How to: Get Off the Tourist Trail in Southeast Asia

Cambodia Laos Malaysia Thailand Vietnam Culture Budget Travel
by Matthew Kepnes Apr 22, 2008

Photo by Matthew Kepnes

Ditch the backpacker crowds with these 8 fresh destination ideas.

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 8 fresh ideas for how to get off the Southeast Asian tourist trail.

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.

photo by Matthew Kepnes

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.

I had a great experience with Delta Tours. But if you are an experienced biker, why not do it yourself?

Editor’s Note: Check out Hal Amen’s excellent guide to cycling Highway 1 in Vietnam.

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.

Editor’s Note: Matador’s Vietnam expert knows a great deal about the National Parks of Vietnam, especially in the North.

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!

Chill out in Kep, Cambodia.

photo by Ross Borden

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.

Editor’s Note: I love Kep. The best place to stay is Le Bout de Monde.

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 touristed.

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.

Editor’s Note: Ryan Libre has spent a lot of time in Isaan – check out his recent podcast at the travelers notebook.

Escape to a Random Thai Island.

photo by Ross Borden

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.

Looking for an quiet island? Ask Voralak, a Matador contributor who lives in Bangkok and just published a Backpacker’s Secret Guide to the island of Trang, Thailand.

Meander through Southern Laos.

Most people tend to skirt through Laos, hitting the major destinations before crossing into Vietnam or looping back to Thailand.

Most people tend to skirt through Laos, hitting the major destinations before crossing into Vietnam or looping back to Thailand.

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!

Editor’s Note: Check out this Backpacker’s Secret Guide to Champasak, a chill temple town in southern Laos. Can’t quite make it to the south? Go to the organic farm outside Vien Vieng!

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. Want to channel your inner Joseph Conrad? Sarawak is the place.

Editor’s Note: Check out islandhapa’s awesome blog about participating in a tattoo convention in Sarawak (which is on the island of Borneo, by the way).

Community Connection

Many Matador members are backpacking in Southeast Asia right now!

The intrepid Noellejt wrote some beautiful blogs about her time at the best little cooking school in Thailand.

Justin88 is traveling in South East Asia until he runs out of money, currently bound for Malaysia. Compash is the founder of a permaculture farm and natural building center near Chiang Mai. Nora Dunn is traveling in Thailand and Malaysia…

For up to date travel guides and guesthouse reviews, be sure to check out TravelFish, our favorite resource for trip planning in Southeast Asia.

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