You’ve gazed in awe at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, lazed on one of Thailand’s many white-sand beaches and eaten as much Vietnamese pho as your stomach can possibly handle. So, what’s next? Well, a whole lot – Southeast Asia is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
To show you how much there is to the region beyond the obvious, iconic sights, we’ve compiled a little list of lesser-known gems and unique experiences that our tours offer. Think ancient caves and limestone karsts, mountain villages and lake-filled craters. And then there’s homestays so remote you need a boat to reach them and seaside towns so untouched it’s just you and the ocean (and, well, a whole bunch of new friends).
Here are 10 Southeast Asian spots you didn’t expect to land at the top of your bucket list:
Doi Mae Salong, Thailand
Why we love it: Doi Mae Salong combines the beauty of Thailand with the cuisine of China and allure of Myanmar. Why? Well, the town sits close to the border of Myanmar and is home to former Chinese Nationalist Soliders who fled from (then) Burma back in the 1960s. Famous for its Chinese tea traders (plus gorgeous mountains and tea fields), it feels just like a quaint southern Chinese village, yet sits in scenic Chiang Rai province. Enjoy a cup of tea from a traditional tea house and check out the array of craft markets on offer.
How to visit: We recommend our 15-day Beautiful Northern Thailand trip. Not only will you spend a night in scenic Doi Mae Salong and stay in a guesthouse, there are a ton of other cool activities too. Visit the Golden Triangle (where the Thailand, Myanmar and Laos borders meet), spend the night in a rural homestay, embark on a hilltribe trek through a bamboo forest, and enjoy all the foodie wonders Bangkok has to offer.
Sanur, Bali, Indonesia
Why we love it: A laid-back seaside town that has everything going for it, Sanur is blissful. Based in the southeast of Bali, it’s a far cry from the hectic parties of Kuta. And that’s why we love it. Colorful jukung boats rest on the sand, the beach is peaceful and not crowded, and the local eateries are superb. It’s the last stop on our Cycle Bali trip because it’s the ideal place to kick back and relax. The art gallery scene here is pretty impressive, as is sacred Hindu temple, Pura Blanjong.
How to visit: You can’t go wrong with our new 8-day Cycle Bali trip. The cycling is unparalleled – from the green hills of Ubud to the black-sand beaches of Lovina – and the other activities are endless too. Hiking up Mt Batur at sunrise, and soaking in hot springs after, is something you won’t forget. You won’t forget sunset at Tanah Lot either. The temple sits on an island, and sundown here really is beautiful. As is the cuisine, the Balinese hospitality, and, well, the entire island.
Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
Why we love it: Because if you Google the Cardamom Mountains you’ll find… very little. Even with tourists flocking (justifiably) to Angkor Wat, very few visitors make it to this majestic mountain range in Cambodia’s southwest. A biodiversity hotspot, this region is one of the last remaining wild elephant corridors. It’s also home to a community project whereby you can help plant trees to combat forestry. And an array of truly outstanding beauty. Seriously – this place is a haven for hikers, especially thanks to the fact it houses Cambodia’s highest peak, Phnom Aural.
How to visit: Our 14-day Temples and Beaches trip through Cambodia is packed with cool experiences. To reach day eight’s homestay in in the Cardamom Mountains you travel for several hours by boat to Chi Phat. It’s quite the adventure venturing somewhere so remote! Facilities this night are basic but the local food and hospitality is fantastic (read up on the country’s cuisine here). The tour also includes snorkelling in Koh Chang, a bike tour along Phnom Penh’s Mekong River, and temple-hopping in Siem Reap with a local guide.
Why we love it: We’re not claiming that no-one’s heard of Vientiane, the peaceful capital of Laos, but we are claiming it’s underrated. Many visitors simply stop by Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, but this city has sights and eats aplenty. So, where to begin? At Wat Si Saket, a Buddhist temple believed to be the oldest still standing in Vientiane. Then venture down to war monument, Victory Gate, and Buddhist stupa, Pha That Luang, before grabbing some street food at Lane Xang. You also have the opportunity to visit COPE, an Intrepid Foundation-sponsored organization that rehabilitates children who have been injured by unexploded bombs (more info here). Sunset over the Mekong, the night bazaars and the French-influenced food scene here are also musts.
How to visit: We have a bunch of trips that go to this laid-back city but one of our favorites has to be our 13-day Cambodia and Laos Encounter. On this tour you spend two nights in Vientiane and enjoy a guided tour of its highlights. You also spend the night in a homestay in rural Cambodia, trek to a breathtaking waterfall in Vang Vieng, and visit the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which protects Asiatic bears.
Mt Pinatubo, Philippines
Why we love it: With more than 7,000 islands that brim with natural wonders, it’s safe to say the country itself is a bit of a hidden gem. But even with abundant rice fields, forests and beaches, Mt Pinatubo stands head and shoulders above the crowd. After it erupted back in 1991, the top of the mountain was replaced by a large lake-filled crater. You have to trek for several hours to reach this lake, but it’s truly spectacular. We don’t know what’s better – its emerald green waters or the opportunities to meet the indigenous people here, the Aetas.
How to visit: Check out our 11-day Philippine Discovery trip and you won’t regret it. Not only will you trek to Mt Pinatubo on day nine, you’ll stay in tents by the crater lake itself. One for the books. And the Instagram feed. The rest of the tour doesn’t disappoint either. The stunning Banaue rice terraces you visit have been labelled ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, whilst the hikes that pass through coffee plantations and waterfalls are seriously stunning.
Phong Nha-Ke Bang, Vietnam
Why we love it: Because we never tire of discovering Vietnam’s gems. Whether it’s the best beaches or the tastiest street snacks, there’s just so much to love – particularly in Central Vietnam (which is home to two of our favorite cities, Hue and Hoi An). Central Vietnam is also home to a bunch of lesser-known natural wonders, from Truong Son mountain range to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. And it’s the latter that’s extra special. We’re talking about the fact it’s home to one of the world’s largest, and only recently-discovered, cave complexes. The park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2003, houses the oldest karst mountains in Asia, and has underground rivers as well as caves!
How to visit: We truly think there’s no better way of seeing Central Vietnam’s highlights than on this 10-day adventure. On it you can do the hundreds of caves justice, as you spend several days exploring the national park. Highlights of the park include walking through the cavernous Paradise Cave (pictured above), swimming to the dazzling Ken Cave, and trekking to the mountain range containing Tu Lan Cave. The trip also lets you see the best of Hanoi, Hue and Hoi an as well as a visit to Boo Hong, a small mountain village. Here you will enjoy a traditional dance performance and home-cooked dinner.
Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia
Why we love it: For starters, because we love Sumatra. Though it’s the world’s sixth largest island, it remains part of Indonesia that few people visit. So, what are the masses missing out on? Gunung Leuser National Park, your best chance to see orangutans in the wild in the whole country; jungle hikes aplenty, especially to the top of Sibayak Volcano; and bustling Medan, the island’s largest city. But the icing on the cake is surely Lake Toba. Formed by two huge volcanic eruptions, the island in the middle of it (called Samosir) is the size of Singapore! The lake is surrounded by mountains and is as peaceful as it is picturesque. Oh, and it’s the world’s largest volcanic lake. Not bad at all.
How to visit: On our new 9-day Sumatra Adventure, of course! We’re super excited to be taking travelers to this nature-filled, beautiful land. When you visit Lake Toba with us you’ll enjoy lakeside accommodation with views of the surrounding water, mountains and rice fields. And when you get to Gunung Lesuer National Park, home to one of the richest ecosystems in the world, you camp for the night! You’ll also visit Indonesia’s highest waterfall, witness traditional Batak dance performances, and so much more.
Why we love it: Considering Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, it’s surprisingly under the radar. Lacking both the traffic of Phnom Penh and the tourists of Siem Reap, it’s also a peaceful and authentic slice of Cambodian life. It’s also super pretty. Right on the river and full of beautifully preserved colonial architecture, the French elegance is apparent. There are few ‘attractions’ per se here as the charm is in lazing around… and eating. Enjoy local dishes such as amok, Khmer curry, and friend spice kitchen (our tours offers a home-cooked meal with a local foodie). And don’t miss a ride on the famous bamboo train (pictured above). Made of a wooden and bamboo carriage, and previously used for transporting agricultural products, the maximum speed might be 15km per hour but it’s fun for all.
How to visit: Our 9-day Cambodia Real Food Adventure comes highly recommended. Though it does explore all the main sights (from Angkor Wat’s icons to Phnom Penh’s temples), the foodie experiences really set it apart. Visit a famous pepper plantation near Kampot (and taste the best pepper in the world) and venture to the Kep Crab Market (for, you guessed it, the best crab in the world). Cambodian food might have Thai and French influences, but it’s downright unique and delicious too. Whether you’re eating with a local family in a homestay or eating in restaurants that help disadvantaged youth, you’ll be a fan.
Why we love it: Considering Kanchanaburi is just a two or three hour drive from chaotic Bangkok, it couldn’t be more different. The town is equal parts scenic and tranquil. Think floating restaurants along the river, shops and buildings surrounded by verdant jungle, and a food scene that is simply mind-boggling. However, Kanchanaburi is also home to a dark history. During World War Two, Japanese forces used Allies prisoners of war and Asian laborers to build a rail route to Myanmar. Many died while constructing it, and this story was then memorialized in a book and film. But it’s Kanchanaburi’s WW2 that gives the best insight into it. On the brighter side, this town is an ideal base for exploring some of Thailand’s rural gems – it’s super close to many parks and historic sites in the surrounding countryside.
How to visit: We think our 8-day Thailand Real Food Adventure is an excellent way of exploring the town. Because what better way to get to know a place than through its food scene? On our trip, which starts in Bangkok and ends in Chiang Mai, your two nights in Kanchanaburi offer a hands-on masterclass in Central Thai cuisine. Start at the markets to collect ingredients then cook up some classic dishes (from wing beans to banana flower cake) before feasting on them. Don’t forget to dine at the local night market, as well as exploring the city of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and staying the night at a rural Thai village homestay.
Ke Ga, Vietnam
Why we love it: Vietnam’s coastline is spectacular – as you already know. And although Nha Trang and Hue have a special place in our hearts, there’s just something about little Ke Ga that makes us melt. The seaside village is several hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City and though it certainly doesn’t bustle with the same volume of attractions, the ocean vistas are unmissable. Not only that, the French colonial lighthouse it’s known for is the tallest of its kind in the country. Built in 1889 and made of granite, it’s worth hiring a boat to the island and climbing up to the top for panoramic views of the bay. The fishing village is also known for its seafood and rice paddies (just past the beach).
How to visit: If you like Vietnam and you like the sea, we recommend our 15-day Cycle Vietnam trip. There’s few better ways to travel down from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in a way that really shows off the country’s splendor and diversity. From spending one night in a homestay to one night on a sleeper train, biking through the rural beauty of Ninh Binh to drinking coffee in scenic Dalat, this trip has everything. Whether it’s your first or your fifth time in the country, cycling never fails to delight.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, iStock/master2, iStock/tobiasjo, Intrepid Travel, Intrepid Travel, iStock/Gilitukha, iStock/laughingmango, Roger Sandford, iStock/ewastudio, iStock/xuanhuongho)