With a whooping figure of over 300 million tourist arrivals in 2019 alone, Asia is a thriving tourism hotspot. The ever-growing traveller interest in the region isn’t surprising, given the incredibly rich tapestry of cultures, languages and landscapes within the continent. The flipside to it, however, is that finding hidden nooks and crannies still untouched by tourism can be increasingly hard to achieve.
But don’t despair – we’ve picked out seven cities and towns in Asia that are still under the tourist radar (for now). From a conserved Spanish-era town in the Philippines to a “city of temples” in northern Sri Lanka, skip the usual tourist suspects and venture to these less-trampled locales instead.
1. Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Travellers often skip Jaffna, the capital city of northern Sri Lanka, but this hidden gem city is well-worth a visit. The former war-torn district, sometimes referred to as the “city of temples”, is predominantly Sri Lankan Tamils and mostly Hindus – distinct from the Sinhalese majority who are predominantly Buddhist in the south. Here, you’ll find vibrant Hindu temples dotting the city, ancient forts, and plenty of mouth-watering food. Travellers can also visit the remote islands of Delft and Kayts nearby or hop on a three-hour train ride to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, home to the famous Bodhi Tree and other major religious sites.
2. Mae Hong Son, Thailand
The town of Mae Hong Son is often eclipsed by its neighbouring backpacker hotspot of Pai. Nestled amidst endless rolling mountains and brimming with raw, natural beauty like pristine forests, waterfalls and more, Mae Hong Son is a haven for anyone seeking some quiet and respite away from the crowds.
Hike up the revered Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, a Shan-style temple founded in 1860 that warrants a challenging 1,500 metre climb, but with jaw dropping panoramic views at the end. For something more relaxed, sit by the beautiful mirror-like lake of Jong Kham, or wind down in the hot springs of Pha Bong after a day of sightseeing. Owing to its proximity to the border with Myanmar, the cuisine in Mae Hong Son is also distinct from elsewhere in Thailand. Try the famous northern Thai curry-and-noodle dish called khao soi, or the thick Burmese-style, turmeric-infused curries served with the staple makhuea som (tiny, sour tomatoes).
3. Kurashiki, Japan
This historical city in the Oyakama prefecture has been voted the most picturesque town in Japan, and it’s easy to see why. Much of the town, which dates to Japan’s Edo Period in the 1600s, still feels like it’s been frozen in time. The streets of Bikan, its preserved historical quarter, is lined with the classically white-walled kominka (traditional houses), and you can weave in and out of the various art and folklore museums, local confection shops and washoku (traditional Japanese food) eateries.
To truly immerse yourself in the town, take a serene boat ride along the beautiful willow-lined canal that the townscape is built around, or spend the night at any old machiya (traditional wooden townhouses) that has been outfitted with modern amenities. Fun fact: Kurashiki is also an unlikely locale for being the birthplace of Japanese denim. In fact, an entire street, aptly named “Denim Street”, is lined with a slew of denim shops, and you’ll find nods to the fabric in its food and souvenirs everywhere in the city.
4. Vigan, Philippines
With its cobblestone streets, kalesa (horse-drawn carriages) and historic lanes lined with Spanish-era homes, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Vigan looks like something out of a postcard from Europe. Established in the late 1500s, it’s one of the oldest towns in the Philippines and the few surviving examples of a Spanish colonial town. Soak up its charming sights on a walking tour or kalesa ride of Calle Crisologo’s well-preserved cobblestone streets, lined with historic colonial-style homes of its former wealthy residents. There are also ample opportunities for antique shopping and while you’re here, be sure to sample its delicious Spanish-Filipino fusion eats like the Ilocos empanada, which is made with dough, papaya, longganisa (sausage) and eggs.
5. Son Tay, Vietnam
The little-known province of Son Tay can easily be reached via a day trip from Hanoi. Its biggest draw is no doubt the Duong Lam Ancient Village, one of the oldest villages in Vietnam which houses over a thousand traditional homes. Billed to tourists as a place where you can travel back in time, Duong Lam offers a peek into what authentic rural Vietnamese village life looked like prior to the French colonial rule. Despite its UNESCO recognition, the hamlet remains refreshingly peaceful, clean and largely tourist-free. Meander through its maze of alleyways and detours as you take in the 300-year-old historic homes, pagodas, and fishbone brick roads – the sights are a real treat for photographers.
6. Cherating, Malaysia
Beach goers are probably familiar with the Langkawi’s or Terengganu’s famed white sand beaches. But if you’re looking for a spot of sun, sand and sea in Malaysia sans the tourist crowd, head to the laidback resort town of Cherating. This quiet, tropical paradise in Kuantan sees mostly backpackers and surfers, although it’s welcomed a spattering of luxury beachside digs, like The Kasturi Resort, in recent years. The beach also has the honour of housing Club Med’s first Asian outpost back when it opened in 1979. The tranquil, coconut palm-fringed beaches of Pantai Cherating boast some decent swells for surfing, and dining options ranging from bare-bones eateries to beachfront dive bars are aplenty. Other noteworthy attractions include the Lidong Art boutique where you can try your hand at batik making, or Cherating’s very own turtle sanctuary, where you can learn all about the town’s wildlife conservation efforts.
7. Dulan, Taiwan
Peaceful coastlines, a burgeoning local art scene, and fascinating indigenous culture await you in this laidback, remote coastal town in Taitung County. In recent decades, Dulan has attracted a community of surfers, artists and creatives who now reside in the town. Yet despite that, it still retains a charming, off-the-grid vibe that’s markedly different from Taiwan’s more popular destinations.
Hit up Dulan Beach, a quiet black sand strip that’s ideal spot for surfing, even for beginners. To get acquainted with its arts and cultural scene, swing by the disused Sugar Factory; it’s home to cool cafes and local craft shops by day and turns into a vibrant venue for live aboriginal music by night (its weekly Saturday night live gigs are somewhat of a legend). November is a great time to visit Dulan for the annual Amis Music Festival, a celebration of its indigenous Amis culture and the first festival of its kind in Taiwan.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.
The information is accurate as of press time. For updated information, please refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
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