Bucket lists should be full of places and activities that stay with you for all the right reasons... that take you out of your comfort zone, or provide moments of pure perfection. Sometimes these occur more readily on the less-trodden paths, so we've picked out a few alternative bucket list ideas in Asia, which give you all the buzz without having to jostle through crowds.
We all long to see Asia’s celebrated sights in person; to fully engage in the sensory experience of being ‘there’. If you are only free to travel at peak times, however, this might not deliver the bucket-list magic you had imagined, thanks to the hundreds of other visitors with the same idea! Overcrowding at top tourist sites is a hot topic, and some areas are acting to restrict numbers. Halong Bay in Vietnam has become so popular that the junk boat routes have been further regulated (though chartered cruises are often given more flexibility) and swimming directly from the boats is no longer permitted.
The instantly-recognisable, elegantly tapering towers of Angkor Wat are outstanding examples of historic Khmer architecture, and certainly some of the most visually arresting. However, their global fame usually means seeing them along with many other people, or seeing them from a distance. If you don’t mind heights, looking directly down on them from a microlight flight is an exhilarating alternative option! However, if you venture out to the backroads of Cambodia, there are many lesser-known temples that you can go right up to, touch and wander around at your own pace. Breathing in the earthy scents and feeling the cool vegetation that climbs the stone walls under your fingertips, surrounded only by the sounds of the jungle, gives you the kind of immersive experience that is rare to find at more high-profile sites.
The hills of Mu Cang Chai in Northern Vietnam have been sculpted into instantly recognisable, stepped rice terraces which turn from green to gold through the year. This is a very different Vietnam from the urban vivacity of HCMC or Hanoi, or the utterly stunning Halong Bay. Life here, in the country’s fertile cornucopia, centres around agriculture and the shifting seasons. The pace is more measured, with a worn-in feel reflecting that the days have danced to a familiar rhythm for many years. Harvest time, from mid-September to late October, is most popular with visitors as the weather is mild and the terraces are at their verdant best, but visit in late winter or early spring to see the delicate pink peach blossom burst into life. Stay at this charming ecolodge and marvel at the scenery: picturesque, peaceful, exquisite.
Loikaw, the capital of eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state, is about as far from over-visited as a town can get. Being only recently open to foreign tourism means it is a bit more of an effort to reach, but the reward is experiencing this area as the locals do, without the veneer which can separate travellers from ‘real life’ in some places. Marvel at the incredible Taung Kwe Pagoda perched high on steep rocks; the temple’s pristine white walls and golden spires radiating light as they catch the sun or shimmering with their night-time illuminations. Stepping out from Loikaw itself, you can spend time with members of the Padung and Kaya tribes who reside in the surrounding hills, and begin to learn about their lives and customs. Authentic, un-hyped, extraordinary. Stay at the boutique Loikaw Lodge and enjoy sky-burst sunsets over the lake.
Borneo is always a top bucket-list destination and an encounter with its endangered orangutans is usually eagerly wished for. But this island has more to it than these fascinating primates alone. The landscape of ancient rainforests, rolling hills, rushing rivers and caves that make your senses tingle is a hiker’s dream, and the coast is honeymoon perfection. Eco tourism actively helps protect this landscape, and visiting areas a little further off the trail extends this initiative. If you’re aching to see a different side to Borneo, head for Sabah’s Sapulot region. Make a connection with the Murat tribes, spend the night in a hammock under the stars, venture underground, scramble over rocky outcrops, swim in waterfall pools and, perhaps, catch a glimpse of an orangutan or two among the trees. This is the insiders’ Borneo, up close, visceral and bold: the ultimate adventure.
Indonesia’s many islands are like light separated into a spectrum, each with its own distinct character and culture. While high-profile islands of Bali, Java, Kalimantan and Sumatra get the lion’s share of the attention, look a little further and you can discover the individual beauty and customs of those which are a little outside the limelight. Sulawesi is one such place. The world’s 11th largest island, Sulawesi’s landscapes range from craggy mountains to ancient rainforest, to vibrant and fertile farmland, leading to a coastline straight out of Paradise 101: swaying palms that shelter soft sands against an implausibly-turquoise ocean. Join the locals for seafood from the warungs in Makassar, watch silk weaving in Sengkang, canoe through the rocky karst landscape, and see the extraordinary tau tau effigies guarding traditional cliff-side graves in Tana Toraja.
For decades, Thailand has been one of Asia’s most-visited countries, with travellers often combining the busy metropolis of Bangkok with some down-time on the famously-perfect beaches. Islands like Phuket and Koh Samui have become synonymous with tropical paradise, and are still thriving destinations for everyone from budget backpackers to uber-luxury weekenders, but if you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter you don’t have to look far. Our island-hopping itinerary combines a few days in Bangkok, sampling the street food, seeing the city’s famous temples and soaking up the atmosphere, with a week or so leisurely drifting from the lauded beauty of Koh Kood, to the sleepy palm-tree shade of Koh Mak, and eventually to exploring the cultural wealth of Koh Chang. All of the wonder, all of the chill, but giving the crowds a wider berth.
From the ever-bright neon of Tokyo to the silhouette of Fuji-san through the cherry blossom, the unique romance of Japan conjures a wanderlust like nowhere else. But these familiar images are only glimpses of the bigger picture. To see more of Japan’s multi-faceted character, sandwich some time in a handful of its major cities around a few days’ peaceful walking in its Alpinesque landscapes. From thawing out with steaming bowls of soba in mountain villages, to staying in a restored Edo-era settlement that seems frozen in time, to enjoying an afternoon of cycling and a morning of sake-sampling, each experience enriches. You won’t be alone on these popular routes which lead from vibrant Tokyo, to historic Kyoto, to a gourmet tour of Osaka. Season with stargazing and hot spring bathing between many delicious foodie moments for a full-on bucket-list feast for the soul. See our Adventure on Ancient Trails itinerary for more.
When we look back on our travels, the memories which bring an instant smile to our faces are often of the people we met and connections we made. Seeing a special place through the eyes of a local brings it out from the glossy, picture-perfect image and makes it sing; hearing a new-found friend wax lyrical about their home, be it the high-rise modernity of Kuala Lumpur or the historic charm of Kanazawa, moves you beyond being awed by it and towards feeling true affection. Though there are plenty of places you can go to hang out with the locals, being introduced to a friend on the ground side-steps any awkwardness and takes you straight to sharing a beer! Wherever you visit, our ‘Go Local’ option brings you together with some of our good friends in Asia, who can show you what a place is really like and why they love it.