WHEN American surfer Robert Koke discovered Bali’s Kuta in 1936, it was a fishing village on a half-deserted coast. In the 1960s, Singapore was edged with hardscrabble fishing shacks where one could lose themselves in card halls and opium dens. And when full-moon parties began on Thailand’s Koh Phangan island in the mid-1980s, the events were friendly and free.
Today those destinations are commercialised and crowded, unrecognisable from their former selves. But in the great travel cornucopia that is Asia, there’s always another Koh Phangan around the corner.
Here’s our list of five new holiday destinations in Asia. They may take longer to get to than the usual haunts, the food can be “interesting” and hotels will be hit and miss. But the view from your room will be unobstructed and you won’t have trouble finding a beach, or lookout, all to yourself.
At Koh Phayam's Buffalo Bay cove, you can still have a beach all to yourself. Picture: I
At Koh Phayam's Buffalo Bay cove, you can still have a beach all to yourself. Picture: Ian Neubaue
Koh Phayam, Thailand
Some 300km north of Phuket is a small, mountainous kangaroo-shaped island called Koh Phayam. Surrounded by sand-ringed islets, coral reefs and the turquoise Andaman Sea, Koh Phayam’s raw beauty is truly breathtaking.
A throwback to the Thailand of yesteryear, Koh Phayam is devoid of cars and high-rise apartments.
Full moon parties, when they have them, are intimate affairs held at Hippy Bar, a beachfront venue made entirely from driftwood.
Travellers who end up on this Robinson Crusoe-esque island kill time mountain biking, kayaking, snorkelling, lounging on the beach and gorging themselves on cheap and delicious Thai food. Hybrid Thai-Italian massaman curry pasta is a specialty, as are the island-grown cashew nuts stir-fried with chicken, garlic and black bean sauce.
Accommodation options are spartan, consisting for the most part of bamboo bungalows with patchy Wi-Fi and swinging light bulbs that work only at night.
Most are built around Aow Yai and Ao Khao Kwai bays, two long sweeps of powder-white sand that curve deeply into rocky outcrops honeycombed with caves. There are a few more modern concrete properties but they tend to lack soul.
“Koh Phayam has a calming effect. The days pass very quickly here but you enjoy every second of it,” says Linda Chevrier, whose French father established Aow Yai Bungalows, the island’s first bungalow complex in the
late 1980s. “I’m curious to see how the island changes year after year, and hope it will stay the same.”
Nok Air (nokair.com) flies daily from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport to Ranong starting at $80. Aow Yai Bungalows (aowyai.com , +66 83 389 8688) has beachfront shacks from $12-$28.
Asian destinations you should see right now
Port Nido, the northern most town of Palawan and gateway to the spectacular Bacuit Archipelago. Picture: Ian Neubauer
Palawan, The Philippines
Known as “The Last Frontier” of the Philippines, this 400km-long island north of Borneo is the stuff adventure is made of with vast swathes of jungle, long empty beaches and some of the most awesome geological phenomena on the planet.
A two-hour drive from the sleepy capital Puerto Princesa is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, a 8.2km-long underground canal and one of the New7Wonders of the World – areas of outstanding beauty as judged in a global voting campaign.
About half the length of the cave can be explored in guided canoe trips that depart from nearby Sabang Beach.
From Sabang continue north to Port Barton, a tranquil cove named after a British colonel who surveyed the area in the 1940s.
The sand is like powder and the water is transparent and still as a lagoon. There’s nothing much to do here but sunbake and swim.
A day’s drive from Port Barton on rickety, windy roads is El Nido – the Nest – the beachfront town where Alex Garland wrote the seminal Asian travel novelThe Beach.
El Nido is the jumping-off point for the Bacuit Archipelago, a series of interlinked coves and bays pockmarked with colossal rock formations called karsts that explode from the sea.
Yet the real treasure of Palawan is its people, a curious breed of religious greenies who are fluent in English and practically fall over one another to help travellers in need.
“They have a compassion for strangers that personally I find outstanding,” says Puerto Princessa Mayor Edward Hagedorn.
Cebu Pacific (cebupacificair.com ; 02 9119 2956) has return airfare from Sydney via Manila to Puerto Princessa for $1012. Ysobelle’s Beach Resort (email@example.com; +63/2 437 9386) at Port Barton has bungalows and townhouses from $25 a night.
Motorbike are the best way to explore Dong Van in Vietnam. Picture: Ian Neubauer
Motorbike are the best way to explore Dong Van in Vietnam. Picture: Ian Neubauer
Dong Van, Vietnam
For more than 20 years, backpackers and trekking junkies have poured into a Sapa, a former French hill station in the epic mountains of northern Vietnam.
But a hotel construction boom has turned the hill-station town into a tourist trap and indelibly changed the nature of its indigenous hill-tribe people.
To see what Vietnam’s far north was like before the tourist boom head to Ha Giang Province instead.
A land of towering limestone crags and peaks, sunflower-sown valleys and hillsides carpeted with rice terraces, Ha Giang is a real-life Shangri-La.
It’s northernmost district is Dong Van, a high-altitude plateau recognised by UNESCO in 2010 as Vietnam’s first global geo-park for its imposing geography and rich historical sites.
They include the town of Dong Van, a warren of cobblestone alleyways lined with French flagstone buildings bracing the Chinese border, and Nha Vua Meo, the palace of the Hmong king.
See the Hmong king’s descendants in their colourful traditional clothes selling fresh ginseng, handmade rice noodles and slabs of tofu at the market in Meo Vac, a Soviet-era city close to Dong Van town.
“In Sapa the people are now used to tourists and they are not too interested in being friendly,” said Anh Tuan Nguyen of Mototours Asia, who runs motorbike tours in northern Vietnam. “But in Dong Van, they’re very happy to see you.”
Air Asia (airasia.com ; 1300 760 330) flies from Perth to Hanoi via Kuala Lumpur from $566 return or from the Gold Coast from $607 return. MotoTours Asia (mototoursasia.com ; +84 979 900 800) offer eight-day guided motorbike tours from Hanoi to Dong Van with homestay accommodation for $1500.
Colombo, Sri Lanka: Arcade Independence Square, a luxury retail precinct encasing a inner
Colombo, Sri Lanka: Arcade Independence Square, a luxury retail precinct encasing a inner courtyard blinged with granite statues and floodlit fountain. Picture: Ian
Colombo, Sri Lanka
When Sri Lanka was catapulted on to Asia’s list of must-see destinations last year, reports focused on the country’s beaches, wildlife and tea plantations. Yet relatively little has been written about the capital Colombo and the urban rejuvenation project that commenced in 2009 following the end of the 26-year civil war.
Set in one of the world’s largest artificial harbours, the central business district of Fort is an exotic mixture of buildings from Colombo’s Dutch, Portuguese and British past.
See Gale Face Green, a large ocean-front park that comes alive with kite flyers on weekends, the neo-baroque Old Parliament Building and the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital.
Transformed into a palazzo-style dining precinct in 2011, it’s home to two of Colombo’s most sophisticated eateries. Ministry of Crab requires no elaboration and Colombo Fort Cafe, is the signature Mediterranean open-style dining room of Harpo Gooneratne, Colombo’s most prolific restaurateur.
South of Fort is Cinnamon Gardens, a former cinnamon-growing region that reigns as Colombo’s swankiest address.
Streets lined with fig trees, embassies and luxury hotels converge on to a Parisian-style boulevard, home to the city’s most iconic landmarks.
These include Independence Hall, the Prime Minister’s Office and Arcade Independence Square, a luxury retail precinct encasing an inner courtyard with granite statues and floodlit fountains.
“The revitalisation of the old buildings wasn’t done for tourism, but to make us feel proud of how clean and tidy our city is,” says Gooneratne.
Emirates (emirates.com; 1300 303 777) flies from Melbourne to Sri Lanka via Singapore from $1027 return. Cinnamon Red Colombo (cinnamonhotels.com; +94 112 306 600) in Cinnamon Gardens is a quirky hotel with rock-star rooftop pool. From $104 a night.
Komodo National Park in Flores, Indonesia is an island paradise for diving and exploring.
Komodo National Park in Flores, Indonesia is an island paradise for diving and exploring. Picture: iStock
It may be only a 90-minute flight east of Bali, but Flores remains a mystery to travellers. Last year, Flores attracted 60,000 visitors – less than 2 per cent of the number that swarmed to Bali. Most of those visiting Flores went for one reason: to see a Komodo dragon.
The dragons are the largest lizards on Earth, ghastly creatures that grow to nearly 3m in length and are known to eat buffaloes, their babies and, occasionally, people.
Komodo dragons live on only two islands on Flores’ western tip, Komodo and
They are part of Komodo National Park, another hotspot heralded in the New7Wonders of the World.
The warm waters between Komodo National Park and Labuan Bajo, the ramshackle harbour town servicing Komodo Airport, are in pristine condition.
They are home to more than 20 word-class dive sites, including Manta Point, the second best place to swim with giant manta rays after Queensland’s Lady Elliott Island. Whale sharks, dolphins and marine turtles are also common, along with carpets of brightly coloured coral reef.
Fancy a trek with a difference? Try Mt Kelimutu in Central Flores. After completing the dawn ascent to the 1713m-high peak, visitors are treated to views of multi-coloured lakes that vary from red to blue to green according to the seasons.
“Being named as one of the New7Wonders brought great attention to Flores and a sense of anticipation,” says Richard Collins of the Komodo Yacht Club. “We’re all wondering what’s coming next.”
Garuda (www.garuda-indonesia.com ; 1300 365 331) flies daily from Bali to Komodo Airport on Flores from $140. Blue Marline Dive Komodo (bluemarlinkomodo.com; +62 812 3775 7892) in Labuan Bajo has a dive centre, rooftop restaurant, dorms for $20 a night and modern suites for $95 a night.