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ASIA: Outside the box

Looking for Asia travel destinations beyond “the usual suspects?” You have several candidates, some of which have been fully opened to Western tourism only recently.

The Asia/Pacific region is so loaded with incredible travel destinations, it almost seems unfair to the rest of the world. Natural beauty, incredible, art, cultures, architecture, fascinating pasts and glittering development, they’ve got it all.

We all know somebody who comes back raving about their trips to Japan or Thailand or China. I could happily spend the rest of my life revisiting them.

Maybe you’ve even been to some of these destinations yourself, multiple times. Millions of Western travelers have done so, to the point of starting to feel like old Asia hands.

Indeed, so many of us have hit these places so often that they’ve begun to take on a certain familiarity. You know, that “been there, done that, bought the ceramic souvenir T-shirt” feeling?

If you’re looking to break out of that rut, you’re in luck, because the Asia/Pacific region still has a lot of destinations that Western travelers — especially American travelers — have yet to inundate.

You may not find as many 5-star, tourist-pampering hotels in these destinations as you would in, say Tokyo or Seoul or Beijing or Bangkok.

What you are much more likely to find are lands and people equally unspoiled by mass-market tourism, destinations that allow you more a sense of adventure and discovery.

All these destinations are familiar to European travelers. But then, Europeans travel the world a lot more than we Americans, so…*shrug*

Exploring these places won’t require you to sharpen a machete and hack your way through trackless jungle (although you almost certainly could, if you wished). Even in the most urbanized settings, you’ll still find lots of discoveries to be made.

Especially discovery of self.

Here then are a few nominees from IBIT for travelers looking to get into Asia while remaining “outside the box” of pre-packaged tourism.

This region is beginning to blossom as a travel destination. After decades of serving as the region’s tourism anchor, Thailand is now being joined by a trio of relative newcomers — Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Of the three, Vietnam has by far the most familiarity to Americans due to the Vietnam war. These days, however, many more visitors are now seeking out Vietnam for its own sake.

The major cities — Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (still referred to by many as Saigon) have plenty to offer. Those interested in Vietnamese culture may take special interest in the ancient imperial capital city of Hue, which contains multiple UNESCO World Heritage sites.

If you’re already familiar with Vietnamese food, might never want to leave. Incredibly tasty, incredibly cheap. The street food alone might be reason enough to go.

If natural tropical beauty is your thing, check out Ha Long Bay and see for yourself what makes it one of the world’s most popular backdrops for feature films.

Vietnam’s southernmost neighbor is Cambodia, a land that dates its culture by the millennium. The major attractions here are history, beauty and ugliness, all of them equally extraordinary.

The beauty if that of a perpetually green tropical land. History and cultural intertwine in a land containing some of the greatest ruins and temples in the Buddhist world.

The ugliness is the murderous Khmer Rouge, who slaughtered perhaps 2 million fellow Cambodians in the name of creating a vague, ill-conceived agrarian utopia that never came to be.

A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital, Phnom Penh, will put you face-to-face with one of the great evils of our time.

The Southeast Asian nation to most recently enter the tourism picture in a major way is the country formerly known as Burma, now called Myanmar.

After decades of being ruled first by a socialist dictator and then a right-wing military junta, both of which were shunned by the West, the country has returned to democracy, prompting the West to drop its various boycotts and re-discover its charms as a destination.

Having been so long out of the tourism lane, it m little tourism infrastructure outside the national capital, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon). That’s not stopping tour operators — and especially river cruise operators like Viking, Ama Waterways and Sanctuary Retreats — from moving in.

Like Cambodia, Myanmar boasts some incredible and massive religious sites. Unlike Cambodia, more of theirs have been carefully preserved — ornately built temples and shrines, stunning palaces and golden pagodas.

You’ll also find both Muslim mosques and the last remaining Jewish synagogue in the country.

Perhaps the destination for the most adventurous traveler would be Vietnam’s other eastern neighbor, Laos.

The government’s tourism Web site will tell you that “Laos is a country as yet untouched by the modern demands, stress and [pace] of life. Its beauty lies in the Lao people, century-old traditions and heritage, and its lush, pristine landscape.”

There are two ways to read that statement. One is that Laos has not only the least developed tourism infrastructure among its Southeast Asian neighbors, but may be the least developed of them in general.

The other way is that Laos may be the most physically and culturally unspoiled of them all, for essentially the same reasons.

Tourism Cambodia
Tourism Laos
Tourism Malaysia
Myanmar Ministry of Tourism & Hotels

I’m willing to bet you won’t believe me when I tell you that tourism is a major moneymaker for the Philippines.

And that’s just fine with the sun-seeking European and Chinese travelers who flock there for its white sandy beaches and fresh air.

The most famous of those beaches may be on the tiny island of Boracay, to which some of my Filipino neighbors here in the US dream of retiring, the way some Americans might dream of retiring to Cape Cod or Malibu.

But if Boracay seems a little too touristy for your taste, don’t fret. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. So if you want to find some beautiful beaches where the only footprints in the sand are likely to be your own, you’ve got some possibilities here.

The same is even more true of the Philippines’ larger Pacific neighbor, Indonesia.

Like the Philippines, Indonesia also is an archipelago, with more than 13,000 islands and 33 provinces under its flag.

Of course, the Indonesian island of Bali is one of the world’s major tourist attractions and has been for decades. But with more islands than some American towns have people, you might suspect that Indonesia has a lot more going for it than just Bali.

And you’d be right, because it may seem that Indonesia has almost as many cultures in its national makeup as it has islands, all set amid tropical beauty and Pacific waters. So if you want to get away from the Bali tourist mobs and still enjoy yourself, that probably won’t be a problem.

Whereas the Philippines and Indonesia each comprise thousands of islands, Sri Lanka is mainly just one. But for nearly 30 years, a horrendous civil war put the country pretty much off-limits to mass-market tourism.

The war has been over now for more than a decade and the country is going all-out to lure visitors. you’ll find Sri Lanka officially touting its beautiful countryside and beaches, its heritage of 3,000 years, its wildlife and the friendliness of its people toward visitors.

Farther north in the Pacific, lodged between Japan and South Korea to the north, the Philippines to the south and China to the east, you’ll find Taiwan.

In terms of tourism, Taiwan has long been overshadowed, first by Japan and then by China once it opened its doors to the West back in the late 1970s. But that doesn’t mean this island nation has nothing worth seeing and doing. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In addition to a break from the tropical climes farther south, you’ll find tons of history and multiple cultures composed of aboriginal peoples as well as Han Chinese, many descended from people who migrated from the Chinese mainland after the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, won China’s civil war against the Nationalists.

Its capital, Taipei, is going 24/7, with all-night everything. you can find food, drink, shopping and entertainment literally at all hours. With Taiwan in general and Taipei especially known for the foods available at its night markets, you won’t go hungry unless you choose to.

Any city that can boast all-night bookstores and oyster omelets at all hours automatically earns a place in this traveler’s heart.

As a bonus, it’s a country you can readily get around by train.

Wonderful Indonesia
Philippines Department of Tourism
Sri Lanka Travel
Taiwan Tourism Bureau

So if you’re looking to veer off Asia’s well-beaten tourist path, these are a few of the locales that offer you a ready means of escape — and a chance at some of the most memorable journeys you’ll ever take.

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