Some countries are swiftly scooped up by one or other of the mainstream tourist routes, whether it’s the luxury hotels and resorts sprinkled across the Caribbean or the backpacker hostels of Southeast Asia. Other places remain, for some combination of reasons, relatively unexplored. These reasons can be very convincing, and so you won’t find a route map to North Korea appended here. But wars end, tyrannies like Ozymandias fall, and inexplicably cheap flights can be found to remote Pacific archipelagos. In all these ways, new countries become accessible to intrepid travelers, who can discover remote mountain peaks, ancient Buddhist architecture and riotous underwater jungles in places untouched by the world’s ravenous tourist industry.
Nicknamed "the place where time begins," Tonga is the last remaining kingdom in the South Pacific, and encompasses the first islands east of the date line. You’d think this would be enough to attract more visitors, but in fact the island is so remote – it takes three hours of flying above the empty Pacific to reach it from Auckland – that less than 50,000 foreigners visit the archipelago each year. This is excellent news for those who do make it, as they get to enjoy the island’s white sand beaches, ancient Polynesian monuments and world-class diving free from crowds. In total, there are 176 islands, surrounded by an oceanic world of dazzling coral, submarine caves and crystal clear waters.
One of the world’s smallest countries, Brunei is situated on a small sliver of Borneo in northern Malaysia. Oil rich and strictly Islamic, its capital Bandar Seri Begawan is decorated with several vast and ornate mosques, such as Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin, whose turreted white facade and gold dome dominate the city’s skyline. Less grand, but more atmospheric and unusual, is the Kampung Ayer district of Bandar, a water village of 20,000 inhabitants best explored by water taxi. Beyond the capital, Brunei contains swaths of Borneo’s famously verdant primary rainforest. This is particularly wild in Ulu Temburong National Park, although the country’s environment is so well-protected that only a small patch of the park is open to tourists, and activities are tightly controlled.
As Myanmar’s authoritarian government slowly relaxes its tight and oppressive controls over the country, tourists are rediscovering it, and with it some of southeast Asia’s most memorable sights. Bagan Plain is dotted with temples and monuments, the structures jutting out of the broad landscape of plants and trees which buckles into a backdrop of rugged mountains. The most magnificent of these temples, looming above the surrounding vegetation, is Ananda, home to a varied collection of Burmese art. Overlooking the city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) are the spiked turrets of 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, covered with gold plates and encrusted with 4000 diamonds, which claims to contain such relics as strands of Buddha’s hair.
Where is Liechtenstein? Well it’s wedged between Switzerland and Austria, but you might be forgiven for not being sure, as it has a total population of only 36,000 people and an area of 160 square kilometers. But this small space has a dramatic terrain of green hills, forested slopes and craggy mountain peaks, studded with atmospheric old castles such as Vaduz, a pretty yet robust 12th-century fortress situated in meadows overlooking the country’s charming capital. The country is also famous for its vineyards, and its most famous wine producer is, according to an old tradition,the Prince of Liechtenstein himself. If this all sounds overwhelmingly wonderful, then you can just rent out the entire country for $70,000 per day.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sri Lanka sees fewer than a million foreign visitors a year. Perhaps years of civil war and a series of terrible natural disasters make this understandable. But now the country is more accessible than it has been for decades, and the present might be one of the best times to visit, before mainstream tourism of all stripes descends on its elephant-plundered jungle and lightly-trodden coastline. In Yala National Park, visitors can see leopards and elephants beneath a forest canopy that also hides the timeless ruins of ancient Lankan civilizations. And some beautiful Buddhist temples have survived the years of conflict, such as Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth.
Mongolia is a huge and remote country with a population density of only 1.7 people per square kilometer. Flights do come into the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but they are infrequent and expensive, so most travelers arrive by the Trans-Siberian Railway, crossing the border from Russia and China. As all this suggests, much of Mongolia is composed of wilderness, most famously the steppes, vast grassland plains broken by proportionately huge saline lakes. In the north mountains rise up on the far horizon of the rolling steppes, while the Gobi Desert unfolds its barren expanse across the south of the country. Mongolia is also one of the few countries where nomadicy remains the way of life for many of its inhabitants. One way to see this unusual landscape and culture is to make a guided visit to a nomadic family and encampment.
Cupped in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is a small, landlocked country which is fiercely protective of its ancient traditions and pristine natural world. Its breathtaking scenery is enshrined in 10 national parks, covering icy peaks, lush rainforest and subtropical plains, and is roamed by elephants, snow leopards and water buffalo. The country’s ancient Buddhist culture is at its most spectacular in the Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which clings to a cliff overlooking a rolling forest of pines and rhododendrons. The government operates a "high value, low impact" sustainable tourism policy, whereby visitors must travel on an official tour package costing around US$250 a day per person.
São Tomé and Principe is among Africa’s smallest countries, comprising two volcanic islands off the coast of Equatorial Guinea. Inland, the islands consist of immensely biodiverse rainforest, inhabited by numerous strange and unusual creatures which have evolved in this isolated ecosystem. And São Tomé wears a fringe of quintessentially gorgeous beaches, mercifully free of the towering resorts and armies of pouting sunbathers that have settled similar patches of natural beauty around the rest of the world. You can watch giant sea turtles climb the undisturbed sand of Praia Jalé beach to lay their eggs, or plunge into the equatorial ocean to explore banks of coral and encounter shoals of multicolored tropical fish.
Kiribati, a widely-dispersed island group straddling the equator, is about as remote as it gets – flung out in the middle of the Pacific, 1300 miles south of its nearest neighbor, Hawaii. It’s a poor country and its main island, South Tarawa, is densely populated and poverty-stricken. There is some relatively mainstream tourism on Kiritimati (Christmas Island), the largest coral island in the world, and many of the country’s atolls have world-class opportunities for birdwatching, scuba diving and, especially, fishing, the latter famous for the thrill of chasing big bonefish through the limitless blue of the surrounding Pacific.
Many centuries ago, by far the fastest and easiest way to travel was by sea. And so the Polynesians, who learnt to navigate empty horizons by the stars, were among the world’s earliest great explorers, spreading the seeds of their culture far across the globe. Now that old map has been inverted and one such Polynesian nation, Tuvalu, is among the planet’s most cut-off countries, receiving a miniscule 1200 foreign visitors a year. Some of the country’s attractions are somewhat esoteric, such as the Tuvalu Philatelic Bureau, or stamp bureau, famous for its many eccentric and original designs. Others are more expected, such as scuba diving in the fish-filled, coral-colored Pacific. And you can also invoke a little of Polynesia’s well-connected past, by boating between the country’s nine atolls.