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10 Off-the-Beaten-Path Trip Ideas in Asia

Hong Kong India Japan Cambodia South Korea Taiwan Vietnam Chiang Mai Mumbai Insider Guides
by Sarah Park Feb 4, 2015

1. Get out of the city

Getting out of the city lets you see what a region is really all about once you strip away the shopping malls and air-conditioning. Visiting Seoul was fun, but the most memorable trip I took with my family was to a mountain monastery outside of the city. Sleeping on the ground hurt my back, the heat was uncomfortable, and the kimchi barrel stank, but I can still remember the faces of the people we met and bonded with over the course of a TV-less few days.

Anne Merritt’s guide to South Korea, Beyond Seoul highlights some lesser-known areas outside of the big city.

2. Release your inner 8-year-old

Maybe not be the most adventurous option, but you’ll be seeing a side of Asia few seek out. My 8-year-old self stomps her foot and demands that I check out every spot on Valerie Insinna’s Hello Kitty Tour Around Japan and Taiwan.

Japanese pop culture has a serious soft spot for all things kawaii, so this seems like a logical starting point for a cute-hunting tour of Asia.

3. Eat

My favorite part of traveling is sampling the local cuisine. Taking a cue from Valerie Ng, I’d like to branch out and try something less expected off the menu. I’d start by crossing every dish off her list of Korean Food Beyond Bulgogi, then hit the streets in search of some of the world’s best late-night food stands.

Here’s what Sascha Matuszak says about Hong Kong and Canton in The World’s Best Cities for Late Night Food:

Both of these places have great late night food, but the true treat here is the fresh seafood BBQ that can be had near the docks and around the fish markets.
In China, fish markets close down around 6 or 7 PM and begin to BBQ whatever wasn’t sold that day. Choose from a thousand different types of mussels, clams, oysters, shrimp, calamari and other weird and exciting grill-ables.

If a food tour of Asia is in your future, be sure to review Robin Esrock’s tips on How to Travel in India and NOT Get Sick.

4. Volunteer

Throughout my travels, I have never left a place feeling like I truly made a positive impact. Volunteering is one way to make your time spent go toward helping out the local community, and is something I’ve always wanted to try.

Finding the right organization and the right cause can be an overwhelming process. Jantra Jacobs’ Volunteering in Chiang Mai lists several organizations with opportunities ranging from gardening duties, working with children, and even giving baths to elephants.

Recently profiled on Matador, Atma — a Mumbai-based organization — accepts volunteer applications for those who are interested in helping other NGOs get off the ground.

5. Motorbike Cambodia

Dirt bikes are no joke — the last time I was on one, my arms turned to jelly and my only thought was “this is how I’m going to die.” Allen Burt’s photo essay, however, clearly shows just how well suited Cambodia is to be discovered by motorcycle. After browsing his photos, this is one risk I definitely want to take.

Before I commit, though, I’ll have to print and memorize Rhys Stacker’s tips for beginners in Easy Riding: How to Travel by Motorcycle and Escape the Crowds. His piece also highlights some interesting motorcycle routes in Thailand and Vietnam.

6. Look deeper

You don’t always need to leave the the city behind to travel off the beaten path. One of my favorite things to do while traveling through highly trafficked areas is to try to notice the smaller details others might overlook.

Allison Heiliczer illustrates this perfectly in Photo Essay: Hong Kong Portraits and Cuisine. Hers is a Hong Kong many tourists fail to notice during their rush to “do” Victoria’s Harbor, the Giant Buddha, and The Peak.

7. Explore Borneo

Borneo doesn’t seem to be included on many itineraries through Southeast Asia. Christina Koukkos’ Dive Guide to Malaysian Borneo first caught my attention. After a bit more research, I was daydreaming about a leech-y jungle adventure in the Kelabit Highlands:

Sarawak trekking takes more than a little slogging through muddy, leech infested territory. As you remove your sock to flick off what seems like the thousandth bloodsucker to wriggle its way through the mesh of your boot, you may find yourself questioning your choice of destination.

Surrounding you, though, will be some of the most bio-diverse forest in the world: home to 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, and 221 species of terrestrial mammals.

At the end of the day, safe and dry in a jungle hut with a stomach full of rice and tasty jungle vegetables, you won’t find yourself regretting a trip to Sarawak.

For more inspiration, check out Jorge Santiago’s photo essay.

8. See the future

I had no idea that visiting fortune tellers was such a widespread cultural phenomenon in many Asian countries. Honestly, I thought it was just my mom’s wacky hobby.

After reading Mary Richardson’s experience with Visiting a Local Fortune Teller in Okinawa, I’m pretty eager to give this a try.

9. Work on an organic farm

Through World Wide Opportunies on Organic Farms (WWOOF), Jessica Aves headed to rural Japan and came back with a newfound love for garlic:

My host dices raw garlic and throws it into the spaghetti. I’m wary. At home in the United States, I only bought prepared garlic in glass jars (the French girl thought that was odd) and it’s only served cooked or baked. Eat it raw? I balked. I tasted. I fell in love. I buried my face in my hands to catch the scent when people weren’t looking.

I’m convinced. If there’s a chance I might discover a new taste for something I’ve yet to eat, count me in. WWOOFing in Asia also sounds like a great way to explore more rural, agricultural areas, and to live a lifestyle that’s closer to what the locals experience.

Volunteering on an organic farm generally means you’ll be fed well and housed in exchange for your help. WWOOF lists national organizations in several Asian countries, including China, India, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.

10. Revisit history

The 20th century brought tremendous sadness to many Asian nations, but as a traveler, I find it important to understand the history around the places we visit.

Chris Tharp’s list of Seven Asian War Destinations is a great resource to find memorials, museums, and other sites of historical significance. High on my list to visit is Korea’s DMZ:

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) bisects the whole of the Korean peninsula, acting as a buffer between the two countries. It’s four kilometers wide and, apart from being the most heavily armed border in the world, is very surreal. You know you’re visiting a place that could erupt in violence at any moment.

This article was originally published on January 14, 2011. 

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