Our 2016 Travel Bucket List
It’s a brand new year with great opportunities to discover awesome places in South and Southeast Asia. After a very busy 2015 traveling around, read about the places our relentless travel bloggers—Masa, Chris, and Tanja—wish to visit in 2016:
Penang National Park, Malaysia
It’s amazing that so many tourists visit Penang (us included of course), but only a very few ever stop by the island’s national park. My family and I have spent several beach vacations there, but I only recently heard about the park, which just happens to be the country’s smallest. Despite the slight size, there are several impressive hiking trails and secret paths to hidden beaches, I’ve heard. It’s relatively safe for older kids, so I can’t wait to visit with my family when we are in Penang next.
Ambuluwawa Tower, Sri Lanka
When I was in Sri Lanka couple of months ago, a friend of mine showed me a picture of a twisty white tower rising above jungle. I thought it was photoshopped, so imagine my surprise when my friend said this was an actual place in Sri Lanka. The white tower is a sky-high viewpoint in the Ambuluwawa biodiversity complex, near Gampola in the Hill Country. Almost no one, except a few dedicated trekkers, know about the place, so it’s a great stop to enjoy some peace and quiet. Jeep rides are available to the tower so I think I’ll take my kids there this year. (I know my daughter, who’s a big Lord of the Rings fan, is going to love it.)
Wellness Retreat in Kerala, India
My family has yet to have a proper vacation in India. I’ve heard from some of my colleagues that the world’s largest democracy is unbelievably chaotic and overwhelming for the unprepared. That has put me off from taking my family to India so far. But, if you research right, there are places in India that are truly tranquil and perfect for a quiet holiday away from the crowds. A colleague recently told me about the incredible wellness retreats in the southern Indian state of Kerala, famous for the stunning backwaters with serene lakes and mangrove forests. Rural Kerala seems breathtaking and largely undisturbed by urbanization, and I really hope to spend a week or two at one of the invigorating yoga and spa retreats there. I don’t think my kids will like meditating and receiving oil massages to relieve stress, so I’m thinking they can stay with their grandmother while the parents get a much-deserved break.
Foodie Tour Chiang Mai, Thailand
I confess, I’m a huge Thai food addict. Whenever I’m in Bangkok, I sample new dishes everywhere in the city. However, I’ve yet to try a culinary tour outside of Bangkok. Like all countries, Thai cuisine varies from region to region. In Bangkok, the authentic dishes either come from or are inspired by dishes from central regions and China. In far off Chiang Mai, visitors can sample northern Thai cuisine that’s more closely related to Burmese and Lao cuisine. I’ve heard really great things about northern Thai culinary delights and their use of distinctive ingredients. Chiang Mai has a wonderful food scene, just like in Bangkok, and I can hardly wait until I’m savoring dishes like Khao Soi noodle soup, Kaeng pa “jungle curry,” Laap salad with pork blood, aep wraps and Yunan dishes rarely found in rest of Thailand.
Togian Islands, Indonesia
I’ve been searching for a beach retreat in Indonesia that is not Bali, and then, voila, I read about the magnificent islands of Togian, where tourists rarely venture. Togian is blessedly uncrowded thanks to the rough journey to get there. There are no domestic flights or expressways to get to the islands. Visitors must first get to the rural towns of Ampana or Gorontalo, and then take the private ferry to one of the islands. Island hopping is possible by private boats for quite cheap. The point is, the Togian islands is a stunning beach paradise that’s completely worth the hard journey. I’ve been told that divers and snorkelers will never want to leave the breathtaking underwater world. I just heard about the jellyfish lake there, where people can snorkel surrounded by beautiful jellyfish that don’t sting! Well, I know where I’ll be this summer.
From what I’ve heard, Kalaw is a stunning hill station surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and verdant highland forests. My friend Ari went trekking through the area, and after hearing him boast about passing through tribal villages, Buddhist stupas with stops to sample local cuisine and hand-rolled cigarettes, I want to go, too, preferably soon. Kalaw is reputed for impressive trekking trails that lead down to Inle Lake. Scenery includes points with breathtaking views of mountains in the distance, sprawling tea plantations, snail-paced trains, child monks walking to temples and locals riding cows.
Sri Lanka’s Northern Beaches
The biggest perk of living in Sri Lanka is the golden beaches. Last year, I so often found myself on weekend excursions to the palm-fringed shores of Bentota, Mount Lavinia and Negombo, which are quite close to Colombo. On long weekends, I get away to famous down south beaches like Unwatuna, Vijaya and Mirissa. The only problem is that Sri Lanka’s down south beaches are now too popular for their own good. It’s pretty much impossible to find an undiscovered or crowd-free beach along the southern coast. So, now I’ve turned to Sri Lanka’s northern coast, which until recently was closed off to tourists due to decades of civil war. The northern beaches have yet to draw tourist crowds and large-scale development, so I really want to visit before it all changes. I’ve heard really good things about northern beaches like Munai, Point Pedro and Casuarina. I’m definitely ready to enjoy some beach time in peace once the northeast monsoon eases.
Glow beaches of Maldives
Who doesn’t love the blindingly white beaches of enamoring Maldives? I’ve enjoyed several paradise island vacations here. I love the underwater world, the deluxe hotels and the famous undersea restaurant. Now I want to see the much talked about glow-in-the-dark beaches of Maldives. Once my brother forwarded me a bunch of pictures of a Maldivian beach with waves that looked as if they were lit up by millions of blue LED lights. It was quite hard to believe as real. Well, the secret here is bioluminescent fungi that make some Maldivian beaches literally like a sea of stars. Technically, bioluminescent fungi are present at all atolls in the Maldives. But people say the best luck of seeing an actual glow beach is at Mudhdhoo, Vaadhoo and Rangali atolls from July to February, preferably on a new moon without any light to disturb the view.
Plain of Jars, Laos
You might have heard about the Plain of Jars, a vast and wild landscape with megalithic cup-like structures that no one can explain. Most visitors to Laos end up on the Vientiane-Luang Prabang circuit and never really venture to northern Laos to see amazing attractions like the Plain of Jars. I’m one of those visitors and I can happily say that it’s going to change this year. Plain of Jars, with its Stonehenge-like allure, is not the only reason to visit this part of the world. The surrounding countryside is amazing to trek and observe local life. The most popular getaway to the Plain of Jars, the town of Phonsavan, is known for Hmong “cowboys” who raise cattle like they used to in the Wild West (or so I’ve heard). Plus, the villages in this area are known for an infamous brand of rice wine. (Actually, one of the legends surrounding the Plain of Jars is that once the gods came down to drink this rice wine but forgot to take their tumblers back with them. Thus, an inexplicable attraction came to be.)