Snapshot: Phoenix Travel

Some of the worst war-torn regions of the 20th century have made miraculous recoveries, transforming from places of carnage and decimation to hubs for exploration and adventure.

SERBIA

Since gaining independence in 2006, Serbia has been famous for its hospitality. Belgrade is a party destination, while in winter the mountain resorts beckon skiers – the Kopaonik National Park is the most popular, with its smattering of old monasteries, medieval fortresses and castles. More ancient fortresses and baroque churches can be found in Novi Sad, which hosts an epic 111km ultramarathon in nearby Fruška Gora, itself littered with monasteries that make for scenic mountain bike rides. Brave cyclists can tackle trails in Mt Radan to Djavolja Varoš, a collection of eerie stone pyramids.

Serbia has 5 national parks, and plentiful nature reserves, so it’s not difficult to find a trail, whether it’s in the Dinaric Alps, the Carpathians, or the Iron Gates gorge in Djerdap National Park.

Spa resorts are another draw: Soko Banja has a working 15th-century Turkish bath, while Vrnjačka Banja’s mineral waters have been rejuvenating Roman troops since the 2nd century.

SRI LANKA

After the end of a civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has successfully rebuilt itself as a darling of tourism.

The country’s main draw is an area loosely referred to as the Cultural Triangle, which takes in the 3 great Sinhalese capitals of Kandy, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura – within it is the country’s most extraordinary sight: Sigiriya, a royal palace and fort built atop a giant monolith. Not to be outdone is the Dambulla Rock caves which are festooned with a marvellous array of Buddhist murals. In Galle, a 16th-century Portuguese fortified city, you spot fishermen perched on stilts going about their day in the ocean.

Enjoy a cuppa tea, or visit rolling tea plantations – and their colonial bungalows – which are accessible via scenic train rides or picturesque hikes. Its national parks are home to wildlife like elephants, leopards, and sloth bears, while offshore there is diving and surfing.

RWANDA

Rwanda has been building itself successfully as a tourism hotspot over the years, thanks in no small part to its resident endangered silverback gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey. Today, Volcanoes National Park is the country’s biggest draw, where only 64 trekkers per day get to see gorillas face to face in their natural habitat at the foothills of the volcano. Gorillas aren’t the only primates in Rwanda: at Nyungwe National Park, chimpanzees – along with colobus, L’Hoest, and Owl Faced monkeys – are the main draw, while at Akagera National Park, olive baboons and vervet monkeys rule. The latter is a Big 5 game park.

The country is known as the ‘Land of a Thousand Hills’, and is building a reputation as a cycling destination, beginning with the annual Tour du Rwanda race. Thanks to a network of well-maintained roads, it is hoped that cycle tours could be another way to explore the country in the near future.

TIMOR LESTE

Timor-Leste (East Timor) became Asia’s newest country in 2002. After a violent protest which resulted in an army intervention in 2007, the tourism industry is still in its infancy.

Diving is a big draw for visitors, especially in the pristine reefs of the north coast and Atauro Island where cetaceans congregate. You can also take courses on freediving and spearfishing, the latter practised by local fisherman.

The mountains are home to misty villages, dotted with markets, spirit huts, and coffee plantations where you can witness the harvesting process, or sip a local brew at a traditional Portuguese pousada. Mt. Ramelau (2,986m) is Timor’s highest peak, site of the Virgin Mary statue and an annual pilgrimage; hike to the top for a view of the rolling mountains and coastline in the distance. Or go on a road trip – as you grip the rugged cliffs along the north coast road, the uninterrupted ocean view is nothing short of stunning.

Not all post-war destinations manage to keep off travel advisories for various reasons – as long as you’re vigilant of your surroundings and are up-to-date with research, travelling to these countries are well worth the time.

NICARAGUA

After overcoming a dictatorship and civil war in the 80s, Nicaragua is still struggling with poverty. However, its colonial cities, pristine beaches, and growing ecotourism are part of the draw of this budget travel destination.

While the coastlines – on both the Pacific and Caribbean – beckon with white sand beaches, there’s more to see in the colonial cities of Granada and León, which brim with iconic architecture. Nicaragua’s nature reserves range from rainforests to cloud forests; at Miraflor Natural Reserve, the cloud forest is dotted with coffee plantations and waterfalls.

Nicaragua is a ‘country of Lakes and Volcanoes’, with a chain of volcanoes to climb, from the active Concepción to the dormant Cosigüina. You can also go volcano boarding – at 30mph – down the active Cerro Negro. One of the country’s 2 lakes – Lake Nicaragua – is home to unique freshwater bull sharks and many islands, including Ometepe with its 2 volcanoes (Concepción and Maderas).

COLOMBIA

While Colombia has been synonymous with cartels and corruption, it has evolved into one of Latin America’s brightest tourism stars following the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the signing of a peace deal with Farc rebels recently.

Bogota and Medellin have reinvented themselves into hipster cities, complete with edgy murals. Colonial towns like Cartagena – with its colourful plazas and horse-drawn carriages – continue to draw tourists, while Mompox and Zipaquirá (with its underground salt cathedral) are quieter and no less spectacular. For wow factor, there’s the Las Lajas Cathedral in Ipiales, built in the canyon of the Guáitara River and resembles a fortress in Lord of the Rings.

Adventurers can head into Ciudad Perdida, built some 650 years before Peru’s Machu Picchu, via a 6-day hike deep in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains. There’s also epic cycling along the Alto de Letras, a punishing 80km-ride that climbs 3,700m into the mountains.

UKRAINE

Ever since independence following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has been veering towards an alliance with Western Europe, leaning away from Russia’s orbit. Ukraine is one of Europe’s last genuine travel frontiers, brimming with Soviet legacy and diverse natural landscapes.

History is all around. In Kyiv, gold-domed churches dominate: there’s St Sophia’s Cathedral with the world biggest ensemble of 11th-century frescoes and mosaics, and the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra with its underground labyrinth lined with mummified monks. In Lviv, indulge in some of Eastern Europe’s best coffee as you admire the graceful domes of cathedrals and tiled-roof buildings that evoke a fairytale setting. Visit a traditional Ukrainian sauna, where participants smack themselves with branches to increase circulation.

You can go mountain biking and hill walking in the Carpathians, or take a chance on a tour to Chernobyl – the town is eerily frozen in time, with children’s toys still littering the streets.

AFGHANISTAN

Afghanistan has spent the last 3 decades in the news for all the wrong reasons, and while warnings against travel to Afghanistan are founded, it’s a large country with areas that are relatively safe for visitors.

The Bamyan Province, famous for giant Buddha statues carved into the cliffs 1,500 years ago, remains a popular site despite being destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The surrounding snow-capped mountains, once a caravan stop along the Silk Road, is also a prime ski country. The cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, famous for its blue-tiled mosque, and Herat, renowned for its citadel and blue-tiled mosque, are also relatively safe. The spectacular Panjshir Valley, known for its snow-capped peaks and precious stones, is another relatively peaceful area, as is the pristine Wakhan Corridor, a sliver of land inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads and untouched by insurgents.

The only reliable way to get around is by air, as travelling by road is often time-consuming and dangerous.

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