David Wilson picks five prize destinations that are virtually tourist-free — for now.
So you want to go somewhere fresh, somewhere with fizz, and buck convention. Asia hosts scores of attractive and easily overlooked destinations that offer value for money and off-the-beaten-track magic lost to favourites such as Phuket and Bali. The following places to watch are yet to be besieged by backpackers, flashpackers, families and convention-bound executives.
Just remember: wherever you go in the region, watch for the traffic. Across much of Asia, which is sorely short of footpaths, traffic runs amok – to use a word that comes from the Malay for "mad with rage".
A T-shirt shop slogan nails Melaka's quirky mood. "To lah or not to lah . . . that is the question," it says, in a nod to the Malays' liberal use of the L-word. Melaka's repeatedly colonised World Heritage-listed melting pot teems with boutiques and hosts the magnificent Zheng He Tea House in Chinatown – a hub of information (consult the establishment's managers). The quirkiness peaks in the heritage area radiating out from Chinatown. Expect everything from pineapple tarts and murals of Chinese immortals to kittens and floral tri-shaws blasting out Boney M. Melaka also boasts two Ferris wheels and two temples (one Buddhist, one Hindu) that serve free food. For a hidden gem within a hidden gem, visit Chinatown's Limau-Limau Cafe (phone +6012 698 4917). Then there are the big – well, medium-sized – ticket draws: the shocking pink Stadthuys Museum and the Portuguese galleon replica that embodies Melaka's diverse identity, lah. See melaka.net.
Even the name sounds beguiling. Tourists to Uttar Pradesh do not so much say it as breathe it. One of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, Varanasi doubles as India's cultural capital. Highlights include golden temples, Ganges cruises, a silk factory, an observatory, a bird's-eye-view mosque (Alamgir) and ghats (riverside steps deployed for ritual baths). If you dabble in these waters, try to forget the sewerage pipes and sunken corpses resulting from funerals. This sacred city of light dubbed "the beating heart of the Hindu universe" oozes escapism with hippie overtones that linger like incense. The slogan of one guesthouse, the Groovy Ganges, says it all: "Check-in: whenever; checkout: no hurry." See varanasicity.com.
In the eyes of believers, this Himalayan waterside retreat is the ultimate beauty spot. All about setting, the mountain-fringed Nepalese Shangri La boasts lovely lakes including that devourer of memory card megabytes, Phewa, which is surrounded by monkey-filled forest. Pokhara has few culture-vulture venues, just the odd museum. Otherwise there is a shop that sells herb wine and "wild honey beeswax lip cream". Further afield wild lotus and swans may be seen. A doubter might say that Pokhara has no more to offer than Byron Bay. But Pokhara is calmer and cheaper – many travellers visit Nepal expressly to live on little or nothing. What's more, Pokhara serves as a gateway to that spectacular massif whose name means Goddess of the Harvest, Annapurna. See nepaltravelinfo.com/pokhara.
Few Chinese towns possess more depth than this mountain-ringed time warp. Set in panda country, Langzhong was the birthplace of the Chinese calendar inventor Luo Xiahong. Langzhong doubles as the burial place of Zhang Fei, a general from the turbulent Three Kingdoms age after the imperial Han Dynasty collapsed. What's more, Langzhong is linked with famous poets and displays a wealth of traditional Sichuan architecture. Among the most memorable buildings are the Five Dragons and Big Buddha temples. For anyone wanting to quickly grasp the spirit of China without breathing pea-soup fog Langzhong, which dates back two millennia, appears perfect. See www.chinaculture.org (click Travel in China, then Historical Cities, Batch II).
Picture pink sunrises and bloodshot sunsets. Envisage multiple explosions of wildflowers and blossoms. Imagine wild monkeys, towering waterfalls, "onsens" (hot springs) and giant turtles. That's Yakushima, a remote granite island south of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Despite its UNESCO World Heritage-listed status,Yakushima has a lost-world feel reminiscent of England's Scilly Isles during slow season. Despite being just 25 kilometres wide, Yakushima supports variety. The high peaks, snowcapped in winter, contrast with mangrove-speckled subtropical flatlands that hug the coastline. The catch is copious rain. Still, few sensations are more exhilarating than a hot spring dip during a downpour. See yakumonkey.com.