Thailand and Vietnam might come first to mind when you think about the best travel destinations in Asia, but the region has much more to offer than beaches and popular resorts. Not than anything is wrong with relaxing on the beach! But if you are looking for adventure travel and thrilling off-the-beaten-path experiences, we share with you what we think are the most unique travel destinations in Asia for 2020. Of course, each country has something unique to offer, even the most popular ones. This selection is based on our 3-year long trip through Asia, where we traveled from Mongolia to Turkmenistan, from Papua-New-Guinea to Pakistan, China to Sri Lanka.
Feel free to share with us if you think we miss any other unique places to visit in Asia that you think we should add.
Unique Travel Destinations in Asia
From Mongolia to Papua New Guinea, the islands of Borneo and Papua in Indonesia, and the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan, remote destinations and rarely explored regions extend exciting opportunities ready for the adventurous spirits.
Selecting unique travel destinations in Asia is not easy as even popular and touristy destinations have places that receive few visitors. Our selection is based on our travels and we hope you find our list interesting. Feel free to add your thoughts in the Comments section – we would love to hear from you!
Mongolia: Reindeer Herders, Yurts, and Eagles
If you like open space, from endless green steppes, arid landscape of the Gobi desert, to the tall peaks of the Altai Mountains, then you will love Mongolia. Deep in traditional culture and nomad life, Mongolia is the land of the goats and sheep, of roaming yaks and camels, of ancient palaces and Buddhist temples where Genghis Khan walked and managed his vast empire. The road infrastructures are limited, not many Mongols speak English, but their warm welcome will make you feel like home. Just be prepared for long day drives on bumpy roads (or no road at all!). We spent two months in Mongolia, which we consider one of the best places to travel in Asia for outdoor adventures.
Mongolia Top Things to See and Do
- Spend a couple of days in Ulaanbaatar to check the Gandan Tegchenling Monastery, the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan, shop for knick-knacks at the Naran Tuul Market and stroll the Genghis Khan Sukhbaatar Square.
- Go on a Day Trip from Ulaanbaatar to explore the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park on horse, or observe the unique Takhi (Przewalski wild horses) in the Hustai National Park
- Road-trip through the Gobi desert for five days, hiking the Khongoryn Els dunes, visiting monasteries, and meeting large herds of camels roaming the plains
- Explore Central Mongolia and its numerous monasteries like Tövkhön monastery
- Stay with the Tsaatan reindeer herders in the north of Lake Khövsgöl, and learn about their millennia-old traditions
- Venture to the Altai region. A gem in itself! Learn about the Kazakh culture, meet with eagles hunters during the Golden Eagle Festival, trek in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Parks and see the Potanin Glacier.
Mongolia Photo Gallery
Papua New Guinea: Off-the-Beaten-Path
PNG is probably one of the last frontiers of this modern world. Limited road infrastructure, limited tourism developments, the country is hard to travel. But the scenery is mostly untouched, the culture and traditions powerful. Once you pass the seemingly unwelcome stance of the people, you will meet the most friendly and caring people. We could feel the tense relations within local people. Everyone’s first words would be “be careful, it’s dangerous here,” but then that person would immediately take us under their care. Over and over again, be it the security guard at the supermarket, the family of three during an impromptu night in an open shelter, the bus driver, or strangers at the market.
Papua New Guinea is a complex mix of over 850 languages and traditions, modernity where you can pay with credit cards but where no roads connect two of the main cities on the coast. Everyone speaks English, one of the country languages with Tok Pisin. Though it lacks on amenities, PNG is rather expensive, so be prepared for a higher budget f you want to explore the country. As far as unique destinations, PNG is rough, tough, but worth it.
Papua New Guinea Things to Do and See
- Sepik River and its Crocodile Traditions
- Highlands and Mount Hagen
- Islands such as New Ireland, New Britain, and Bougainville
Papua New Guinea Photo Gallery
Indonesia: Beyond Bali
Bali and the Gili Islands are by far the most popular destinations in Indonesia. Perfect for those searching relaxing beach time, tropical weather, and Indonesian culture. But Indonesia is composed of 18,000 different islands – a lifetime of discovery away from the beaten paths, places where you will seldom see any other tourist. So while Bali is a great way to get familiar with Indonesia (and probably the cheapest way to access the country), use it as a step to land in Indonesia, and then explore other islands
Papua Things to Do
- The deep turquoise water in Raja Ampat for world-famous scuba-diving
- The tall, dark green jungle mountains in the Baliem Valley are perfect for remote trekking through Papua villages
- Papua has a lot to offer to the adventurous spirits, with traditions and ethnicity setting it apart from other islands in Indonesia
Closer to Bali, many people just spend a few days to observe the famous Komodo Dragons in the national parks of the same name. But most don’t explore the island of Flores which has exciting attractions like Mount Kelimutu. An excellent way to discover Flores is to drive from Maumere to Labuan Bajo on a 5-day itinerary.
Kalimantan Borneo Jungle
Head to the Kutai National Park for a chance to see some of the few remaining wild orangutans living in their natural habitat.
Indonesia Photo Gallery
Sri Lanka: Tiny but Activity-Packed
While Sri Lanka is not as remote or as under-explored as Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka is often shadowed by its more significant neighbors India or Thailand. Sri Lanka doesn’t necessarily have one unique thing but its diversity is what makes the country unique. Indeed, former Ceylon is a small island packed with fantastic travel and outdoor opportunities that adventurous travelers will love.
Water activities include kiteboarding, scuba-diving, and surfing. Cultural and historical sites take you back hundreds of years like in Sigiriya. Mountains like the Landscape will see you hike through tea plantations and tropical forests.
With a good network of buses and trains, you can travel efficiently around the country. The country is safe, most Sri Lankans speak some level of English, and you will like the chill atmosphere wherever you go.
Sri Lanka Top Things to Do and See
- Water sports: scuba-diving, Arugam bay surfing, kiteboarding in Kalpitiya and Mannar
Mountains: hikes by Adam’s Peak, Hortons Plains, Ella, and Haputale
- Historical sites: Sigiriya, Aranadaphura, Jaffna, Galle, with many ruins in Sri Lanka over 2,000 years old
- Varied Traditions from Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, to Muslims, all centuries old and more.
- Wildlife: Leopards in Wilpattu National Park, Elephants in Yala, and birdwatching in many sanctuaries like the Adam’s Bridge Marine National Park
Sri Lanka Photo Gallery
China Minorities: From Deserts to High-Plateaux
Away from the more popular cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin, and Xian head to the western borders of China. From the remote and under-explored Xinjiang. The old towns of Yunnan, or the high plateaux and passes of the Kham Province in Sichuan.
Xinjiang Things to See
The northwestern province is home to the Uighurs, most of them Muslims, and offers distinct traditions. Many of the towns were part of the famous Silk Road, along the arid Taklamakan desert of the Tarim Basin.
- Tulufan: Also called Turpan, the town is known for its dry raisins. The whole area is rich with millennia-old ruins, and historical Silk road cities like Gushi, Gaochang, and Jiaohe
- Kashgar: the old town of Kashgar is like stepping back in time, with small cobblestone streets, a large mosque, shops, and tea houses.
Yunnan Attractions & Activities
The southern region extends from snow-capped mountains to deep jungle. Kunming is the main city and has its charm, including the Stone Forest in Shilin. But make sure to head to the mountains for a different feel of the region.
- Dali: Wander the small narrow streets of the old town, walk the remaining stone walls by the South Gate, bike around the Erhai lake, or hike to the Cangshan mountain.
- Lijiang is further up the mountains, and the Baisha Old Town used to be also a major city on the Silk Road. Explore the Naxi villages, or head to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for excellent hiking opportunities
- Shangri-la is high in the mountains and has a strong Tibetan influence with the Songzanlin monastery and several temples.
China Photo Gallery
Many countries in Central Asia should be in the mind of any adventurous traveler. We had plans to visit these lands in 2017, but some injuries had us postponed our trip. Came 2018 and 2019, when we finally managed to explore Pakistan, and traveled through Central Asia all the way to Turkmenistan and then stepping into the Middle East in Iran.
Pakistan: Hospitality, Traditions, and High Mountains
Getting the visa to Pakistan was a real struggle but how rewarding a trip! We were in Pakistan for two months, mostly in the northern area of Gilgit-Baltistan, and loved every second of our trip! After a few days in Islamabad, we hold residence in Gilgit from which we roamed into different valleys of the mountainous region. The hospitality of the Pakistani people, wherever we went, was one-of-a-kind. Cups of tea by the dozens, chatting about everything, the constant warm welcome, made Pakistan one of our top countries in Asia for us. And if you wonder, see what we think whether it’s safe to travel in Pakistan.
Top Pakistan Attractions:
- Accept one of the numerous invitations for tea. And if you get the opportunity, try the salt tea!
- Trek one of the trails to some of the highest mountains in the world in the Hushe Valley
- Explore small villages like Machollo and treat yourself with drying apricots
- Learn about the Kalash culture, one of the non-muslim communities in Pakistan
- Go village to village in the Phander Valley
- And with so much to explore in the south of Pakistan, plenty of travel plans from cities to amazing landscapes and terrific hospitality.
Pakistan Photo Gallery
Tajikistan: Pamir Highway to Heaven
The Pamir Highway might see more travelers than Pakistan or Mongolia in the summer, but it’s still no Paris or Grand Canyon. Head in the Fall for stunning vistas and almost no crowd, which will make you feel you are the only one on the road. And in many instances, we were the only ones on the road!
Of course, Tajikistan is more than just the Pamir mountains, and places like Dushanbe and Khujand are worth exploring.
Tajikistan Things to Do
- Drive the Pamir Highway and make sure to head to the Wakhan Corridor as well
- Hike one of the trails in the Pamir mountains and explore the high mountains
- Visit Khujand close to the Uzbekistan border
Tajikistan Photo Gallery
Uzbekistan: The Disappearing Aral Sea
Our month-long travel in Uzbekistan took us to the popular sites of Samarkand, Khiva, and Bukhara, but we managed to explore the remote area of the Aral Sea. A unique destination for sure, the sad disappearance of the massive water resource has impacted the region dramatically. The area features a different kind of wow effect and is packed with a history going back to the Silk Road era. A tragic and moving must-see.
Uzbekistan Top Attractions:
Uzbekistan Photo Gallery
Turkmenistan: Burning Gates of Hell
Turkmenistan is probably one of the most mysterious countries as getting a visa to visit this tiny Central Asia destination is one of the most difficult and one of the highest percentages of reject. We managed to get a 5-day transit visa, which we used to see some of the top attractions. Our experience in Turkmenistan was a mixed bag, but when it comes to unique destinations, the country definitely fits.
- Darvaza Gates of Hell
- Ashgabat extravaganza
- Ancient Merv
Turkmenistan Photo Gallery
We had planned to visit Afghanistan, especially the Wakhan Corridor. The late fall season and the snowfalls at higher elevations meant that most of the villages and trails we wanted to explore were difficult to reach. Unfortunately, we had to skip Afghanistan, but we hope to return in the future for more adventures in the Wakhan Valley.
Have you been to any of these countries? Any other country you think should be listed? What is on your travel list for 2020?
Stay tuned for more adventures
from our travel around the world!
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