What are the top things to do in Southeast Asia? Type this question into a search engine and you’ll surely get the same predictable answers. You’ll be told to go to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, or the temples of Borobudur in Indonesia, or maybe the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
Yes, these places are iconic, and chances are that some of them will end up in your itinerary. But travelling in Southeast Asia doesn’t have to be just about visiting the famous (and sometimes overhyped) sights!
Some of my most memorable moments happened in rural places off the usual trail, where it’s easier to make your own little discoveries. While I’ll avoid recommending super specific places (as these can change quickly), I thought I’d list some general regions and countries that can help you look beyond the usual top 10s.
‘Off the beaten track’ can of course mean different things. There are industrial port towns where seemingly no tourists have gone before, and remote villages where the only attraction in town might be a man and his goat. Such places can be interesting, but you don’t need a guide to find them! The following places are somewhere in between the hyper touristy and the totally unexplored…
Discover the other Indonesia
There is much more to Indonesia than Bali or Java! For something a bit different, be sure to direct your trip research towards the islands of Sumatra or Sulawesi, which are much less visited but all the more worthwhile.
I also had an amazing time exploring the island of Flores last year, which is just a 3-day boat trip or 2-hour flight east of Bali. Adjacent to Flores is the Komodo National Park, home to the world’s largest reptiles and some of the most stunning tropical reefs I’ve seen. I stayed on a castaway island where wild boars roamed the beaches, and while snorkelling off the coasts I spotted many creatures normally seen only when scuba diving, including reef sharks, squid, and even manta rays.
For a true taste of rural Indonesia head inland from the town of Labuan Bajo, where you’ll find mainly rice fields and smiling villagers. The main road running through Flores is perfect for a road trip—try to rent some motorbikes in Labuan Bajo and simply head east. The intriguing multi-colored volcano lakes are Kelimutu also along the way.
Dip into southern Laos
The typical Laos trail involves taking a river boat from Thailand to Bak Peng, then heading to the old city of Luang Prabang, down to the riverside town of Vang Vieng and then finally the capital Vientiane, from where many travellers head to Vietnam or back to Thailand.
Fewer people make it all the way down to southern Laos, perhaps due to the uncomfortable 16 hour sleeper bus you have to take to Pakse. But those who do will unlock the Mekong river area known as the 4000 Islands, where you can laze in a hammock, hike to waterfalls, ride bicycles into the countryside, or spot river dolphins. Si Phan Don is a typical backpacker hangout, though a fairly remote and mellow one, and it makes for a good base for exploring the quieter (at times literal) backwaters of Laos.
Ride a motorbike through rural Vietnam
While I have not done this myself, I’m including this tip based on the strong recommendation of friends.
When I travelled in Vietnam I quickly got swept into a typical north-to-south route, and the standardised tours of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta almost made me feel like I was on an organised holiday. Looking back, I regretted not seeing more of the countryside.
Everyone says a motorbike trip is the best way to take in the scenery and see a different face of Vietnam, and so this is what I’ll be doing when I go back. You can rent motorbikes in the major cities, though many travellers end up simply purchasing a motorbike only to sell it again at the end of their trip. Look around and you should be able to buy a motorbike from a local or foreigner for around a couple of hundred dollars. (One hostel I stayed at in Hanoi even had a notice board with motorbikes for sale.)
The northern region around Hanoi is ideal for a circular route, with winding roads leading to Sa Pa past misty mountains and rice terraces. Another option is to drive north-to-south or vice versa, riding some beautiful coastal roads past rural villages, while also allowing you to stop at key tourist sites such as Hue or Hoi An.
Go to the Philippines
The Philippines may not connect so obviously to an overland Southeast Asia route, but the flight is totally worth it. Since The Philippines are such a large archipelago, tourism is wonderfully diffused between its 7000+ islands. It can sometimes be a pain to have to take ferries or internal flights, but it also means you can always hop to another island and start a new mini adventure.
The most commercial destination is the resort island of Boracay, which doesn’t hold so much interest to independent travellers. But there’s somewhat of a backpacker route running through Palawan to El Nido, as well as from Manila to the rice terraces in northern Luzon, both of which are highly recommended. Beyond this, consider heading east, such as to the regions of Bicol, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, or Siargao, all of which are off the usual tourist trail to varying degrees.
Travelling in the Philippines can be a bit more of an adventure, particularly if you’re solo and used to finding busloads of other travellers everywhere on the mainland (which is not always the case here). But since so many locals speak English you hardly ever get lost, and the barriers between you and the local culture are so much lower than elsewhere.
Find quieter islands in Malaysia
Okay, some people are going to tell me that this isn’t truly ‘off the beaten track’, but I think this is worth mentioning. If you’re looking for tropical islands with plenty to do but without the 24/7 party culture of many of the Thai islands, then Malaysia might be the perfect destination for you.
The west coast of the Malaysian peninsula is visited by many international and domestic tourists alike, as it has most of the cities, the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, as well as the jungle canopy walks in Taman Negara National Park. But you only need to head to the east coast to find many beaches and islands with a more relaxed atmosphere, as well as some of Malaysia’s less-discovered national parks (such as Belum National Park). There might be no guided canopy walks here, but you’ll find plenty of raw rainforest.
Since Malaysia is mainly a Muslim country, there is a different attitude to alcohol. You can get a drink anywhere, but you won’t find the hedonistic party culture of some of the neighboring Thai coasts. The Perhentian Islands have more of a social traveller scene and a laidback vibe. There are also other more tucked-away islands with little development nearby, such as Lang Tengah and Gem Island (though expect a lot of mid-range resorts, and not much or any budget accommodation).
Explore rural Myanmar
Finally, the whole country of Myanmar is a good alternative destination, at least for now. Given that it only opened up to tourists in 2012, it’s somewhat less known. I visited a couple of years ago and it remains one of my favorite countries in the region. Travellers here tend to be a bit older than the usual Thailand party crowd.
Myanmar’s star attractions include Inle Lake, where locals live in stilt houses and tend to floating gardens, as well as the impressive temple complex of Bagan. But for a real taste of rural life in Myanmar, be sure to go hiking around the towns of Hsipaw, Kyaukme or Kalaw. You can also make your way to the remote town of Mrauk-U near the border with Bangladesh, where you can find numerous ancient Buddhist temples far away from the growing Bagan crowds.
So there you have it: a few top-level ideas to help you mix things up on a Southeast Asia trip. Have you been to Southeast Asia and have a tip to share? Then be sure to tell us about your favorite spots in the comments!