Friday, 27 March 2015

Up-and-coming travel destinations in Asia

Ipoh is a city known for its food and certainly is not an unfamiliar destination for locals. But while we might be familiar with its attractions, many outside the country are not.

Now the city in Kinta Valley has made it into the list of up-and-coming travel destinations in Asia drawn up by Agoda.com. Ipoh came in 4th on the 2013 list of "fresh" Asian destinations.

Agoda.com's team studied booking patterns, read thousands of customer reviews and spoke with local experts to come up with the list. These destinations all had high growth rates, attracted a large amount of expert travellers (i.e. those who travel frequently to new destinations) as well as increasing numbers of locals on vacation.

Here is the full list.

1. Tana Toraja, Indonesia

It's about 320km northwest of Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Tana Toraja is a misty, densely forested region in the highlands of South Sulawesi province known for its animist beliefs, unique houses and grisly (to Western eyes) funeral ceremonies.

The past few decades have seen interest wane and income from tourism dry up, but the rich culture and natural beauty of the area are begging to be explored again.

Tana Toraja tourism is centred in the town of, Rantepao. Between April and October is the less rainy season, and up in the mountains near Tana Toraja, it might even get pretty chilly at night.

There are sporadic flights from Makassar but it's hard to say when or if they're operational, so most people get a morning or overnight bus from Makassar, which takes about eight hours.

Traveller tips: A certain Michael from Canada recommends a solid dose of Dramamine for the long and winding bus ride from Makassar, while almost all recommend hiring a guide to provide the inside scoop.


2. Nantou, Taiwan

Nantou County is literally the heart and agricultural centre of Taiwan - the only landlocked county on the island. The biggest draw is the serene Sun Moon Lake which anchors a large area popular with boaters, fishers, hikers, bikers and sightseers.

The variety of homemade agricultural products on sale at the many farms that surround the area also serve as a tourist pull. The county is home to Mt Yushan, Taiwan's highest point, and offers hot springs, rivers and rolling green landscapes, aplenty.

From October till January is an especially pleasant time in Nantou's higher elevations. Avoid going during major festivals such as Chinese New Year (January/February), Ching Ming (April) and Mid-Autumn Festival (September), unless you book well in advance and don't mind larger crowds.

Almost every large town in Taiwan has a bus service to Nantou, and the tourist railway route from the town of Ershui to Checheng is a great way to see the countryside. Checheng station is only a few kilometers away from Sun Moon Lake.

Traveller tips: Visitors have highly recommended the gondola trip, which gives a great view of the lake from above (some say it's a tad expensive). It's worthwhile to go to bed early and get up for the sunrise over the lake.

3. Ella, Sri Lanka

On the southern end of Sri Lanka, about 140km from Kandy, Ella is known among travellers but has remained largely off the beaten tourist trails.

Nestled amid Sri Lanka's mountainous interior, the town is well situated to take advantage of some seriously relaxing downtime -, hiking, eating, exploring and relaxing. The best time to visit is from December to March, although this is the high season. As it is in the mountains, even the low (hot) season can be comfortable (even chilly at night).

Buses come through here from various points on the southern part of the island, but most people catch the train which circles in from the bigger cities on the west coast.

Traveller tips: A trip to Lipton's Seat, the favoured hilltop viewpoint of Sir Thomas Lipton whose beverage empire began in the 1890s with tea exported from the then Ceylon, is a must.

4. Ipoh, Malaysia

Between Kuala Lumpur and Penang, Ipoh was a sleepy little town that boomed with the discovery of rich tin deposits in the early 1900s. Today it's known for its delicious food and surrounding cave temples.

Take advantage of the area's stunning natural beauty, visit huge limestone caves, endless trekking opportunities and even some great whitewater rafting trips. The town itself is worth checking out and offers some gorgeous colonial-era buildings and, temples.

There is no real cool season - the best time to visit is during the least-rainy months, which are May, June and July. Due to its location just off a major north-south highway, almost everyone arrives via bus or car from Penang or KL.

Traveller tips: Many visitors recommended the Tambun Lost World and hot springs for a great family adventure (they also suggested bringing towels to save on rental costs). Another suggested healthy doses of Ipoh's famous white coffee, where the beans are roasted with palm oil margarine.

5. Mai Chau, Vietnam

Mai Chau is in northern Vietnam, about 140km southwest of Hanoi and 80km or so from the Laos border. It's a small town in mountainous Hoa Binh province surrounded by limestone cliffs and green rice paddies, populated largely by members of the ethnic White Thai tribe.

It's not as popular as Sapa where you get the same experience, but verdant rice fields surround the town on all sides while dramatic hills rise up on either side of the valley, offering breathtaking views around every corner., There are also several interesting markets to check out as well as some nearby caves.

It gets uncomfortably hot in June/July, but the surrounding vegetation is at its brightest green in February-May, and turns a lovely golden brown in October/November. The only way to get to Mai Chau directly is by private car hired in Hanoi. Buses head to nearby Hoa Binh, though, and from there one can arrange bus or motorbike transport.

Traveller tips: Many visitors recommend renting bicycles to explore the town - or motorbikes. The Sunday market is also popular, which sees vendors from around the area.

6. Hakone, Japan

Southwest of Tokyo, Hakone is at the top of the Izu Peninsula and about 30km from Mt Fuji.

A visit to Hakone is all about two things - hot water and great views. It's a very popular local destination and rising in popularity with foreign visitors.

Hakone is widely known for its bubbling hot springs (onsen). Some are merely hot pools where guests sit and relax, while others approach full water park status. And don't miss the, black eggs, boiled in the hot water - each one is said to add seven years to one's life!

There are also great hiking trails in the surrounding hills and the beautiful Lake Ashinoko, where on a clear day one can catch a spectacular glimpse of Mt Fuji.

Cold in the winter, warm in the summer and comfortably cool in spring and autumn, it's your choice when to get there. There are plenty of bus companies that go from Tokyo, Yokohama or any big city nearby. Of course, this being Japan, it's easy to catch the train - a Japan Rail bullet train goes from Tokyo to Odawara, then change trains to the Hakone-Tozan line. There are also regular commuter trains of varying cost and speed.

Traveller Tips: Note that stores and restaurants close early in Hakone, so prepare meals in advance or stock up on groceries if meals are eaten late. Many recommend the Hakone Free Pass, which provides unlimited use of buses, trains, boats and cable cars within a certain zone.

7. Damyang County, South Korea

Damyang is in the southwest of South Korea, right next to, the major city of Gwangju. Known for its bamboo goods and fruit orchards, it's popular with Korean tourists but still has plenty of unspoilt countryside to explore.

Lakes, mountains, parks, bamboo forests, historical sites... what's not to like? Among the notable sites are Soswaewon, a 16th-century garden, the Gwangju Lake ecological preserve, the historical village of Samjicheon and Jungongwon Garden, where towering bamboo trees sway in the wind far overheard and where many of the hyper-popular Korean period dramas are filmed.

Nearby one can also find Mt Mudeung, where the view from the top is epic. Summer finds the area at its most lush and green, while the colours in autumn are breathtaking, especially from the top of Mt Mudeung. For fans of winter, taking a walk amid towering snow-covered bamboo in the crisp, cold air is totally invigorating.

It's easiest to grab a bus or taxi from Gwangju, which has easy connections to all of the popular sites nearby.

Traveller tips: Don't miss the bamboo tea, grown locally of course. For a bit of adventure, try a night climb up Mt Mudeung, which is lit with lamps for much of the way.

8. Phonsavan, Laos

In the northern Laos province of Xieng Khouang, Phonsavan sits on a wide plateau surrounded by the foothills of the Annamese Cordillera mountain range. A location off the beaten path, it's most notable for the mysterious Plain of Jars archeological site.

Despite its history and relative isolation, Phonsavan is a lovely place with friendly people (although one must use a certain amount of street smarts to avoid pitfalls related to an underdeveloped tourist infrastructure).

The locals have also, rather ingeniously, taken to fashioning everything, from spoons to entire house, out of remnants of the war. Huge bomb casings are now flowerpots and bathtubs while grenade fragments have been turned into jewellery. There are also nearby hills to explore, dotted with various ethnic hill tribe villages, as well as hot springs, waterfalls and lakes.

Note: Due to lingering UXO (unexploded ordinance) from the war, one should never leave a marked trail or road to wander into a field or forest. Be safe, and hire a tour guide who knows the area.

November to March sees the nicest weather, in Laos, and as one might expect, it's busier than normal and requires some advance planning. However, if rain isn't a deterrent, the countryside is especially green and beautiful during the May to October rainy season.

Grab a Laos Airlines flight from Vientiane or Hanoi, Vietnam, but perhaps the most popular way in is via VIP bus, public bus or hired vans, which come in from Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vinh, Vietnam.

Traveller tips: A guided tour will provide the best insights into the history of the place, while a stroll around the night market in the middle of town is recommended.

9. Kep, Cambodia

Kep is in Cambodia's southern corner, 15km from the Vietnamese border, 85km from Sihanoukville and 160km from Phnom Penh. It was a thriving, elegant beach resort town in the early 20th century.

A visit here is all about enjoying rural Cambodia and unplugging from a hectic lifestyle. It has a healthy dose of small-town charm, is laid-back and dotted with crumbling colonial reminders of a bygone age, and boasts wide roads, swaying, palm trees and friendly locals.

It's well known for its plentiful fresh seafood (especially crab), available in dozens of beachside shacks. Explore the lush countryside, caves, waterfalls, small beaches, a pepper plantation and the nearby Phnum Bokor National Park for trekking and camping.

The best time to visit is during the cool season - November to March, roughly. Most arrive by bus from Sihanoukville, Kampot, Phnom Penh or across the border from Ha Tien, Vietnam.

10. Khanom, Thailand

Khanom is about halfway down Thailand's southern arm, on the little bump that curves upward toward Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. The Thai version of Kep is a sleepy little town on the Gulf of Thailand with few tourists, friendly locals and miles and miles of lovely, largely empty beaches.

It's harder to find a nicer example of small-town Thai life. There's very little to do in town except wander, lazily around chatting with locals, sampling the delicious food and enjoying the fresh air on a long walk down one of the many empty beaches.

One could also rent a motorbike and head off into the surrounding areas - jungles and hiking trails and waterfalls are there to discover - or take off in a kayak with a snorkel and fins aboard. If the timing is right, it's even possible to spot a rare pink dolphin. There are also a moderate number of bars and restaurants, so you can avoid returning to the same place every night.

December to April is the best time, with cool weather and little rain. Get in via bus or mini-van from almost any big city in the area, including Bangkok. One can also come across from Koh Samui/Koh Pha Ngan if island life has gotten tiresome.

Traveller tips: With little in the way of tourist infrastructure, many visitors recommend renting a motorbike to get around the town. One notable attraction is Khao Wan Tong Cave, about 12km inland from the beach.