Off the beaten track in Asia

Sihanoukville has some of Cambodia's best beaches. Picture: John Borthwick

Looking for somewhere in Asia that isn't top of every search engine jukebox? John Borthwick suggests considering these roads less trampled.

Luang Prabang, Temple Town

Laos' mighty Mekong River runs through it. Luang Prabang sits encrusted with about 30 gilded Buddhist wats. The most elaborate is the royal Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City Temple), about 450 years old. It might bristle with wats and cheddi spires but Luang Prabang is also alive with boutique hotels, wi-fi, passable coffee and great food. Being a World Heritage town, most of these are found within refurbished French colonial buildings. While you're there, head upriver to the Pak Ou caves, where thousands of Buddha statues overlook the river. You reach them by longtail speedboat - a hot-rod water-ski with seats.

Manly Mongolia

Yurts and yaks, nomads and the Gobi Desert - that probably summarises the average punter's knowledge of Mongolia, a large north-Asian republic hemmed by even larger neighbours Russia and China. Along with trekking, Mongolia's festivals are the main drawcard for visitors. In July the Three Manly Games festival lives up to its macho name with spectacular wrestling, archery and horseracing. Other gatherings such as the Golden Eagle Festival (with 400 eagle hunters on horseback) and the Thousand Camel Festival ensure we'll never mistake Mongolia for Minnesota.

Phu Quoc is Hot

Phu Quoc (pronounced Fu-wock) is the classic "before" version of an Asian tropical island - cattle on the beach, low-rise hotels, nothing very marketable to do. The kind of place to see before the cash cow of "after" arrives. This beautiful, 48km-long island - Vietnam's largest - dangles in the Gulf of Thailand, closer to Cambodia than Vietnam. An hour's flight south of Ho Chi Minh City, you land at a place where there are already good, mid-range resorts, fine seafood eateries and light motorbikes to hire. Cruise around the island. Buy some pungent fish sauce (said to be Vietnam's finest). Tell your friends you knew Phu Quoc before it became Vietnam's next big thing.

Bhutan the Brave

Bhutan, a pocket kingdom wedged between Godzillas One and Two, China and India, has kept its Himalayan cool by valuing happiness, devaluing lawyers and keeping tourism as an upmarket, selective experience. Principally famous for cliff-hanging monasteries such as Tiger's Nest, elaborate Buddhist festivals and trekking in the shadow of Tibet, Bhutan has no aspirations to be a pumping Seminyak-with-snow. Independent travel is not permitted: you fly in on a prepaid, pre-packaged itinerary and must spend $US250 ($269) per day. Like it or lump it - and most visitors love it - Bhutan is unique and intends to stay that way.

Primal Kalimantan

There's nothing like a baby orang-utan scampering into your arms for a cuddle to be reminded that it shares 97 per cent of your DNA. It happens on the Sekonyer River, near Pangkalan Bun in southern Kalimantan, at the Camp Leakey rescue and research station where primatologist Dr Birute Mary Galdikas nurtures about 300 orang-utans before their return to Tanjung Puting National Park. During a visit we see the work done by her Orangutan Foundation International, saving animals orphaned when the jungle is cleared for yet another oil palm plantation. We watch, too, as gibbons and orang-utans share a meal at a feeding platform - a show of tender inter-species slapstick.

Malaysia on the Quiet

Terengganu State on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia is a sleeping secret, with its swoop of Dungun beach being one of the country's loveliest shores. Meanwhile, 30km offshore, Tenggol Island offers diving and snorkelling in waters at times hectic with turtles, grouper and wrasse. For travellers seeking downtime, the States of Terengganu and Pahang are a world apart from the full-tilt resort shores in other parts of Asia. The culture here is conservative and Islamic, which just means you'll need to dress and behave more modestly than elsewhere. A small price to pay for these South China Sea sanctuaries.

The Extraordinary Sundarbans

Where? Hint: the name means "beautiful forest" in Bengali and it is home to the royal Bengal tiger. The 10,000sqkm Sundarban expanse - the world's largest tidal mangrove forest - lies in the vast delta at the mouths of the Ganges on the Bay of Bengal. Most of this World Heritage zone is in Bangladesh and the remainder in West Bengal, India. Its maze of waterways and villages is accessible by boat for visitors who come, via either Kolkata or Dhaka, to seek the elusive Bengal tiger, as well as spotted deer, crocodiles and myriad birdlife.

Whale Sharks of Luzon

You'll find the highest concentration of whale sharks in the world at Donsol near Legazpi on the south-west coast of Luzon in the Philippines. Swimming with the whale sharks - butanding in Tagalog - is a well-organised activity. You follow the creatures aboard a small spotter boat and when close enough to one, slip into the water and snorkel beside it, the largest fish in the ocean (scuba gear is not permitted). The whale shark cruises just below the surface, often allowing you to see eye-to-giant eye with it. The season runs from December to June but avoid the Christmas and Easter crowds.


"Open your heart, open your wallet," joke the beach vendors at Sihanoukville. Sunny, snoozy "Snookyville", 190km south-west of Phnom Penh on the Gulf of Thailand, offers white-ish sand beaches, friendly boozers, casinos for losers, and time-warp prices on food and drink. There's music, dance, absinthe, island trips and scuba diving, or just doing nothing - with a good room costing from $25 a night. "Snooky" has Cambodia's best beaches; the most popular one, Ochheuteal, is lined with bars and little restaurants. Here, too, the time to visit is now.

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