6 Underrated Destinations in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s finest beaches, natural landscapes, and vibrant cities. Even better, these diverse attractions can be enjoyed at affordable prices. It’s no surprise, then, that millions of travelers make their way to hot spots like Bali, Bangkok, and Boracay every year. And while many still consider these destinations must-sees in Southeast Asia, their allure has diminished for some due to their over popularity. To inspire you to get off the trodden tourist trail, we’ve compiled a list of top underrated locales in Southeast Asia.

1. Bohol, Philippines

Chocolate Hills; Tom Bishop/Flickr

Located in the center of the Philippines’ Visayas region, Bohol offers a variety of experiences for nature and adventure enthusiasts. It is reachable by regional flights and a mere two-hour ferry from popular Cebu. The island is arguably best known for the popular and aptly named Chocolate Hills. Depending on whether your visit coincides with rainy or dry season, these bizarrely uniform hills will be green or brown, respectively. The Chocolate Hills (there are approximately 1,200 of them) are dotted across the island’s interior. Viewpoints at Carmen and Sagbayan Peaks have been created for visitors, so as not to disturb the majority of the island’s ecosystem. A clear consensus on the origin of these peculiarly identical hills hasn’t been reached, so we’ll have to accept the local legend that attributes the hills to the aftermath of a stone-throwing brawl between giants. 

Outside of these bumpy wonders, Bohol’s coast offers sandy beaches, scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities, and dolphin- and whale-watching tours. It’s not uncommon to spot sperm whales and a variety of dolphin species at the pristine Pamilacan Island marine sanctuary. The mainland has unique wildlife as well -- most notably, the tarsier, a wide-eyed primate that is thought to be the inspiration for Star Wars’ Yoda. These tiny creatures typically weigh less than one pound and are considered endangered. The Philippine Tarsier Foundation operates a sanctuary and research center for the tiny primates. It is the only ethical operation offering tarsier visits on the island, so beware of other offers.

2. Sumatra, Indonesia

Lake Toba; Max Grabert/Flickr

For such a sizable island (the sixth-largest in the world), Sumatra often receives more attention for natural disasters than tourism. Though the destructive force of past volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis should not be discounted, many regions in Sumatra are safe for travelers. For those looking for a different experience in Indonesia, Sumatra’s extraordinary landscapes and diverse cultures await. 

Despite having a population of over 50 million, Sumatra has plenty of pristine, remote regions that encompass volcanoes, lakes, sandy beaches, and lush jungles. Volcanic Lake Toba merits a visit for its hot springs, local Batak culture, and sheer beauty. The Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, consists of three national parks. One of these parks, Gunung Leuser National Park, offers a great chance of seeing the Sumatran orangutan, a smaller and rarer species than those in Borneo. Folks can sign up for guided jungle treks out of Bukit Lawang to responsibly view orangutans, tropical birds, and various monkey species. To the northwest of Sumatra, the island of Pulau Weh has quality scuba diving. There are also some excelling surfing spots -- notably, at the Mentawai Islands, off the western coast of Sumatra.

3. Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Tam Coc; travel oriented/Flickr

While many travelers to Hanoi take day trips to Sa Pa or the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay, few make their way to Ninh Binh. That said, many local Vietnamese travelers do take advantage of Ninh Binh’s natural beauty, so don’t expect to find it completely empty. Ninh Binh doubles as the name of the province and the city. And though Ninh Binh city doesn’t have much in the way of attractions, it serves as a great base for exploring the countryside. 

Just a few miles outside of town in Tam Coc, the urban landscape quickly gives way to the tranquil Ngo Dong River, which meanders between limestone mountains and lush rice fields. Steep limestone cliffs rise abruptly from the river valley, hence the nickname “Ha Long Bay on Land.” Take a boat ride between the cliffs, passing through three tunnels. If staying in Ninh Binh, opt for an early morning tour to beat the day-trip crowds from Hanoi. Much of Tam Coc can be explored on motorbike or bicycle as well. Don’t miss Bich Dong Pagoda, which provides incredible views of the valley from its clifftop perch. Other top nearby sites include Cuc Phuong National Park the grottoes at Trang An. 

4. Ko Muk, Thailand

Ko Muk; Kullez/Flickr

Koh Mook or Ko Muk, which translates to Pearl Island, is a beautiful island off Thailand’s southern Andaman Coast region. Many Thai islands, like Ko Phi Phi, have succumbed to overdevelopment, which has not only harmed ecosystems, but in some cases, displaced local populations. Ko Muk does a better job than most of balancing the island’s integrity and tourist amenities without interfering with traditional fishing villages. 

The island is navigable by foot, but kayak and motorbike rentals are available at Farang Beach. You’ll need a kayak or private boat to reach the uniquely formed Emerald Cave. At low tide, paddlers can navigate through the tunnel to reach a remarkable enclosed beach and lagoon. Though visiting opportunities depend on the tides, it’s best to go as early as possible before the day-trippers come from Ko Lanta. Speaking of crowds, Ko Muk only receives one ferry boat per day. The main beach, Haad Farang, has several bars and the tranquil waters make for a pleasant swim. If nature and solitude are what you’re after, consider embarking on the hiking trail in Ao Kuan, which leads to an undeveloped beach across the island. It’s also worth noting that the local Ko Muk community is largely Muslim, so be mindful of dressing appropriately. 

5. Battambang, Cambodia

Wat Banan; pnglife/Flickr 

Battambang is often overshadowed by nearby Siem Reap, but Cambodia’s second-largest city is a worthwhile detour from the tourist trail. The compact city center, which is known for its French colonial architecture, is navigable by foot, and the countryside can be easily explored by bicycle or tuk-tuk. Head to Streets 1.5, 2, and 2.5 to stroll by rows of pastel-hued buildings housing galleries and cafes. Then, grab lunch at The Lonely Tree Cafe, which doubles as a boutique shop to fund an education non-profit. Other galleries and art hubs outside the main drag include Choco L'Art Cafe, Romcheik 5 Art Space, and Phare Ponleu Selpak. The latter operates a free arts program for Cambodian students and is internationally recognized for its acrobatic circus. The higher-level students put on weekly performances, mixing traditional Khmer music and dance with surreal story lines and acrobatics.

Other attractions include the bat caves at Phnom Sampov, where over one million bats leave the cliffside cave every day at sundown. Visitors can also take a ride on the (somewhat gimmicky) bamboo train down abandoned railroad tracks. Though Angkor Wat is an architectural and historical treasure worthy of the millions of visitors it receives annually, it can be refreshing to explore some temples away from the hordes of selfie sticks. Wat Banan, dating back to the 11th century, sits on a hilltop just 13 miles outside of town. After paying the $2 entrance fee, a mere 350 stone steps separate you from the temples and views of the green rice fields. 

Muang Ngoi, Laos

Ken Marshall/Flickr

The sleepy town of Muang Ngoi is certainly the most off-grid destination on this list -- it’s even a bit off-the-grid by Laos standards. Muang Ngoi is scenically located on the Nam Ou River in northern Laos. With limited electricity and no ATMs, it’s advisable to come with enough cash and a willingness to unplug for a while. The modest town of roughly 800 people has a handful of guesthouses and restaurants, and the owners are eager to welcome visitors. Hiking, boating, caving, camping, and kayaking excursions are available. Muang Ngoi is also relatively near the Vietnamese border and was a stop along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, meaning the local community was seriously impacted by the war. Many took refuge in nearby caves that can be easily reached on a short hike. Hiring a local guide is advisable to get some historical context, as well as to support the community. Though there isn’t a lot to do here, it’s a great spot for idling the day away in a hammock.

The river was the main point of entry until a dam was constructed between Muang Ngoi and Luang Prabang, but boat connections still exist from Nong Khiaw. Otherwise, there are reliable daily buses on the new road from Luang Prabang. 

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