There’s no denying the draw of Southeast Asia’s most popular destinations. After all, everyone knows Bangkok for shopping, Bali for beaches, and Bagan for temple-hopping. But for some of us, taking the path less travelled – far from the throngs of tourists and tacky souvenir shops – is an experience that’s far more rewarding. If you’ve already set your sights on Southeast Asia, here are seven alternative landing points that offer a unique way to experience the region’s diverse culture.
Nusa Ceningan, Indonesia for diving and snorkelling
Hordes of springbreakers cramping your style? Hightail it to Nusa Ceningan instead of Kuta and Seminyak. Nestled between Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan, the small island is known for its fantastic diving and snorkelling opportunities. Intrepid explorers will even find underwater sculptures and temples. While not as crowded as other Balinese beach destinations, Ceningan’s popularity has been growing so don’t expect completely empty beaches. Should you want a little more solitude, spend an afternoon walking the island’s inland trails for some truly spectacular sunset views from Ceningan Ridge.
Kanchanaburi, Thailand for temples and trekking
Bangkok is many things but peaceful it is not. If you’re looking for a destination to relax rather than shop, Kanchanaburi ticks all the boxes. While more famous for its macabre bit of history involving the infamous River Kwai Bridge, its laid-back riverside vibe is what makes this an ideal antidote to the chaos of the capital. Though many of Kanchanaburi’s sights are related to the Second World War, you’ll also find a slew of picturesque temples and Damnoen Saduak Floating Market within easy driving distance. If you’re up for a little trekking, make your way to the beautiful Erawan Falls that’s located a two-hour hike into the eponymous National Park.
Dalat, Vietnam for a quiet mountainside setting
While Ho Chi Minh City’s rich history, spectacular array of street food and burgeoning craft beer scene draw the crowds each year, travellers after a quieter and cooler way to experience Vietnam should set their sights on Dalat. The city, built on a mountain perch, was once an enclave for the colonial French, desperate to escape the heat and humidity of Vietnam’s lowlands. Surrounding the city, you’ll find pine-covered hills and lakes that are quite unlike the rest of the country. While the scenery is the main draw, Dalat also offers a more peaceful way to experience Vietnam with its own collection of markets, street eateries, bars and architecture.
Malapascua, Philippines for charming sun-kissed sands
Navigating the labyrinthine streets of Manila is a rewarding experience for the urban junkie, but one that’s especially taxing on the leisure-focused lollygagger. If you’re after a Maldives-esque escape but want to keep off the beaten path, make the island of Malapascua your next destination. The tiny, sun-kissed island offers a rather unique Mediterranean vibe and a charming small-town feel. When you’re done taking in the jaw-dropping beauty of the beaches, explore the town’s smattering of casual bars and local eateries or take advantage of the excellent diving opportunities beneath the turquoise waters beyond.
Banlung, Cambodia for scenic countryside escapes
Southeast Asia’s rugged countryside tends to take a backseat to its vibrant urban capitals, but if you’re the sort who prefers a brisk stroll through the woods to bargain hunting at night markets, slip on those hiking boots and head to Banlung, the capital of Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province. Unlike Phnom Penh, Banlung is distinctly rural and home mostly to communities of subsistence farmers who make full use of the region’s fertile and strikingly red soil. To fully experience its natural splendour, go on an organised trekking tour through Virachey National Park. Some trekking tours also include visits to the region’s rural minority tribes.
Luang Prabang, Laos for authenticity and rugged beauty
The former capital of Laos, and now a UNESCO World Heritage city, Luang Prabang is a multi-faceted destination that offers a taste of traditional Lao culture set against a backdrop of rugged mountains and lush greenery. The city is built where the Nam Khan flows into the Mekong and has its streets lined with a mix of colonial-style houses and Buddhist and Hindu wats (temples). While its UNESCO status has drawn an increased number of visitors, the city still enjoys a distinctive local flavour unmarred by mass tourism.
Inle Lake, Myanmar for slipping down a few gears
Far from the dusty streets of Yangon and Mandalay, Inle Lake awaits with its placid, crystalline waters that reflect an endless blue Burmese sky. If you arrive right after visiting any of Myanmar’s more crowded cities, you’ll fully appreciate the region’s slower pace of life. Base your explorations of the lake in the town of Nyaungshwe – from there, hop on a boat that will take you down a narrow channel leading to its basin. Most boats will offer to take you to the floating village south of the lake and spots where you can see local fisherman practice their unique one-legged fishing stance.