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Craving Adventure, Travelers Seek Out Asia’s ‘Hot Spots’

Bagan, Myanmar

The sun sets over Bagan, an ancient city in Myanmar filled with hundreds of temples and pagodas. Courtesy Remote Lands, Inc

Whether you want to feast on deep-fried scorpions, go "off the grid" in a spot untouched by tourists, spend your day watching green sea turtles or dance at a colorful festival, Asia beckons like never before.

Now, many travelers are also adding some of the more remote corners of the continent to their dream itineraries.

For the second year in a row, members of the United States Tour Operators Association have named Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, as the top emerging destination that will gain popularity in 2014. Vietnam and Cambodia tied for second, while India took third place in the annual survey released in December.

Travel agents say clients are eager to immerse themselves in another world.

“It always used to be that the travel was to Europe — that was the thing to do. And now, since global travel has expanded so much, they’ve all been to Europe. They’ve been there, done that,” said Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, a New York travel agency that specializes in Asia.

“So then they’re looking for new pastures. And the culture in Asia is so fascinating, so completely different from our own culture here, that it’s just much more exotic for Americans.”

Myanmar may be most exotic of all right now, with the nation back on many itineraries after the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010. The move prompted her supporters to end a 15-year tourism boycott of the region, which in turn has inspired a travel boom.

“Myanmar is definitely one of the global travel hot spots at this time,” said Nick Ray, author of several Southeast Asia guides for Lonely Planet.

“Everyone is drawn by the opportunity to see a country in transition politically and economically, as well as the chance to see a culture and society that has been relatively isolated from the Western world for nearly half a century.”

Heald recalled traveling to a village that was “completely off the grid,” where the locals had never seen a foreigner, much less one wearing sunglasses, and they marveled at her shades.

But it’s about to get more crowded. More than 1 million tourists visited Myanmar in 2012, according to the country’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a 30 percent increase over 2011. There aren’t enough guesthouses or hotels to accommodate the surge of visitors so prices have skyrocketed, and it’s particularly hard to find a place to stay during the peak season travel months of November to March, Ray noted.

However, if you do snag a room, Ray said there are lots of spectacular places to visit, including the majestic temples of Bagan and beautiful Inle Lake.

Both Heald and Ray said they felt very safe in Myanmar. Tourists traveling to India, however, may need to take more precautions.

The country lures tourists with its exquisite architecture, formidable landscapes, amazing cuisine and vibrant festivals, said Sarina Singh, author of Lonely Planet’s guide to India.

“Many people go to India in pursuit of spiritual answers and return home reminded of the inimitable serenity found in life’s simple pleasures,” Singh said, calling India one of the world’s most enigmatic tourist destinations

But after several attacks on women last year, many people may be wondering whether it’s safe to go.

The U.S. Department of State cautions Americans, particularly women, not to travel alone in India. Singh said it’s sensible for female visitors to stay alert and avoid all public transport at night.

“Although crimes against women in India have increased over recent years, female travelers are more likely to experience sexual harassment — particularly in big cities and tourist towns in north India — than violent assault. Many women face no problems at all,” Singh said.

She advised visitors to dress conservatively — no sleeveless tops, shorts, miniskirts, or anything skimpy or tight. If you’re at a beach, consider wearing a T-shirt and long shorts over a bathing suit. Getting stared at is common, but sunglasses are a good way to deflect eye contact, Singh said.

Going for the first time? Travelers who have their hearts set on seeing the iconic Taj Mahal may enjoy the “Golden Triangle” itinerary, which incorporates Delhi; India’s capital city; Agra, site of the Taj Mahal; and Jaipur, dubbed the “Pink City,” which is the capital of Rajasthan (“Land of Kings”) and is “suitably speckled with glorious remnants of its royal past,” Singh said.

For visitors in search of India’s less frenetic side, she recommends the southern states — places such as Kerala, a tropical, easygoing wedge of India’s far southwest.

India has plenty of hotel choices for travelers, as do Vietnam and Cambodia, Heald said.

For beautiful beaches, head to Vietnam where the coastline is one of the big draws, with long stretches of prime seafront and thousands of small islands. A classic itinerary starts in the north in Hanoi, and should include Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage site; Hoi An, an ancient trading port; and Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon, Ray said.

Cambodia, on the other side of the border, offers its own delights, he said, with the temples of Angkor and the lively capital of Phnom Penh at the top of the list.