s no doubt it still has the charm that captivated him.
A brutal civil war may have kept intrepid travelers away until only recently, but the island is now as safe as safe can be. There’s something here for everyone – beautiful, undeveloped beaches, jungles filled with wildlife and rare birds, and hilly areas great for tea-planting. (Dilmah, anyone?)
The affluent sun-lovers among us will love the beach resorts of Kalutara, Beruwala and Bentota while budget travelers can look to Hikkaduwa, a former hippy colony that has seen better days but is now undergoing a renaissance of sorts.
If cooler weather is your particular cup of tea (pun intended), head for the hill country of Kandy or Nuwara Eliya – you’ll see tea plantations and rugged terrain juxtaposed beside each other, quite often shrouded by low-lying clouds and mist.
You don’t have to be a mountain-climber to fall for the charms of Nepal but there’s no doubt that you will fall in love with Mother Nature’s majesty.
A great spot for animal lovers is Chitwan National Park, a World Heritage Site that is a great spot for wildlife viewing.
Located at an altitude of only 100m in some areas, thus enjoying a tropical monsoon climate, you can keep your woollies in storage if you’re headed there.
Tours from the various lodges take visitors out into the park on foot, or more often, on elephants for close-up views of animals that include rhinos, Bengal tigers, leopards, sloth bears, gaur and deer.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of freshwater dolphins and crocodiles in the rivers and streams. Bird lovers should stop here for at least a night or two as more than 500 species of birds are found at the park.
For a camping trip extraordinaire, head to Rara National Park where you can pitch your tent next to Rara Lake, which is surrounded by green hills on all sides.
You’ll be able to take boat rides on crystal clear waters, hike to nearby hills and check out the area’s alpine coniferous vegetation as well as view more than 500 different kinds of flowers, 20 different species of mammals (the endangered red panda among them) and 214 species of birds.
From monasteries to pagodas, the Buddhist roots of Myanmar are indisputable. While not as well-known as her famous southern neighbor Thailand, her many religious attractions include Taung Kalat, a monastery built on top of an extinct volcano and the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, a 2,500-year-old structure considered the most sacred Buddhist site in the country because it contains a strand of Buddha’s hair.
Located in the west is Chin State, an area with a (would you believe?) heart-shaped lake and the indigenous people that make this country so unique.
Then there’s the fast-growing-in-popularity Mrauk U, which many travel guides have described as the next Angkor Wat. There are nearly 600 ancient temples to look at and archaeological fans will undoubtedly consider this a must-visit stop.
If that isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s also Inle Lake, where you’ll find traditional floating craft villages that sell decidedly ethnic-looking gold or silver jewellery, among other things. The fishermen here propel their boats with a distinctive leg-rowing technique that has to be seen to be believed!
Your knowledge about this great country may be confined to Genghis and Kublai Khan but there’s a lot more to Mongolia than that.
If you’re planning a meander in the Gobi Desert, make sure you make your way to Khongoryn Els, which is located in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park, to hear its spectacular singing dunes.
The “singing”, reminiscent of the sound an aircraft makes on take-off, is caused by a thin surface coating of slate over the sand grains.
Another interesting stop in the desert would be Khermen Tsav, an area with interesting rock formations in red shades and as an interesting side note, the spot where the first full dinosaur skeleton was found.
The image of the cliffs coming alive when the red sediments in the rocks glow with life as the sun rises and sets will undoubtedly live in your memory for years to come.
Another unforgettable stop is Tsenhkeriin Agui, a huge cave with paintings of mammoths, ostriches and antelopes that date back to 13,000 BC.
One of the least visited Southeast Asian nations until recent times, Laos has a lot going for it, not least of which is the ancient town of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site that was once the country’s capital city until it lost that status to Vientiane in 1545.
There’s a lot that is charming about the city – crumbling buildings with French architecture, temples that glisten in the sun and breathtaking sights everywhere you look.
The town’s entire historical section is dedicated to tourism but don’t let that deter you – its magnificent royal palaces and 33 temples are worth a visit.
When it’s time to make your way to the rural hinterland, head to Bolaven Plateau, an area that is a coffee lover’s dream because it grows some of the world’s best coffee beans and is also home to one of the region’s most spectacular twin waterfalls, Tad Fane, which thunders down a 100-metre cliff to a gorge.
Another outstanding attraction is the Plain of Jars in Phonsavan, an area dotted with sandstone or granite jars of various sizes that no one has an explanation for. The mystery of the jars has undoubtedly added to its appeal.
6. Christmas Island
Its name may bring to mind jolly fat men dressed in Santa suits and pine trees but the reason Christmas Island bears its name is related to the date it was named – Dec 25, 1643.
The island is actually the summit of a mountain that rises steeply to a central plateau dominated by a rainforest. The island’s 80-kilometre coastline is an almost continuous sea cliff of up to 20 metres in height.
Fortunately, there are a few places where the cliff gives way to shallow bays with sand and coral shingle beaches, which should appeal to lovers of sun, sea and surf.
The largest of these bays forms the island’s only port, Flying Fish Cove, which is an area that is great for swimming and snorkelling. Divers can also go for great shore dives and be amazed by the diversity of tropical fish found there.
Life may crawl to a sedentary pace while on the island, which is why you should opt to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – such as watching the sun set – with the natives of the island.
Another amazing spot to visit is the Grotto, a mini coastal cave with a mix of sea and fresh water pools that is a fabulous stop on hot days and romantic evenings. Get set for nature’s own orchestra while you’re there as the motion of the waves through the Grotto’s narrow openings makes for interesting sound effects, some likening it to a dragon’s roar.
If you’re tired of the overbuilt attractions of Dubai or the ruins of Egypt, why not head to the Sultanate of Oman where you’ll undoubtedly be fascinated by the Musandam Fjords, an area also referred to as the Norway of Arabia because of its fissured fjord-like landscape.
There’s a lot to be enthralled by here – amazing mountain scenery, swimming with dolphins and crystal clear waters that you can traverse in a dhow.
When that’s done, and you’re ready for the desert, head to A’Sharqiyah Sands, where the sand colors vary from red to dark honey. Opt to explore the area via sand driving and when you’ve built up an appetite, you can enjoy lunch with a genuine Bedouin family.
If the Grand Canyon in the US is on your bucket list, you’ll definitely enjoy the pleasures of Jebel Shams, where you’ll find the second biggest canyon in the world at Jevel. While there, pitch a tent and stay for a while to enjoy the mild climate, trekking and off-road adventures.