From an ancient town in Korea to an Indonesian islet that’s home to astunning volcanic crater lake, read on for the best secret cities and little-known towns in Asia we’re dreaming of visiting in 2021
1. Taiping, Malaysia
Perak’s oft-overlooked city
Often overshadowed by its touristy counterparts like Penang and Ipoh, Taiping is a small but historically significant town in the northern Malaysian state of Perak. (It was once the administrative capital of Perak, before it was replaced by Ipoh in the 1930s.) Visiting Taiping feels much like stepping into a page of Malaysia’s history; it’s home to beautiful heritage buildings, like Malaysia’s first-ever museum and railway station, as well as its oldest hill station.
Nature lovers can escape the heat and head up Bukit Larut (previously known as Maxwell Hill), the former stomping grounds for the British, or enjoy a laidback afternoon strolling along the picture-perfect Lake Gardens. Located on the fringes of the city, this lake is lined with ancient trees and you can also opt to rent a bike here. Not to be rivalled by Ipoh, the food here warrants a mention too: head to the Taiping Central Market and devour the must-try chee cheong fun (rice noodles drenched in spicy sauce and sesame seeds) or fishball kway teow (wok-fried noodles served with fishballs) that’s unique to the city, or visit Anton Coffee Mill to discover all about how Malaysian coffee is brewed and made.
To get to Taiping, fly to Kuala Lumpur and hop onboard the ETS train from Kuala Lumpur Sentral. Expect a tree-hour rail journey that takes you through stunning rugged limestone landscapes.
2. Sumatra, Indonesia
Home to Lake Toba, a volcanic lake resulting from Earth’s largest volcanic eruption some 74,000 years ago
Nature- and adventure-loving travellers would be remiss to skip Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. This naturally blessed destination is home to the breathtaking Lake Toba, Southeast Asia’s largest lake that was once the site of the largest volcanic eruption which happened on Earth some 74,000 years ago. The supervolcano has stayed dormant since and today, the stunning ocean-blue natural lake formed among its peaks is arguably the island’s most famous and identifiable attraction. Besides Lake Toba, beachgoers will have plenty of opportunities to soak up some sun, sand and sea in its pristine and deserted beaches like the idyllic Pakkodian Beach, while wildlife lovers should head to its many national parks.
3. Gyeongju, Korea
The former capital of an ancient Korean kingdom
Gyeongju, which was named Korea’s Culture City of East Asia 2021, is often referred to as “the museum without walls”. It’s an apt nickname for the coastal city in the North Gyeongsang province, which boasts an abundance of archaeological sites owing to its almost thousand-year reign as the capital of the ancient Korean kingdom of Silla. Today, it’s protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the Gyeongju Historic Areas, visitors can discover a fascinating collection of Buddhist art from this golden area, which runs the gamut of temple ruins, stone pagodas, royal tombs and an eighth-century statue of Buddha and more.
To get to Gyeongju, take the daily Saemaeul trains from Seoul to Gyeongju station. This direct rail journey operates seven times a day and will take you roughly five hours.
4. Vang Vieng, Laos
A party town reinvented
Encircled by dramatic limestone mountains and lush paddy fields, and nestled on the banks of Cambodia’s Song River and lies the rural town of Vang Vieng. Travellers to this serene and idyllic locale might be surprised to learn that it was once a hedonistic party town popular among Western budget travellers and backpackers. In 2012, the government clamped down on most of the problematic nightlife areas and rebranded Vang Vieng as an eco-paradise. Today, adventure-hungry travellers can enjoy an insatiable host of activities like tubing down the Nam Song River, hiking to the top of the Phangern Mountain, exploring its limestone caves, while those seeking a laidback retreat will love the beaches, sunset cruises on the river, and more.
5. Madurai, India
The cultural heart and soul of Tamil Nadu
Chennai might be Tamil Nadu’s capital, but Madurai is the state’s cultural capital. Sometimes referred to as the Athens of the east, you’ll find innumerable Hindu temples scattered across the city here. Its crowning jewel is undoubtedly the striking Meenakshi temple, which sits in the center of the city, and is characterised by fourteen gopurams towering above walls. However, temples aren’t its only cultural hit: this city, known for its banana leaf dishes, boasts cuisine that is among the spiciest and aromatic in all of India.
6. Kampot, Cambodia
A glimpse into French-era colonial Cambodia
While the first stop in Cambodia is usually Angkor Wat, few tourists stray into the serene coastal town of Kampot. Best known for its stunning river scenery and pepper farms, it’s now gained a reputation as one of the prettiest small towns in the region. Here, you’ll find pedestrian-friendly streets lined with colourful French colonial shops and eateries, and plenty of outdoor activities for your picking. Arrange for a day trip through the lush countryside, and discover the sprawling paddy fields, cave temples, waterfalls, reflective salt fields and, of course, its pepper farms.
7. Bhopal, India
India’s “city of lakes”
Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, is home to a surprising number of reservoirs and water bodies, hence earning itself the moniker as “the city of lakes”. Owing to centuries of Islamic rule, you’ll also find various well-preserved historic sites and places of worship here, including India’s largest mosque, Taj-ul-Masajid. The stunning mosque, which became fully constructed only in 1985, features a pink façade topped by two towering minarets and three majestic marble domes. There are ample opportunities for wildlife appreciation in this city too: escape the city and venture to the Van Vihar National Park, an open zoo concept that lets you get up close with animals.
8. Quy Nhon, Vietnam
An up-and-coming seaside gem in Vietnam
With its stunning promenades and tidy, litter-free streets, Quy Nhon (pronounced ‘hwee ngon’), the capital of Binh Dinh province, is a popular destination for the retired well-heeled Vietnamese. While its northern counterpart Nha Trang has exploded in popularity in recent years, Quy Nhon still falls under-the-tourist-radar. Venture north or south of its popular beachfront promenade to discover deserted beaches you can enjoy some peace and quiet on. Besides its stellar beaches, Quy Nhon is also home to the ancient centuries-old Cham ruins and is also the gateway to the pretty cove beach of Bai Xep. Do sample the fresh seafood here, but be sure to enjoy some grub at the crop of cool new cafes and bars that have emerged in recent years. Thanks to the launch of a boutique 12-seater carriage on a daily return route between Da Nang and Quy Nhon, getting here is easier. The wood- and marble-strewn Vietage train has been developed by high-end hotel group Anantara to serve guests riding between its luxe outposts in both cities.