Asia has attracted travelers for centuries. From backpackers to businessmen, luxury seekers to religious pilgrims, this is a continent so vast and diverse it’s drawn people in and has kept their curiosity craving more. You may have heard about all of these places before, but these old haunts deserve a fresh new look.
Danum Valley, Borneo
Borneo is synonymous with jungles and orangutans, and the Danum Valley is the sparkling emerald in its crown. This incredible rainforest and scientist’s Mecca, will leave you flabbergasted…and soaking wet. An easy drive from Lahad Datu gets you deeper and deeper into the forest and if you score a cabin at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge you’re in for an adventure. This may not be the wildlife safari you’d hoped for, as most of the animals are too high up in the trees to really notice, but the occasional elephant or primate sighting isn’t uncommon. What you will see is a genuine, lush green wonderland of exotic trees covered in vines, and leaves of every shape and color that seem to welcome and watch you along every step of your hike. Feel like floating above the trees? Do the canopy walks as many times as you want because the light and fog will change with each passing thunderstorm.
Insider Tip: When the hotel staff informs you there’s no A/C, trust me you won’t need it. You’ll learn very quickly watching the post-monsoon mists rise from the trees how the rainforest has its own natural cooling system and you’ll be happy to feel clean air at its most untouched.
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Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Angkor Wat has made Siem Reap the tourism capital of Cambodia, but the real capital Phnom Penh is holding its own as the hip new destination for travelers seeking to blend old and new is the country’s "other" cultural showpiece. Orient yourself around the Tonle Sap river and take a long walk along the newly reconstructed promenade. Beautifully renovated architecture leads you to the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) where a colonial open air restaurant and bar, with high ceiling fans and geckos on the walls, will feed you late into the night. Nearby are the Royal Pagoda and the Silver Pagoda, nestled behind stone walls and gardens. Turn onto Street #240 to enjoy French and international restaurants and boutiques frequented by the nearby embassy staffs. Get your temple fix by climbing to the top of Wat Phnom, a bit further north. Book a room at The Pavilion, a lush and elegant property hidden in the center of the bustling city.
Insider tip: Definitely save some time to visit the Killing Fields, a half hour outside of town. This site of Cambodia’s gruesome genocide will give you a somber history lesson but just as importantly will show you how strong and resilient Cambodians really are.
Namtso Lake, Tibet
By the time you reach the shores of Namtso Lake, you’ll most likely be delirious. At 15,500 feet above sea level, this half day drive from Lhasa is a world unto itself high up in the sky. The highest saltwater lake in the world is surrounded by snowcapped peaks and is frozen much of the year. It makes an ideal day trip from Lhasa and the drive there is the best part. Fields of grazing yaks, small villages, and a glimpse of Mount Nyenchen Tanglha’s prayer flags show rural Tibetan life at its best. Save plenty of time to take advantage of the jewelry stands at rest stops; the Tibetans are amongst the most stylish in the world and they can certainly teach you a thing or two about accessorizing. Namtso means "heavenly" in Tibetan, and although you might feel a little too high in the sky, the spiritual power of this holy lake will make sure your feet always touch the ground.
Insider Tip: Make sure you ask your driver to take an oxygen tank along for the trip, as this is serious altitude territory.
To say that Myanmar’s largest city is "undiscovered" seems a bit outdated nowadays, but this cultural and historic capital is worth a better reputation than being just a haven for businessmen and transit passengers. Almost every international visitor to Myanmar will land in Yangon and will pass through quickly. But it’s worth more than a quick trip to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Because below this glittering golden nucleus of Buddhism sprawls a metropolis of over 5 million people waiting to welcome you. To start tapping into the local currents head to the historic downtown, a crumbling colonial quarter of colorful architectural gems. On the banks of the Yangon River, tourist and commerce boats float in and out of the docks from sunrise to sunset. Ask the advice of your guide or hotel staff for the best local food haunts. This country is a far cry from chain restaurants and fast food, so enjoy it while it lasts. Some of our favorites include 999 Shan Noodle and Nilar Biryani.
Insider Tip: The Burmese aren’t annoyed by visitors, they welcome us with a laid back attitude. Being open to discover their largest city alongside them opens up a path that’s never found on a tourist’s itinerary. For example, I got lucky and was taken to a small English school to help a group of monks fine tune their language skills. Having them teach me phrases in Burmese set the tone for the rest of my trip.
After a steamy sail through the Kerala Backwaters and riding the waves at Kovalam, it’s time for some cool breezes and a spot of tea. Head to Munnar, in the heart of the Western Ghats, India’s "other" mountain range. This is tea territory and after a 3 hour windy heartbeat skipping drive high into the cardamom forests, you’ll be astonished at your first glimpse of this peculiar landscape. Each tea bush is pruned like a bubble and thousands of these bright green dots will soar up to even the steepest peaks. The region is famous for its fast moving mists, so if your scenic vista is fogged in, just wait a minute. There’s amazing hiking all around you, but for those wanting an off-road experience, hop in an army jeep along mind bending bumpy dirt roads and head (even higher) to Kolukkumalai, the highest tea plantation in the world. Many tea estates and resorts in the area, like Camp Noel, offer some type of off-road experience. Here at the southern tip of India, a hot cup of tea will let you take in your travels with a panorama so unusual, you may pause long after your cups are empty before you begin the bumpy ride home.
Insider Tip: See the endangered nilgiri tahr (a mountain goat) at the Rajamala Widlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to more than half of the population of this tame goat, as well as many other species of animals including elephants, tigers, panthers, and deer.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jonathan Pozniak