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Asia’s most underrated places | CNN Travel

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(CNN) — Comprising more than 40 countries, Asia can’t be summed up easily.

The classics are classics for a reason — from the awe-inspiring architecture of Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal to the buzzy metropolises of Tokyo and Hong Kong and the beaches of Bali and Phuket, it’s impossible for any traveler to find something not to their liking.

But for the travelers who are fortunate enough to have time to dig a little bit deeper, there are less-crowded, equally-rewarding treasures to be found.

CNN Travel tapped into our network of colleagues and contributors to ask them where the locals go. Here’s what they had to say.

Ipoh, Malaysia

When it comes to great Malaysian food cities, most people think of Penang. But that’s only because they haven’t been to Ipoh.

The capital city of Perak state, Ipoh’s location between Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown makes it an ideal stop for any Malaysian road trip. It’s also the gateway to Cameron Highlands, a district known for its cool weather and tea plantations.

Ipoh’s food and world famous white coffee are enough reasons to visit but there are also magnificent limestone hills and caves that are home to unique temples as well as amazing hidden bars.

Visit the Chinese temples of Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong and Kek Lok Tong and be blown away by intricate stone carvings and bronze statues of Chinese deities surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. Ipoh’s colonial legacy is also evident in its architecture: from its Railway Station to the Birch Clock Tower, town hall and the Old Post Office.

Heather Chen, Asia writer

Isaan, Thailand

As popular as Thailand is among international tourists, the country’s northeast — collectively referred to as Isaan — is usually overlooked.

But for those in search of a less-traveled destination that includes historic architecture, dramatic landscapes and culinary delights, Isaan ticks all the right boxes, and then some.

Visitors will find it’s one of the most welcoming destinations in Asia and easily accessible, thanks to excellent infrastructure that includes several domestic airports offering daily flights to Bangkok and a range of upmarket hotels.

The only challenge is deciding which highlights to experience. Made up of 20 provinces, Isaan shares borders with Laos and Cambodia, and their influences can be found in the region’s cuisine, language, historic sites and festivals.

Attractions include the ancient Khmer ruins of Phenom Rung in Buriram, mountainous national parks in Loei, the 75 million-year-old “Three Whale Rock” in Bueng Kam and Bronze Age artifacts in the UNESCO-listed Ban Chiang Archeological Site in Udon Thani.

And then there’s the food. Isaan cuisine, now prevalent on menus in Thai restaurants around the world, includes refreshing som tom (payaya salad), tangy Sai Grok Isaan (northeastern sausage) and larb, a flavorful minced-meat salad.

— Karla Cripps, senior producer, CNN Travel

Leshan, China

Most people travel to Leshan city for the sole purpose of visiting the Giant Buddha. The world’s biggest and tallest ancient Buddha statue is indeed stunning, but this Sichuan city deserves much more than a side trip from Chengdu.

The Mount Emei scenic area — home to the Giant Buddha — is also of great spiritual and cultural importance as the birthplace of Buddhism in China. Many ancient temples are scattered and ingeniously built on the cliffs of the pristine dense forest.

On top of sightseeing, Leshan is a hidden foodie paradise with local Sichuanese saying “eating in Sichuan, tasting in Leshan.” This city is where Chengdu residents come for authentic bites of iconic Sichuan cuisine: chilled bobo chicken, jellied tofu, Qiaojiao beef, steamed meat with rice powder and more.

— Serenitie Wang, producer, video programming

Skardu, Pakistan

Skardu district, in Pakistan’s Gilit Baltistan region, is a land of stark gigantic beauty, with many of the highest mountains on the planet — most famously K2 — concentrated in this one area.

Deosai National Park sits on the second highest plateau in the world. It is a riot of color, alive with birds and butterflies. With no ambient city lights the stars are exceptionally bright, with the milky way looking so close it could be plucked out from the sky.

In contrast, there’s the Sarfaranga Desert. The world’s highest cold desert, it’s filled with diamond-white sands and ebony mountains.

Skardu has been inhabited for centuries and is studded with ancient Buddhist stupas and carvings, beautifully preserved mosques from the Middle Ages and shrines of Sufi saints.

The Serena hotel chain has transformed the stunning Shigar Fort and Khaplu Palace into two of the country’s best kept hotels. Both are filled with gardens and climate friendly wooden architecture while serving regional food like Mamtu dumplings and grilled trout.

Sophia Saifi, producer, Pakistan

Nikko, Japan

Nikko is famous for the waterfalls in its national park.

Natapong Supalertsophon/Moment RF/Getty Images

Nikko is just 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Tokyo, but it feels like another world.

This small city is one of the most important sites in Japan for Shinto culture, with the ornate, gold-dripping Toshogu Shrine — a UNESCO World Heritage site — its centerpiece.

If peace is what you’re after, Nikko is the place to find it. Nikko National Park comprises 443 square miles across three prefectures, with dramatic waterfalls, groves of fir and cedar trees, finely carved gates and rocky outcroppings among the things to experience.

The park is also home to some of Japan’s famous natural hot springs, making Nikko an ideal autumn or winter destination.

While the area has long been popular with Tokyo urbanites looking for a bucolic weekend escape, Nikko is beginning to land on the radar of more international tourists — a Ritz Carlton opened there just before the pandemic.

Lilit Marcus, digital producer, CNN Travel

Dalat, Vietnam

With its fresh mountain air and pine forests in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, Dalat is a popular destination for local Vietnamese that isn’t as well known among international travelers.

At 1,500 meters above sea level, the city’s cooler weather is a welcome reprieve from the tropical humidity found elsewhere in the Southeast Asian country.

Centered around the romantic Xuan Huong Lake, Dalat boasts everything from French colonial architecture — a holdover from its days as a hill station — to the “Crazy House,” the Seussian creation of architect Đặng Việt Nga, with its twisting stairwells and whimsical sculptures. Plentiful waterfalls and a vibrant flower industry mean that delights abound in the city for honeymooners and nature lovers.

Dan Tham, producer, Global Features

Davao, Philippines

Urban Davao City is beloved for its night market.

Urban Davao City is beloved for its night market.

Jacob Maentz/Corbis Unreleased/Getty Images

Davao City is more than just a provincial capital of the southernmost part of the Philippines — it’s a true mosaic of Filipino cultures seen nowhere else across the country.

There’s food for everybody at the Roxas Night Market, which is lined with barbecue and grilled seafood, along with humble yet complex delicacies such as the fresh seaweed salad called lato and hearty law-uy vegetable soup. Nothing represents Davao more than pungent durians, which grow in abundance across the region as well as pineapples, bananas and sugarcane — served in all forms from shakes to pies.

The city takes pride in its indigenous roots and celebrates the Kadwayan Festival in August to showcase local textiles, woodwork, song and dance from 11 tribes that reign from the mountains and its surrounding sea.

A ferry ride away from the city will transport you to luxurious Samal Island, best known for its pristine beaches and pearl farms. Take a roadtrip along the palm tree-lined paths that lead to the surfer spot of Mati, or perhaps a detour to Mount Apo, the highest mountain and volcano in the Philippines.

— Kathleen Magramo, breaking news writer

Meghalaya, India

The northeast Indian state of Meghalaya, which translates to “abode in the clouds,” boasts some of the country’s most peaceful and lush landscapes. As it requires a permit, it can be challenging to visit. But it’s worth it.

Meghalaya is home to the towns of Cherrapunji and Mawlynnong. Both hold records for being the wettest places on Earth, having received nearly 12,000 mm (472 inches) of rain a year. The results are verdant, leafy forests with rivers and creeks running through that can be explored through crossing the state’s famous bridges.

Built by locals out of the roots of ficus trees, some are as old as 500 years and symbolize the self-sufficiency of the Khasi indigenous tribe and their relationship with the forest. The living root bridges, known as “jingkieng jri” in the Khasi language, can be found in over 70 villages and continue to be used and nurtured by locals to keep them alive for future generations.

In 2022, they were added to UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites. The most famous living root bridges are the Umshiang Double Decker root bridge in Nongriat village, south of Cherrapunji, and one in Riwai near Mawlynnong, certified as the “cleanest village in Asia” since 2003 by UNESCO.

— Manveena Suri, freelance producer

Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Palau Ubin is just a short ferry ride away from mainland Singapore.

Palau Ubin is just a short ferry ride away from mainland Singapore.

spintheday/Moment Open/Getty Images

Thought Singapore was all about parties and skyscrapers? Think again. Located offshore from its northeast Changi region is Pulau Ubin (Malay for “granite island”), a nature lover’s paradise with jungle trails, mangrove wetlands and majestic quarries.

Getting around the island is a breeze: In true Singaporean style, everything is well-marked, from jungle trails to concrete footpaths, but the island still remains very untouched.

Mountain biking is particularly popular, especially on weekdays when crowds are few. But Ubin really comes to life on weekends — when families, couples and nature lovers descend, hoping to catch a glimpse of old Singapore.

One of the most popular attractions on the island is Chek Jawa, a saltwater mangrove wetland rich in marine life. A well-built wooden boardwalk runs through the mangrove, allowing visitors to observe plant and marine life such as sea sponges, octopuses, starfish and cuttlefish, at close range.

H.C.

Samosir Island, Indonesia

Indonesia is comprised of several thousand islands — and, in the case of Samosir, an island on a lake within an island.

Samosir Island is a volcanic island in North Sumatra’s Lake Toba. one of the world’s largest crater lakes.

The Batak tribe calls this land their home, and you can meet these locals as they sell handicrafts from their villages along the waterfront, where their houses are built from wooden beams lashed to stones and have tall red roofs that resemble a ship’s sails.

As Samosir is several hours’ drive and ferry ride from the closest airport, opt to spend the night in a homestay and support the community by purchasing ulos, a UNESCO-recognized woven, naturally dyed cloth that is used in every important facet of Betak life.

— L.M.

Pakse, Laos

Northern Laos — home to elegant Luang Prabang and adventure-loving Vang Vieng — get the lion’s share of attention. But head south for a different kind of experience in Pakse, where two rivers converge in the country’s second biggest city.

Pakse is diverse, pulsing and modern. It has buildings left over from the days of French colonialism, but these days Vietnamese and Chinese communities bring their foods, traditions and references alongside the existing Lao presence.

While in town, head up to the giant gold Buddha at Wat Pho Salao, stroll along the Mekong at sunset, and then go off to the Bolaven Plateau to get deeper into jungle.

— L.M.

Bangladesh

India casts a long tourism shadow over its neighbors, including Bangladesh. But this smaller nation has outsized offerings many travelers to South Asia might not realize. This is especially true in architecture, history, nature and food.

In the capital of Dhaka, the Ahsan Manzil is an ornate, stunning vision in pink. Set on the banks of the Buriganga River, it was finished in 1872 during the British colonial era as a palace for the local rulers of the time. It is now a popular museum.

For a sample of Mughal Empire architectural splendor, check out the incomplete Lalbagh Fort.

And if you’d like to visit a mosque, consider the exquisite Star Mosque (Tara Masjid), renowned for hundreds of blue stars on its gleaming white domes.

— Forrest Brown, freelance writer and producer

Tengchong, China

Lijiang's old town, in Yunnan province, is popular with Chinese domestic travelers.

Lijiang’s old town, in Yunnan province, is popular with Chinese domestic travelers.

efired/Adobe Stock

Even though China is still closed to international tourists, Yunnan province has already welcomed about 350 million domestic visitors in the first half of 2022 alone.

If you’d like to see the historical Yunnan like an experienced local, head to Tengchong.

Bordering Myanmar in the west of Yunnan, Tengchong has been a critical trading stop on the historic Silk Route and Tea Horse Road in the past.

Today, many local travelers first visit Heshun, an old town built surrounding a mountain and a lake. The Double Rainbow stone arch bridges, the Laundry Pavilion and the 98-year-old Heshun Library — the biggest rural public library in China — are some of the must-sees when visiting the cozy village.

Yinxing (Gingko) Village in the northern side of Tengchong is known for its thousands of ginkgo trees, turning the village golden yellow every autumn.

— Maggie Hiufu Wong, freelance CNN Travel writer

Gogunsan Islands, South Korea

The Gogunsan islands — meaning “an archipelago of mountains” in Korean — have been a popular summer destination for locals seeking a break from city life.

A group of 63 islands on South Korea’s west coast, the islands offer a picturesque view of verdant hills scattered amid gentle waters.

The world’s longest seawall and a series of bridges connect the islands to the mainland, making them an especially attractive destination for those behind wheels. The landscape invites visitors to light hikes and swim afterwards.

Jake Kwon, newsdesk producer

Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam

Lan Ha Bay is a less-visited waterwat in northeastern Vietnam.

Lan Ha Bay is a less-visited waterwat in northeastern Vietnam.

nimnull/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam is no secret — the UNESCO-listed waterway has long been popular with backpackers and luxury travelers alike.

But visitors who want to ply the waters with a lot fewer neighbors should head to Lan Ha, south of Ha Long Bay. Like its more famous sibling, Lan Ha Bay is a stretch of shimmering water broken up by limestone (karst) islands that can be enjoyed by day trip (kayak, canoe) or overnight (cruise ship, junk boat).

Most travelers get here by bus or car from Hanoi or Haiphong, and it’s easy to set up door-to-door service with tour companies in advance.

Leave from Cat Ba Island to explore Lan Ha Bay’s grottoes, caves and white-sand beaches.

— L.M.

Kenting, Taiwan

On the southern tip of Taiwan lies Kenting, a sunny, laid back peninsula known for its white sandy beach, boisterous night market and chill vibe.

Take a dip at Baishawan (White Sand Bay); scenes from the “Life of Pi” were filmed here on Wanlitong Beach, a hotspot for snorkeling teeming with marine life.

Take a stroll at the Eluanbi Park, where a towering lighthouse stands — one of the top eight iconic landmarks on the island — and walk down to the southernmost tip of Taiwan, a perfect spot to watch the sunset.

No visit to Kenting is complete without a stop at Longpan Park. Take in the panoramic view of the rugged coastline, the majestic cliffs and the grassy hills that together form a jaw-dropping landscape. Given the open space and the lack of lighting, the park is also popular with sunset watchers and stargazers.

— Wayne Chang, China news desk producer

Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

Nestled under a canopy of trees, the temple ruins of Banteay Chhmar offer a glimpse into the might of the Khmer Empire — without the hordes of tourists.

Completed in the late 12th century by Jayavarman VII, the “Citadel of Cats” is in northwest Cambodia, a few hours’ drive from Siem Reap, home to Angkor Wat. Banteay Chhmar is located 20 kilometers from the Thai border and is accessible by taxi from Sisophon, the fourth largest city in Cambodia.

The massive complex comprises eight temples, featuring stone-faced towers adorned with mysterious smiles. There are also remarkably well-preserved bas-reliefs, depicting religious and military stories. Visitors to this remote, less-traveled part of Cambodia are rewarded with a sense of adventure and quiet.

D.T.

Jaffna, Sri Lanka

Most foreign tourists head to Sri Lanka’s beautiful south coast or into its central tea country, both of which are fairly easy to reach from the main city of Colombo and beloved by Instagrammers who come to ride the famous rails.

But the northern patch of the island is worth the sometimes-challenging car or bus trip to get there.

Jaffna is the primary home of the country’s Tamil-speaking population and still has glimmers of its Indian and Dutch colonial past, resulting in a fascinating, complex culture.

Start with architecture: the ornate, bright gold Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil Hindu temple and sprawling white Colonial-era Jaffna Library are both exceptional.

Then, indulge in the food: bananas and mangoes fresh off the trees combine with curries, pickles and rice dishes for filling, inexpensive meals.

— L.M.