Off the beaten track: Cambodia, Finland, Scotland

South wall and gate of old stone temple Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

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South wall and gate of old stone temple Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

© Shutterstock Off the beaten track: Cambodia, Finland, Scotland In our series about hidden gems for travellers, Falstaff looks at three destinations where you can avoid the crowds.

Budget airline travel, despite the unpredictability of aviation fuel costs, seems to have returned to a more normal level. UK holidaymakers are seeing some great flight deals to some of the popular tourist destinations such as Spain, France and Portugal.

However, some travellers seek destinations that are as tourist-free as possible, despite those seeking that freedom from tourists somewhat ironically being tourists themselves …

Utsjoki – giving Santa in Lapland a firm miss

Mention Lapland, Finland, and you immediately think of November or December and taking the children to visit Santa and his reindeers. However, by visiting Utsjoki at the very northern tip of Finland in the Arctic Circle (some 500km into it) near the Norwegian border, means you can give the Santa-seekers a miss. However, you will see plenty of native reindeers.

It’s a truly magical wilderness land, devoid of people. Whether it’s to witness the summer’s midnight sun, or the Northern Lights with the most memorable natural lighting displays you can see anywhere, or simply being surrounded by a thick covering of winter snow, it will be the visit of a lifetime.

It’s very much a destination for lovers of raw nature. Fishing, witnessing a blizzard from the warmth and safety of a well-appointed log cabin, snowshoeing, or trying your hand at reindeer sleigh driving, complete with fulsome spruce tree forests and deep-blue lakes as your background.

Teno River in Utsjoki, Finland.

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You will need mosquito repellent in summer and thick thermals for winter when temperatures can drop to a heavy minus 20C. Immerse yourself in the indigenous Sami culture you’ll find there, try your hand at ice fishing, or for the more adventurous, the 35km Utsjoki Trail trek, with stunning views over lakes and valleys, all nothing but memorable.

To get there is part of the excitement. You travel via Helsinki Airport to Ivalo, 160km to the South, where you can rent a car or take the 2½ hour bus journey. Do arrange outdoor activities in advance.

Best time to visit: December to March and June to September to miss the Helsinki “Santa” traffic.


Banteay Chhmar – proving there’s more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat

There is no denying that when it comes to Cambodia and culture, Angkor Wat is actually far beyond a bucket list “must visit”. It is truly magnificent, only with a big “but”. Unless you can arrange a private visit for an hour before it opens to the public (and you will need an official guide who is  “in the know” in order to achieve this), it can be like IKEA the week before Christmas and you will possibly see the largest animate collection of selfie sticks you can find anywhere.

Northwest of Angkor is Banteay Chhmar, altogether more peaceful, and accessible from not only Siem Reap airport in Cambodia, but also from Thailand, the border being just over 60km away. The Buddhist ruins here, like Angkor, were built by King Jayavarman VII, ruler of the 12th Century Khmer Empire. It benefitted from note being razed after the Khmer region returned to Hinduism.

You’ll find a very rural welcome here, from both an accommodation and food point of view, with no intrusive night clubs or Irish pubs. Meals will be whatever the family who owns the accommodation you rent eats. You may find that some of the luxuries we take for granted on the Costa Blanca in Spain are simply just missing.

Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia.

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It is people who really want to get away from it all who visit Banteay. There are times where you might find you are the only people (if a couple) looking at the magnificent structures from so long ago. While not as well preserved as Angkor Wat, you can still immerse yourself in the mysticism that sums up Buddhism from times past in Cambodia. Visit the main temple, pretend you are scouting for a new lost-treasure blockbuster film, rent a bike, or take a locally-guided tour. It is a photographers’ dream.

You will need to be ready for impromptu completion if you haven’t organised visitation papers in advance of your visit, so bring along some passport photos and US Dollars (from which you will receive Cambodian change). There are a few other things to note: Keep your valuables close to you (drive-by bag/phone snatchers abound all over Cambodia) and don’t wander off into the wilds on your own – there are still some 5-6million landmines scattered throughout the wild countryside.

Best time to visit: Off-season October is best (the rain dilutes the heat), but anytime between November and March if you’re keen to avoid the monsoons.


The Torridon Hills, referred to as further out than the “back-and-beyond of Scotland”

Scotland is strikingly beautiful, especially the wonderful North West coast. It’s not strictly off the beaten track, but is altogether much more serene and tourist-free than the famed southern area of Scottish Highlands, attracting a different and less “touristy” type of tourist. However, the beautiful Torridon Village is far enough away from daily life to attract only a trickle

A trip to Torridon is for those who enjoy Scottish Highlands, the unbridled beauty of mountainous (called “Munros” locally) scenery, wildlife, extremely unspoilt villages, hiking in what could be described as the wilds and restaurants located totally in the back of beyond, far, far away from anywhere.

Cottage with view of Loch Sheildaig and Torridan hills.

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The only caution is to take care on roads that are single-track, and you will need to book your accommodation ahead, as it is limited in Torridan. You must also take care on the mountains – however, if you are on a multi-day trek, there are “bothies” (refuges) that provide shelters dotted around.

Torridan is 350km (a spectacularly scenic 4½ hour drive) from Glasgow. Otherwise by train via Glasgow (5 hours) to Achnasheen, and then a 32km bus journey to the village.

Best time to visit: April to September when it’s less wet and to ensure any available facilities are open.

Torridan hills, Scotland.

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