Happy year of the Monkey to all my followers and fans out there! I’m currently sitting and chilling here in southern Vietnam, eating and drinking with my relatives as I celebrate the new lunar year. I have 5 weeks here before going to the Philippines after. Side fact: By the time I visit the Philippines, I would have been to both Vietnam and Philippines 6 times. Crazy eh? Anyway, to celebrate the year of the monkey, I’d figured to tell you guys of where you can go that are alternatives to popular Asian destinations that are just as good, if not better. Now, these alternatives to popular Asian destinations might take a little bit more work than their more touristy brethren, but I guarantee you that you will not leave unhappy.
Alternatives to Popular Asian Destinations #1: El Nido, Philippines Instead of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Having been there, I will have to admit that Ko Phi Phi is a very pretty island and that the surrounding areas are also quite pretty as well, especially the Krabi seascape. Even with that though, the heavy development, obnoxiously drunk foreigners running around, and piles of trash everywhere tend to kill that tropical paradise feeling.
Instead of Phi Phi, go to El Nido in the Philippines. You have some of the most gorgeous backdrops ever if you’re into the whole limestone rising out of the sea thing, and gorgeous islands and bays and lagoons for you to go swimming in. Snorkeling is decent, but really, El Nido’s beauty is beyond word. One amazing to do is to go camping on one of the deserted islands. That far from light pollution, you’ll be able to see the entire Milky Way Galaxy above you. While El Nido is quite more touristy compared to how it was when I first visited in 2012 (back then, it was literally a small fishing village, with only 1 hostel and like 4 hotels and 1 bar), it’s still nowhere the level that Koh Phi Phi and the rest of Thailand is. The people are friendly and nice, the prices are still cheap, and it still, so far, has managed to retain its quaint fishing village atmosphere. Before, El Nido had the reputation of drawing people and keeping them there for months (or years) on end. While now it might not be the same with the increase in backpackers, Koreans, and Chinese tourists, it’s still far better than Ko Phi Phi. Don’t come expecting a crazy party scene though. There are like one or two bars, but hey, when rum and coke is only $1usd, what more can you ask for?
Bonus: If you really want to see how El Nido was 4-5 years back, go to Port Barton, which is 4 hours south of El Nido. There are usually like 10 tourists max here. The rest are all locals. Very friendly, very pretty, and just as affordable.
Extra bonus: If you want to go even more non-touristy, head 2 hours south of El Nido to a place called San Vicente. There are 2-3 guesthouses and…that’s it. Just you, 5 locals, and 14km stretch of white sand beach. Get here soon. Development has already started to turn this into Boracay #2.
How to get there: Fly to Manila from wherever you are, then take Cebu Pacific Air to Puerto Princesa. From there, take a tricycle to the northern bus station, where you can board a van or bus for the 6 hour ride north to El Nido/Port Barton.
Alternatives to Popular Asian Destinations #2: Taipei, Taiwan Instead of Singapore
Having lived in Singapore for 4 months, I still don’t understand why people would like to visit the city state, but I can tell you, it’s not for the culture, which is a shame considering how the city is a mix of Chinese, Indians, and Malays living and working together. The stringent laws along with high alcohol tax makes Singapore anything but a playground for the rich. Enter Taiwan, or specifically for this entry, Taipei. I was only here for a week but it was an awesome week. While there are some beautiful spots around the country (here’s looking at you Taroko Gorge), I would say the one single thing that should be drawing you to Taipei is the food. Like holy mother of the lamb. The food in Taipei is downright delicious. And I’m not even talking about fancy-smancy restaurant food. I’m talking about in the street, fresh off the platter street food. They’re cheap, they’re plentiful, they’re bountiful, and man are they delicious. Taipei is definitely a foody country as you can find street food everywhere and they will never set you back for more than a few US dollar. If you’re into the partying type, while partying in Taipei did not live up to its reputation that I had heard of from my Taiwanese friends, I will say it’s definitely a lot cheaper than Singapore! Hopefully in the future Taiwan can stop calling itself something something China and just be its own fully independent Taiwan. Let China be China in its name. Let you do you Taiwan.
How to get there: International flights fly into Taipei. From there, it’s a 45 minute airport bus ride into the center of the city where you can begin your food mission. Buses and trains run around the country, offering an easy way to explore the west, east, and south.
Extra bonus: Another good alternative would be Hong Kong. Similar size to Singapore, but the partying is cheaper, food just as good, and the vibe and personality of the city is livelier and more awesome.
Alternatives to Popular Asian Destinations #3: Bagan, Myanmar instead of Ankor Wat, Cambodia
As much as I enjoyed Ankor Wat, the amount of tourists there killed any kind of mythical, spiritual, and metaphysical feeling I was trying to feel. Also they were always in my landscape photo shots. Buggers. While Ankor Wat is beautiful in its own rights, and should be visited anyway, Bagan is another story. Imagine a one hundred square kilometer area where a total of 2,200 temples, pagodas, and stupas littered the open plains. Up to 10,000 were constructed a millennium ago, but now only 20% remain. Give yourself 3 days to fully take in this area; it is that special. If you’re going to go, go now while tourism remains relatively low. You can find yourself a nice pagoda or temple to climb and watch the sunset or sunrise from. Imagine sitting on top of a building that was constructed a thousand years ago, and had survived all that time. At first, it’s pitch black. The crickets and birds are singing. And then, in the distant, as the sun begins to crest over the horizon, its golden rays would shower the landscape and illuminate the thousands of temples in front of you, bringing forth the golden bricks that were used to construct them. Overhead, hot air balloons would frolic to and fro, dancing with the wind, sky, and the birth of a new day.
When I was there for 3 days, I saw the sun rose and set on 6 separate temples and it was beautiful. By the end of your 3 days, you will most likely be stupefied. But it’s okay, because it was definitely worth it.
How to get there: Yangon or Mandalay are the two international airports people would fly into. From there, you can either take the local airplane companies to fly to Bagan, or take the inter-city bus. Plane is faster but more expensive. Bus is cheaper and more experience-ful.
Alternatives to Popular Asian Destinations #4: Batad, Philippines instead of Ubud, Indonesia
To this day, I still don’t know people’s obsession with Ubud. Yeah it’s a decent place and the views of the rice paddies are not that bad. But nothing beats mountainous, hilly community with rice terraces like that of Batad in the Philippines. One thing that Ubud has over Batad is ease of access, which I guess is why there are hordes of tourists there. Batad, on the other hand, requires an international flight into Manila, then a 30 minute taxi-ride to the nearby bus station, then a 8-hour overnight bus ride up to a town called Banaue (which I’m just going to include into this section as part of the Batad/Banaue location), then a 45 minute tricycle ride, and finally a 15 minute walk. That’s right. Batad is not connected to any road, so you would need to do a 15 minute easy hike through the hilly jungleside to reach the village of Batad. And before you even need to ask, the answer is a resounding yes, it is worth it! The fact that it takes some work to get to means that for now, both Batad and Banaue will be off the radar for the group tours and the mass tourism. What makes Batad and Banaue worth their visit are the beautiful rice terraces that lay scattered across the mountainous countryside. These work of arts have been around for 2000 years, older than a lot of things still standing in this world. The fact that they’re still being used to cultivate rice is a testament to their engineering feat. The difference between Batad and Banaue rice terraces is that one uses stones while the other uses mud, so they’re both worth visiting, although the site of the Batad rice terraces will take your breath away. An extra bonus is that there’s a 30 minute hike from Batad that will take you to a pretty awesome waterfall that you can swim in as well! Of course, there’s also the sight of the rice terraces as the fog slowly float from the valley bottom up towards to the peaks of the nearby surrounding hills. If you need your eat, pray, sleep zen-metaphysical-spiritual-obnoxiousness, you can find it here as well!
How to get there: As mentioned above, take a flight into Manila, and then take a night bus to Banaue. When I went, I actually did a day bus, which was actually 1 day bus and 2 jeepneys, which took about 8 hours total. Here’s a better write-up on how to get to Batad.
Alternatives to Popular Asian Destinations #5: Seoul, Korea instead of Tokyo, Japan
People will probably crucify me for this one, but first hear me out. Both cities are gigantic Asian metropolis that are too big for their own good. Culturally, they’re both similar yet distinct. So what makes me give Seoul the mark over Japan? Having seen both cities, I will say that Seoul does two things better than Japan. The first is eating out. Korea’s food culture is all about eating in large groups and consuming a massive amount of soju and beer while eating said food. It could be Korean bbq. It could be hot pot. Whatever you’re eating, restaurants are designed for group eating. In Japan, not so much. There, most of the food places I saw were more for small intimate couples, or solo businessmen. As such, eating out in Korea is an experience in and of itself. Partying in Seoul also exists on another level that’s not reached by any city or country in Asia. Yeah you heard that right. You can go from high-class partying in Gangnam, to up and coming high-class in Itaewon, to still-favorite of locals and western immigrants alike in Hongdae. A city where you can get a long island ice tea for less than 5 USD is an a-okay city in my book! Japan gets the popularity because of the history behind it as well as being the foundation of modern electronics that we grew up with. But now, Seoul, and the rest of Korea, has caught up and passed its eternal competitor in terms of global presence and culture domination (come on, you’re all about Kpop, and if someone mentions Jpop to you, you’d probably be scratching your head). Go to Seoul. Party your heart out. Eat your stomach out. Drink your liver out. And shop your bank account out. It’s a great city.
How to get there: Easy enough. Fly into the Seoul airport, and take a 30 minute bus ride into Seoul, or take the high speed train.
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