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Friday, May 21, 2010

Top 5 off-beaten path Asian destinations

1. Gili Islands, Indonesia

Nestled alongside the Muslim island of Lombac, two hours by boat from the popular tourist island of Bali lie the Gili islands. The largest of the three, Gili Tranwangen, can be circumnavigated in a few hours with a bike. White sand beaches with warm, crystal clear turquoise waters welcome surround each island, collectively known as the turtle capital of the world. No vehicles are allowed on any of the three Gilis, so visitors must travel by foot, bike, or traditional horse-drawn carriage. Many of the beach-side restaurants serve up a fresh seafood bar-b-cue feast each evening with a late-night party three times per week at one of the local bars. Adventure travelers can enjoy stunning scuba diving along reefs, drop-offs and sunken ships with the opportunity to see an elusive sun fish. Kayaks, bikes, and snorkel gear are available for rent along many of the beaches for guests to cycle off to their own private beach for a day of sun.

2. Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Phu Quoc island, an hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, boasts beaches rivaling Thailand's without the resort development. The quiet beaches with their warm, gentle waters are best enjoyed in the winter months, when Vietnam's other beach towns of Hoi An and Nha Trang experience more inclement weather. Find yourself a quiet bungalow on the beach and laze away the days soaking up the sun, snorkeling, diving, or squid fishing in this untouched, lazy beach town.

3. Ulan Bator, Mongolia

The vast steppes of Mongolia, north of China offer some of the most pristine landscapes in the world. Ulan Bator, the capitol city of Mongolia, serves as the jumping-off point for visitors to this largely nomadic nation. Time your visit with the annual summer Nadam festivals and enjoy the archery, horse racing, dancing, and singing. Stay with a Mongolian family, known for hospitality, in a traditional ger, or tent, while you dine on sheep's head soup or fermented mare's milk. Spend the days on horseback traveling through the wide-open plains, or venture by camel into the Gobi desert. For the truly adventurous, visit Mongolia in the winter to experience sub-zero temperatures as you explore the snowy lands by dog sled.

4. Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa, the birthplace of Tibetan Buddhism, sits at an elevation of over 11,000 feet. Dine on traditional mutton and beef as you explore the palaces and temples of this religious city. Of particular interest is the Potala Palace. The former residence of the Dalai Lama is now a museum. Plan your visit from March to October and give yourself enough time in the city to adjust to the high altitude.

5. Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, located in the northern region of Cambodia, is home to the temples of Angkor Wat. The civil war and Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 1980s made Siem Reap and neighboring Angkor Wat largely inaccessible to tourists, but the country has since experienced a boost in tourism to the famed temple complex. Hire a tour guide and tuk-tuk and spend your days exploring the many temples scattered throughout the Angkor complex. Make sure to see the Bayon, covered with 216 faced of Avalokiteshvara, Ta Prohm, made famous by the film Tomb Raider, and the main Angkor Wat temple depicted on the flag of Cambodia. As the temple grounds close for the evening, head back to the sleepy town to experience traditional Khmer cuisine or a late-night drink at one of the many local watering holes.

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