Wednesday, January 8, 2014

10 Asian Travel Destinations on Top of My To-Do List

It is not a secret that I am utterly enamored with Asia. Heck, this travel blog is dedicated to Asia. I feel extremely lucky to have been born here and to have had the chance to travel to many of Asia's most beautiful corners: from the golden temple of Amritsar to the ocean-swept shores of Bali. Because of the size of this continent, however, I feel like I have yet to make a dent on it. There are still so many places here I desperately want to see.

So to start off the new year, let me present the 10 Asian travel destinations that found themselves on top of my to-do list. These will happen this year and in the next few ones. I swear it.

1. Ladakh and Spiti, India (Location)

Spiti
The first time I saw a photo of Ki Gompa located in Spiti, I knew I had to see it in person at some point.
By Carlos Adampol Galindo in Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

The Himalayas still have this powerful pull on me. I have seen pockets of the Himalayas in Dharamsala, India, in the Annapurna Region of Nepal, and in Yunnan Province, China. But that's just it, isn't it? What I have seen are just tiny parts of it. There are still so many other landscapes and cultures that this huge region has.

Ladakh and Spiti, both in Northern India, have some of the most otherworldly landscapes I have seen in photos. Barren deserts are swept by frigid winds in altitudes above 4000, 5000 meters above sea level. Snow-clad peaks form river valleys, where tiny villages and monasteries are cut-off the better part of the year by snow and ice. Ladakh and Spiti will be the perfect destination to quench my Himalayan thirst. Runner-up: Northeast India.


2. Shan State, Myanmar (Location)

Shan State
The colorful hills along the trek from Kalaw to Inle in Shan State, Myanmar. Photo by good friend Angelica Cruz who digs the same adventures as I do. Her account of the trek here.

Precisely because Myanmar just recently opened, many parts of it still lay unexplored by today's travelers who tend to stay just in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. Even with travel restrictions in some places, many destinations can still be reached. I want to see those places, to be one of the first few outsiders to see them after a very long time. I think Shan State, somewhat away from Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan, might just have some of those places.


3. Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China (Location)

Xishuangbanna
Dai Ethnic Garden. The Dai are the most predominant ethnic group in Xishuangbanna, Southern Yunnan, China.
By Jacek Karczmarczyk | CC BY 3.0

Xishuangbanna is a slice of Southeast Asia in Southern China. Its history and culture are closely linked to that of Northern Thailand's Lanna Kingdom, capital Chiang Mai (a city I considered home for a bit). The name Xishuangbanna actually comes from Northern Thai language: sip song pan na or "twelve rice-growing towns" (referring to the region's original twelve districts). Its peculiarity of being a part of China but culturally and linguistically unrelated from it is what draws me to this region. That and their own version of the Songkran Water-Splashing Festival.


4. Nujiang, Yunnan, China (Location)

Nujiang
A bend on the Nu River (Nujiang). The towering peaks of the Himalayas form a corridor stretching from Tibet all the way to Myanmar, where the Nu River eventually becomes the Salween.
By Nez de diamamt in Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Though I have already traveled a considerable amount in Yunnan, China, its more remote regions I have yet to reach. Its most remote corner is perhaps Nujiang Valley, a long north-south corridor isolated to the rest of the world by the high peaks of the Himalayas (I know, Himalayas again). I blame Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled. They filmed an episode here and the presenter got to (1) zip line across the raging river (primary method of river crossing) to visit a Lisu village; and, (2) trek to remote Dulong valley where the tradition of tattooing women's faces was once practiced.


5. Northern Laos (Location)

Northern Laos
Sunset by the Nam Ou River in the quiet town of Nong Khiaw in Northern Laos. Photo is by Angelica Cruz. Her story about this corner of Laos here.

Sadly and embarrassingly, Laos is a place I have not traveled to yet. I have gone to the capital Vientiane, but let's face it, that is hardly Laos, considering a large part of the country is actually not city, but rather country: vast swathes of jungle, quiet and isolated villages, lazy rivers and streams, and limestone karst hills. The adventure-seeker and nature-lover in me (though pretentious as he may sometimes be) wants to see all of those things.


6. Ha Giang, Northern Vietnam (Location)

Ha Giang
I just imagine driving in those roads and I smile an uncontrollable and ridiculous amount.
By Nhi Dang in Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Remote regions are becoming my kind of thing. Ha Giang is a province in Northern Vietnam known for its stunning mountain scenery and for being Vietnam's final frontier. It has what is considered one of the most scenic drives you can take in Vietnam, better if you do it on two wheels, as many intrepid local and foreign tourists have done. That would be the most awesome trip I could go on in Vietnam. I must plan it soon.


7. Sumatra, Indonesia (Location)

Lake Toba, Sumatra
Formed 70,000 years ago after an earth-shaking volcanic eruption, Lake Toba is the largest lake in Indonesia as well as the largest volcanic lake in the world.
By Holmes Nainggolan in Flickr | CC BY 2.0

I see the word Sumatra and images of volcanoes, lakes, jungles, orang utan, and the pointed roofs of the houses of the Minangkabau and the Batak people all come rushing into my head. To me, the only thing daunting about travel to Sumatra is its size. Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world, about 470,000 square kilometers. To do Sumatra justice through travel will need a lot of time. Either that or I need to take it one region at a time (which is fine, too).


8. Bali and Lombok, Indonesia (Location)

Mount Rinjani, Lombok
A crater lake above the clouds: Mount Rinjani
By Trekking Rinjani in Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Not expecting much from a tourist destination as popular as Bali, I was pleasantly taken by the beauty of this island. It became easy to see why many people come here. I only explored the southern part of the island where Indian Ocean waves smashed onto the tall cliffs of Uluwatu, and already I was hooked. I made a promise to return and I will. Maybe I'll take the ferry and cross over to Lombok, too, and make the three-day journey to the top of Mount Rinjani, Indonesia's second highest volcano at 3,700 meters above sea level.


9. Xinjiang, China (Location)

Xinjiang
Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Beijing anymore.
By Clemson in Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The final two destinations are yet again in China. That's no surprise, of course. I am a self-confessed Sinophile. You know what I love about this country though? It is mind-bogglingly diverse in landscape, religion, culture, beliefs, language, and cuisine. Travel in China is clearly more than the Great Wall or the Forbidden Palace.

China's Far West is so different from the rest of the country that you'd think you had already reached Central Asia (because technically, you have). Xinjiang Province formed part of the Silk Road. It was through here where goods and products as well as technology and information first traveled from the east to the west. It is made up of vast, arid deserts punctuated by snowy peaks and ancient towns. Now those I want to see.


10. Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, China (Location)

jiuzhaigou
It's nature scenery like this that takes my jaw and lays it flat on the ground.
By chensiyuan | CC BY-SA 3.0

I was traveling in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China when I learned about a nature reserve within the province known for it stunning scenery—Jiuzhaigou Valley. It has crystal-clear turquoise lakes, wooded areas, snowy peaks, and multi-level waterfalls. There are a few colorful Tibetan villages inside the reserve, too, as it is located right at the edge of the Tibetan plateau. My only beef about Jiuzhaigou Valley is that being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the reserve is a very popular tourist destination. It can get crowded, they say, especially in autumn, which is when I want to visit. Question now is, would it be worth the visit still? I'm thinking it will be. Any alternatives?


Which Asian travel destinations are on top of your to-do list?


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