Rice field in Mai Chau, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Elizabeth and Mark Rudd.
It might not be apparent at white-hot tourism hotbeds like Siem Reap, Bangkok or Bali, but Southeast Asia has plenty of hidden tourist jewels just waiting to be discovered. It’s a good idea to visit them, too – this spreads your tourism dollar to less-developed corners of the region, and in return offers a surfeit of authenticity, beauty and charm that can be hard to find in more developed (and more crowded) areas.
Check out these 11 formerly hidden parts of Southeast Asia (recommended by some very well-traveled bloggers) and find the place that fits your itinerary best.
Mai Chau, Vietnam: Country Life at its Most Authentic
While only 4 hours away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, Mai Chau feels like you have traveled much further – a rural village surrounded by lush green rice fields, Mai Chau an area of Vietnam where mass scale tourism development has not reached.
There are only a few hotels and homestays with the local villagers are popular. Many of the villagers have Thai heritage, which shows in the food and the style of housing, wood homes raised on stilts.
Riding a bike through the rice fields surrounding the village is a great way to see the area and enjoy the scenery; there is a slight elevation which keeps the temperature cooler and provides some great mountain scenery from the pass on the road as you travel to reach the village.
One of our fondest travel memories is from Mai Chau. We made a visit to a small village in the mountains with a local guide to visit a traditional home and try a local favorite, rice whiskey. It was supposed to be a quick visit. Four hours later we will still there. We had a wonderful time talking
(and drinking) with our host couple and hopefully we will come back to visit one day.
You can only reach Mai Chau by car or bus and many tourists bypass it altogether when they visit Vietnam. If you would like to see traditional village life and relax and unwind for a few days, Mai Chau is the perfect spot.
Candidasa Beach, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Pujarini Mitra.
Bali, Indonesia: an Unlikely Hidden Jewel
Most tourists visit South Bali to experience the beach life in Bali and party. But if you travel to, the far end of East Bali, you will find the offbeat hidden beach of Candidasa. What makes it truly unique is that it still maintains the silent laid-back vibe and proves to be an idyllic tropical paradise for a couple of days. This beach is a diver’s dream as you can snorkel right off the beach. Candidasa is also close to some of the most spectacular diving sites like Amed and Gili Tepekong.
We visited the Balinese traditional village of Tenganan and were fascinated by their unique traditions and culture. Though we missed the ceremony of Mekare Kare, a theatrical fight using prickly pandanus leaf, it definitely is a must-experience. You can also keep Candidasa as the base to explore temples and palaces around like Goa Lawah and Tirta Gangga.
We loved Candidasa for it’s right balance of culture and adventure activities and our little one did not want to leave this beach.
Biking in Ko Tarutao, Thailand. Image courtesy of the Nomadic Boys.
Ko Tarutao, Thailand: Rustic Island Getaway
Stefan and Sebastien, the Nomadic Boys duo (Instagram|Facebook|Twitter), went far from Thailand’s tourist crush to the country’s southwest, where a former prison island now offers a secluded tourist getaway:
Our favorite secret spot in Southeast Asia is Ko Tarutao island in Thailand. It is the largest island in the Tarutao National Marine Park in Southwest Thailand, close to the Malaysian border. It is a former prison camp; today it is heavily protected by the Thai government with very few facilities, few tourists and therefore our favourite Southeast Asian secret.
The island has excellent beaches like Ko Tarutao, where you can swim and snorkel. It’s also got thick jungle, stunning sceneries to explore, which you can do by renting a bike for the day.
We spent four days and three nights and that was good, but one could easily spend more. To reach it, you can fly to Hat Yai International Airport with inexpensive domestic flights from Bangkok and take a van to Pak Bara pier. From Pak Bara on the mainland, taking a one-hour speed boat to Ko Tarutao which costs around 450 baht ($15) per person each way.
Lakeside stupas, Kakku, Myanmar. Image courtesy of Roshni Patel.
Kakku, Myanmar: Stupas, Wine Gardens and Lakeside Charm
The beauty of Bagan is undeniable but it only takes a day trip from Inle Lake to seek out some of Myanmar’s lesser known temples such as the remote Kakku complex, a collection of nearly 2,500 stupas located in the foothills of the Shan State.
From Nyaung Shwe, the Kakku pagodas are a three hour drive away, however you must break up the journey by stopping at the tourist office in Taunggyi to pay the $3 entrance fee and hire a local English-speaking Pa-O tour guide (this is a requirement by local law and costs $5 per group).
As you pull up to Kakku you will instantly be in awe of the thousands of decorated stupas arranged in rows around the main pagoda. You can spend a few hours roaming this beautiful complex dating back 2000 years, before heading back to Nyaung Shwe.
If you time it perfectly you can stop to catch sunset at the Aythaya estate Wine Garden. Probably one of the most beautiful vineyards you will ever visit, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine after a long but beautiful day.
Canopy walk, Ulu Temburong, Brunei. Image courtesy of Allan Wilson.
Temburong, Brunei: Last of the Great Bornean Jungles
Live Less Ordinary‘s Allan Wilson (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram) went to Brunei and found very few foreign tourists sharing his path at Ulu Temburong National Park – and found the seclusion working in his favor:
While there are three independent countries making up the island of Borneo, the opportunities to actually immerse in the world-renowned rainforests are really quite few-and-far-between. Partly because the island is just rather expansive, but also as there are just so few primary rainforests that still exist.
One of the region’s last unspoilt primary rainforests is Ulu Temburong National Park, found in Brunei, which in itself is one of the lesser visited destinations of Southeast Asia. And this kind of makes it off-the-beaten-track to begin with.
Then from touch-down at Brunei airport, or from the capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, it takes roughly 2 hours by speedboats and longboats to reach the dense primary rainforests of Ulu Temburong National Park. There is then only one option for accommodation here, at the Ulu Ulu Resort, which literally translates as “Far, Far Away” in Malay, which is very much where it is.
There are then all sorts of truly fascinating rainforest experiences to indulge in, although the main attraction would have to be the Canopy Walk, a towering metal structure of scaffolding and ladders, which sits above the tops of the forests.
And at sunrise, the sheer magnificence of rainforest views, along with the deafening chorus of nature’s morning call, is a truly unique and unforgettable experience in Southeast Asia.
Lakey Peak surf spot in Sumbawa, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Clemens Sehi.
Lakey Peak, Indonesia: Out of the Way for a Good Surf
Clemens Sehi of Travellers Archive (Twitter|Instagram) had to go some way off the beaten track in Indonesia to find Lakey Peak on Sumbawa Island: but the extra effort was worth the payoff of finding this secluded surfing paradise.
When thinking about Indonesia, most travellers have Bali, the Gili islands and maybe even Lombok in mind. For most of them, travelling to Indonesia is most likely about staying at picturesque beaches, visiting the numerous temples and partying until sunrise.
However, there is more in Indonesia that needs to be seen: I fell in love with the island Sumbawa and especially with the little surfing village Lakey Peak.
When I visited for the first time, I took a local bus from Bima, the main city of Sumbawa, and took of in Lakey Peak – where I did not see anyone around. I walked around the street until a local asked me whether I needed accommodation.
In the end, he took me to an amazing homestay right next to the beach. I stayed in a little hut, listened to the waves as they crashed the sand and spent my days watching surfers getting all wiped out in the famous wave of Lakey Peak. It’s a truly magic place. It’s calm and authentic and completely different to the major tourist spots – no parties, no fancy bars, no smoothie bowls, just banana pancakes and a good surf.
Market in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Image courtesy of the Round the World Guys.
Nha Trang, Vietnam: Market Madness
The Round The World Guys (Facebook|Instagram|YouTube) consider Vietnam one of their “favorite countries in the world”: they’ve share their thoughts on their top favorite spot in their favorite country:
Nha Trang is located in central Vietnam. It is one of the few places in the country where SCUBA divers go to dive in what’s used to be Vietnam’s pristine coastline. The fishing village is one of the hidden gems in Vietnam, and many visitors who end up here always look for seaside beaches and islands to explore.
One of the place they often miss is the Xom Moi market. It is the main local market in Nha Trang, where colorful fruit, vegetables and other produce and merchandise are stacked up for sale. You will have to walk through cages of live chickens, counters full of meat and, most importantly, fresh seafood that Nha Trang is famous for.
Don’t expect this market to cater to tourists though anytime soon. The cleanliness, for example, is not exactly what you’d expect at a western market. You’ll also have to walk through narrow alleys of the market, shoulder to shoulder with locals. It is a great experience to practice your haggling skills to get a good price on produce.
It one of many good opportunities in the city to see how locals live their daily lives. We had the opportunity to visit Xom Moi market during our cooking class at Lanterns Restaurant – an experience we highly recommend.
And don’t forget to check out the excellent Bo De vegetarian restaurant near Xom Moi Market. Even if you are not a vegetarian, it serves some of the most delicious food that you can find in Nha Trang!
Chi Phat, Cambodia. Image courtesy of the Common Wanderer.
Chi Phat, Cambodia: Ecotourism in the Cardamom Jungle
Mark & Miranda of The Common Wanderer (Instagram|Facebook|Twitter) are probably two of a handful of tourists who know where Cambodia’s Chi Phat ecotourism project is (to say nothing of what it’s all about), and they’re happy to share what they’ve found to the rest of us:
Whenever we mention Cambodia’s Chi Phat ecotourism project to other travellers, we’re almost always met with blank stares. It’s such a shame too, because this beautiful village nestled in the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains was, without doubt, the highlight of our four months in Southeast Asia!
The region was once the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge; with few options for survival, many locals had little choice but to enter the lucrative logging and poaching (of elephants, big cats, gibbons, pangolin) trade.
In 2007, the Wildlife Alliance co-launched the project, assisting the community to support themselves on ecotourism instead. Today, the same villagers lead tours through the thick Cardamom Jungle as wildlife experts, operate homestay or kitchens, or assist conservation efforts.
Chi Phat has transformed itself into a thriving outdoor lover’s paradise, with jungle treks, waterfall and cave exploring, kayak and bicycle tours, and wildlife and bird watching all on offer. We spent 3 days trekking in the jungle, sleeping in hammocks under the stars, eating delicious forest-sourced meals – and even had a scarily close encounter with wild elephants. If there’s one place we’d love to see more travellers visited, Chi Phat is most definitely it!
Shwe Myitzu Pagoda. Image courtesy of Jessica Sern.
Indawgyi Lake, Myanmar: Less-Famous Lake with More to Offer
What’s Myanmar’s largest lake? It’s a place with a strong culture of fishing, both by humans and birds, which is why it is contained by a wildlife sanctuary famous among bird watchers. However, it garners little space in guidebooks. Bordered by much wildland, there are also villages and an overwater pagoda.
Most tourists believe the answer is Inle Lake, which is on the tourist track including Bagan, Yangon, and Mandalay. It’s actually Indawgyi Lake, and if you’re up for an adventure, getting there is a major overnight experience. The bumpiest train ride ever is practically a roller coaster! Numerous times I caught air, as my bum left the seat.
Lonton is the only village with guesthouses open to foreigners.
Hire a kayak or take a motorized boat ride around the entire lake. Join a game of foot-ball in a village, or try street food you won’t find other places. Alternatively, rent a bicycle and head out on the road, stopping by a family-run restaurant for lunch or coconut juice for a cooling drink.
Arrival to Hopin: from Mandalay by train (16-22 hours, beyond uncomfortable) or bus (9 hours, uncomfortable). Hopin to Lonton: take a taxi or public transport to Lonton.
Heads up: much of the surrounding area is inaccessible to foreigners, who are not allowed at the jade mine, nor near the Kachin military action.
Battambang shophouses, Cambodia. Image courtesy of Travolution360/Creative Commons
Battambang, Cambodia: Brimming with Local Character
My Adventures Across The World‘s Claudia Tavani (Facebook|Instagram|Twitter) understands the must-visit nature of Angkor Wat near Siem Reap, but suggests going further afield to explore destinations with a lot more local character – places like Battambang:
Most people that travel to Cambodia head straight to Siem Reap, to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, enjoy the comforts that the city has to offer, dive into its night life, enjoy the cheap massages and the shopping.
But there’s another city in Cambodia that still retains much of its local character, it is relatively unexplored, and though lacking in the tourism offer it always manages to charm visitors. That’s Battambang, a good 4 hours drive from Siem Reap and yet a world away.
The city itself doesn’t have much to see – there’s a small local market, and a few good examples of French colonial architecture. There’s some good bars and coffee shops too. Yet, the surroundings are simply splendid.
Think small villages where fish is dried in the sun to then produce the famous fish sauce added to many condiments in South East Asian recipes. Imagine small, hilltop temples where you’re likely going to be the only visitor. Add to this the Phare Ponleu Selpak, the most famous circus in the country, and take away all the crowds of Siem Reap. It’s easy to fall in love with Battambang.
Ocam-Ocam Beach, Philippines. Image courtesy of Andra Padureanu.
Ocam-Ocam Beach, the Philippines: a Beach All to Your Own
Want a corner of the Philippines all to yourself? Andra Padureanu of Our World to Wander (Facebook|Pinterest|Instagram) was surprised to find just that on Busuanga Island. Find out what Andra discovered at Ocam Ocam Beach, and why she and her partner Vlad made a return trip:
The Philippines is not all about El Nido and Coron. It is actually full of amazing places that are waiting to be discovered. And one of them is the Ocam Ocam Beach on Busuanga Island, 75km from Coron Town.
We actually learned about it in our quest to find a secluded place. To be able to enjoy a beach with no tourists. And that’s exactly what Ocam Ocam Beach provided. A quiet and secluded beach, with no tourists in sight.
We liked it so much that we went there twice during our stay in Coron. And the second time we shared the beach with the kids from the village, who were enjoying their day off from school. The best way to get there is by renting a motorcycle and making your way until there. The ride is a delightful one, with green fields on one side of the roads and the sea watching over you from the other side. And if you get hungry, you can try some local food, the people in the village looking forward to hosting you.
If you want to escape the crowds, then Ocam Ocam Beach should be on your radar!
Sloped beach on Coney Island (Pulau Serangoon). Jnzl’s Photos/Creative Commons
Coney Island Park, Singapore
Mike Aquino of ( Southeast Asia Time Traveler (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram ) found a most un-Singapore-like corner of Singapore off its northern coast: a model of conservation shaded by casuarina trees and hearkening back to a time when humanity lived more in harmony with nature:
The northern reaches of Singapore stand rather far from the island’s built-up areas – which is possibly why Coney Island Park doesn’t ring any bells for most people.
A 50-hectare island with a wide variety of habitats and a definite ecological/environmental thrust, Coney Island Park teaches visitors about conservation and recycling – with casuarina wood recycled from felled trees making up the island’s many boardwalks and other structures.
Singapore’s Coney Island Park is not only rich in history, the 50ha island houses a wide variety of habitats, including coastal forests, a beach, grasslands, mangroves and casuarina woodlands. Such a wealth of habitats makes Coney Island Park an ideal bird-watching spot, with over 80 species to look out for!