What places and attractions come to your mind when you think about Asia? Probably Taj Mahal and beaches of Goa in India, the beautiful Bali island in Indonesia, the overcrowded island of Phuket in Thailand, the Great Wall of China and maybe Tokyo & Hong Kong megalopolises. Most of these places are nice and worth seeing at least once (except for Phuket because of how polluted it is), but if we think about Asia in terms of these associations, it would be the same as thinking about vegetarians as about the people, who only eat herbs.
Asia is a huge and mysterious part of the world which has so many incredible places that it would take us years to visit and properly feel them. It's so rich in terms of architectural, spiritual and cultural heritage that it would be a great omission to limit the encounters with Asia only to the places everyone knows.
There are so many alternatives to the famous beaches of Bali and popular islands of Thailand, there's a vast variety of impressive architectural marvels in India which can easily overshadow Taj Mahal and there are many cities and secret places which can definitely make you look at Asia from a new angle.
Whether you impression about Asia was spoiled by the places that you didn't like, or you think that you've "seen it all" and there's nothing new that this part of the world can offer you, these 20 hidden gems of Asia will surely inspire wanderlust and make you want to get back to this wonderful place again and again.
Pack your bags, because we're going to China first!
20 Mount Wudang Shan, China
Forget about the Great Wall of China because we have Mount Wudang Shan. It's located in Hubei province and it's one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China. It's one of those places, photos of which are used to make postcards which represent the image of China. Sunlight breaks through the clouds, mountain mist flows through the hills and the cup of fresh Chinese green tea is warming up your hands while you're gazing at this otherworldly beauty.
This is an excellent place for contemplation because you can spend hours gazing at the surrounding hills and ever-changing cloud paintings. It’s a 4-hour climb but the views you get will give you the ultimate reward and satisfaction. Keep in mind that the entrance fee is rather high.
19 Kuang Si Falls, Laos
Waterfalls are one of the most beautiful natural marvels and Asia has plenty of them. The waterfall that I want to point your attention in this article is Kuang Si Falls in Laos. It is surrounded by the evergreen jungle, the water of the falls is turquoise blue and the waterfall itself is quite spectacular. There are small cascades and several pools of water at the bottom of the falls and you can swim, jump and have fun there.
According to the legend, one wise old man forced the Nam Si river to fall into the hole that he dug deep into the earth. When the water arrived, the golden deer came to the site and settled near the protruding rock. The sound of the water falling on this rock created a magical echo which drew people from the far places. And it still draws them today.
This legend influenced waterfall's name. ‘Kuang’ means deer and ‘Si’ means 'to dig'.
18 Phong Nha, Vietnam
Vietnam has plenty of outstanding beaches, tasty street snacks and hidden gems that are yet to be discovered by the traveling enthusiasts. Central Vietnam is especially interesting because it serves home to the cities of Hoi An and Hue (we will take a look at the city of Hue later in the article) and to a number of natural wonders one of which is Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. By visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site you can see the world's largest cave complexes which were only discovered recently, beautiful underground rivers and the oldest karst mountains in Asia.
A lot of convincing reason to visit this incredible place, isn't it?
17 Ella, Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is famous for lush tropic greenery, paradise beaches, and Ceylon tea. Speaking about the latter, when tourist decides to visit the places where tea is manufactured they usually go to Nuwara Eliya. Personally, I would advise you to choose Ella region instead. There are fewer tourists than in Nuwara Eliya there and this cozy hilltop village has a lot of things to impress you with. It's relaxing, rich with awe-inspiring views and sunsets and has a lot of tea plantations.
And if you're planning to go to Ella, make sure to visit Little Adam's Peak, Ella Rock and the picturesque railway that you see on the photo.
16 Jaisalmer, India
Jaisalmer is also known as the "Golden City". It's located in the state of Rajasthan near the border with Pakistan. It's a desert city and it's one of the most impressive destinations in India if you're into architecture. The narrow streets of Jaisalmer conceal beautiful havelis (homes), carved from the golden-honey sandstone. Without a doubt, the main attraction of Jaisalmer is the fort. Unlike most forts in India, it's a living fort and there are plenty of hotels, havelis, and shops in the fort area.
Magnificent Jaisalmer fort raises from the sandy plains like a mirage from long-forgotten days of the past. It's difficult not to fall under the spell of this desert citadel.
15 Koh Rong Island, Cambodia
Who needs the Maldives if we have Koh Rung? Of course, the Maldives is more about the status of a person and have their own value, but if you don't have your pockets full of money and still want to enjoy the tropic luxury then Koh Rung is a place to be. Jungle-clad wilderness mixed with white sands, beach huts, and cutesy little villages make it a perfect destination for your Southeast Asia bucket list.
People who've been there say that beaches on Koh Rong have few rivals in the world. Although more and more people start to discover Koh Rong, it still remains an amazing little-known place to visit.
14 Raja Ampat Islands, Indonesia
Indonesia is mostly known for Bali, which is unfair because there are a lot more beautiful places in this country. One of them is Raja Ampat Islands and it is considered by many as one of the most beautiful island chains in the world. Raja Ampat Islands have more than 1000 islands and you can surely find there everything that you love about Bali but without polluted beaches and overcrowded touristic places. Hidden lagoons, hundreds of jungle-covered islands, stellar white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and spooky caves. These are some of the things you can expect when visiting this otherworldly place.
I know it's hard not to start booking the tickets after reading this.
13 Yakushima Island, Japan
It's time to discover a mystery, which is Yakushima Island in Japan. It's covered with huge cedar forest where some of the oldest Japan's living trees grow. The average age of the trees there is 1000 years and the most ancient ones may be over 7000 years old. This forest was turned into a national park and included into the list of UNESCO Natural World Heritage Sites in 1993.
Although Yakushima Island has 2000 meter high mountains, tourists mostly come there to see the ancient cedar trees. But beware if you don't like rain and humidity because locals say that it rains "35 days a month" on the island.
12 Con Dao Islands, Vietnam
Another hidden gem of Vietnam and another secret hideout for those who are drawn by the magic of tropical beaches. This slice of paradise is quite isolated and it looks otherworldly. But it wasn't always like this. When Americans and French ruled Vietnam, this place was used as a huge prison for outlaws (many of whom were considered 'heroes' by Vietnamese people). So you can spend half of your day enjoying empty beaches and drinking cocktails, swimming in the clear sea and enjoying the jungles and use another part of the day to see the colonial-era prisons and learn about the lives of their former inmates. Quite an unusual combination, isn't it?
11 Lampang, Thailand
If we're talking about the inland part of Thailand, then the places most people know about are Bangkok, Chang Mai and Chang Rai which is famous for the White Temple with its striking beauty and rich spiritual significance.
Now let's take a look at Lampang, a place full of natural beauty and majestic mountains. Locals say that it's the only true paradise left in Thailand and if you decide to travel there you will find it difficult to disagree. The city of Lampang is beautiful, the national parks where you can see waterfalls and take a dip in hot springs are pleasant, the Elephant Sanctuary which is famous for taking the best care of its elephants is heart-warming and of course, temples are awe-inspiring.
Make sure to add this one into your "must visit" list.
10 Kapas Island, Malaysia
Continuing to uncover the hidden paradise spots of Asia, I should definitely mention Kapas Island in Malaysia. I bet you haven't heard about it and this is exactly why it was included in this list. Malaysian people probably want to keep this place for themselves not to turn it into the Kuta beach on Bali which transformed from heavenly and empty to polluted and overcrowded because of the invasion of tourists. I doubt that it will happen with Kapas Island in the next decades because for some reason people don't often choose Malaysia to visit tropical beaches.
Right now, if you go to Kapas Island outside of holiday time, you will probably feel almost like Robinson Crusoe.
9 Jomblang Cave, Indonesia
And now something for those who aren't moved by the beauty of tropical beaches. Stand like an enlightened being in the ray of divine light is what you can easily do in the Jomblang cave if you decide to walk to the end of the cave. The incredible thing about this cave is that you can actually find an ancient forest growing inside of it. Imagine the feeling when you reach the bottom of the cave and see the jungle-like vegetation. Totally surreal and worth your attention.
For adrenaline-seeking people, there's an opportunity to rappel to the cave. A 30-meter rappelling is something that you will never forget.
8 Hue, Vietnam
The third hidden gem of Vietnam on the list is the city of Hue. It sounds like the name of the color in English but locals pronounce it as "Hway". On the one hand, we're lucky that this town isn't getting the attention it should because knowing about it, we can travel there and enjoy it while it's not crowded, but on the other hand, it's a pity that so many people miss this place when traveling to Asia.
It will take you only an hour to get to Hue from Hanoi by plane. There are plenty of things to see, but what you should definitely pay your attention to our historic imperial ruins and the Perfume River.
7 Sidemen, Bali
Bali is not only about heavenly beaches. If you want to enjoy volcano view, jungle-tangled gorges, and rice terraces, Sideman is a place to be. It's not a place which 'attraction seekers' will enjoy though, because there's not a great deal to do. But for those who like contemplating the beauty of nature just for the sake of doing it, it's one of the best spots on the island. You can wander through rice paddies, find hidden tracks in woodland, visit old temples, see Bali's sacred mountain, Gunung Agung or just sit on the hills and soak the power and energy of surrounding beauty.
6 Koh Phayam, Thailand
Forget about Phuket and Pattaya! Koh Phayam is a secluded island near Ranong which is mostly known to Thai people but is comparatively unknown to the tourists. If you travel there during the low season you can expect deserted beaches left for you to enjoy.
When I visited it with my wife in 2015, we stayed at Phayam Coconut Beach Resort on the Ao Yai beach. It's a very pleasant place run by a family which I can recommend to anyone and Ao Yai is one of the most impressive beaches that I have seen. Its coastline is huge, the waves are majestic and there's plenty of shade under the palm trees.
The only transports you can use on Koh Phayam are bikes and bicycles because there are no roads there. Tropical seclusion at its best.
5 Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
Try to find high-quality shots from the Cardamom Mountains on the web and you'll find that it's not an easy task to do, which proves that this place remains unknown to many people. Nestled away in southwest Cambodia, this place has rich biodiversity where you can even meet wild elephants. The Cardamom Mountains are also home to the highest peak of Cambodia.
Without a doubt, it's a haven for climbers and for those who like to see nature in its pristine beauty and touch base with their inner self. And thanks to a community project, you can also plant trees there if you want.
4 Coonoor, India
When it comes to hilltop destinations in India everyone thinks about Ooty. But Ooty has become overcrowded and pricey and if you, like many of the travelers, are looking for something more authentic, then you can visit Coonoor. Located not far from Ooty (1-hour train drive) it's the second-largest hill station in the Nilgiri Hills in the state of Tamil Nadu. Coonoor is surrounded by tea plantations and sits at an altitude of 1839 meters above the sea level. It's advised to go to Coonoor via the UNESCO World Heritage-listed mountain railway which passes over 250 bridges.
Unlike most of the sites in India, Coonoor is a cool place which can give you a break from the burning sun.
3 Iskanderkul Lake, Tajikistan
Actually, Iskanderkul lake is just one among the many impressive places in Tajikistan. Tajikistan is not a popular location for the western tourists. I bet you that you can't even point out to this country on a map! And that makes it a desirable place for tourists who prefer authenticity and don't like crowds. Located in central Asia, Tajikistan is mostly covered by mountains and has one of the most hospitable people in the world. This country has limitless possibilities in terms of trekking and it's a must visit place for those who can't imagine their lives without mountains and crystal clear lakes like Iskanderkul.
By visiting the country you also have a chance to experience the nomadic lifestyle which is so different from our hectic way of life.
2 Jiuzhaigou, China
Continuing the topic of mountains and crystal clear mountain lakes, I invite you to embrace the beauty of Jiuzhaigou, a national park and a natural reserve in the southwestern region of China.
This place is known for its colorful lakes, snow-capped peaks, verdant forests, multi-level waterfalls and awe-inspiring natural beauty which silently speaks to you with dreamlike eloquence.
According to the legend deity, Dago made a present for goddess Semo. He was giving her a mirror made from clouds and wind, but suddenly the devil appeared and broke the mirror into 108 pieces which fell down on Earth and turned into 108 lakes. Some of these lakes are located in Jiuzhaigou.
1 Kashmir, India
Welcome to the Switzerland of India, Kashmir! However, what you see in the picture is not a luxury Swiss hotel. It's an active Tibetan monastery which prepares lamas (spiritual teachers).
This area is divided between India, Pakistan, and China and it has a huge territory which only a little bit smaller than the UK. It's a region which was famous for major caravan routes in ancient times and known for its natural beauty and spiritual significance in modern times.
These were only 20 hidden gems of Asia, and if I wanted to list all of them, I would need to write a separate book on it. Whenever you travel to this part of this world, do so with an opened mind, because Asia will always have new experiences to offer.