Ten Hidden Gems in Ten Countries

On the last post, I shared some of my favorite off the beaten path spots in the USA. It is easy to find those kinds of spots in one’s own back yard as it is more comfortable to take risks and explore. Abroad though, it takes some research, a lot of bravery, and a little luck. Here are ten places around the world which are not well traveled, but will completely blow you away.

Shrine to Amaterasu (Ise, Japan)

Main Shrine Amaterasu

Japan is no stranger to international travelers who flock by the millions to Tokyo and Kyoto every year. While those are amazing, Ise is often overlooked by foreigners. The small city in Kansai region is home to the temple of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess of Shito. Her shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt according to tradition every 20 years (on and off) for the last two millennia. Every Japanese person is required to make a pilgrimage here once in their life and you will notice TONS of Japanese elderly people paying their respects, but not too many foreigners.

 

Baekje Cultural Complex (Buyeo,  South Korea)

Buyeo Baekje Complex

Along with Kongju and Iksan, sites in Buyeo were recently named Korea’s 12th UNESCO World Heritage Site. The small city in western South Korea is rarely visited by foreigners, and while the UNESCO bid should help tourism some, I wouldn’t hold my breath. Buyeo was once the capital of the mighty Baekje Kingdom (18BCE – 660CE), which was conquered and destroyed by Shilla in the 7th century. The world heritage nod is for a fortress wall, a stone pagoda, and some royal tombs outside of town. However, most impressive is the recently built Baekje Cultural Land, a recreation of some of the Kingdom’s most amazing gems, including the royal palace, and a huge 5-story pagoda with a golden spire at the top (pictured). Despite the incredible expense and scale of the project, only a handful of families are to be seen walking around on any given day.

 

Khao Yai National Park  (Pak Chong, Thailand)

Python

In recent years, the elephant tourism industry has (rightfully) gotten a lot of bad rep in Thailand. One alternative is to visit an Elephant Sanctuary for a hands on experience in a cruelty-free environment. The more off the beaten path suggestion: try to find them in the wild! Khao Yai is one of the last places in the country where elephants roam free. Around 400 wild beasts live in the region, which isn’t a lot given the size of the forest, but if you’re really patient and lucky, you could catch a glimpse. If you don’t, the National Park has amazing hikes, waterfalls, and other creatures to keep you occupied, including the humongous python pictured above!

 

The Sky Temple of Preah Vihear (Preah Vihear, Cambodia)

Preah Vihear

When I first visited the Angkor complex in 2010, there were a reported 2m visitors yearly. That figure had doubled by 2014 on my second visit and the crowds are now pouring into nearby Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. One place still off the beaten path is the temple of Preah Vihear, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sky Temple is located on the northern border with Thailand and has been the center of a long dispute over ownership leading to limited access for years. Getting there is definitely not cheap from Siem Reap ($80 cab ride), nor is it straight forward (full day, mud roads, and a whole lot more), but the views from above are spectacular, and the soldiers protecting it are happy to take pictures (for a small fee).

 

The Kayan Villages (Kayah State, Myanmar)

DId not take many pictures this trip to preserve the moment.
Did not take many pictures this trip to preserve the moment.

Prior to circa 2011, travel to Myanmar was strongly discouraged by human rights organizations. Even when it opened up to tourism in 2012, Chin, Kayah, Myiek, and north east Shan States were still considered off limits without special permission from the government. This changed in July, 2014 when violent conflicts with ethnic minorities were reduced (but did not end). One such cease-fire was signed between the Kayan people of Kayah State and the Burmese government.

The Kayan are also known as ‘Pudang, Karen, or Long-necks’ and are an ethnic minority in Myanmar. While you can easily meet them in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, I strongly discourage that as many are held there against their will. The Karen are indigenous to the area a few hours south of Loikaw, Kayah State and are some of the friendliest you will ever meet. Most foreign visitors to the country stick to the Mandalay>Bagan>Inle>Yangon route and while all those are interesting, try something a little different, too. Fair warning though, they don’t speak English, or Burmese.

 

 

 

Katiki Point (Oamaru, New Zealand)

Yellow Eyed Penguins

In many ways, New Zealand is a tourism haven. It has an incredibly developed infrastructure given its remoteness and population of just 4.4 million people. Oamaru is known, but for now, not a very heavily visited town in the South Island. The town itself is pretty cool with a very charming atmosphere in the mornings and an awesome travel bookstore in the town center (seriously, check it out). The highlight however, is about 30 mins outside of town to the south where the incredibly rare yellow-eyed penguin makes landfall right before sunset. You just have to see these little fellas to realize what a spectacle it is to witness an endangered species in its natural habitat. Nothing is guaranteed, but we were able to see five of them when we went to check them out and other groups reported similar numbers on different days.

 

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (Quintana Roo, Mexico)

Sian Ka'an

Another gem discovered in the UNESCO list, Sian Ka’an is sometimes called ‘the Amazon of Mexico.’ Home to jaguars, dolphins, and giant turtles, this ecological wonder is still off the grid for the time being. One of the coolest drives in the world is the 50km (30mi) stretch from Tulum to Punta Allen, a small town on a peninsula deep inside the forest for a touch of civilization through all the magnificent wilderness. If you want to swim along the way, feel free to do so, but only on the ocean side as the lagoon side is filled with crocodiles.

 

Valley of the Temples, (Agrigeto, Italy)

Archaeological Area of Agrigento

You will be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t have Italy on their bucket list, and with good reason. However, most travelers stick to Naples and everything north of it, leading to some cool hidden gems on the south.

I found Agrigento on a list of top things to do in Italy a few years back and was not disappointed (before my UNESCO days, but it is a World Heritage Site). These Greek (that’s right) ruins are up to 2800 years old, predating those in Acropolis! They seriously look like they will crumble just by looking at them, and it is amazing how preserved a lot of the area is. While you will see some tourism, it is laughably small compared to other places in the country like Rome and Venice.

 

Phu Quoc Island (Phu Quoc, Vietnam)

Phu Quoc Island

Vietnam was one of my first trips outside of Korea and until now, I haven’t really thought of a way to talk about it, despite being one of my favorite places. Phu Quoc is a short plane ride south of Ho Chi Mihn City and a local favorite to escape the chaos of the city. Foreigners haven’t caught on too much though, leading to amazing deals from $12 beach front rooms to $5 to stuff your face with tons of fresh seafood in the night market. The coral is also some of the brightest I’ve ever seen, and boat tours can be as cheap as $10 a person, meal included.

 

Soft Coral Reef (Kenting, Taiwan)

This was one of trips where I paid the flight before I even knew what was in the country. I don’t know what I was thinking back then, but fortunately, Kenting did not disappoint. The coastal town at the bottom tip of the country is not the easiest to reach on a tight schedule and non-existent Chinese skills, but the payout is some of the bluest waters around, and a fantastic night market, popular with Taiwanese people. Although it is not as ‘hidden’ as the other gems, what makes it stand out is that its coastline boasts one of the largest soft coral reefs in the world and for the expert divers, the famous hammerhead shark migration route.

 

What are your hidden gems around the world? Don’t worry, we can keep it between you me and this incredibly public blog.

 

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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