If you’re looking to travel off the beaten path, Southeast Asia offers unique destinations, particularly for Americans who may not be as familiar with this region as they are with others.
Looking where to go in Southeast Asia off the beaten path? We discovered our ideas about less known places in Southeast Asia were influenced by our inexperience. Now that we’ve traveled off the beaten path Southeast Asia boasts some of the most offbeat destinations in Asia. See our recommendations!
Off the Beaten Path Southeast Asia: Why and Where to Visit Now
We don’t pretend to be the ultimate experts on underrated places in Southeast Asia, but we consider ourselves sufficiently traveled in the region to offer advice to those who’d like to venture off the beaten path.
For the bulk of our readers who are Americans, Southeast Asia isn’t necessarily the first region they might consider when contemplating international travel.
The main reason for this is that Southeast Asia is not as easy to get to as Europe or the Caribbean/Central America/South America shared hemisphere. These are destinations Americans more naturally gravitate toward. There are plenty of Americans who might like to visit Southeast Asia, but they feel like they do not have the time when vacation days are limited.
The second main factor? Lack of familiarity. Southeast Asia is completely different than anywhere else on the planet. The small flashes of recognition that can be grounding for a traveler who is far from home are fewer and farther in between in Southeast Asia, and in Asia in general. Some visitors find this unnerving. We find it energizing.
Even so, the sheer numbers of travelers – European, Asian, Australian, and yes, even Americans, although they’re not the largest part of the demographics – flooding into the Southeast Asian market have created a shift: non-touristy places in Southeast Asia are getting a little harder to come by. You need to dig a little deeper, and be openminded enough to be willing to visit places you may have never heard of.
What we consider to be emerging destinations in Southeast Asia for purposes of this post have been selected with the above aspects in mind. We’ve had our “boots on the ground” in all of them. Some have been popular with travelers whose demographics are different than our readership for quite some time.
Our hope in this post is to inspire you with enough information for you to consider our recommendations when making your travel plans for Southeast Asia, even if they currently only cover more frequently visited locations. Inserting just one will definitely make a memorable difference. Let’s begin.
Off the Beaten Path Southeast Asia: Laos
Of all the offbeat destinations in Southeast Asia we have visited, little Laos tugged at our heartstrings more than any other. We did a bit of homework before visiting, to discover that the government is considered one of the most problematic in the region for a variety of reasons. This gave us momentary pause, but since its location was smack dab in the middle of a circuitous itinerary we’d planned, we pressed onward.
As far as underrated places in Southeast Asia go, the entire country of Laos has to be right up there on the list. It gets overshadowed by its flashier, more modern neighbors like Thailand and Vietnam, where tourist infrastructure is better and notoriety is greater.
But if you’re looking to spend time in undiscovered Southeast Asia, putting Laos on the list of where to go in Southeast Asia off the beaten path will deliver a rich and unique experience. We left Laos with far more questions than we did answers, but that’s an aspect of travel we’ve come to embrace. See our full write-up: Luang Prabang and Better Angels
Places to Visit in Laos
The ancient and modern capital of Laos is a quaint and laid back mix of French colonial and Asian architecture alongside the Mekong River. This is one of the best off the path destinations in Southeast Asia you could choose to begin your adventures. You’ll be able to adapt to the slower pace and the meld of European influences will create welcome touchpoints of recognition.
Things to Do in Vientiane
Go by tuk-tuk to visit the Great Stupa – a giant golden turreted temple around 4km northeast of Vientiane. The distinctive Patuxai Victory Monument will remind you of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, until you notice its Hindu imagery. The riverfront night market sets up at sunset; shop for souvenirs and look for street food along the promenade.
Vientiane City Day Tour and Buddha Park Visit with Lunch – a comprehensive full day tour includes the Great Sacred Stupa, Buddha Park, Patuxai monument, lunch, textile weaving, and the Reclining Buddha. Click here for more information and pricing.
Half-Day Vientiane City Bike Tour – Sightseeing by bicycle includes historic temples, landmarks, history and culture information with lunch. Includes a visit to the COPE exhibition center highlighting unexploded ordinance related issues. Click here for more information and pricing.
Where to Stay in Vientiane
Vientiane and Luang Prabang 5-Day Tour of Laos – Enjoy a comprehensive introduction to Laos, with private transportation and English-speaking guide. You will be met at the Vientiane airport with an orientation and local markets tour. Air transfer to Luang Prabang with tour of the stunning Wat Xiang Thong temple and Palace Museum, a boat trip up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves, and Ban Phanom tribal village, road trip to Khouangsi Falls and hill tribe villages. Click here for full information and pricing.
Luang Prabang, the historic northern capital of Laos is nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Settled by tribes who migrated from what is now China’s Guangxi province beginning in the 8th century, they established what was known as The Kingdom of One Million Elephants. During the Vietnam war years, an American air base anchored ground activities and bombing sorties in the so-called “Secret War.”
Today, Luang Prabang’s UNESCO heritage status brings visitors into a complex energy of stunning historical and religious significance, pseudo-gentrification, and tourism-focused supply chain. We left Luang Prabang with more questions than answers (see our assessment: Luang Prabang and Better Angels https://passingthru.com/luang-prabang-and-better-angels/), and highly recommend a visit which includes opportunities for authentic interaction in addition to the typical attractions.
Things to Do in Luang Prabang
Explore Luang Prabang Backroads Biking Tour – Visit with locals to learn about traditional silk weaving on a small group biking tour which takes in town sights as well as rural attractions such as the Elephant Village, Wat Visoun temple from the 16th century, and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Center. Click here for more information and pricing.
The Living Land Company – An educational and fun experience outside of town at a working traditional Laotian farm. Get hands on experience in the paddy fields using a water buffalo to plow, plant rice shoots, mill and winnow, stay for lunch. Click here for more information and pricing.
Private Tour: Kuang Si Waterfall from Luang Prabang – A full-day tour includes alms-giving ceremony, the Phosi Market, and visits to typical indigenous villages and the Tat Kuang Si Bear Sanctuary, rainforest hiking, a swim at the waterfall. Click here for more information and pricing.
Luang Prabang: Home Cooked Tour in a Local Family Home – Spend half a day with a local family in their home, shop for ingredients at a local market and help with prep for lunch or dinner with new friends. Click here for more information and pricing.
3 Days Luang Prabang Trip – Visit the Night Market, Alms Procession with Monks, Wat Xiang Thong temple visit, Palace Museum, Pak Ou holy caves, Mekong River boat trip, with English-speaking guide. Click here for more information and pricing.
Where to Stay in Luang Prabang
We highly recommend the lovely little Lakhangthong Boutique Hotel, which is situated in a typical Laotian neighborhood an easy walk to the riverfront nightlife and Night Market.
Historically, a staging area – first in the 14th century as a stop on the route between the ancient capitals of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and more recently in the 20th as Lima 6 during the secret war – Vang Vieng became infamous as a backpacker party destination offering river tubing and other nefarious activities with little oversight.
After a series of tourist deaths, the government stepped in to clean things up in 2012. Today, Vang Vieng has rebranded from its previous identity as a party destination to capitalize on its stunning environs with outdoor activities geared to appreciate the karst formations and alluring riverscapes. Still, it remains one of the less known places in Southeast Asia in terms of Western recognition.
Things to Do in Vang Vieng
Tham Phu Kham and the Blue Lagoon – highly rated in the past, but the touristy appearance, large groups, and amenities might be a turn-off for some. Click here for more Trip Advisor reviews of this attraction.
Tham Nam Water Cave – A relaxing tube through a bat cave with headlamps. Come early to avoid the crowds. Click here for more information and guide pricing. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Vang Vieng Full-Day Kayak Tour: Caves of Nam Song River – A 7-½ hour adventure in remote scenery with a wilderness barbeque and a visit to the Tham Xang elephant cave. Gentle paddling with a number of rest stops. Click here for more information and pricing.
Vang Vieng Challenge – an extreme trek through Laotian jungle, with waterfall and platform abseiling, zip lining, mountain descents by cable. Read TripAdvisor Reviews and get more information.
Pha Ngerm Viewpoint – a steep, fairly tough climb which is mostly overlooked in favor of other activities in Vang Vieng. Not an easy hike, wear appropriate shoes and come prepared with water and energy snacks. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Where to Stay in Vang Vieng
Off the Beaten Path Southeast Asia: Malaysia
Malaysia is another of the emerging destinations in Southeast Asia American travelers should consider. Many American visitors begin their acquaintance with Malaysia via a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur, whose airport has begun to rival that of Singapore in terms of appearance, convenience and visitor experience.
Kuala Lumpur is worth a visit in its own right (and interestingly, we’ve never been although we’ve visited Malaysia twice). We’re going to suggest that undiscovered Southeast Asia is within a day’s trip of KL via ground transportation or a quick commuter flight.
Two of the less known places in Southeast Asia that we visited were the Johor and Pahang provinces. Yet, millions of people live in their capital cities, Johor Bahru and Kuantan, respectively.
Kuantan, and its northerly beach areas, were one of the most non-touristy destinations in Southeast Asia that we visited during all of our travels. We got a considerable amount of always friendly attention from the locals, and the South China Sea sunrises were among the most spectacular we’ve seen in the entire world.
Likewise, Johor Province is also one of the somewhat underrated travel destinations Asia offers. This is because it is overshadowed by its flashy neighbor, Singapore, as well as its country capital, Kuala Lumpur. Nonetheless, Johor Bahru felt like one of the most non touristy places in Southeast Asia we visited simply because of the absence of Americans. Were they all across the bridge in Singapore? We think perhaps they were!
Johor Province, Malaysia
Johor Bahru, the city which is the seat of Johor Province, is an inexpensive alternative to much pricier Singapore, which is just across an international bridge. We found staying in JB to be one of the best decisions we made in southeast Asia (see more at: Johor Bahru: Bridging Old and New in Malaysia).
JB offers terrific international shopping in modern centers, a transportation hub, a thriving foodie scene and modern hotel options at reasonable prices. The city itself is undergoing an ambitious and heavily government funded modernization plan. Get there before all is transformed.
Things to Do and Places to Visit in Johor Province
Firefly Valley Leisure Park – a 30 minute dinner cruise on evenings with minimal moonlight brings out the fireflies in the mangroves. Very kid friendly with play garden and mini-farm. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Street – Johor Bahru – Colonial and Chinese architecture is preserved on this 300 meter walking street which is the historic center in Johor Bahru. Newly gentrified with traditional and stylish restaurants. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews.
Legoland Malaysia – a theme park experience best for school aged kids and up with rides, water park – including wave pool, and Lego buildings. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction. To look at one-day theme park entry ticket pricing, click here.
Where to Stay in Johor Province
Click here for a list of top ten TripAdvisor hotels in Johor Bahru. Our personal favorite is the beautiful DoubleTree Inn Johor Bahru by Hilton, an easy walk from the central shopping and transportation hubs.
Pahang Province, Malaysia
While we stayed on the east coast of the Malaysian Peninsula at Balok beach near Kuantan (see more at Reasons to Visit Kuantan: Things to Do and Places to Stay), many of the attractions in the western side of Pahang Province are easily accessible from Kuala Lumpur, which is where most western visitors alight.
The east coast of Pahang is one of the most delightful hidden holiday gems South East Asia delivered to us. Again, we never expected to visit, but by virtue of a timeshare exchange, there we were.
Things to Do and Places to Visit in Pahang Province
Taman Negara National Park – A 130 million year old rainforest is the centerpiece of this enormous national park, offering a canopied bridge walk, trekking and river trips. Wildlife includes tigers, elephants, gaur (Indian bison), tapirs, wild boar and macaques. Read TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Bukit Panorama – A steep climb of around 800 manmade steps – be fit and prepared – rewards you with a breathtaking vista of what one reviewer called a “sea of fluffy clouds.” Read other TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary Tour – Experience the responsible efforts to conserve and protect the rescued elephant population in Malaysia. Feeding, washing and interactive experiences. Elephant riding here has thankfully been suspended. Click here for more information and pricing.
Cameron Highlands – Look beyond the over touristed hype and head to Cameron Highlands for the reasons colonials began to visit in the 1930s – soothing cool mountain air and natural lifestyle in an area originally developed for agricultural experimentation. The region has a significantly different ecosystem than its surroundings. Protected species of deer, other animals and birds make Cameron Highlands their home along with hundreds of rare flower species. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
From Kuala Lumpur: Cameron Highlands Private Full Day Tour – A three hour drive with professional driver/guide in air-conditioned vehicle from KL makes your escape from the heat and crowds. Tea farm, strawberry farm and rose garden visits along with the Lata Iskandar waterfall and butterfly farm. Includes lunch and wifi in selected vehicles. Click here for more information and pricing.
Where to Stay in Pahang Province
Click here for a list of TripAdvisor top hotels in Pahang. Our personal recommendation is the Swiss-Garden Beach Resort Kuantan (a view of its pool complex overlooking the South China Sea is above).
Off the Beaten Path in Southeast Asia: Isaan, Thailand
Isaan is one of the less known places in Southeast Asia even though millions of travelers make Thailand a destination every year. In fact, we’d venture to say Isaan is one of the less known places in Asia overall.
This is because most visitors concern themselves with Bangkok or Chiang Mai, which are the two largest cities. Or, they head to the amazing beaches on popular islands like Phuket or seaside destinations like Hua Hin or Krabi in the south.
Not that going to these popular Thai destinations would be a mistake by any means! We love Thailand, but if you’re in search of non-touristy destinations in Southeast Asia, you’re going to want to put Isaan in your plan.
Isaan is the cultural and emotional center of Thailand (see our post, Isaan: The Heart of Thailand) with an “undiscovered places in Southeast Asia” aspect that appears will remain even as visitor amenities improve. For a traditional lifestyle experience among rural villages known for agrarian, textile, and silversmithing activities, Isaan offers the chance to do day visits or homestays.
For those who are interested in Khmer heritage and visiting religious shrines, Isaan is one of the best off the path destinations in Southeast Asia. Here you will find temples older than the more famous Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, with far less intrusive touristy infrastructure to mar your experience.
If the very word “Mekong” is enough to stir your traveler’s soul search for authenticity, Isaan is one of main offbeat destinations in Southeast Asia where you can soak in the river’s impact. Isaan residents go about their daily lives using it for transportation, fishing, and recreation much as they have for centuries in locations such as Nong Khai and others.
Things to Do and Places to Visit in Isaan
Phanom Rung Historical Park and Prasat Muang Tam Khmer Temples less than 50 miles away and a century or two older than the more famous Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap, these two marvelous examples of Khmer design are far less visited, allowing for a more personal experience. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of Phanom Rung Historical Park, and here for Trip Advisor reviews of Prasat Muang Tam.
Phimai Historical Park – This is the largest complex of Khmer temples in Thailand, and signifies the beginning of one end of the ancient highway leading to Angkor Wat. Click here for Trip Advisor reviews of this attraction.
Ban Chiang – a Bronze Age archeological excavation and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with village silk and cotton weavers. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
Ban Ta Klang – near Surin, the traditional elephant village of Suay people. Note: Western expectations may be at odds with traditional training and mahout behaviors. Click here for reviews on TripAdvisor.
Ban Tha Sawang Silk Weaving Village – known for its oversized looms which feature over 100 huddles, this traditional village has been the approved provider to Queen Sirikit and previous royal courts for silks woven with threads of spun gold. Daily output on each of the looms is only 6-7 centimeters in length. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews.
Statues of Sala Kaew Ku in Nong Khai – an important temple complex (also spelled Sala Keoku) which features large Buddhist-inspired statues made of concrete, the life’s work of a Laotian craftsman. For reviews of this attraction on Trip Advisor, click here.
Where to Stay in Isaan
For a list of top hotels near Nong Khai in northern Isaan province from TripAdvisor, click here. For a list of top hotels near Surin and Buriram in the southern half of Isaan from TripAdvisor, click here. Our personal recommendation is the grande dame of Surin hotels, the Thong Tarin.
Off the Beaten Path Southeast Asia: Changi Village, Singapore
You might not expect that one of the most charming hidden holiday gems South East Asia has to offer is within the confines of a bustling metropolis which is home to millions, and within a few minutes of one of the busiest airports in the world. But it’s true. Changi Village is one of our favorite undiscovered places in Southeast Asia.
Thanks to a tip from a friend’s daughter, who insisted we had to visit Pulau Ubin, and a serendipitous travel fail on our part having to do with Indian visas, we found ourselves with several extra days in Singapore to fill. We could have just holed up at a nondescript airport hotel while we sorted our circumstances, but the Universe delivered on of the best off the path destinations in Southeast Asia we’ve visited to date.
Changi Village is buffered from the rest of busy Singapore by leafy suburban streets with vintage single family homes and charming one of a kind restaurants. These converge at a waterside hub for shopping and longboat ferry service to Pulau Ubin, one of the most offbeat destinations in Southeast Asia.
Pulau Ubin is an island seemingly frozen in time since before the 1940s. Even though there is a small, localized infrastructure of conveniences for visitors – bike and kayak rentals, cold drinks and food, the effect is that of going back as appearances must have been decades ago.
Simple wooden dwellings cluster around a temple and community center in the village. Thought the rest of the island, single lane roads are perfect for bicycling through the jungle and protected wildlife areas. As non touristy places in Southeast Asia go, Pulau Ubin is one of the least spoiled. See our complete write-up here: Pulau Ubin and the Ghosts of Old Singapore.
Things to Do in Changi Village/Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin – Adventures by Asian Detours Kayaking – Kayak the waterways of Pulau Ubin during an easy day of paddling accompanied by a guide. Click here for more information and reviews of this activity.
Chek Jawa – Unveiled in the year 2000, these large protected wetlands contain six separate habitats in Singapore’s largest ecosystem. Click here for TripAdvisor reviews of this attraction.
German Girl Shrine – a compellingly creepy mix of “might-be-true” WWI-era legend of a girl’s tragic death and kitschy shrine of vacant-faced Barbie dolls and food offerings to her memory. Click here for more assessments on TripAdvisor. For a video tour, click here.
Guided Half-Day Bike Tour from Changi Village to Pulau Ubin – For those who prefer to leave logistics to someone else, a guided tour of the jungle roads throughout the island from meeting point at the Changi Village harbor. Click here for more information and pricing.
Where to Stay in Changi Village
Click here for a list of the top hotels in Changi Village. Note the descriptions and check maps carefully as a couple of them are right in the airport. Our personal recommendation is the wonderful Changi Cove Retreat Complex.
In summary, we hope you found our discussion of off the beaten path Southeast Asia suggestions inspiring. Please let us know if we can help you with additional information on these underrated and undiscovered places in Southeast Asia, or add your own in the comments.