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The Ultimate Foodies Guide to the Hidden Gems of Asia

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Everyone knows of Asia. Many people think they know Asia. But most people are yet to understand this vast continent. And vast it really is, spanning over 17 million square miles, covering 8.7% of the Earth’s surface, holding more than 4 billion people, across 50 countries. So creating a narrative for Asia as a whole is almost futile; each country worlds apart from the next, deserves its own moment of limelight if you are to really understand the continent’s hidden gems.

Here at Ampersand Travel, it’s our passion to help you discover this beautiful, resilient and spirited continent for yourself. Read on and enthral your mind with our clues to unmasking this world.

A pin code to Asia’s best kept secret, this ultimate guide looks at some of our travel experts’ best travel tips and recommendations, and some journeys to take off the beaten path.

China

China is a country of unashamed extremes. It’s a beautiful country for those with an open mind but you have to be prepared for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Authentic Chinese Cooking

If you find yourself boxed into a strange eatery where menus are non-existent and the owner’s wife, daughter, cousin, and just about the whole family seem to be serving food to customers, you’re probably as close as you can get to real Chinese cooking. The feeling that you’re intruding in a family home means you’re probably going to get a candid dinner – good or bad. But it’s also important to remember that food standards in China are not as stringent as they are here in the UK so always be careful and ask about the ingredients if you’re unsure.

What to Eat

Chinese delicacies don’t have to be as daunting as you might think. Although some dishes may be too extreme for travellers, there are some which are surprisingly tasty. Try Century Eggs if you’re feeling daring, Durian Fruit if you’re not smell-sensitive, or start off slow with the bitter Grass Jelly dessert.

Where to Eat

For 24 hour food service and a choice of over 100 restaurants, try Gui Street (Ghost Street) in Beijing. For authentic Cantonese cuisine, you have to visit Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Street in Guangzhou. Or for Hong Kong’s best night time Dai Pai Dongs (food stalls), head over to Temple Street, also a great place for people watching.

Off the Beaten Path…

Like many countries, China isn’t without its tourist traps. If you’re looking to discover real China, here are some amazing offbeat attractions.

Chongqing

Overshadowed by Beijing and Shanghai, Chongqing can sometimes be forgotten. But it’s one of the major cities in Southwest China and definitely worth a visit. Slightly less touristy than other popular cities, you will find a certain peace as you walk its streets and board its public transport systems without the typical crowds.

Yunnan

Yunnan has been quite well known with some backpackers but it still remains relatively undiscovered. Travel here and you will find a whole other side to China; meet the Chinese minority cultures such as the Yi people, the Lisu people or the Wa community.

Cambodia

For those who know Cambodia, they will tell you about the humble, gentle people who are the real makeup of this nation. The incredible sights, the tear-jerking past of the Khmer Rouge and the interesting food is all secondary to what the people offer. The people you meet along the way will be able to guide you to find the best places to eat and the best things to see.

Real Cambodian Cuisine 

Cambodian cuisine is a simple cuisine. Don’t expect the overindulgence you see in China or the flamboyant flavours of Thailand. Here in Cambodia, it’s all about embracing the simple yet delicious.

What to Eat

Street food often consists of fried bugs and cockroaches. For the intrepid diner, it’s something that could be of interest. But if bugs don’t appeal, some great dishes to try include are Bai Sach Chrouk (a basic pork and rice dish), Lap Khmer (marinated beef salad), or Bobor (savoury rice porridge).

Where to Eat

There are many restaurants available in the more populated areas of Cambodia such as Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Sihanoukville. But to get a true taste of what Cambodia’s really about – and a closer look at its beautiful people – head to the local street markets such as Psar Thmei (the art deco market building in Phnom Penh) or the rugged Psar Leu in Siem Reap.

Off the Beaten Path…

Angkor Wat is a must – it goes without saying – but for some offbeat exploration, here are some places we would recommend.

Mondulkiri Province

This part of the country is truly untouched. With just a small handful of tourists each year, it’s a far cry from the luxury spa resorts in Siem Reap. Go jungle trekking, meet the local people and see the amazing endangered wildlife such as water buffalo, elephants and Asian dogs.

Visit Koh Ker

If you want to see temples without the tourist crowd, head to Koh Ker, Cambodia’s most remote temple site. Poorly kept and almost completely buried by forest, it’s a very different experience from the well managed Angkor Wat.

THAILAND

Thailand is one of the most popular destinations for backpackers and holidaymakers today. But for those who are interested in more than Bangkok’s nightlife, Ko Phi Phi’s beaches and Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, there really is so much more to this colourful country.

The Best Thai Food

Eating great food in Thailand is easy because Thai people are extremely passionate about doing their national dishes justice. They have real pride in their cooking so whether you’re after a famous Pad Thai or a spicy Tom Yum soup, it will be cooked to perfection.  

What to Eat

There are no tricks or hidden agendas with Thai food. It is what it is and there isn’t anything considered too ‘touristy’, but rather it’s about where you eat. Try the local Pad Thai for dinner, Pad Kra Pao (minced meat and rice) for lunch, Som Tam salad for a light snack, and Kai Jeow for breakfast.

Where to Eat

Restaurants can be a little overrated in Thailand. The best food is street food without a doubt. Try Sukhimvit Road in Bangkok for some of the best Pad Thai according to locals or go to Phuket’s night market to sample everything from dried squid to banana pancakes.

Off the Beaten Path…

Every part of Thailand is worth exploring, no matter how popular with the tourists. But if you’re looking for a tour that’s a little bit different, we would recommend adding some lesser known locations into your itinerary.

Ancient Capitals

Sukhothai, Lopburi and Ayutthaya are the three ancient capitals of Thailand. For something a bit different to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, take a tour of these cities and explore Thailand’s ancient past and some of its rural life.

Nan Province

One of the most remote areas of country, Nan Province is tucked into the Northern corner of Thailand. Explore untouched natural beauty and meet the Mien tribe.

Nepal

Having been a closed country for many years, Nepal is slowly but surely opening up. With the growing tourist industry, discovering the wonders of Nepal has become much easier over the years. And you will find a proud nation happy to welcome you and show you their world.

Food in Nepal

With rice and lentils forming the base of most Nepalese dishes and a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, the country’s cuisine is pretty wholesome. Here are some tips on discovering the hidden food gems of Nepal.

What to Eat

Dhal Bat is certainly the most famous Nepalese dish but other dishes to try include the simple yet stunning Chatamari, the delicious Sel roti bread, the vegetarian Gundrook-Dheedo, or the meaty Jack Fruit if you’re passing a fruit and veg stall.

Where to Eat

Fine dining is still a new concept to Nepal, so high-end restaurants won’t be easy to come across. But you certainly will find variety in Kathmandu; enjoy the mouthwatering street food or head into the many restaurants and cafes which line the main streets. If you’re after a more refined experience, we would recommend La Sherpa in the Panipokhari area of Kathmandu.

Off the Beaten Path…

Nepal itself is quite an off the beaten path destination. But for the curious traveller looking for places to expand the mind and soul, we have a couple of places up our sleeves.

Tsum Valley Trek

Tsum Valley is the key to unlocking Nepal’s secret; its captivating Tibetan Buddhist culture. Very much a hidden gem, this trek will leave you refreshed with culture, excitement and knowledge.

Dhaulagiri

Dhaulagiri is the ‘White Mountain’ of Nepal. It’s the seventh highest mountain on Earth and is a gateway to some of Nepal’s most scenic views and rural life.

Burma

Burma has only recently returned to the tourist map after suffering decades of political oppression. But with questions remaining about the country’s future and how long the peace will last, tourism has inflated somewhat in recent years. It’s a good time to explore Burma whilst the opportunity is still standing and you’ll find adventure even in the most popular parts.

The Best Food in Burma

Burmese food requires a little understanding from the well-travelled Asia tourist. Often compared to neighbouring Thailand, the competition is unfairly fierce. Some complain that the food is too oily, but give it a chance and you will grow to understand its quirks. 

What to Eat

The most popular dishes to try are Lephet (green tea leaf salad) and the Burmese Curry. Other dishes we would recommend are Hto-Hpu New (warm tofu), a Burmese Tea Shop course (a variety of sweet and savoury snacks to go with your tea), and Shan-style rice, or Mohinga noodles.

Where to Eat

Restaurants and teahouses are popular places to eat as well as street food markets. Establishments range from mid-high end such as Shan Yoe Yar restaurant in Yangoon to the personalised table top buffet restaurant Myo Myanmar Rice Food in Bagan. For an authentic tearoom serving up the best Mohinga noodles, go to Lucky Seven in Yangoon.

Off the Beaten Path…

Burma as a whole is one big adventure. Don’t miss the temples of Yangon, see the rice fields and Buddha-lined caves of Hpa-An, and sail the Ayeyarwady River by sunset. For a more adventurous trek, always consider using an experienced guide if you’re lacking the experience.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is vast and even in its most popular areas, it’s easy to escape the tourists. The three best ways to explore this area is by boat trip, by hiring bicycles or trekking.

Mount Popa

Although not far from Bagan, the poor road conditions set you back an hour by bus. Mount Popa is great to explore by guide or on your own.

Sri Lanka

Crammed full of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Sri Lanka is truly one of the most seductive countries for curious travellers. The country is at last a peaceful one, after three decades of civil unrest, and anyone visiting will find the people to be kind-hearted and optimistic.

True Sri Lankan Cuisine

Expect an eclectic fusion of flavours here, with influences from Indian, Arabian, Malaysian, Portuguese, Dutch and English cuisine. The result is one of true diversity. But don’t misinterpret this mish mash of influences to be half-hearted or half-way; Sri Lankan food has an awful lot of fire so be prepared to be blown away.

What to Eat

Curries are a staple in Sri Lanka and it’s all about variety (with a lot of spice!). Here are some delicious curries to try: Fish Ambul Thiyal (sour fish curry), Kukul Mas (chicken curry), Parippu (dhal curry), and Polos (jack fruit curry). Street food favourites include the eye-catching Egg Hopper batters, Lamprais (banana leaf steamed rice with meat and chilli sauce), and the regional fruit Wood Apple.

Where to Eat

Few restaurants in Sri Lanka really dazzle when it comes to representing the nation’s eclectic cuisine. But head down to the scruffy street cafes in the Colombo District and you will find a satisfying meal. For lunch just like the locals, grab a ‘lunch packet’ from a street stall, which usually includes steamed rice, curried meat or fish and dried coconut ‘Sambol’. When tasting the street food delights, don’t be alarmed if your food arrives, not in a box or a brown paper bag, but a ripped page from a school kid’s exercise book or an old newspaper; this is just a part of the Sri Lankan street food charm.

Off the Beaten Path…

If you’re looking for a few offbeat things to do in Sri Lanka, you won’t be at a loss. There’s so much to do and for those who know where to look, it’s surprisingly easy to stumble across Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets.

Madulkelle Tea Estate

Stilted tents and sloping mountains dominate the skyline. Here you can really step back in time and relax in the hills overlooking the beautiful tea plantations stretching across the horizon.

Ancient Ritigala

The ancient Buddhist monuments of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla are well known for many tourists. But for somewhere with a bit more magic (and still relatively unexplored), trek through the dense forests to get to the remote location of Ritigala.

Even More Asian Destinations

We hope our guide to Asia’s hidden gems has been useful to you – but it is by no means an extensive list of Asian travel secrets. We have much more to offer here at Ampersand Travel and we also cover North India, South India, Bhutan, Tibet, Singapore, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Japan. Find out more about our destinations or contact our team +44 (0) 20 7819 9970.