Now that Eastern countries such as Japan are open to tourists again, many travelers are looking for Asian destination inspiration. Below, TravelAwaits writers recommend beautiful, lesser-known, quaint towns to visit this year. Not all are unheard of — one is a tiny nation and another is the capital of Laos — but all are worth considering for 2023.
1. Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Brunei is a tiny nation on the island of Borneo, but its extensive petroleum and natural gas fields make it the 10th wealthiest country in the world. Its opulent capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, is home to a gigantic mosque, Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque which features 29 golden domes. It was built in the late ’80s/early ’90s for the 29th Sultan of Brunei. Carol Colborn recommends going at night to see the 29 golden domes and four terrazzo minarets light up like a golden flame.
Built for Hassanal Bolkiah’s late father and predecessor, Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque “features a 3.5-million-piece glass mosaic on the gold leaf covering the main dome and a 172-foot minaret, making it one of the tallest buildings in Brunei,” according to Colborn. A replica of a 16th-century sultan’s barge sits in the man-made lagoon that surrounds the mosque. According to The Brunei Times, “The mosque used many of the world’s most elegant materials, including marble from Italy, granite from Shanghai, stained glass and chandeliers weighing four tons and two tons from England, and handmade carpets from Belgium and Saudi Arabia.”
Colborn also recommends visiting Kampong Ayer near Bandar Seri Begawan’s city center. Nicknamed the Venice of the East, Kampong Ayer is made up of upwards of 38 stilt villages that house about 13,000 people. Houses, schools, and mosques standing on stilts above the Brunei River are a sight to behold.
Check out the Sultan’s lavish gifts at the Royal Regalia Museum. His official residence, the Istana, is more than four times the size of the Palace of Versailles. So different from his father’s modest home, it even has its own airport terminal! For your own luxe accommodations, look no further than The Empire Brunei by the sea.
2. Dangjiang, China
Nestled in a quiet farming community near the Yellow River, the beautifully preserved 14th-century village of Dangjiang is a sight to see according to Ann Bush. A minibus and taxi are both economical options for the 20-minute drive north from Hancheng.
More than 125 bleak-gray-rock courtyard buildings dot the mountainside, punctuated by ornate, bright red lanterns, banners, and ribbons that adorn ancient hand-carved wooden doors, a water system, and elaborate statutes.
When Bush visited, she was privy to a faux traditional wedding ceremony. A guide explained the process to tourists as “the place came alive with musicians, dancers, and attendants flowing through the cobblestone streets,” she recalls.
Afterward, she wandered into a courtyard, where she came upon traditional artists hand-painting delicate porcelain flowers. She also saw a building where village elders meet, with an elaborate golden door and furniture.
3. Shibu Onsen, Japan
If seeing Japan’s spa-loving snow monkeys isn’t on your bucket list yet, Denise Stephens says it should be! She suggests staying in the charming old hot spring town of Shibu Onsen, which is just a few minutes from Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Here, you can watch wild monkeys frolic in the snow during the winter months and soak in their own hot spring pool.
If the hot springs appeal to the primates in your party, relax in Shibu Onsen’s nine hot spring baths. Stephens says local inns provide their guests with yukata, which is a casual kimono, to wear while going from bath to bath.
“In the evening light, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in old-time Japan with all the yukata-clad people strolling along the streets,” Stephens says. She also suggests trying traditional Japanese snacks from one of the old-fashioned shops, or perhaps an onsen egg, soft-boiled in hot spring water.
4. Yudanaka, Japan
“Even though it’s a short train ride from Nagano, Yudanaka, Japan, is off the beaten path,” Teresa Otto tells us. “The ride is scenic, too,” she says, “with views of traditional homes, tidy orchards, and the majestic Japanese Alps.”
Family-run onsens (inns with hot spring-fed pools) invite guests to relax and unwind. If you can tear yourself away from soaking in these private pools, you’ll find quaint shops, craftsmen’s studios, historic temples, and delicious fresh food served in mom-and-pop restaurants. When you’re strolling through town and need a pick-me-up, you’ll find an outdoor hot spring-fed foot bath near the visitor center.
Japanese macaques enjoy the hot springs, too. Along the wooded trail leading to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, you’ll see the macaques in their native habitat. The park’s monkeys-only pool attracts macaques of all ages. Macaque moms with babies on their backs, rambunctious teenagers, and tolerant elders all gather to soak and bask in the sun.
5. Zamami Village, Zamami Island, Japan
Joan Sherman calls the little-known Zamami Village on the beautiful tropical island of Zamami the “best-kept secret” of Japan. From Naha, Okinawa, take the high-speed ferry 45 minutes west to the Zamami Village harbor. Rent a car or bike to get around the island.
Enjoy the breathtaking views from the island’s plethora of observatories. Sherman suggests renting snorkeling gear and checking out the two beaches nearby. Furuzamami Beach to the east is more popular than Ama Beach to the west. From January to April, keep an eye out for humpback whales splashing and playing in the warm island waters.
6. Vientiane, Laos
Nearly three-quarters of Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country, Laos, is covered in mountains. Its capital, Vientiane, is nestled between mountains and the Mekong River, which separates it from Thailand. Vientiane was the former administrative center during French rule and “highlights the fusion of European and Asian cultures,” according to Carol Colborn. She and her husband visited Vientiane instead of going to Luang Prabang, the popular Laotian cultural capital.
The national symbol of Laos, Pha That Luang, can be found near the center of Vientiane. A remarkable architectural marvel, the golden stupa stands 147.6 feet tall from ground to pinnacle. As impressive as it is historic, it is one of the country’s most sacred monuments. Coborn suggests visiting Vientiane in November for the Boun That Luang Festival, an important Buddhist celebration.
Also located in the city center, the Patuxay Monument is somewhat reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe. It is dedicated to Laotians who fought to gain independence from France. Another Vientiane landmark, Wat Si Saket houses 6,800 tiny Buddha images and seated Buddhas. Wat Ho Phra Keo was built in 1564 to house the Emerald Buddha. Now the majestic temple is more of a museum, displaying Laos religious art.
Home to over 200 religious statues, a 131-foot-high reclining Buddha, and a climbable giant pumpkin that’s three stories tall, Buddha Park lies about half an hour from the city center.
7. Galle, Sri Lanka
Despite Galle’s population of nearly 100,000 residents, it is often overlooked by tourists who head straight to Sri Lanka’s beaches. But Galle is Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey’s favorite spot on the island.
The fortified old town, Galle Fort, was once part of the sea-bound Silk Route. Its ideal location left it with a checkered colonial past. But Galle’s center is now a tiny time capsule of its Portuguese, Dutch, and British history. Narrow lanes are lined with beautiful merchant houses (many of which have been turned into boutique hotels) and many little jewelry stores which sell the island’s mineral riches set in sparkling trinkets.
“One place not to miss is the lighthouse, where Galle’s kids found a perfect jumping-off point into the cooling Indian Ocean waves,” recommends Lemmin-Woolfrey. “Galle is not just famous for its cricket team,” she says, “but also with yoga devotees, holding several yoga retreats every year.”
8. Hua Hin, Thailand
Just a few hours south of Bangkok, Hua Hin is a beautiful Gulf of Thailand beachside community. “For the last century, the Thai Royal family has been suitably smitten by its charms,” says Michael Cullen, who tells us their summer palaces are here. Hua Hin’s laid-back feel, authentic Thai character, choice of long, wide, safe beaches, and excellent year-round weather tick all the boxes. Outdoor lovers have an abundance of choices, such as eight golf courses (including two of Asia’s best), plus three nature-filled national parks within a 30-minute drive.
In-the-know international visitors — mainly snowbirds escaping the frigid winters of Canada, the UK, and northern Europe — have discovered Hua Hin. However, mass tourism has yet to catch on, despite all of Hua Hin’s attractions and the international hotels’ glorious resorts. That will change in late 2023 Cullen warns, when the local airport opens to short-haul international flights. A new direct train service from Bangkok is also coming into service then. By this time next year, this coastal holiday haven in Prachuap Khiri Khan could be Thailand’s newest visitor hot spot.
9. Prachuap Khiri Khan, Thailand
A traveler Heather Markel met in Thailand told her about this fishing village south of Bangkok. With promises of a small-town feel and fewer tourists, Markel hopped the public bus from Bangkok. Shuttle services are also available. “I found myself in a wonderful world,” remarks Markel. “Though it’s a small city, there are areas in the center that make it feel like you’re in a village. You can enjoy a walk through the market or a refreshing meal by the waterfront. I was delighted to find only a handful of other tourists when I went.”
Monkeys have taken over the main temple, Wat Thammikaram Worawihan. They may be cute, but they are wild animals, so be careful! “There’s also a wonderful dusky langur colony near the military base, which has phenomenal beaches to lie on,” says Markel. “This is a place where people still take time out to admire sunrise and sunset and offers both fascinating sites and a taste of what family life is like day to day,” she says.