7 Top Attractions in Siem Reap

December 8, 2009 by  
Filed under Attractions, Exotic South East, Feature Highlights

Siem Reap, a former outpost of a pariah state run by the bloody Khmer Rouge, has risen admirably into an international tourist destination, one that boasts the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and host to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Only twenty years ago, the region was still off limits to tourists, its local denizens ruled over by terror and fear of the atrocities of one of the bloodiest regime in the world.

Now, Siem Reap is a booming city alongside the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat, seeing almost a million international passengers coming and going at its international airport in 2007. While Angkor Wat remains the top drawing factor of the area, the city of Siem Reap itself is not lacking in attractions, boasting some of the best hotels, restaurants, museums and galleries in the region.

Photo credits - tylerdurden1

Photo credits - tylerdurden1

Awe Inspiring Angkor Wat

The Angkor Wat is the biggest, best preserved, most intricately designed and awe inspiring temple in Indochina, a jewel in the crown of ANgkor’s extensive palace complex. It is a source of national pride and international renown, covered with beautiful bas relief carvings depicting the Ramayana epic of Hinduism. Like most temples in Asia, it is best seen at the crack of dawn or during sunset, when the colorful sun-lit sky accentuates the five towers for an exquisite scene.

Photo credits - Taiger808

Photo credits - Taiger808

The Number Nine

To know Asia is to understand the continent’s superstitions, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the massive Angkor Thom, a temple fixated with the number nine. The pronouncement for “nine” is similar to the word for “development”, and almost everything on the temple can equate to this number – 54 carved towers, 216 faces on the towers, 54 gods on the left of the entrance, and 54 demons on the right – all those numbers adding up to 9.

Photo credits - cornstaruk

Photo credits - cornstaruk

Other Temples

One of Angkor’s best known temples is Ta Prohm, a picturesque temple boasting hundred-year-old giant roots that thread themselves around the temple. This made it a very photogenic subject, and one that is a big hit with the tourists. Bayon is known as the “Temple of Faces”, and once you’ve been there you’ll easily know why – as you climb the steep stone steps and make you way into the inner sanctum of the temple, looking up you are struck by the hundreds of large stone faces looking down upon you. There is also the Banteay Srei, a temple filled with awe-inspiring elaborate carvings covering every single inch of stone there. Even with today’s technology it is almost unbelievable that such precise and intricate patterns and sculpture can be made from stone.

Photo credits - jimdavidson

Photo credits - jimdavidson

River Revitalization

Around 50 km north east of Siem Reap is the River of Thousand Lingas, an impressive river streaming into the Siem Reap River along its riverbed, which had been carved with thousands of lingas – phallic symbols prevalent in Cambodia. They are estimated to have been carved between 1100 to 1300 as a form of fertility ritual, and made for a perfect place to enjoy Siem Reap’s tropical beauty.

Photo credits - Allie_Caulfield

Photo credits - Allie_Caulfield

Tonle Sap

Siem Reap boasts not only one of the world’s most famous archeological sites, but also one of Southeast Asia’s biggets and most colorful lake. Tonle Sap is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a marine wildlife reserve that has some of the world’s rarest birds and at the same time is the only river in the world whose flow of water changes twice a year.

Photo credits - Mai…

Photo credits - Mai…

Contemporary Art

The fine arts scene in Siem Reap is burgeoning, you can find anything from cheap souvenirs to luxurious fine-arts. Some of the highlights for the arts lovers include: The McDermott Gallery, where world-class photography of Angkor and its surrounding region are on display; The Red Gallery, where the most extensive collection of contemporary Cambodian art is hosted; and The Asia Craft Center, which stocks lots of unique Cambodian and Southeast Asian traditional handicrafts.

Photo credits - Travel Aficionado

Photo credits - Travel Aficionado

Colonial Architecture

Siem Reap has a whole host of colonial buildings left by the French which are now put to pretty good use. Set among lazy boulevards, the architecture is now home to some of the best hotels, restaurants and galleries, such as the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, the city’s first ever luxury hotels established in 1932. The proud hotel boasts an array of VIP guests, including King Norodom Sihanouk, Charlie Chaplin, the Sultan of Johor and even Jacqueline Kennedy.

Like this list? You may also enjoy our list of Things To Do in Hong Kong and Top Attractions in Hokkaido. On a final note, do check out as well our latest feature – the magazine. Check it out online or download a PDF copy!

Unearthing Asia now offers travel packages throughout the region of Asia. Check out our promotional offers of Luxury Private Villas in Bali, perfect for Honeymooners or those looking for a little romance. We also have great offers for hotels in Singapore, resorts in Phuket and many more.

About the Author. Trangh Nguyen. Come to Vietnam, enjoy a cup of bia hoi in the street restaurant, ride moto, cruise in the labirynth of Mekong Delta and Halong Bay. Come with us and share the delight of one of the most beautiful country in Asia. We welcome you with our heart, hospitality and excellent cuisine.

The Islands of South East Asia

December 7, 2009 by  
Filed under magazine, News

We are very pleased to unveil our most recent project,
a travel publication focusing on Lifestyle, Culture and Attractions all around Asia. If you’re in the region of South East Asia, do pick up a copy and don’t hesitate to send in your comments and thoughts.

Download PDF       Browse Online

In this issue
+ The Islands of South East Asia
+ Raja Ampat, Phuket, Puerto Princesa
+ Koh Pha Ngan, Bali
+ New Zealand’s Splashing Lake Taupo
+ A Guide to Middle Eastern Cuisine
+ Heeding the Call of Asia
+ Spotlight on Jakarta
+ Flashpacking Essentials
+ A Tropical Affair


Touring in Taiwan

August 12, 2009 by  
Filed under Nature, Uniquely Far East

“Made in Taiwan” is probably the first image you have of this small Asian island. It’s an interesting place – 23 million people are squashed into an area slightly smaller than the size of the Netherlands, and while the island is one of the region’s top manufacturing spots, it’s not as if the entire island is covered in assembly lines and towering smoke stacks. Indeed, outside the capital of Taipei, you’ll find national parks and surreal sceneries abound.

Taipei 101. Photo credit - Fishtail Taipei.

Taipei 101. Photo credit - Fishtail Taipei.

Towering Taipei

You might not be very familiar with Taipei but surely you’ll recognize shots of Taipei 101, the towering skyscraper on the city’s skyline and the 2nd tallest building in the world (for now). Let’s be realistic – Taipei is a busy, bustling city, loud city, but it’s more than likely where you’ll start your journey so there are a number things not to miss. Of course, start off with a trip up to the observation tower in Taipei 101 for unbelievable, unblocked views.

There’s also an incredible number of fantastic buildings and museums to see in the city. I love the Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Halls — even if memorials are not your thing, the surrounding gardens, ceremonies, and the architecture itself is quite a sight. As for museums, there’s nearly 20 – this list covers the important ones, I’ll let you choose what strikes your fancy.

National Park Adventures

Far from the lights and sounds of big Taipei lies the Taiwanese countryside. It’s quiet and relatively off-the-beaten-path since many tourist can’t see past those “Made in Taiwan” signs. Here’s some highlights –

Alishan (Ali Mountain)
This heavenly place requires a 4 hour journey on a narrow-gauge railway 72km into the mountains. Once here in the hilltops, you can see some really spectacular views; check out the “Mystical Tree of Alishan” – its trunk is dead yet the tree still flowers in full bloom. Don’t miss sunrise at the top of the mountain.
Photo credit - Allen Hsu.

Photo credit - Allen Hsu.

Kenting Beach
Located in the south of the island, this popular summer vacation spots boasts sandy white sand and a blue shoreline that is every bit as impressive as its Thai or Australian counterparts. Rent a bike to explore the surrounding valley plain, or dive off into the deep sea to appreciate the corals.
Photo credit - myhsu.

Photo credit - myhsu.

Sun Moon Lake
The Sun Moon Lake is geographically significant as the largest natural lake in Taiwan. This beautiful alpine lake is the perfect spot for a quiet mini-sabbatical or a few days getaway. Swimming in the lake is not permitted, but there is an annual 3-km Swimming Carnival that drew tens of thousands participants.
Photo credit - Harry Huang.

Photo credit - Harry Huang.

Taroko Gorge
This is the world’s deepest marble canyon, and the perfect place for hikers to stretch their legs, a haven for outdoors enthusiasts. Taroko is engrossed in natural beauty, but it takes some planning to go there. If you do however, don’t miss exploring the picturesque Eternal Spring Shrine.
Photo credit - LightMatter.

Photo credit - LightMatter.

If You Go

Citizens of most countries can enter Taiwan visa-free for short stays of less than a month; for mainland China, Hong Kong, or Macau residents will need an entry permit. Further information is available on the (less than user-friendly) Bureau of Consular Affairs homepage.

The island has relatively decent air, train, and bus transport. If you just want some day trips from Taipei or want something a little more organised but not a full-on travel agent, check out the Taiwan Tour Bus. Be sure for trains and planes to make reservations in advance – things can be full, especially trains!

If you head further off field to some of the more rural suggestions, keep in mind that English is not widely spoken outside Taipei. A few basic Mandarin phrases are essential –a good phrasebook where you can point is helpful. Thankfully, the Taiwanese are super-friendly so no doubt a few smiles and patience will go a long way.

Do consider stopping by for one of the many festivals throughout the year, such as the Lantern Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival or the Golden Horse Film Festival.

About the Author. Andy Hayes. Andy Hayes is a freelance travel writer and photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. When not crossing the world to have his next Asian travel adventures, he is hitting the walking trails near home. To get in touch or see Andy’s other travelogues, visit his website, Sharing Experiences.

Unearthing Small-town China

June 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Culture, Uniquely Far East

It’s 2 pm. The April sun is beating down on my face hotter than it should be this time of year and little beads of sweat are starting to form on my back. Dust is kicking up from a nearby construction site as my friend and I wander aimlessly down a side street in Hengdian, a tiny town in Zhejiang Province that is supposed to be the ‘Hollywood of China’.

It turns out that no, this isn’t the Hollywood of China, but rather a bunch of massive movie sets scattered to the ends of the town, impossible to reach on foot. My friend and I just ate pizza covered in sweet corn and peas for lunch, we’re down one passport and we’ve got nowhere to sleep for the night.

It’s 9:25 pm. The Yiwu taxi driver has just dropped us in front of a bar he assures us is an “England bar”. That would be fine except the writing on the sign is in Cyrillic. We’re still down one passport, we’re 200 km from home and the left passport means we won’t be getting a hotel at all tonight.

There’s a city park showing a movie on the big screen for free. Too bad it’s all in Chinese. And really too bad about the naked hobo we just passed. “There’s a bar,” says my friend. Beers for the next three hours.


Some of my best, most memorable adventures have come from exploring small towns in China. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had got a story or two from rafting in Utah and driving the back roads of New Zealand with my dad, but China is just so… weird. And small-town China is even weirder!

It’s not that you can’t have amazing, life-changing experiences in places like Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai – what I like to call the Golden Triangle of Chinese travel – but traveling in small-town China is simply on a different level of weird, all on its own!


I like to think that there are a three different major routes of travel in China. The first and most obvious is the Golden Triangle. Two types of travelers embark upon this most basic route, baby boomers on pre-booked tours and backpackers without much time. Another route includes some of the major provincial cities like Hangzhou (which Marco Polo called ‘heaven on earth’), Qingdao (because everyone loves beer) and Guangzhou (for that ever popular Cantonese delight, dim sum). It also incorporates some of China’s more well-known sights, such as Yellow Mountain and the Three Gorges River Cruise.

Small, unheard of cities and tiny villages comprises the final route. Most people never get to travel this route because they don’t have the time or are limited by their mindsets – because, let’s face it, getting around China is no piece of cake, even if you do speak some Mandarin. This is unfortunate, because small-town China ultimately offers some of the most rewarding travel one can do in China.


My small-town China adventures have taken me across the Inner Mongolian plains on horseback, into the western wine country where I dined under grape trellises, afield into the camps and forts of the Maoist revolution and aboard a night ship in the East China Sea. Most importantly, these adventures have taught me how vast and diverse this seemingly mono-cultural nation really is, and how beautiful it is to journey for the sake of the trip.

It’s 3 am. We’re on the slow train to Hangzhou, but we couldn’t get seats at this time of night, so we squeezed onto a bench and pretended to sleep. Since we’re foreign, the 320 other people in this car aren’t grumbling too much about our seat-stealing ploy. “Just close your eyes and maybe this night will end.” I’m carting a fake fifty bill that the taxi driver slipped me as change. It was too dark to see that it was counterfeit.

It’s 6:30 am. Dawn is breaking over Hangzhou’s high rises. The first bus back to the tiny city we call home leaves from the north bus station in thirty minutes. Just enough time to get a cab across town from this internet café where we’ve been holed up for the last hour. I’ll probably sleep all day.

About the Author. Megan Eaves.Megan Eaves is a freelance travel writer and China junkie. She’s an English teacher in a small town in Zhejiang Province where her days are filled correcting grammatical mistakes, killing nuclear wasps and getting stared at by the locals. Megan has traveled everywhere from the Great Wall to the Gobi Desert and isn’t afraid to write about it. She’s also the author of a groovy book called “This is China: A Guidebook for Teachers, Backpackers and Other Lunatics”. She, of course, has a website: http://www.meganeaveswriting.com

8 Diver’s Paradise in Indonesia

More than 5 million square meters of water surrounds the island archipelago of Indonesia. Undoubtedly, it is a grand settlement for hundreds if not thousands of underwater species and beautiful, colorful coral reefs. At once, this country offers plenty of spots that many diving enthusiasts can only dream about.

Thanks to the unusual political turmoil and usually exaggerated travel warnings, you’ll rarely find this country on the average traveler’s itinerary. Fortunately for the brave and adventurous, that means less tourists, more peace and quiet, and a better chance of enjoying all the serene beauty on your own sweet time. Here’s a list of Indonesia’s 8 Amazing Dive Spots for you to dream about, and one day try on your own!

Bintan Island. Photo credit - jensen_chua & Roro Fernandez.

Bintan Island. Photo credit - jensen_chua & Roro Fernandez.

Bintan Island, Riau

Probably the most accessible island from outside Indonesia, this diving hotspot is less then an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore. The island boasts of 18 km of pristine white beaches with rich marine life, and various dive spots for your enjoyment and perusal.

Not far from the northern coast line there is a small gorge 8 meters deep with a flat bottom, a perfect site for those trying out scuba diving for the first time. Another unique site here is Ship Wreck Point, where you can explore the remains of an old tanker boat sunk years ago in the depth of the sea.

Pulau Seribu. Photo credit - tjhinn & Ria Qorina Lubis.

Pulau Seribu. Photo credit - tjhinn & Ria Qorina Lubis.

Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands), Jakarta

This unique area consisting of over a hundred small islands (thus the exaggerated name), has always been the playground for divers from Jakarta. From the various islands, a few of the more popular ones are Pulau Kotok Besar, Pulau Kotok Kecil, Karang Bongkok, Pulau Sepa and Pulau Pantara.

Pulau Seribu is very accessible, you can simply rent a speedboat from the Marina, or a fisherman’s boat from one of the various piers. About one to two hours worth away from Jakarta and you’ll be able to dive to your heart’s content. Some of the larger islands provide better accommodation such as resorts and villas, but you’ll have to rent a boat to visit the smaller islands – that’s where the beautiful corals are!

Karimun Java, Central Java

Another side of Java Sea that’s also a diver’s paradise is the island across the sea at Semarang, Central Java. This area, called Karimun Java, is a collection of 27 smaller islands surrounded by ocean water rich with blue coral Acropora reef. Divers can explore the remains of Indonour, an ancient merchant ship that sank long ago in 1955. An additional treat here is the various sea turtles that hatches in the conservation park.

Derawan Island. Photo credit - degi.

Derawan Island. Photo credit - degi.

Derawan Island, East Kalimantan

About 50 miles away from the Tanjung Redeb, Berau Province’s capital, is an area covering several smaller islands. Its filled with spectacular corals and underwater caves for adventurous exploration. Derawan has more than 17 dive spots across the area, each with its own unique attractions for you to consider. Some of the more popular sites are at Pulau Sangalaki, Pulau Kakaban and Pulau Maratua.

At Sangalaki, you can find eagle rays, sting rays, leopard sharks and cuttlefishes as well. It is also the preferred hatching spot for giant green turtles, which you can view every night. The main attraction at Pulau Kakaban is the 5 square meters saltwater lake filled with stingless jellyfish and goby fish. And finally, at Pulau Maratua, you’ll find plenty large-sized fishes such as barracuda, tuna and mackerel. Sightings of hammerhead sharks, and up to eight species of whales are also often reported here.

Scuba diving enthusiasts should also check out our photographic journey through the marine paradise of Raja Ampat, long renowned as the Holy Grail of Scuba Diving.

Komodo Island. Photo credit - smulan77 & thejerk.

Komodo Island. Photo credit - smulan77 & thejerk.

Komodo Island, Flores

This island is usually associated with the Komodo Dragons, with it playing host to these fiery gigantic lizards species. But in regards to scuba diving, this area also plays host to a score of dive spots that are known to be some of the best in the country. From Sebayour Kecil, Pulau Tengah Kecil and Pantai Merah, various underwater attractions are on offer, such as various mackerel, cod and grouper fish.

At Pantai Merah, or roughly translated as Red Beach, you’ll find not far from the coast a 5 meter drop-off filled with colorful fishes. There are more dive sites at the western coast of Flores, such as Pulau Tatawa, Pulau Tatawa Kecil, Pulau Rinca and Pulau Nusa Node.

Nusa Penida. Photo credit - Saylow's & whitecat-singapore.

Nusa Penida. Photo credit - Saylow's & whitecat-singapore.

Nusa Penida, Bali

Pulau Nusa Penida, located east of Bali, is a popular dive spot amongst both local and international divers. About one hour away from Bali, this island has some of the healthiest coral reefs, with exceptional visibility of 15 to 35 meters.

For beginners, there are various dive spots at the northern coast of the island better suited for exploration. At the southern coast, there is also Blue Corner, Nusa Lembongan and Gamat, for those more experienced divers looking for a challenge. The sun fish is often sighted at Crystal Bay, while manta birostris are common occurrences at Manta Point.

Diving at Bunaken. Photo credit - naturemandala & Erwin Kodiat.

Diving at Bunaken. Photo credit - naturemandala & Erwin Kodiat.

Bunaken, North Sulawesi

This is another hotspot that is better known internationally compared to the rest, consisting of the smaller islands of Pulau Sialdoen, Gangga, Mantehage, Nine and an old volcano in the middle of the sea, Manado Tua (Old Manado). Snorkeling and diving are both extremely popular, with up to 16 dive spots spread amongst the islands in the area. Bunaken features a slope with up to 30 meters drop-off housing various species of fishes and marine life. Sightings of shark are not uncommon, so beware!

Indonesia is home to so many amazing diving destinations, its simply impossible to write about them all at one go! Here’s another diving-related article – Diving in the 3 Pearls in Indonesia.

Diving at Lembeh Straits. Photo credit - CW_Ye.

Diving at Lembeh Straits. Photo credit - CW_Ye.

Selat Lembeh (Lembeh Straits), North Sulawesi

Still at North Sulawesi is another icon of the diving world, Selat Lembeh (Lembeh Straits). This dive site is famed internationally with its diversity of marine life, some unique to the site. Here you can find the mimic octopus, pygmy seahorse, flamboyant cuttlefish and hairy frogfish among others. It’s a haven of underwater photography, and is often called the “Mecca of Macro Photography”. Be warned however, that the delicate nature of Lembeh Straits means it is only appropriate for experienced divers.

Travel smarter! If your looking for the best deals on Indonesia hotel prices, head on to SmartHotelComparison.com for a one-stop portal which allows you to compare prices from over 500 booking websites!

For some of the best car-rental pricing comparison, check out Cyprus car hire!

Locked in Everlasting Love

February 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Culture, Feature Highlights, Uniquely Far East

Locks and love aren’t exactly synonymous. Love after all, was supposed to set you free. But at the N Seoul Tower in Namsan Park, South Korea, you’ll find thousands and thousands of locks symbolizing the love between couples. Unearthing Asia takes a peek behind this unusual tradition that has seen tourists both locals and internationals alike flock the site.

A spectacular night view of Seoul from up at the Seoul Tower. Photo credit - ziczic90

A spectacular night view of Seoul from up at the Seoul Tower. Photo credit - ziczic90

With a spectacular night view of Seoul and a wide range of restaurants, the N Seoul Tower (simplified as just Seoul Tower) is emerging as a hot spot for a growing number of romantics, both young and old. Located in central Seoul in the middle of Namsan Park, the tower reaches 480 meters above sea level, allowing a luxurious view of the entire city and the surrounding areas.

During the weekend, the tower is almost always full with visitors, both locals and tourists alike. Most visitors ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain, and then hike up to the tower. As I made my way up towards the base of the tower, I spotted plenty of couples mixed with various groups large and small. Obviously, it was a popular place for lovers, tho I can’t understand why quite yet – I personally prefer peace and quiet for a romantic date, instead of large crowds and boisterous teenagers.

Inside the Seoul Tower. Photo credit - hyku

Inside the Seoul Tower. Photo credit - hyku

The Seoul Tower is actually a communication tower built in 1969, and opened to the public in 1980. At the foot of the tower, there is a plaza with various amenities and facilities. You can find a Food Court, various Multi-Media Show and Media Art installations, as well as a Lobby & Media Zone whose seats were cunningly designed to fit two people just nicely. A great place to relax and enjoy the view.

There is also the Pavilion, a cultural experience space with performances and exhibitions for adults and children. Outside the plaza, the Teddy Bear Museum is always popular with the girls, with cutesy illustrations of Korea’s cultural history.

I eagerly made my way up towards the sky terrace attached to the tower. The air is cool and breezy, with a great open view of Seoul. “This is probably better than the view up at the top, from behind those glass walls,” I thought to myself. The freedom of being out in the open air always excites me, and this was no different.

Because of the large crowd, I had to push my way through to get to the edge of the fences, and thats when I found out why this place was so popular with the romantics.

Thousands of locks adorn the fences on the terrace at Seoul Tower. Photo credit - Jinho.Jung

Thousands of locks adorn the fences on the terrace at Seoul Tower. Photo credit - Jinho.Jung

Thousands of locks adorn the fences, hung by couples both young and old, with the keys thrown away to ensure that the sweethearts’ vows to never separate are kept forever.

Now the idea of a lock as a symbol of love is a double-edged sword. Its a promise and commitment to being together, a vow to never separate. At the same time, it is also the end of freedom, a symbol of being caged in prison for the rest of your life. Fortunately for us, Seoulites has embraced the former much more than the latter.

This idea originated from local tourists a few years ago who saw the same thing at Tokyo Tower. Recently, it’s enjoying a renewal after two stars dated there in a popular reality show. Since then, locals flock the site, and international tourists have similarly embraced this novel idea.

Most of the locks are decorated with writings, drawings and stickers while some cannot even be called locks. Some used chain locks for bikes shaped as hearts, as well as pink and red heart-shaped ribbons on their locks.

The chain fence is in danger of buckling down under the increasing weight. Photo credit - stari4ek

The chain fence is in danger of buckling down under the increasing weight. Photo credit - stari4ek

Unfortunately, the chain link fence was not designed to accommodate this extra weight. As more and more locks are left behind, the weight increases and the fences are starting to bend. With the locks filling the whole area, its almost impossible for children to enjoy the surrounding view. Since the tradition includes throwing away the keys to the lock, there is also a danger that other people under the terrace might be hit.

Romantics from all over the world certainly hope that this beautiful tradition can continue, but what can be done to safe the overburdened chain fences? Simply replacing it with a new one may prove to be an unpopular decision with the various couples whose locks adorn the fence. In the mean time however, Seoul Tower’s locks of Love remains a memorable, must-do event for both local and foreign tourists.

About the Author. Nikolas Tjhin. Freelance graphic artist and travel fanatic. Twiter-addict and social media novice. Adventure budget traveler and stay home weekend worker. Before working on Unearthing Asia, Nik’s journeyman career has seen him do work for various creative studios in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Singapore and Jakarta. Now that he’s settled down for the time being (till 2010) in Jakarta, he’s focusing his efforts on social media and his location-independent-service-provider career.

Riyadh – Three Side Trips Not to be Missed

February 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Attractions, Crossroad of Asia, Feature Highlights, Nature

The land of a thousand and one fables and fantasies, impenetrable Saudi Arabia has long intrigued the world. As the country begins to relax its visa rules to welcome visitors, Unearthing Asia shares with you here three tastings of the middle east. Each of these side trip journeys are easily reachable from Riyadh, its capital city, and are a definite travel destinations for adventurous traveler.

The Asir Mountains. Photo credit - rassam.abha

The Asir Mountains. Photo credit - rassam.abha

The Asir Mountains
This hilly region is near the country’s border with Yemen. The local capital, Abha, a small town ringed by misty mountains, felt chilly as I strolled through its souk and chatted with stall holders selling incense of frankincense and myrrh, beads, gowns and brightly colored baskets.

The key attraction here is the restored village of Rijal Alma. Its tall, tower-like houses were built nearly 300 years ago, acting as watchtowers. One house is now a museum with rooms and displaying jewellery, farm tools and even a bridal carriage designed to go on a camel’s back.

Madain Saleh
Madain Saleh is the country’s key tourist attraction. Located in the north-west, the 2,000-year-old Nabataean tombs, set in the stark desert, are a stunning sight. Imagine visiting the rock-cut architecture of Petra, in Jordan, but without the crowds. This was the second city of the Nabataeans, who created their 131 rock-cut tombs soon after they had finished work on Petra.

The Nabataeans, whose empire lasted from around 600 BC to AD 300, sited both cities on the same trade route and Madain Saleh would once have been a bustling city, though as in Dir’aiyah, the houses have long disappeared. The tombs are astonishing – many are cut so high in the rock that you have to climb a rickety ladder to enter them to see the burial niches cut into the sandstone. Many tombs have inscriptions in the Aramaic language over their doors and these are translated into English, explaining who owned the tomb.

Madain Saleh. Photo credit - der_boese_basti

Madain Saleh. Photo credit - der_boese_basti

One of the most striking is the beautiful row of tombs called Qasr Al-Bint. You can also head across the dunes to the tomb of Qasr Farid, when it turns a glowing pink at sunset.

Souq Al-Alawi is the star attraction here, a warren of narrow streets in the old town where I spent a happy morning shopping for leather slippers and beautiful wool shawls. The prices are fixed, so haggling is not welcome, but generally, the atmosphere in Jeddah is far more relaxed than in conservative Riyadh.

Jeddah. Photo credit - Perez 183A

Jeddah. Photo credit - Perez 183A

Here, I spotted women going out without men accompanying them, and sometimes without wearing their headscarves.

We finished our trip with a superb supper of prawn and hamour, a fish caught locally, at the Al-Nakhil restaurant on the Corniche. After supper, we all enjoyed smoking the apple-flavored shisha water pipes and soaking up the atmosphere of this buzzy restaurant, where families dine and chat until 3am in the morning.

About the Author. Nikolas Tjhin. Freelance graphic artist and travel fanatic. Twiter-addict and social media novice. Adventure budget traveler and stay home weekend worker. Before working on Unearthing Asia, Nik’s journeyman career has seen him do work for various creative studios in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Singapore and Jakarta. Now that he’s settled down for the time being (till 2010) in Jakarta, he’s focusing his efforts on social media and his location-independent-service-provider career.

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