Off the Beaten Path
In Southeast Asia, all roads lead to Bangkok, and for most backpackers, Bangkok means Khao San Road. Khao San is the first stop on the Southeast Asian tourist trail, which loops through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
You could follow the tourist trail to Chang Mai, float down the river to Luang Prabang, cross over the mountains to Vietnam, dip into Cambodia, and finally head back to Bangkok, hitting all the major tourist stops along the way.
Or maybe you could follow the trail south to Krabi or Ko Phi Phi, rock out under the Full Moon on Ko Phan Ngan and go diving in Ko Tao. Maybe you’ll even drop into Malaysia. Maybe not.
But why stick to the major sights? Sure, places like Angkor Wat and Luang Prabang are famous for a reason, but unique and memorable experiences await if you take the initiative to explore a bit further than the average backpacker.
Here are fresh ideas for how to get off the Southeast Asian tourist trail.
Chill out in Kep, Cambodia
This quiet French colonial town is a nice alternative to Sihanoukville, the fast-paced, party capital of Cambodia’s beach scene.
Kep’s beaches are peaceful and you won’t find as many people here. You can get to Kep by detouring to Kampot instead of going straight to Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh.
Be sure to make the trip out to Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island, where there are basic bungalows and locals serve up fresh seafood dishes like shrimp or crab with local cracked pepper sauce.
Wander through Southern Laos
The typical backpacker sees Vien Vieng, Vientiane and Luang Prabang – all of which are heavily touristed. There isn’t much to do in Laos and the road is pretty rough, so most people skip over the really exciting part of the country – the south.
Don’t miss a chance to check out this area, especially the amazing Bay of Islands, a large expanse of the Mekong River with over 4,000 islands to explore. Who knows, maybe you will see the famous pink dolphin before it goes extinct!
Check out the temples in Lopburi, Thailand
Those seeking historical ruins in Thailand tend to focus on the two main sights: Ayuthaya and Sukkothai. While Lobpuri doesn’t compare to these places in terms of grandeur, there are some really nice temples here that make the city worth a visit.
Most people come as a day tour from Bangkok but those who stay longer can experience a typical, rural Thai town. Enjoy the great night market by the train station, watch the school children socialize in the town center, and meander through the town and immerse yourself in small town Thai life.
Watch out for the hyperactive troop of monkeys that roam the city. They are known to grab things right from your hand!
Visit a National Park in Vietnam
Most people travel to Vietnam and do the typical nature tours of Halong Bay, Sapa, and the Mekong Delta.
But Vietnam has a plethora of National Parks that allow each traveler to see what I think is the best part of Vietnam – its natural beauty. Most of the parks go unvisited by tourists, but offer rewarding scenery, excellent trails, the chance to spot rare creatures and a little bit of solitude from the masses.
Explore the Northeast of Thailand
Sometimes referred to as Isaan, this area is mostly rice paddies and dusty towns. The Northeast is the poorest region of Thailand and also the least tourist.
Most people don’t speak English here and there are few major attractions, but the area holds a friendly, laid-back charm and gives you a unique view of rural Thai life. The roads are unpaved, the towns have few tourist services, and you certainly won’t find any posh hotels, but you will experience Thai life at the local Thai price. For those looking for the real Thailand, you’ll find it in Isaan.
Bike the Mekong River
Many tour operators offer cycling trips through the Mekong delta. This is a more adventurous way to see the area than the typical bus/boat package tour option.
Bike tours take you off the main roads and along dirt tracks in the rice paddies. You feel less like a tourist being shuttled from attraction to attraction, and more like a traveler, exploring at your own pace.
Seek Adventure in Sarawak, Malaysia
Sarawak is rugged Malaysia. Most people follow the Southeast Asian tourist trail from Thailand to mainland Malaysia and on to Singapore. Some make the effort to cross over to Sarawak, but the mountainous region still feels remote.
If the Malaysian mainland is an interstate expressway, Sarawak is a small side highway. Those who take the initiative to explore Sarawak will find deep jungles and unexplored mountains.
Escape to a random Thai Island
Ko Phi Phi, Samui, Phuket, Ko Chang, Ko Tao…you’ve heard the names. They are all amazing islands, but also some of the busiest in Thailand. Secluded beach life is hard to come by on these developed islands.
If you really want peace and quiet, find a random island. Thailand has hundreds of islands, and although most have some form of tourism infrastructure, if you make the effort to catch one extra ferry or visit a place that isn’t in the guidebook, you just might find your paradise.
For example, Ko Chang is surrounded by a large chain of islands, and although most are private and used for dive trips, there are many that most people never even think to visit.
Down south near Malaysia there are many undeveloped islands, too. Thai beach paradise is out there, it just takes a little effort to find it.
See the Kratie Dolphins
Dolphin watching in Cambodia, on the swirling waters of the broad Mekong, may sound like an unlikely activity, but it can be immensely rewarding. And getting to the remote upriver settlement of Kratie is half the fun. It’s a five- to six-hour journey by fast river ferry from Phnom Penh to the sleepy riverside town (which fortunately missed much of the heavy bombing of the Second Indochina War). Today, Kratie retains a faded colonial elegance as well as a handful of reasonable places to stay and eat. The rare Irrawaddy Dolphins favor a stretch of water about 10 miles north of town, and the best time to go and see them is early morning or late afternoon. Local boatmen will know when and where to go for the best close encounters with these rare, shy, and intelligent creatures which remain seriously endangered.
Hiking in the Highlands
The Cameron Highlands are famous among Malaysians as a destination where you can seek reprieve from the heat and humidity. Lush, rolling green hills, where tea is predominantly grown and Tudor bungalows (leftover from British colonial rule) provide a quintessentially romantic backdrop. Beyond these aspects, however, the highlands also possess some beautifully rugged hiking terrain.
Trek Thailand’s Khao Sok Park
Incredible wildlife and the largest flower in the world: that’s why you’ll come to Khao Sok, Thailand’s magnificent national park in Surat Thani Province in the heart of the southern Thai peninsula. Here you’ll find 250 square miles of dense tropical rain forest, jagged limestone crags, rushing rivers and waterfalls, and an island-studded lake. The rain forest is all that remains of a much larger 160-million-year-old ecosystem that’s said to be older and richer than any in Africa or Central America. Khao Sok is home to wild elephants, leopards, gaur, banteng, serow, sun bears, and even tigers, as well as a plethora of birds, reptiles, and insects. Keep an eye out, too, for the huge blooms of Rafflesia, which measure a yard across. The park is crossed by numerous trails and makes for fine trekking.
Gems of Southeast Asia