We've been curious about them since Borat exposed his homeland to Hollywood. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler tipped us off to the Central Asian republics' allure last year, calling them exotic, quirky and interesting. And even though we may not be able to pronounce them perfectly, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are on our radar for good reason. These ex-Soviet republics are indeed unusual, a curious collision of a vast and diverse landscape, a legacy of harsh Communist rule and a history that's rich with ancient cultures, intricate Islamic architecture and nomadic tribes whose descendants still roam the land. Go now before the hotel developers and restaurant chains realize the potential.
There was a time not too long ago when Bhutan had no currency, no phones and no electricity. Until 1972, outsiders weren't allowed into the tiny Himalayan kingdom. But times have changed, and despite its isolated locale and seemingly archaic practices, Bhutan is now welcoming foreigners in its own way. Measures are in place to avoid overcrowding and to attract the "right crowd". This is not a place for budget travellers: Visitors have to pay a minimum of $200 U.S. per day, and sightseeing excursions are limited to guided visits to stunningly positioned Buddhist temples - the Tiger's Nest Monastery hangs on a sheer rock face - and mountain hikes like the Jhomolhari Trek, which passes through remote villages. In the end, it's a small price to pay to visit the happiest country in the world, where people value Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
Compared to well-trodden Argentina and Chile, Brazil is misunderstood. We want to samba during Carnaval and float down the Rio Negro, and yet we don't know much about the rest of this vast and diverse country. Future host of the FIFA World Cup (in 2014) and the Summer Olympics (in 2016), Brazil is inching its way up everyone's hot list, so you should get there before the tourist hordes. One of its best kept secrets is Fernando de Noronha. Only 750 visitors per day are allowed on this archipelago of white-sand beaches, windswept cliffs and colourful sea life; and they have to pay a hefty environmental tax for the privilege. For art connoisseurs, Sao Paolo's art biennal ( bienalsaopaulo.globo.com) is the second oldest in the world - it returns this fall - and the sprawling Inhotim ( www.inhotim.org.br) is a one-of-a-kind publicly funded cultural hybrid that includes a contemporary art gallery, sculpture park, botanical garden, and ecological reserve.
Off-the-beaten-path Laos is the forgotten country of southeast Asia. There are fewer tourists and fewer foreign influences than in Vietnam and Cambodia, which allows for less crowded and more authentic cultural experiences at ancient sites like the Wat Phou temple and in the capital city of Vientiane. Tony Wheeler recommends starting a Laotian adventure in Luang Prabang, the 'capital' of the northern region which has fine old French colonial buildings, charming little hotels, Buddhist temples and monasteries and superb bars and restaurant. "It feels like one of those towns in Tuscany or Provence that are too cute for the postcards," he says. In December 2009, China and Laos signed an agreement to build a cross-border nature reserve to better protect Asian elephants and other endangered species in the area. The reserve in Laos and China's Yunnan province will cover an area that is home to approximately 250 wild elephants.
The experts' favourites
BRAZIL: JAMES LOHAN Uxua Casa According to Lohan of the Mr. and Mrs. Smith website, this hotel - in the fishing village of Trancoso in Bahia - is Brazil's coolest new green hotel. The owner, Wilbert Das, is the former creative director of fashion label Diesel. www.uxua.com
LAOS: TONY WHEELER The Laos Elephant Festival takes place in Sainyabuli every February. Wheeler, the co-founder of the Lonely Planet guidebooks, was there in 2009 and may go again in 2010: "If you've ever wanted to get up close and personal with a pachyderm, this is the place to do it."
BHUTAN: KEITH JENKINS Chimi Lhakhang Jenkins, founder of the Velvet Escape travel blog, suggests you take a stroll through the rice fields and along the trail to this temple, also known as the Divine Madman temple. The Bhutanese, dressed in their finest attire, bring their offerings to the temple every Sunday. M.S.
Special to The Globe and Mail