Think about the last time you lazed upon a perfectly pristine beach—powdery white sands, a fringe of palm trees, clear blue waters and no leathery European women of a certain age sunbathing topless. Or stumbled upon an idyllic mountainside village, where the locals wear traditional dress and don’t demand money for photo ops. Perhaps you’ve recently wandered through a famed historic site that was blissfully free of bus-tour hordes.
Unless you’re an old-school backpacker who’s happiest bouncing along a dirt road in ancient bus with a few chickens on your lap, I’m betting many of you have spent your holidays this past year with a lot of unwanted companions. Asia’s rising middle class has been hitting the road in unprecedented numbers thanks to budget carriers and the Internet. Last year, 57.4 million mainland Chinese traveled abroad, and those figures are expected to nearly double over the next few years.
But I’m not here to rail against the democratization of travel. Tourism has brought much-needed money and development to countless communities. I am, however, a selfish traveler: the fewer people, the better. Climbing a desolate stretch of the Great Wall allows you to imagine what it must have been like to be a lone sentry a millennium ago. Very little is more relaxing than taking a dip in the ocean without the constant whirring of long-tail boats and Jet Skis. There are plenty of ways you can still beat the crowds—be it hunting down that hidden gem or rediscovering a well-loved one.
1. Timing is all. One of the simplest ways to avoid crowds is to find out when the peak seasons and major holidays are. There’s also the shoulder season—between high and low. In Thailand, May and June means fewer crowds and lower prices. If you don’t mind the occasional downpour, the beginning of the rainy season can be an ideal time to travel in Southeast Asia. Keep in mind that popular destinations such as Phuket are seeing tourists year-round.
Not to sound mercenary, but follow the news. Natural disasters and political unrest coupled with the 24-hour news cycle often produces knee-jerk cancellations. I’m not advocating disaster tourism, but as a Bangkok resident, I’ve seen plenty of alarmist travel advisories that don’t amount to much a few weeks after they’re issued. Moreover, travel advisories are geographically specific—a warning about Manila doesn’t apply to Palawan—but panicky tourists tend to ignore the nuances.
2. Talk to locals. Don’t limit yourself to hotel concierges and guides. They often have set notions as to what travelers want to see. If you have a chatty driver, find out where he eats and where he relaxes on the weekend. Social media are also a great way to cull local knowledge.
3. Go against the flow. Study the itineraries of travel agencies and then do the exact opposite. For instance, the popular circuit at Angkor Wat is to start at the west gate of Angkor Wat, followed by Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom and Banteay Srei. The day usually wraps up with sunset at Phnom Bakheng. To avoid being stuck behind a gaggle of South Korean seniors with giant sun visors just follow the route in reverse.
Remember: going early isn’t always the best way to skirt the crowds. Chinese tour groups tend to visit attractions at the crack of dawn, so best to go to attractions in China just before closing time.
4. Get out of the city. Go beyond the city limits, especially if you’re visiting a familiar metropolis. About an hour’s drive from Taipei, Yilan has beautiful parks, hot springs, nice beaches and tea plantations—and not many visitors. It’s also worth getting your own set of wheels so you can follow any whim.