I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month. For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.
10. Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
late July in Walnut Garden
By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking. During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.
Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.
The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?
9. Gili Islands, Indonesia
girls night in a bamboo hut
There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.
Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.
You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi. Prepare to wade ashore.
8. Malapascua Island, The Philippines
beach at Logon
This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.
The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.
Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.
7. Mui Ne, Vietnam
Suoi Tien fairy spring
For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.
Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.
When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ Station, Wax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.
6. Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
turquoise tinted waters
Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.
Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.
(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)
5. Yangshuo, China
cycling through Aishanmen village
For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.
I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!
4. Luang Prabang, Laos
Mekong River at sunset
You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.
Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)
3. Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia
beach on our doorstep
When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.
2. Pokhara Valley, Nepal
Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.
Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!
((Drum Roll please…))
1. Varkala, India
frisbee at dusk
If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.
Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.
From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.
If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.
My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.
There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.
hammocks at Secret Garden Homestay
sea view from Juice Shack balcony
New Year’s Eve at Secret Garden