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Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012

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Xishuangbanna, China

Yunnan is thronged with visitors both Chinese and international—but this untamed corner of the province at the foot of the Himalayas is still largely overlooked. With rain forests, Buddhist temples, tribal villages, and China’s last remaining wild elephants, it’s the place to get a cultural fix without the crowds.

Stay

Xishuangbanna enjoyed a brief vogue with domestic travelers two decades ago, so it has some basic hotels. But the Anantara Xishuangbanna Resort & Spa (86-691/871-7777; doubles from $350) will set a new standard when it opens this spring. The province’s first luxury retreat faces the banks of the winding Luosuo River in the bucolic town of Menglun. The 103 rooms, some with private pools, will have gabled roofs and lotus motifs. The restaurant will showcase the indigenous cuisine.

See

The local ethnic groups—Dai, Hani, Yi, and others—share Southeast Asian ancestry, making Xishuangbanna’s culture feel less Chinese and more a blend of Thai, Lao, and Burmese. Stroll through Manfeilong, a traditional Dai village, at dawn and you’ll hear the chants of Buddhist monks and watch the sun rise over an 11th-century pagoda. Visit plantations growing Yunnan’s coveted, smoky Pu-erh tea leaves. Nearby, the 2,200-acre Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden has more than 1,000 species, including fig trees, bamboo, and orchids.

Experience

For a more immersive trip, Wild China leads treks through Dai market towns and verdant river valleys, and organizes stays with local families. Guests can extend their trip to follow the Mekong into northern Thailand. —Jennifer Chen

The Breakdown

Who It’s For: Asia hands looking for the next cultural frontier.

When to Go: Oct.–June

How to Do It: Wild China’s five-day trek costs $1,590 per person.

Exotic Factor: Far-Flung

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