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Chiang Mai, Thailand? Been there. Bali, Indonesia? Done that. If you’ve checked all of the major Asian tourist spots off your bucket list, it’s time to think outside the box. From Mongolia to Myanmar, and Bangladesh to Bhutan, here are 17 unbelievable, underrated places in Asia that people don’t talk enough about.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery, Mongolia
With a name meaning “Monastery of the Tranquil Felicity,” or “Calm Bliss” in Mongolian, Amarbayasgalant Monastery is one of the biggest and most beautiful monasteries in Mongolia. Located along the Iron River in a remote, mountainous valley, the monastery’s serene setting imparts a sense of peace and harmony to those who pay a visit.
Built between 1727 and 1736, the monastery is extremely well-preserved, even after being looted during the Communist purge of 1937. It contains four courtyards and 28 temples — six of which are open to visitors. Built by Zanabazar, the first Buddhist leader of Mongolia, the monastery has roughly 40 to 50 monks in residence and also contains Zanabazar’s memorial tomb, making it an important pilgrimage site for Mongolian Buddhists.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Located in Myanmar’s Shan State, Inle Lake is a unique body of water known for its floating villages and gardens. The 78-square-mile lake is home to the Tibeto-Burman Intha people, who live entirely on the water. Not only are residential homes built above the water on stilts, but the region’s food source is also afloat. Using seagrass and water hyacinth to stay buoyant, floating gardens take up one-quarter of the lake’s surface, with local growers producing tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, flowers, and gourds.
The lake is also famous for its fishermen who steer one-man boats in a unique way, wrapping one leg around an oar. Visitors can book a boat trip from the town of Nyuangshwe to see the lake or rent a bicycle to explore the lake’s easternmost section and visit the nearby Red Mountain Estate Vineyard and Maing Thauk Monastery.
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Located in one of the least-visited countries in the world, Bandar Seri Begawan isn’t on most travelers’ radars. But when people finally make the trip to the capital of Brunei, they’re always pleasantly surprised. Famous for its grand gold dome, the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque features imported Italian marble and elaborate English chandeliers.
Visitors must also stop by the Royal Regalia Museum, an impressive (and free) museum that contains rare artifacts owned by the sultan, such as jewels, gold relics, and a modern-day chariot from 1992. To learn more about the sultanate, the sultan’s lavish residential palace, Istana Nurul Iman, can be viewed from the outside, while the interior can be visited three days a year.
Located 15 miles from the capital of Dushanbe, Hisor Fortress is over 2,000 years old and was once the region’s central settlement. As a bustling trading post along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route that linked China and Rome, Hisor Fortress has been an important center of commerce for centuries. As a result, it’s been sacked, destroyed, and rebuilt several times, with such famous conquerors as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.
After entering through the iconic fortress gates, visitors can wander through the former market square and the Old Madrasah, an educational building that dates back to the 1500s. There are also two ancient mosques and a more recent mausoleum from the 16th century. The caravanserai, built in 1808, once housed traders who traveled to Hisor on the Silk Road — its heated rooms were once considered the epitome of luxury for weary travelers.
Although Bhutan is the least-visited country in the world, it’s also one of the happiest. Situated in the Eastern Himalayas, the capital of Thimphu serves as the center for government, religion, and commerce — all of which make it an ideal stop for tourists who want to experience Bhutanese culture.
Although the city is home to plenty of religious sites and monasteries, one of Thimphu’s most popular spots is the Buddha Dordenma Statue, a 170-foot-tall gilded statue and one of the largest Buddhas in the world. If you’ve ever wondered about Bhutan’s highly-revered national animal, the takin, the Motithang Takin Preserve allows you to see the strange-looking creature up close. And watching archers hit moving targets at the Changlimithang Stadium and Archery Ground will help you understand just how seriously the Bhutanese take their national sport.
Kuang Si, Laos
A mere 20 miles from the ancient city of Luang Prabang, the Kuang Si waterfalls are a little-known natural wonder. Named after a mystical golden deer that was discovered beneath the falls according to Laotian legend, Kuang Si roughly translates to “deer dig.” Located in the thick jungle, these ethereal falls cascade over limestone cliffs, forming pools that range from turquoise to opalescent blue.
The most popular activities at Kuang Si are swimming and hiking, with brave travelers jumping into the pools’ deepest sections or taking the steep climb to the top of falls. There’s also a footbridge that provides ideal views of the main waterfall and is perfect for snapping photos. The area is also home to an Asiatic Black Bear Rescue, which houses adorable moon bears, in addition to a lovely butterfly sanctuary.
Also known as East Timor, Timor-Leste receives approximately 60,000 visitors per year, making it one of the least-visited countries in the world. As a fairly new sovereign state (Timor-Leste achieved independence from Indonesia in May 2002), the Southeast Asian country is relatively unknown, although it offers a variety of unique and adventurous travel experiences.
The capital of Dili is known for Cristo Rei, a large statue of Jesus Christ that overlooks the water and provides ample views of the city and beyond. Away from the city, the region’s spectacular marine life is on display at Atauro Island, and climbing Mount Ramelau, the highest peak in the country, is a rewarding challenge for trekkers. But perhaps the most exciting adventure awaits at Lake Ira Lalaro, a half-sunken forest filled with one of Timor-Leste’s most sacred animals, the crocodile.
As the largest mangrove forest in the world, Sundarbans is not for the faint of heart. Instead, it’s a thrilling adventure that takes visitors deep into one of the world’s deepest jungles. As a vast and secluded ecosystem, Sundarbans is home to exotic animals, such as Bengal tigers, wild boars, Rhesus monkeys, and a whopping 260 species of birds.
Legend has it that within the mangrove livesguardian spirit called goddess Bonbibi, or “Lady of the Forest,” who is worshiped by locals of both Hindu and Muslim faith. Although it can be difficult to visit this remote outpost, boat tours can be booked in the Bangladesh town of Khulna. These tours require three days of travel, with sleeping accommodations provided on the boat.
Mountains cover 93% of Tajikistan’s landscape, and the country’s scenery is consistently breathtaking. And with thousands of rivers and lakes in these mountains, Tajikistan contains the highest water reserves in all of Asia. Of these reserves, one of the most stunning is Iskanderkul, a glacial lake shaped like a triangle in the Fann Mountains. The lake is named after Alexander the Great, since local legend claims his horse climbs out of the lake during a full moon.
Located 7,201 feet above sea level, the striking blue lake measures 1.3 square miles and is an astonishing 236 feet deep. To stay the evening or explore the lake, there are lakeside cottages and boats available to rent. When used as a home base, Iskanderkul also offers many adventures into the mountains, such as the short hike to Iskanderkul Waterfall or the more strenuous trek up the “Hat of Alexander,” a mountain shaped like Alexander the Great’s hat.
Dochula Pass, Bhutan
Located on a mountainous road that links the cities of Thimphu and Punakha, Dochula Pass offers panoramic views of the Himalayas at 10,000 feet. Although it’s only 14 miles from Thimphu, the drive takes approximately two hours on winding, mountainous roads. The journey is well worth the effort, however, as Dochula Pass is a peaceful sanctuary in the mountains with some of the best views in the region.
Set against the backdrop of Gangkhar Peunsum, one of Bhutan’s unclimbed peaks, Dochula Pass contains 108 chortens (Buddhist monuments) as memorials for Bhutanese soldiers killed in the war against India. The pass is also home to Druk Wangyal Lhakhang, an impressive shrine that pays homage to the Buddha and Royal Family. From Dochula Pass, visitors can also make the two-hour trek to the remote Lungchuzekh Monastery on a scenic mountain trail.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Mongolia
Relatively unknown, Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in Mongolia is a playground for active travelers and one of the country’s most coveted outdoor destinations. Located on the western border between China and Russia, the park contains Mongolia’s most impressive mountains, in addition to plentiful valleys, lakes, rivers, and glaciers, providing no shortage of activities.
Experienced hikers can travel to Mongolia to climb some of the highest peaks in the country, with organized backpacking trips that allow them to access the most remote sections of the park. Altai Tavan Bogd also offers opportunities for horseback riding, whitewater rafting, backcountry skiing, and some of the best fly-fishing in the world. And with petroglyphs, burial mounds, and archeological sites to see, the park also offers cultural experiences.
Kakku Pagodas, Myanmar
Myanmar is home to thousands of temples, but none are as magnificent as the Kakku Pagodas. Located in Shan State, not far from Inle Lake, the complex features 2,478 stuppas over 250 acres. Dating back to when the Indian Emperor Ashoka ruled 2,000 years ago, the pagodas were expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries, made even more impressive by a human-made pool that mirrors their exquisite architecture.
A religious site for the Pa’O (Pa-Oh) people, the pagodas are best to visit during the Kakku Pagoda Festival. Held annually during the 12th month of the Burmese calendar, typically in March, the festival resembles a large market with merchants selling wares from ox-drawn carts. Locals also dress in native costumes to perform traditional song and dance, in addition to bringing offerings to honor the Buddha.
Ulu Temburong National Park, Brunei
Ulu Temburong National Park allows visitors to see a biodiverse rainforest that has barely been touched by civilization. Spanning 123,000 acres of untouched rainforest, the park can only be visited by longboat, which means accessing Ulu Temburong is an adventure in and of itself.
Ulu Temburong is especially famous for its canopy walkway, a death-defying bridge that can be reached via a network of elevated trails. Located 141 feet above sea level, the best time to visit the walkway is at sunrise or sunset, when mist shrouds the distant horizon and the birds begin their calls. Protected under a project called the Heart of Borneo, the park aims to conserve the world’s tropical rainforest with sustainable land management.
Lake Kaindy, Kazakhstan
Deep in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, an eerie forest lurks beneath Lake Kaindy. Just over a century old, the lake formed in 1911, when an earthquake damaged the mountain range, triggering a massive landslide that obstructed the gorge. The natural dam caused the land to be submerged by rainwater to form Lake Kaindy.
Today, the tops of spruce trees continue to peek through the water’s surface, giving the lake a ghostly appearance. Even stranger, Lake Kaindy’s chilly temperatures (as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit) have perfectly preserved the submerged trees, creating an underwater forest that can be spied through the lake’s crystal-clear water. When Lake Kaindy freezes in the winter, some are brave enough to go ice-diving into the chilling depths below, while others go ice-fishing for trout.
Ahsan Manzil, Bangladesh
Located along Bangladesh’s Buriganga River, Ahsan Manzil is a peaceful oasis amidst the bustling capital city of Dhaka. Constructed between 1859 and 1872, the arresting pink palace was once the residence of a sheikh and later became a French trading center. In 1830, it was bought by Khwaja Alimullah, the Nawab of Dhaka, a leadership position given by Queen Victoria under British rule.
Under Alimullah’s stewardship, the palace was renovated, with the additions of a mosque, stable, and massive pink dome. The interior features an octagonal room, an opulent staircase, and porticoes that offer views of the nearby river. Named after the Nawab’s son, the palace was eventually abandoned after his death in 1901. After years of neglect, it was restored in the 1980s and turned into a national museum that preserves the culture and history of the region.
Vat Phou, Laos
Built in the 10th and 11th centuries, Vat Phou translates to “Mountain Temple” in Laotian. Although it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a century older than Angkor Wat, the ancient Khmer temple gets little international recognition. However, the vast, ancient complex is a sight to see, with seven terraces, intricate carvings, and majestic views of the Laotian countryside.
Situated between the Mekong River and the base of the mountains, the temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva before it was converted to a Buddhist monastery. The best time to visit is during the Vat Phou Festival, which occurs annually under a full moon during the third lunar month (usually in February). On the third day of the festival, people congregate at Vat Phou, leaving offerings of flowers and incense in honor of the Buddha.
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Kazakhstan
Located in Nur-Sultan (formerly known as Astana), Kazakhstan’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation opened to the public in 2006 as a meeting space for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. As a building that is meant to embody harmony and accord, the modern-day pyramid is a marvel inside and out. Designed by artist Brian Clarke, the pyramid houses a light-filled atrium featuring a stained-glass ceiling and vertical gardens lining the walls.
The palace houses a 1,500-seat opera house, a museum of national culture, and a library and research center for ethnic groups. With all this in mind, the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation is meant to showcase the various traditions and cultures in Kazakhstan while being inclusive to all.