Five lesser-known Asian cities worth adding to travel itineraries

These off-the-beaten-track destinations have history, heritage and culture in abundance

While in the Philippines, make sure you visit the seaside province of Cebu. Photo: Unsplash
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While tourists flock to Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, South-east Asia has many overlooked cities that thrill with their historic sites, picturesque settings and distinctive culture.

From the former Malay hub of an Islamic dynasty, to the Catholic pilgrimage site that became a Filipino beach haven, here are five of the region’s lesser-known yet greatly appealing cities.

Malacca, Malaysia

In the 1300s, Malacca was a tranquil fishing village. Yet, a century later it had morphed into the hub of a mighty Islamic Sultanate that birthed the Malaysian political system and many elements of what’s now considered the Malay culture, cuisine and architecture.

These days, this small city on Malay’s south-west coast has inadvertently become a perfect destination for the social media age. Because, in recent years, many tourists have begun choosing travel spots with eye-catching backdrops.

Malacca fits the bill in two ways. Firstly, its streets are plied by one of the world’s most unmistakable forms of public transport – trishaws, which are blindingly colourful, covered by cartoon pictures and blare party music from their speakers.

Secondly, Malacca has one of Asia’s most photogenic Old Towns. While Europe is famous for well-preserved ancient precincts within its cities, they are comparatively rare in Asia. Malacca’s historic heart is embellished by a beautiful, unique blend of architectural styles, from Malay to Chinese, English, Dutch and Portuguese. Wandering the churches, mosques and temples of this neighbourhood is among the finest tourist experiences Malaysia offers.

Hue, Vietnam

Blessed by a serene riverside setting, Hue is one of Vietnam’s calmest and most traditional cities. In contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi or nearby Danang, which are dotted by gleaming skyscrapers, Hue is a low-rise metropolis where historic sites take precedence.

Those other Vietnamese cities sprawl out from modern downtowns. Whereas Hue, the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945, remains anchored by one of Asia’s most impressive citadels, the Imperial City. In the 1800s, such huge, walled compounds were common across this continent.

Many were later erased by violent conflicts. But tourists can still savour a few surviving gems, such as Galle Fort in Sri Lanka, Intramuros in Manila, Amber Fort in Jaipur and Hue’s enormous Imperial City, where they’re free to explore dozens of splendid palaces, temples and pagodas.

That former royal compound is now more appealing than ever. Because earlier this year, Hue authorities unveiled a new walkway on top of the citadel’s walls. This is the first elevated viewing point from which tourists can peer down into the Imperial City, providing a unique vantage for photos, and offering a clearer sense of the vastness of this ancient complex.

Hue’s other outstanding attraction is its group of Imperial tombs. Amid the forest, in the city’s south-west, are more than a dozen ancient mausoleums, including several magnificent examples. Especially impressive is the colossal, 19th-century Mausoleum of Emperor Tu Duc. With its vast array of splendid temples, halls, pavilions and bridges, it looks like a palace. But it is in fact the plush resting place of one of the most influential men in the country’s history, who served as Emperor of Vietnam for more than 30 years.

Cebu, Philippines

Cebu is part tropical resort, part time capsule. This intriguing city has become renowned for its picturesque beaches, where 500 years ago Europeans tried to conquer the Philippines, leaving behind many fascinating sites. Few visitors would be aware of it, but Cebu and Malacca share a close, 500-year-old link. Both cities were greatly shaped in the early 1500s by Portuguese conqueror Ferdinand Magellan.

In 1511, Magellan helped the Portuguese seize Malacca. A decade later he brought Catholicism to the Philippines, which is now Asia’s most populous Christian nation. Soon after, Magellan met his demise in Cebu, where he and the invading Spanish troops he commanded were defeated by local soldiers, led by a man who’s one of this city’s greatest heroes, chieftain Lapu-Lapu.

That battle took place on Mactan Island, which fringes Cebu’s downtown area and is now a picturesque, upmarket beach destination lined with five-star hotels. Statues of both Magellan and Lapu-Lapu are prominently placed in downtown Cebu.

Nearby are two beautiful old buildings built by the colonising Spanish in the 1500s and which are now are key tourist attractions. Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral and Fort San Pedro have both been impressively well maintained and have signage that explains the city’s colonial history.

Medan, Indonesia

An ancient Islamic city, Medan has been heavily influenced by the Chinese, Indians and the Dutch, resulting in a pleasingly eclectic culture and appearance. Yet, it could hardly be further removed from the tourist trail. Although Indonesia receives millions of foreign visitors per year, most are drawn to Bali, in the far east of this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.

Medan, meanwhile, is isolated 2,200km west of Bali, in the lesser-known province of North Sumatra. It acts as a gateway to the lush interior of Sumatra, particularly the graceful highlands and crystalline lakes in the Toba area. Yet there are plentiful reasons to pause in Medan, which has grown to become one of Indonesia’s largest cities, home to two million people, who are primarily a mix of Javanese, Malay, Indian and Chinese.

Its most famous tourist site, the majestic Maimun Palace, is a landmark of Medan’s Dutch colonial era. A melange of Islamic, European and Malay architecture, Maimun was built in the late 1800s and remains in terrific condition with a small museum featuring cultural relics.

Equally spectacular is the nearby Great Mosque of Medan. Perhaps the finest Islamic building in all of Indonesia, it is crested by domes and has an ornate interior dappled by colourful light that filters through its intricate stained glass windows.

Lampang, Thailand

The de facto capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a powerful lure for tourists and digital nomads, who adore its enormous street markets, hip nightlife, world-class food scene and nigh-on endless historic temples. Yet, centuries before this city became prominent, nearby Lampang was a powerhouse.

Located 70km south-east of Chiang Mai, Lampang is an easy day trip. The drive alone makes it worthwhile as you weave through dramatic mountains clad in jungle. Up to 1,300 years ago, when nomads would traverse the top of those peaks, they would peer down upon a sophisticated settlement. That was early Lampang.

Situated in a beautiful old wooden mansion, the Museum Lampang unravels this deep history. Via artefacts, displays and videos, it tells the tale of how Lampang was a cultural and religious hub of Northern Thailand. It was such an influential city that, in the 1400s, Lampang was home to the most precious artefact in Thai history, the priceless Emerald Buddha, which now is protected inside Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

After visiting this museum, tourists can follow sections of Lampang’s ancient city walls, and walk the grounds of the Emerald Buddha’s former residence, the gilded Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao. They can also cross Lampang’s famed white bridge, Ratchadaphisek, and photograph its century-old railway station. Or simply wander its waterfront, absorbing the peace and pausing to buy food from street vendors, such as the northern classic dish, Khao Soi noodle soup.

Updated: January 22, 2024, 9:54 AM