The country’s top tourist destination, the idyllic island of Bali is high on the bucket list for vacationers globally. Sandy beaches, lush tropical forests, sublime sunrises, a hinterland dotted with volcanoes and impossibly picturesque terraced farms, Bali’s attractions do not end here. The ‘Island of the Gods’ has been welcoming a wide range of tourists for well over half a century, for its temples, wildlife and quaint little towns. A plethora of top-notch resorts, modern infrastructure, great connectivity with most of the world, coupled with a huge range of arts combine with the island’s seemingly ever-present aura of happiness, spirituality and contentment (Hollywood may have aided here) to make this truly a paradise non-pareil.
Thailand: Chiang Mai
For those overwhelmed by the considerable if rather overcrowded charms of the Thai capital, Chiang Mai will come as an eye-opener. This inland city, referred to as the ‘Rose of the North’, is, of course, in the north of the country and combines the best of Thailand’s tourism offerings. It is surrounded by mountains and a lush countryside, is cosmopolitan with high-grade destinations and infrastructure, has a long, rich history, a diversity of backgrounds among residents, and is much greener and quieter than the capital. The city’s historic walled centre has more than 30 temples in a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles including the Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the Wat Chedi Luang.
A name from the magical yesteryears—of times redolent of powerful kings and enchanting princesses, of wayfaring traders and the adventurous, seeking, what else, but adventures. Samarkand, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the region, was the centre at a time when the Silk Road was the most lucrative route for human exchanges—monetary, religious, intellectual and culinary. Samarkand, whose name means literally ‘stone fort’, has reminders of its glorious past at every corner. The city’s long, rich history means it is dotted with imposing monuments, including but by no means limited to, the ones built by the legendary Timur in the 14th century.
Laos: Luang Prabang
For fans of Indochina, that unique combination of Southeast Asian charm and French style, reality can still be touched and felt at the Laotian town of Luang Prabang. Set in northern Laos among the hills, the town is at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It is ancient and has many Buddhist temples built over the centuries. The colonial era added grand buildings and homes and today the entirety is a charming tropical paradise with sweet smelling frangipani all around. Vietnamese, Chinese and French influences intermingle everywhere in this tranquil town where the main joy is immersing yourself in the local culture.
Mongolia: Gobi Desert
For those in search of mega sand dunes and ice-filled canyons that can often be reached riding a camel for a considerable distance, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert is where your search ends. A vast rainshadow area that has more camels and goats than humans, the romance of the Gobi lies in its claim to being one of the most remote areas in the world. And the unusual: from the Bactrian camel to the snow leopard, black-tailed gazelles and marbled polecats. Once the centre of the mighty Mongolian empire, today the rather more peaceable Gobi is home to luxurious yurts, or camps, that host tourists from around the world.
Cambodia: Siem Reap
The gateway to the stunning temples of Angkor Wat, the town of Siem Reap has much else to offer too. Of course, if you are on a time limit, the Khmer temples are top priority and these, built between 1100 and 600 years ago, do not disappoint. For the best shots, however, do go at sunrise and be prepared to sweat it out, any time of day. A historic destination, French colonial rule added another layer of life to this northwest Cambodian town, and it has since been a popular tourist destination. Local crafts, décor and cuisine are added attractions.
Russia: Lake Baikal
Given the increasing scarcity of water around the world, it might just be a very refreshing idea to transport yourself to the deepest freshwater source in the world: Lake Baikal. Just to make it interesting, however, geography has deigned that it be just as spectacular a creation of nature as any, but also relatively inaccessible. Lake Baikal in Siberia, one of the oldest extant formations in the planet, is almost like a mirage, changing shape according to the season, all the while maintaining an allure that in a more accessible region would have meant a tourism mecca. Choose your pick of the 2,000km-odd shoreline and swim, ski, or sail, as the season dictates.
Vietnam: Central Highlands
Vietnam’s unusual shape means it has a great diversity of landscapes. Possibly the most awe-inspiring and popular are the Central Highlands towards, well, the middle of the country. Rolling, mist-laden mountains, thundering waterfalls and blue skies, with barely a tourist in sight ensure this is a place where you can go off the radar. Consider multi-day drives. Look out for picturesque coffee estates, be wary of the sauntering bears, elephants and gibbons as you step from one pocket of primaeval forest to another. Stop at Da Lat, an erstwhile French mountain retreat that appears to float among the mists and clouds.
Shanghai is rapidly emerging as a destination in its own right, besides being a gateway to some of the country’s stunning tourist hotspots. China’s most westernised city, it is today known as much for its corporate power as for its cuisine, nightlife, skyline and retail scene. Interspersing the colonial and the modern, its recent transformation has meant that it sets new global benchmarks, most notably in the fantastical buildings that dot the city’s futuristic skyline. Sail on the Huangpo along the beautiful Bund to see some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers, endless luxury boutique stores, trendy bars and restaurants.
China: Three Gorges Cruise
To get a sense of just how absolutely gorgeous a river cruise can be, you have to travel deep into China’s hinterlands. One of the mightiest rivers on the planet, the Yangtze in this stretch is almost as pretty as a fairytale. Shades of turquoise mixed with a splash of emerald, malachite, mint, teal and burgundy, with specks of chrome, maroon and amber—a veritable living, moving collage of colours go past you as you sail down the Yangtze. The region of the Three Gorges is a historically and culturally important location in China, though its present claim to fame comes from the massive, and equally controversial Three Gorges Dam. Enjoy it for the leisurely sail amidst the unparalleled topography and the natural beauty that surrounds it.
China: The Great Wall
You have heard a lot about the Great Wall of China. Well, before you go to see it, keep in mind that it is not a destination. Or merely just a wall. It is a series of walls, built well over a thousand years, over a vast stretch of north China and spread over thousands of kilometres. They are not continuous, and they are not built in the same way or built of the same material. They are a great feat of human endeavour though. For most of the tourists, Badaling and Juyongguan, which are near Beijing, are among the most-visited sections of the Great Wall. To see one of the most well-preserved sections, visit Huanghuacheng. Or you could even hike from Jinshanling to Simatai.
The world’s largest address for gambling with annual revenues six times that of Las Vegas, tiny Macau is a magnet for tourists, especially mainland Chinese who come by the boatload. This former Portuguese colony is separated from Hong Kong by the Pearl estuary. Just an outcrop of the mainland and a couple of islands, less than a century ago, densely populated Macau has been reclaiming land fast as it emerges as ‘the Vegas of the east’, with mega hotels, glittering casinos, attractive retail and a huge range of bars and restaurants. And multiple bridges across the Pacific for some of the most stunning sea vistas.
Hong Kong: Tian Tan Buddha
With towering skyscrapers, economic powerhouse Hong Kong is full of superlatives. The presence of one of the largest Buddha statues anywhere, Tian Tan Buddha, therefore is no surprise. The 34-metre tall statue weighs over 250 metric tons and was made from 202 bronze pieces and finished in 1993 after a 12-year construction period. The statue can be seen across as far away as Macau, more than 60km away, on a clear day. For a closer view, visitors have to climb 268 steps to reach the Buddha. Unusual for a large Buddha statue, it faces north, while visitors can enjoy sweeping mountain and sea views from its base.
Bumthang, literally ‘beautiful field’, in northern Bhutan is known as the spiritual heart of this quaint mountain kingdom. The valley is supposed to be shaped like a bumpa, the vessel of holy water. It is the most historic dzongkhag or district, going by the number of ancient temples and sacred sites, especially Kurjey Lhakhang, Tharpaling Goemba and Jambey Lhakhang. Most of Bumthang District is part of Bhutan’s extensive protected areas network. Bumthang’s claim to fame are its stunningly beautiful lush valleys, with visitors such as the black-necked cranes migrating in winter adding lustre for the birding enthusiast.
Nepal: Annapurna Trail
Considered one of the best treks in the world, the 17- to 21-day Annapurna circuit takes its visitors through Nepal’s stunning landscape of gurgling rivers, unique flora and fauna, impossibly perched villages, all against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas. Of the four regions or valleys that the trail criss-crosses through, Lamjung and Myagdi are full of terraced fields in the summer; they are also predominantly Hindu. The upper Manang and Mustang valleys follow the Tibetan Buddhist culture of the region. The 160-230km Annapurna trek (lenght varies depending on where you end) goes counter-clockwise from Besisahar to Nayapul and reaches its summit in Thorung La at a height of 5,416m. Passing 8,000m peaks, the trail also goes through the world’s deepest gorge.
A land where fire and ice alternate, Kamchatka is straight out of a fairytale. At the point that the wicked wizard is conjuring up destinations where people are to be banished. The Kamchatka peninsula in the north-east of Siberia is extremely geologically active and has numerous volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and even a lake of acid. Visit the stunning and enormous Kronotsky Nature Reserve, accessible only via helicopter, the Kronotsky volcano, and the Valley of the Geysers. Even though it is relatively inexpensive (unless you are going the helicopter route), it is not easily accessible and strictly for the outdoorsy with an affinity for snow.
If a diving holiday is your goal, the 7,100 islands of the Philippines are where you might want to be. The tropical nation offers innumerable opportunities to divers of every level and confidence. While diving in the Philippines can take place year-round, the best time is really between November and June, when the rain does not muddy the seawater. Water temperatures range from 24 to 30°C, with the warmest temperatures in summer. Puerto Galera, Boracay, Palawan, Cebu and Bohol are some of the most popular diving destinations. Combined with great infrastructure, laid-back charm and the vibrancy of the Filipino culture, this is one holiday destination that even a diver’s spouse won’t be complaining about.
Myanmar: Irrawaddy Cruise
If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, Myanmar is definitely the gift of the Irrawaddy, which has shaped its history and is its socio-economic artery. Seeing the country while sailing on this mighty river is a fabulous way to discover and admire a unique landscape and history. Most cruise routes start from the north, from Mandalay or Bagan or Pyay or even the Indian and Chinese borders and sail south to the largest city, Yangon. Cruises can be as long as 12 nights, though about four nights is more common. The best time to visit is during the cool, dry season between November and February.
Nepal’s oldest and best-known national park, also on Unesco’s World Heritage list, and the best place to witness the rich biodiversity of this Himalayan nation. At a sprawling 932 sq km, the park includes the flood plains of the Rapti, Reu and Narayani rivers dotted with ox-bow lakes along with hills such as Churia and Someshwar. With an abundance of tigers, leopards, sloth bear, hyenas, civets, rhino, elephants, gaurs, crocodiles, gharials, deer, pythons, wild boar and more than 500 species of birds, spotting wildlife is easy here. Plan your trip and activities, for it is an extensive area to cover.
South Korea: Seoul
Gangnam? That was the first thing that came to your mind? Well, try gaming haven, tech terminus, cultural cauldron, music mecca, sitcom station, nightlife noir, art annex, temple town and more. Korean mega city Seoul has rapidly transformed in the last couple of decades to be the capital of global cool, if a bit too digital. Often contrasting values and cultures give the city its special character. It’s quite likely that your phone, car and camera makers have their HQs here, but it is as much a town of temples, parks, skiing, amusement parks, palaces, cutting-edge design and mountain trails.
Kyoto fully justifies its status as the focus of a rich, layered civilisation for a millennium. Commonly accepted as the country’s most beautiful city, Kyoto sits at the sweet spot of Japanese culture and tradition meeting modernity in a harmonious blend. With over 1,000 temples, the most famous of which is Kinkaku-ji or the famed Golden Pavilion and Zen-inspired gardens such as Ryoan-ji, there is little wonder that 14 of Kyoto’s destinations find place on Unesco’s World Heritage list. The old Japanese way of life is still visible: old Kyoto ladies, tofu sellers, tea merchants, geishas going about their daily routines, with not a smartphone in sight.
If a trip to the moon is on your list, and not having a few million dollars to spare is a bit of a problem, Cappadocia is the best choice on this planet. Cappadocia is covered in undulating valleys, deep canyons, pyramidal hills, seemingly unending caves and unusual rock formations created over millions of years, with a lava-covered plain located between the volcanic mountains. Historic rock-cut churches and homes are supplemented with museums and cave hotels. Go for a unique trekking experience or take a ride in a balloon for a panoramic view of a landscape straight out of a psychedelic dream.