Asia might be the world’s most diverse continent. In the far south are city-states like Singapore, which are pushing the limit when it comes to environmental sustainability and infrastructural technology. On the other hand, Asia is also home to some of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, which occupy the Andaman Islands.
Clearly, there’s something for every traveler who wants to create an Asia-only itinerary. Most people focus on the region’s top destinations, including mega-cities like Shanghai, Tokyo, and Bangkok. Others might focus on more remote locations, such as Potala Palace in Tibet or the tropical wonders of an island like Bali.
Regardless of why you decide to book a flight to Asia, you should know that there are tons of hidden gems waiting right off the beaten path. And if you want to get the most out of your time (and money), then it’s worth it to do a bit of digging. Start here with our list of lesser-known destinations in Asia, including urban stopovers and remote adventures. You can read more about them and decide if they’re worth a stopover on your next big trip.
If you’ve never heard of Macao, it’s an easy place to summarize: consider it the Las Vegas of the East—except it’s been around longer than the US’s Sin City. In fact, it’s the world’s largest gaming destination. Oftentimes, travelers who enjoy card games like blackjack, for example, play online while they travel. Not only do virtual formats offer convenience, but they’re also accessible while on the road, meaning players can split and hit all they want while on the move.
Still, for the seasoned blackjack player, getting the chance to play on a casino floor in Cotai (one of Macao’s primary islands) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Top-tier casinos line the main strip, with added extravagance and size compared to Vegas. On top of Macao’s OTT entertainment value, the area is also home to interesting traditions and history.
In the past, the archipelago in the South China Sea was dominated by Chinese traders. When the Portuguese arrived during Europe’s colonial era, their culture blended with local traditions. Today, the area’s architecture and culinary identity reflect this combination of different influences.
Yakushima Island, Japan
Japan is also home to an island getaway—one that surprises many travelers. Enter Yakushima, one of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Reserves, a World Heritage Site and home to stunning national parks. Let’s focus on its natural wonders.
The island lays claim to warm and temperate forests that are dotted with cedar trees, many of which were regrown after destructive logging millennia ago. Later efforts in preservation are the primary reason why Yakushima’s wetland sites are the largest loggerhead sea turtle nesting grounds in the world. So, if environmental exploration and protection are priorities for you as a traveler, then you’ll have plenty to do in Yakushima.
Be on the lookout for Jomonsugi, a cedar tree that’s thousands of years old. If you’re also a fan of Studio Ghibli films, you may recognize the Shiratani Unsuikyo forest, which inspired the film, Princess Mononoke.
Kerala Backwaters, India
Let’s stick to natural wonders for just a moment longer, traveling southwest into India and all the way to its most southwestern state of Kerala. Kerala is home to some of the nation’s greatest tropical wonders, including the ghats and plenty of unspoiled jungle. The backwaters region of Kerala is home to lagoons that abut the Arabian Sea—and they’re an unforgettable sight.
If you enjoy rugged travel and adventures, then you can start in the Western Ghats region of Kerala, then make your way toward the ocean. Many of the lakes and rivers are natural—but some are also man-made, allowing for travel along the water in colorful and stunning houseboats.
This aquatic travel mode makes the destination worth all the added remote trekking. It’s also an ideal trip for those who enjoy exploring fauna, as the backwaters are home to dozens of unique aquatic creatures and water birds, from otters to kingfishers to mudskippers.
Let’s jump back to our urban itinerary. Just south of Macao is the city-state of Singapore. And, similar to China’s capital of gaming, this area is a mish-mash of cultures. The influence of Chinese, Indian, and British traditions can be felt—along with the dozens of other groups that help compose Singapore’s unique culture. But, cultural heritage aside, what draws travelers to Singapore?
It seems that most are interested in experiencing a new type of urban infrastructure. The nation is home to tons of environmental innovation, including sprawling botanical gardens and artificial trees that help filter the air and produce oxygen. In other words, there’s no need to choose between a green adventure and an urban trip, as Singapore offers it all.
In fact, the city-state keeps its waterways so clean that visitors will notice abundant wildlife thriving along the waterways. This came from an extensive effort to clean the polluted canals and highlights Singapore’s forward-thinking ingenuity.
Raja Ampat Regency, Indonesia
Finally, let’s cover one of the least known yet unforgettable natural wonders in Asia. This is the Raja Ampat Regency, an archipelago between the main islands of Misool, Waigeo, Batanta, and Salawati in Indonesia. Travelers can fly in from nearby Jakarta, then make their way to Sorong. From there, they’ll have the option of exploring the islands via private boat tours or taking a larger cruise.
Similar to the Kerala Backwaters, the main way to get around is via a houseboat. However, for those who are more interested in relaxing in a single location, the islands are now dotted with hotels. Most are geared toward aquatic adventures that are typically found on beaches, so be sure to pack your gear or find a place to rent snorkels and flippers.
But keep in mind that Raja Ampat is still well off the beaten path, which may not make it ideal for travelers who prefer to have modern amenities. In the past, it’s remained a backpacker’s destination. While this is slowly changing, it’s best to expect a bit of rugged travel here.