Mae Hong Son, Thailand
© Mongkhon Pookpun
The mountainous northern reaches of Thailand have plenty to offer the tourist willing to venture off the beaten track. Mist-shrouded forests, twisting trekking trails, and fascinating waterfalls make an excellent backdrop for adventure; the local hill tribes introduce you to cultural traditions that little resemble the mainstream you’ll find in Bangkok or Phuket.
You’ll probably start your visit in Pai, a backpacker town with all the usual backpacker accoutrements (main street full of bars, restaurants and shops; cheap accommodations; late night partying). From Pai, Mae Hong Son’s natural beauty lies within easy reach. You can go whitewater rafting during the rainy season from July to November, where the monsoon rains swell the Pai River into a challenging Class V rafting experience. Or you can go mountain biking around parts of the Chiang Mai-Mae Hong Son loop that snakes along the Moei and Pai Rivers.
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
© Kevin Miller
Located at a distance of four to five hours by road from Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital city, Cameron Highlands is one of the most gorgeous highland destinations in the region. The valley sits at a height of 5000 feet with amazingly pleasant and breezy weather that you will fall in love with given the hot climate elsewhere.
The best part of Cameron Highlands is that besides modern resorts, there are little modern world attractions and the valley’s natural aura is preserved. The valet is dominated by lush green tea valleys, beautiful strawberry farms, bee farms, and gorgeous Chinese temples.
Tana Toraja, Indonesia
The highlands of Sulawesi Island shelter the distinctive Toraja tribespeople, a mountain people whose distance from the capital Makassar have allowed them to retain their singular culture. It takes an eight- to ten-hour ride from the capital to the Tana Toraja heartlands until you reach Rantepao, the gateway to Toraja land.
The Toraja have a unique funerary culture that celebrates both life and death. Visit a traditional village like Pallawa – its main path flanked by tongkonan houses on one side, alang rice granaries on the other – and you’ll see this in action. Buffalo horns serve as status symbols, showing off the remnants of sacrifices made for a dearly departed family member. (You can also visit the Pasar Bolu Market in Rantepao to see locals buying the buffalo for celebrations of their own.)
It’s in areas like Lemo where you can see the culture at its most striking. As the Toraja believe that the road to Paradise is easier for souls whose bodies are interred higher above the ground, the locals bury their dead in niches carved out of the cliff, high above the surrounding rice fields. Tau-tau (effigies of the dead) stand guard outside the tomb.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Most people associate Thailand with beaches and Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui remains the standard destination of choice. People rarely try to go off the beaten path and many do not even know that Thailand has a beautiful hill station. Chiang Mai is anything but beach, yet it is beautiful with its green rice paddies and terraced farmlands. The town is home to local villages with unique culture, dense forests, and beautiful waterfalls. It also has some adventurous attractions such as Zip Lining. You will find many tours in Chiang Mai that will take you through all the sightseeing and attractions.
Sagada, The Philippines
The culture of the Ifugao is closely tied with the Philippine highlands' cloud-draped peaks and valleys. You can see indications of the Ifugao culture almost everywhere in the Mountain Province (worth taking a long road trip for), but it’s in the town of Sagada where it’s most apparent – seen in local museums and handicrafts, and obliquely in the local people's hanging coffins.
You can visit museums, watch the craft of traditional weaving and bring home souvenirs such as bags, taste the local cuisine and drinks (Bugnay wine or their own coffee brew), or explore the hanging coffins used by the locals in the old times. You can also go spelunking, swim in waterfalls and trek to rice terraces. Lastly, simply relax in cosy homestays and enjoy the chill temperature up there in the mountains.
Climb up to northwestern Vietnam to see Sapa’s rice terraces and cloud-covered slopes, best discovered through day hikes and longer treks, some reaching up to Mount Fansipan. Part of the Hoang Lien Mountain Range, Vietnam’s highest peak rises about 3,143 meters above sea level, taking three days to climb.
The gorgeous mountainous town of Sapa is a place where the Black Hmong culture is embraced, and beautiful rice terraces line the hillsides. If you do one thing at your homestay make sure you have a family dinner, these will be some of the best meals you have ever had, and you can even get the recipes since you now know the chef.
Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
© Vijayakumar Malavarayar
Yet another gorgeous highland destination, Nuwara Eliya is extremely scenic. The town has amazingly pleasant weather and is home to some modern yet cozy resorts overlooking beautiful forested valleys and gorgeous gardens. The train journey from Colombo or Kandy to Nuwara Eliya has some of the most scenic views that you would have ever witnessed.
© Takahiro Sanui
Bordering Vietnam and China, the province of Phongsaly (and its similarly-named main town) stand at about 1,400 meters above sea level, carving out an environment and culture that stands apart from its lowland counterparts. About 28 different ethnic groups call Phongsaly home, each harboring individual traditions, languages and attire. You’ll see many of these cultures in Phongsaly Town, which bears a distinct Chinese personality (due to the area’s proximity to the Chinese border).
The Museum of Ethnic Groups in Phongsaly shows off the handiwork of the different cultures in Phongsaly, though the old quarter’s buildings have a Chinese Yunnanese character. But you’ll need to go beyond the settled areas to really see Phongsaly at its best. Go trekking down the trails leading from Phongsaly to remote villages and conservation areas. Areas of interest include the Nam Lan Conservation Area and Wat Luang, an ancient Tai Lue-style Buddhist monastery.