Hidden gems: discovering five of Asia's lesser-known attractions

From a Thai city frozen in time to a Filipino volcano you can climb on horseback, here are some unique experiences to try while visiting

The potters of Kumortuli in Kokata craft Hindu idols by hand. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell
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A hugely popular tourist destination, Asia boasts several of the world's most-visited cities, including Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. Yet this continent still holds many secrets. From a Thai city frozen in time to a Filipino volcano you can climb on horseback and a 1,000-year-old Chinese village where traditional customs still rule, here are some of Asia's lesser-­known treasures.

Kurashiki, Japan

So futuristic are the skyscraper-strewn cities of Japan that it can be hard to picture what this country looked like before technology took root. That is why the historic canal town of Bikan is so valuable. Dating back about 400 years to Japan's Edo period, Bikan is the definition of quaint.

Lining the canal that pierces the heart of this town are dozens of beautifully preserved historic structures. These range from traditional Japanese Edo-period storehouses, with their whitewashed walls, black-tiled roofs and ornate eaves, to European-style mansions from the late 1800s, when Japan opened itself up to outside influences.

The historic canal town of Bikan in Japan. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

I could not have chosen a better time to visit Bikan, which is located about 200 kilometres west of Osaka. This town is attractive throughout the year, but in November, an autumnal bloom decorates it with a palette of bright colours, from green through to gold, orange and pink. It is as picturesque as any town I've visited in Asia. Then, from around the corner of the canal, a row boat emerges piloted by a Japanese man wearing a Kimono gown and a conical hat. The postcard image is immediately complete.

Taal Volcano, Philippines

Smoke is rising out of the ground next to me and a powerful smell of sulfur hangs in the air. It has taken me half an hour to hike up to this lofty location and, now that I'm here, I'm feeling a bit anxious. That's because I'm standing on the rim of one of the most deadly active volcanoes in Asia. Granted, Taal Volcano has not erupted since 1977. But it has erupted more than 30 times in recorded history, killing at least 5,000 people.

In recent years, the volcano has become an increasingly popular destination among Filipinos, particularly residents of Manila, which is 65km north of here. Its appeal is twofold. The adventure of scaling an active volcano was a common lure for the Filipinos I talked to during my visit. The overwhelming beauty of this place, meanwhile, spoke for itself.

Taal Volcano in the Philippines. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

Taal Volcano is located on an island within a lake, which is itself inside an island, all of which is part of a gigantic volcanic crater called the Taal Caldera. It is a rugged and spectacular spot to visit. Once I reached the rim of the volcano, I stood or sat for almost two hours at different vantage points, absorbing the views down into the lake that occupies the crater, and beyond that to the rest of the caldera. To reach this viewpoint, tourists need to take a 15-­minute outrigger boat ride from the town of Tagaytay across to the volcano island, and then hire a horse or walk up the volcano, which is 311 metres high.

Yangmei, China

I feel like a celebrity. Never before have I left such a strong impression on so many people. Judging by the shocked reaction every time someone lays eyes on me, it's clear they don't get many foreign tourists in the tiny old town of Yangmei. Tucked away in the deep south of China, in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, this beautiful historic settlement is a long way off the well-trodden tourist trail. The closest city that attracts a significant number of visitors is Guangzhou, about 600km to the east.

After a 90-minute ride on a local bus from Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi, I arrive in what feels like the setting for a Chinese period drama. Stone bridges arch over lily-decorated ponds. Incense smoke wafts out of Ming Dynasty temples. Weathered shophouses sell spices, tea leaves, and herbal medicine. A cobblestone town square hosts an assortment of characters who would not look out of place in a bygone era.

Yangmei is located in the deep south of China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

Pausing her match of Mahjong, the traditional Chinese board game, an elderly woman peers at me from beneath the rim of her straw hat. Then she averts her gaze to greet a man carrying two wicker baskets of vegetables, one strung up on either end of a piece of timber balanced across his shoulders.

Yangmei is more than 1,000 years old. Of this fact, visitors are never in doubt. The appearance of this town and the simple lifestyles it fosters seem not to have changed in a very long time. That makes it a rare spot in a country that is modernising at a dizzying pace. If you've ever wondered what ancient China looked like, just hop on the bus to Yangmei.

Kamphaeng Phet, Thailand

The country's capital, Bangkok, was the most visited city on the planet last year. Yet it was 400km north of Bangkok that the Kingdom of Thailand was actually born in the 1200s, in the city of Sukhothai, which is widely considered to be the country's first capital. Very few tourists visit Sukhothai, overlooking it in favour of cities such as Phuket and Chiang Mai. Fewer people still travel to Kamphaeng Phet, once a key military outpost that protected Sukhothai and now a sleepy town with a wealth of ancient ruins.

Strewn through forest on the edge of this town are the remains of dozens of historic stone structures from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, including military towers, majestic stupas, sprawling monasteries, magnificent Buddhist temples and commanding royal residences. Some exist now only as a scattering of stones, their glory all but erased by time. Others remain in reasonable condition, offering imaginative visitors an architectural framework within which to conjure mental images of a once grand community.

Kamphaeng Phet was once a  military outpost that protected Sukhothai, Thailand's first capital. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

A crucial line of defence, protecting Sukhothai and the Kingdom's trading routes, Kamphaeng Phet in its pomp was also home to several gorgeous temples. Among the finest are Wat Singh, Wat Chang Rob, Wat Phra Si Ariyabot and Wat Phra Kaeo. The latter temple, a huge 16th-century complex, hosted elaborate royal festivities in its heyday.

Kumortuli, India

An unfinished statue of Hindu deity Ganesha has ended my search. For the past 20 minutes I've been wandering through backstreets in Kolkata's northern suburbs looking for a small neighbourhood in which gods are created. There are no English signs pointing to Kumortuli and I've been given several sets of vague directions from friendly but ultimately unhelpful locals. Now this clay-caked figure of Ganesha has confirmed my arrival in this relatively unknown but fascinating corner of the city.

For more than 200 years, Kumortuli has been Kolkata's hub for the creation of Hindu idols. While many products that were once made by hand in India are now mass-produced in factories, these statues continue to be crafted by the more than 200 artisans of Kumortuli. The statues are used as focal points of worship in temples, homes and also during Hindu festivals in Kolkata known as "pujas".

Called "kumor", which means potter in the local Bengali language, these highly skilled men make their living by building the often huge and colourful idols from scratch. Some can measure up to three metres in height, with the largest and most intricate versions selling for as much as Dh2,000. Fiercely proud of their ancient craft, the kumors are friendly to visitors. As I walk through this neighbourhood, I am constantly invited into their workshops.

The potters of Kumortuli in Kokata craft Hindu idols by hand. Courtesy Ronan O’Connell

They explain that the most popular idols are of Hindu warrior goddess Durga and of the goddess of learning and arts, Saraswati. Up to five craftsmen are involved in creating each statue. First they construct a bamboo frame of the deity and cover it in straw. Then they carefully mould clay to this frame and leave it to dry. Finally, they paint it with a wide range of colours, attach its hair and clothe it. Just like that, a god is born.