8 Underrated Places in Southeast Asia
I’m not even close to finished exploring Southeast Asia. But since I started traveling full-time, I’ve gotten to know it a lot better. I adore this region, and it’s the perfect place for beginner travelers for a few reasons: it’s cheap, it pushes the boundaries of your comfort zone, it’s an easy place to travel, and the people, food, and countryside are all beautiful. My exploration has taken me beyond the typical stops to some true gems. So here is a roundup of my top eight underrated places in Southeast Asia.
Eight Underrated Places in Southeast Asia
Koh Lanta, Thailand
Why: You’ll want to stay forever.
Often overshadowed by party island Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta is its chilled out, unassuming neighbor. But the secret might be out: I visited in 2013 and in 2015, and the difference between those two years was marked. What had been a sleepy, bohemian beach town with plenty of empty beachfront had filled up with new hotels, hostels, bars, and restaurants. Fortunately, the soul of the place is still intact, and the sunsets are still spectacular. Some places just have a magnetism to them, a sense of peace that fills your soul. Koh Lanta is one of these places, and leaving is never easy.
Where to Stay: Long Beach is best for solo travelers and backpackers. There’s a backpacker village down a dirt road in Moo 3 that has tons of accommodation options. You can literally walk from one to the next to compare prices and quality. My favorite is the bamboo bungalows at Lanta L.D. Beach Resort. It’s beachfront, it’s $14/night, and the family who runs the place is wonderful. It’s very basic (no hot water and no air conditioning), but you don’t need much when you’re in Lanta, anyway. Mid-range and luxury travelers should check out the resorts farther south, near Kantian Bay and Nui Beach.
What Not to Miss: Koh Lanta is one of the easiest places in Thailand to try your hand at driving a motorbike. The roads are well-paved and not as crowded as other islands, and you can rent them anywhere for $4/day. You can explore Old Town, visit the beaches along the Western edge of Lanta, and stop by SalaDan to top up your SIM card without needing to worry about a tuk tuk. There are a few organized tours that will take you to the smaller islands off the Eastern side of the island that are a good excursion if you want to do more than lounge on the beach, but be sure to be on the West for sunset… Koh Lanta has some of the best views in Thailand.
Canggu Beach, Bali, Indonesia
Why: You’ll feel like a pro surfer (even if you’ve never surfed).
It’s hard to find a place in Bali that hasn’t been swallowed up by opportunistic marks of capitalism, but somehow Canggu has managed to maintain some of it’s integrity. Just north of the tourist metropolises of Kuta and Seminyak, Canngu is a relaxed surf village that doesn’t even bother with trying too hard. You can get surf lessons if you’re so inclined, or you can kick back in Old Man’s Bar with a Bintang and just admire the surfers (my choice). There are plenty of locals mixed in with the tourists, and the entire place has a laid back vibe that’s missing from Seminyak and Uluwatu.
Where to Stay: The budget and mid-range accommodation is all mixed together here, so check out well-ranked spots on Jl. Pantai Batu Polong and Jl. Munduk Catu and the streets that branch out from there. If you’re traveling with a group, a private villa is the best way to experience Bali at a low price. You get a luxury home, and splitting it several ways keeps the overall daily cost super low. If you’re solo, guesthouses are your best option.
What Not to Miss: The surfers! Honestly, there isn’t much going on at Canggu Beach, but that’s the point. You can lounge on the beach, try surfing if you want, and grab afternoon beers at any of the beachfront spots that dot the sand.
Why: It appeals to the adventurer in you.
If you had told me I’d be suspended by a harness and rope over a 92-foot waterfall when I first entered Vietnam, I’d have called you crazy. But that’s exactly where I was on my second day in Dalat. This mountain town is a favorite weekender for locals in Ho Chi Minh City who want to visit the mountains, and the tourism industry has made sure visitors can make the most of the natural resources. There are canyoning, rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking tours on offer from dozens of providers in town, and they’re a must-do. Just bear in mind that you’re in a relatively unregulated country, so do your research on your tour provider and make sure they follow strict safety standards. I opted to use Groovy Gecko for my canyoning trip because they were recommended by Lonely Planet, had good reviews on TripAdvisor, and had a good guide-to-tourist ratio and top-of-the-line equipment. Sadly, not everyone does this, and it can have tragic consequences. So please be careful, but don’t let that keep you inside!
Where to Stay: For budget travelers, there are so many cool hostels in Dalat! I stayed at Dalat Family Hostel, and the women who run that place are freaking awesome! Honestly, even if you usually prefer mid-range accommodation, I’d recommend a private room at one of these hostels, just because the atmosphere is so fun.
What Not to Miss: The outdoor activities! Even if you’re not an experienced outdoorsman or woman, most packages are tailored to beginners and are so much fun. If you can’t work up the nerve to go canyoning (though I highly recommend it), check out a tamer option. The Crazy House is also worth a walk-through, if only to see how wild the imagination can be, and you need to try one of the funky Vietnamese Pizzas that are cooked over charcoal fires at the Central Market.
Coron, Palawan, Philippines
Why: It’s a wild, unspoiled gem.
This is what I imagine the Philippines looked like when tourism was just starting to take off. The majority of Busuanga Island (where Coron is located) is unbroken jungle, and a motorbike through the trees is a calming communion with nature. All around the island are lagoons and beaches that are ripped from travel brochures, and photo opportunities abound. El Nido, further south, may get all the hype right now, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Coron will be next on the list of mega-popular Philippines destinations. So get in now!
Where to Stay: Most of the budget guesthouses and hostels are in Coron town. If you want to get further afield, there are some pretty cool AirBnB options on Busuanga Island, like these treehouses (if you haven’t signed up for AirBnB yet, sign up here!).
What Not to Miss: The diving around Busuanga Island is world-class, so if you’re certified, go. If you’re just a snorkeler, you can’t miss the opportunity to see the Twin Lagoon and Kayangan Lake, and there are plenty of tour operators who can take you to the top sights that depart from the Marina in Coron town. Just try to find a boat that takes smaller groups so you can truly enjoy your time in these gorgeous spots. Also see if they’ll stop at the submerged shipwrecks, then challenge yourself to free dive down to them. It’s such a cool experience! By the time I was in the Philippines, I had been snorkeling nearly every week, so I was diving deeper than some of the SCUBA divers to get into one of the submarines! I made sure to wave on my way back to the surface.
Why: It’s a great place to meet other travelers.
Pai is a small-town version of Chiang Mai. Many digital nomads base themselves in Chiang Mai, but more and more are migrating to bohemian, laid-back Pai in favor of the larger city. It’s a harrowing 2-hour van drive through the Thai mountains (so beware if you’re prone to motion sickness), but once you’re deposited into town, the slow pace seeps into your bones. There are yoga classes, chai tea lattes, a night market, and plenty of hiking and sightseeing opportunties to keep you busy, but you may prefer to simply relax and meander the town, making new friends.
Where to Stay: There’s a line of budget guesthouses just across the river from the main street in town that are great value for the money. Walk along the riverfront and get prices and check out the accommodation for yourself before making a choice of where to stay, since quality can vary greatly (even if price does not). The bamboo bungalows at Pai Country Hut are basic but nice, and people say good things about Spicypai Backpackers.
What Not to Miss: Pai Canyon is an awesome place to explore or watch the sunset. There are hot springs you can dip in if you’re so inclined (a cooler mountain climates might make you so!), and there’s even a waterfall swimming hole for sunny hot days. All are a quick motorbike or tuk tuk ride away from town.
Why: Great food and amazing scenery.
You can feel the French colonial influence in Kampot, from the focus on delicious food to the inordinate number of French tourists who frequent the area. It’s a riverside city (though city might be a little generous) with a relaxed vibe, but the best part of Kampot is the land that surrounds the town. Farmland, villages, salt flats and pepper plantations make a patchwork of greens and yellows that stretch to the sea. Bokor Mountain overlooks it all, and on clear days you can get a great view from the top. Kampot has a little bit of everything, and way fewer tourists than backpacker haven Sihanoukville.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of cheap guesthouses all around the center of town, plus hostels in the area and all along the riverbank. Refer to Lonely Planet for good recommendations in the area. If you want to go upscale, Rikitikitavi looked nice, and the restaurant is great for traditional Khmer food or Western dishes.
What Not to Miss: You’ve got to get out of the city and explore those dusty back roads! Check out a pepper plantation or go see the ancient temple of Phnom Chhngok, which is in a cave nestled in the foothills of the mountains. I had one of my best days traveling jetting back and forth along the back roads of Kampot, so I highly recommend it. There is also a day tour to see the sights of Bokor Mountain, but it’s not overly spectacular. The views from the top are stellar on a good day though, so if you’re willing to negotiate the mountain roads on your own, it could be something worth doing with a rented motorbike. The one thing you should definitely do? The sunset river cruise. It’s a gorgeous way to see the quiet suburbs surrounding the city, and you may even see some fireflies! Magic.
Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines
Why: It’s a perfect budget beach paradise.
People who fly into Puerto Princesa usually rush straight up to El Nido and completely skip this beautiful, quiet beach town. What a tragedy! Or maybe that’s what keeps it so laid-back and perfect. Imagine long, uninterrupted stretches of white sand beaches, beautiful sky blue water, a soft breeze, and tons of sunshine. That is Port Barton, and it’s almost too easy to sink your toes into that white sand, grab a cold San Miguel, and never leave. Sure, it may not have the insane lagoons of northern Palawan, but there’s plenty of great snorkeling where you don’t have to battle crowds of other tourists to see the sights. This area is a favorite for Filipinos, and if they don’t know where to vacation in PH, who does?
Where to Stay: Adventurous travelers and solo travelers should definitely check out Thelma and Toby’s Beach Camping — what better way to experience this beautiful place than to camp in it? If you need bricks and mortar, you there are plenty of guest houses in Port Barton town at varying budgets, and nice resorts are set on the fringes of the area and up toward San Vicente.
What Not to Miss: When you tire of lounging on the beach, you can hike through the jungle to Papawyan Falls. It will be a hot hike, but it’s not long or particularly challenging and you can take a refreshing dip in the water once you arrive. There are island hopping tours you can join, though most of the boats end up at the same places at the same time. If you can get a group together and rent your own boat, map out your own tour and make sure it doesn’t align with the organized tours from town.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Why: It is a food-lover’s heaven!
Okay, this place doesn’t qualify as underrated per se, but I loved it here so damn much I had to put it on this list. Hoi An has it all: culture, history, the beach, amazing food, great fashion. It’s a beautiful riverside town with strong French influences, great restaurants, and great nightlife. You may come across beautiful temples on the back roads, walk across an old Japanese wooden bridge, or float a candle down the Thu Bon River with a wish. Whatever you do, the magic of this town will float up from the streets and infect your soul, making a return visit a sure thing.
Where to Stay: Luxury accommodation tends to be along the riverfront, so check the resorts there if you want to splash out. Budget guesthouses and mid-range hotels are found in town, just outside the border of Old Town. The best option for solo travelers or those looking for an authentic experience are homestays. Hoianese hospitality really knows no match, and it’s an amazing way to get to know the lifestyle of the local people a little better.
What Not to Miss: Definitely eat the food. My Food Guide to Vietnam outlines things you should try everywhere, but in Hoi An the specialties you definitely must try are White Rose, Bahn Xeo, Cao Lau, and Hoi An Won Tons (among other things). If you’d like to learn to recreate these dishes yourself, you can check out My Grandma’s Cooking Class in town. If you’re so inclined, you should definitely experience getting some custom-made clothing (here’s a guide). It’s fun to get measured and fitted for a new garment, and to take something home with you that no one else will have! There are plenty of temples in town, but rent a motorbike and jet down to the temples at My Son for a fantastic day trip where the journey is as much fun as the destination.
I’m looking forward to adding onto this list as I explore more of Southeast Asia. But now tell me, readers, what is your favorite underrated Asian destination, and why? Maybe I’ll add it to my must-see list for next time!