The idea that there are “hidden gems” that no one knows about, but that you can visit easily as a general tourist, is a bit of a contradiction in terms. But never mind that, here is my list of remarkable locations that are less well known, but rewarding to visit in the extreme. They are not entirely off the beaten track, but they’re not on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, either.
1. Borobudur – This is a large and imposing Buddhist monument located on the central plains of Indonesia’s Java island, about 42 KM north west of the city of Yogyakarta, which means a local air flight from Jakarta, probably on Air Garuda. Both the monument and the trip are exciting–pray for a safe landing. And then you need a car and driver and guide to take you there as it’s really not close to anything much except rice fields. Four levels of a square pyramid like structure, each level festooned with repeated and essentially identical statues of the Buddha, as well as bas reliefs telling the story of the Ramayana. For the non-scholars, there is a very good orientation movie in the small visitors center which goes over this legend in simplified form. Walking around all the levels, and ultimately reaching the top, is a memorable experience, and cannot help but make you wonder how they built such a massive edifice and how many artisans worked on the 400 plus statues of Buddha, and the other carvings. It’s out of the way and hard to pronounce, but a fabulous site. There are good tourist hotels in Yogyakarta, and the added bonus of a nearby Hindu temple site called Prambanan, the largest in Indonesia, that can be visited on the way to or from Borobudur.
- The heel of the boot in Puglia – Start in Lecce in southeast Italy, a less visited city frequently called “The Florence of the South,” and worth a trip by itself. It’s easy to get to from Bari or Brindisi, the major towns in Puglia. Then follow the coast road south past small beach towns, the white hill town of Ostuni, the sea grottoes around Santa Cesarea Terme, and end up circling north again and arriving at Alberobello, where in the past the citizens built small buildings called “trulli,” small circular structures with no internal supports or cross beams, and cone shaped roofs made of carefully placed flat stone, each supported by the ones below it. If this doesn’t make you think of building domino houses, then you are more trusting than I am. But the views along the way will make you believe you’re in California on the coast road to Monterey and the Big Sur region. The lack of traffic will convince you that you’re not.
When I first began working in Puglia, one of our Italian colleagues in Rome announced to us, “Ah, Puglia, the worst food in Italy.” I was depressed. Then after a while I thought, “Wait a minute, the worst food in Italy is likely to be better than the best food in the US.” And Puglia has wonderful food, everywhere you go. There are, after all, fifty million olive trees in the Province, although I don’t know who did the counting. And it’s the principal location for Primitivo wine, a zinfandel grape generic that somehow lacks the bite of many American zinfandels. And very few tourists show up here, other than at the trulli site. Go figure. Maybe it’s that “worst food” thing.
- Wildflowers of Western Australia — If you stuck a needle into a globe starting at Washington DC and going through the center of the earth, it would come out the other side at Perth in Western Australia. Australia is a funny place. The good news for Americans is that they speak English like Crocodile Dundee, the money works and you don’t get sick. The bad news is that it’s a bit like visiting Oklahoma with a couple of beaches thrown in and no football. Ok, there’s a big bridge in Sydney and an opera house that’s kind of nice, but the cities including Perth are undistinguished and the country side is mostly flat and brown except for Ayers rock, inconveniently located in the middle, near nothing. As one Aussie said to me ruefully, “What kind of a country is it when the biggest tourist site is a 900 foot rock?” They do have good beer. But they need it.
That isn’t all. In the spring (October, it’s south of the equator) outside of Perth, for about three weeks, there is the most gorgeous display of wildflowers on earth. And none of the guidebooks give it more than a sentence, if that. It is magnificent! Note that once you leave Perth in either direction, it’s all open space, pasture, and not much farmland as there’s not much water. But that doesn’t stop the acres and acres and acres of wildflowers – freesia, blue bonnets, red poppies, yellow marguerites and calochortus and many others that I cannot name. There are bus tours that leave from Perth run by local operators, but it’s a snap just to rent a car and take off. Bring your camera.
- Vancouver Museum of Anthropology – Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, is a truly beautiful city, sitting on a bay with lots of water views, great restaurants and galleries, cool little ferries, and great hotels. And since the people are all Canadian, they are really as nice as advertised, although maybe it’s something in the gene pool. We were a bit put off by the food truck that offered “Japadogs” which had something to do with Japan, although one could not tell what exactly. But never mind that.
The Museum of Anthropology is not in downtown Vancouver and is not very easy to find. It’s on a point in south west Vancouver, but the signage is poor and it is not served by public transportation. Nor do cab drivers seem to know it. But press on, hearty traveler! The building is fabulous architecture, a large open three story glass wall exposing a huge atrium filled with light and the best collection of totems in the world. And there are more outside, along with traditional First Nation long houses. It is breathtaking and so photogenic that you’ll wear out your smart phone. Plus the collections of other artifacts are equally remarkable, if less statuesque. I spent half a day there and was sorry to leave. Especially as calling a cab to go back downtown was more than a little challenging.
- Ellora Caves in India — This site is located in Maharashtra in western India, so the nearest international airport is Mumbai. From there a local flight takes you to Aurangabad, a not exceptional city with B minus hotels. I did finally convince them to open the bar in the one I stayed at, but it took more communicating than one would have expected. A car and driver are necessary, as the site is about 20 miles out into the countryside. And it isn’t really caves, it is a series (34 in all) of temples and religious sites carved out of the solid rock of a hillside. No crawling around in the dark with flashlights, it’s all exposed and monumental. Carved in the 6th to 9th centuries, some are Buddhist, some are Hindu, and some are Jain. It is remarkable that none of the earlier ones were defaced as the dominant religion – that of the ruling class – changed twice during this period. But they’re all in fine shape, and the Jain sites are particularly spectacular, mostly for their exquisite statuary.
It is hard to suggest that anything on the list of World Heritage Sites, as this is, can be considered “hidden.” But there are now 1007 such places in 161 countries, with 32 in India alone. The exclusive nature of joining the club has long since eroded. And it’s really not that easy to get to this place unless you are serious. While I was there, on a lovely day, there were probably forty other visitors spread over the large site, including two groups of school kids. And not one other Westerner.
- Le Planteur, Yangon—Myanmar is not the closed destination that it used to be, but it’s hardly New York City. A repressive military junta has ruled it for 30 plus years, and the junta’s non democratic nature, coupled with the aggressive military campaign to wipe out the non-Burmese minorities who make up about 25% of the population, principally in the hills of the north, have not played well internationally. The country was embargoed for a very long time by the western nations. Consequently, there’s no Coca Cola or McDonalds or 7-11’s anywhere to be found, and the infrastructure, especially outside the capital, is rudimentary indeed. So is this where you would expect to find perhaps the best French restaurant in which I have ever eaten? The Shwedagon pagoda is pretty great, and the 1000 or so temples in Pagan are well worth visiting, but everybody knows them. Not everyone knows Le Planteur. I don’t know the story of why it’s there, but the setting is delightful, the service perfect, the ambience unhurried, the wine list outstanding for a Buddhist country, and the food exquisite. Go there for sure if it’s still in business when you’re in Myanmar.
- Banteay Srei – Banteay Srei was built in the 10th century, a bit later than the other temples in the area, and is a monument to Shiva, one of the Hindu Gods. But the best thing about this site is its human scale. All the construction is of red sandstone, different from the other Angkor Wat sites, and all the carvings are well preserved and elaborate. Sandstone is easier to carve than limestone or marble, and the site is also less looted than some of the others. If you go to Angkor Wat, be sure to reserve time to see Banteay Srei. It’s a bit of a drive but really worth it.
And while we’re on the subject, the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia is the most wonderful “tourist” location I have ever been to. It’s not one, but a complex of remarkable temples/palaces, all clustered in the vicinity of the town of Siem Reap, where all the lodging and facilities are, and into which one flies from Phnom Penh or from Bangkok. If you were to only visit one archaeological site in the world, this would be it. Massive, breath-taking, beautifully decorated with sculpture and bas reliefs, and reasonably well preserved despite centuries of looting and misguided preservation efforts. It cannot be “done” in less than three days, including Banteay Srei, but these will be three unforgettable days, trust me.
Robert Hemphill is an author and former senior executive with a global power company. His most recent book is Dust Tea, Dingoes and Dragons, a humorous look at international business. Learn more at www.rfhemphill.com or on Facebook at Facebook/pages/RF-Hemphill.