But the region still has plenty of places that stay well off the tourist radar. These five underrated Southeast Asian towns and cities will get you beyond the obvious.
Truth be told, it’s hard to love Sandakan at first sight. Completely destroyed by Japanese air strikes during World War II, the former capital of British Borneo – once called Elopura – has lost most of its beautiful original wooden colonial mansions. The new city is a compact and shabby cluster of concrete, yet its markets have plenty of raw charm, and incredibly cheap seafood.
Look for Sandakan historical leftovers on the hills right behind the town centre, connected to the town via a quick heritage walking trail. Up on the hill, the former home of American writer Agnes Keith — who wrote three books on life in Sandakan before and under Japanese occupation — is now a gracious museum with plenty of antiques and original fittings. Stay longer to soak the views over the bay when it flares up with burning orange, beautiful sunsets.
Don’t forget that Sandakan is surrounded by wild nature, too: a few kilometres inland, meet orangutans at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, and see the elusive Bornean sun bears at their namesake conservation centre. For more hooting, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is a tad touristy but grants very close encounters with the oddest of Borneo’s primates.
The Kinabatangan river, Sabah’s longest waterway and a quintessential wildlife-spotting destination, is also just a short hop away. Try to time your visit to catch a pygmy elephant migration — and be aware of the crocodiles, too.
© Lano Lan/Shutterstock
2. Nan, Thailand
This lesser-known Northern Thailand town, once an autonomous kingdom with few links to the outside world, is closer to Laos in both spirit and geographical location. Known as Chiang Klang (the Middle City) in the 14th century, Nan was part of the Lan Na Thai Kingdom, and the main pit-stop between Chiang Mai (New City) and Chiang Thong (the “golden city”, today’s Luang Prabang in Laos). It was almost erased from existence by the Burmese armies in the 15th century.
Nan’s unique heritage is made immortal by the mural paintings adorning its many temples, especially ancient Wat Phumin, set in the middle of town. A masterpiece of Thai Lue’s architecture, it’s adorned with very detailed scenes of past local life, including the arrival of the first European colonisers.
But to get a full sense of Nan’s beauty, rent a vehicle and venture out into the countryside. Hike at Tham Pha Tup Forest Park, just 10km north of town, or drive 50km south to gape at the eroded sandstone pillars of Sao Din Na Noi, an amazing natural sight.
Make a stop at Nan Riverside Gallery, a two-storey art space showcasing contemporary Thai artworks, equipped with a gracious café set in well-manicured gardens.
Wat Phumin © worradirek/Shutterstock
3. Dawei, Myanmar
The southern capital of Myanmar's Tanintharyi region shares the same sea as Thailand’s Andaman coast. But, unlike the touristy cities of Andaman, Dawei is a jewel of tranquility — and one of the country's cleanest cities.
Separated from the water by a narrow peninsula lined with empty beaches, Dawei sits next to an eponymous river that empties into a mangrove-filled estuary.
It has some of the best preserved colonial buildings of any Myanmar provincial town, but besides architecture, the star attraction here is the unspoilt beaches. Maungmakan, the closest to town and popular with locals, is seeing small-scale tourist development, while offshore Moscos Islands, a small wildlife sanctuary, are still off limits to travellers. Ride along the peninsular coast by motorbike, and take a sample of rainforest at Thanintharyi National Park, not far away up north.
When going to Dawei overland from Thailand, near popular Kanchanaburi, make sure you come with a Myanmar visa in your passport.
Road in Dawei © Apik/Shutterstock
4. Davao, the Philippines
Sprawling Davao (the hometown of controversial President Duterte) is a very safe part of southernmost Filipino island Mindanao, with hospitable locals and a handful of interesting sights.
Reach the top of the Barangay Badas lookout point to gape at the Sleeping Dinosaur, one of the Philippines’ most uniquely shaped islands. For more heights and wildlife, 1620m-high UNESCO-listed Mount Hamiguitan has a nature reserve with good hiking trails and tree-top activities not far away from the city.
If it’s beaches you're after, 20km east of the city in Davao Oriental are the fine, white sands of Pujada Island, only a 40-minute boat ride away from Mati district. Here you can also find the ever popular Dahican Beach — a long stretch of white sand with strong surf and a resident community of skimboarders.
And don’t forget that Davao also likes to party. Time a visit with the Summer Frolic, a yearly electronic dance music festival that attracts thousands of people, or Kadayawan Festival, a colourful celebration of the harvest.
Dahican Beach © Marvin Tenepre/Shutterstock
5. Banda Neira, Indonesia
Shaded by Gunung Api’s volcanic cone, the only sizeable settlement in Southern Maluku’s remote Banda archipelago is hard to reach, but blissful to visit. Set in one of Indonesia’s most remote cluster of islands, Banda Neira started under the Dutch East India Company as a global trade centre of nutmeg and mace, the prized spices produced from the indigenous Myristica Tree.
If it wasn't for a quiet yet growing café scene and one ATM, Banda Neira would be unchanged from its busy colonial trading days. Intrepid travellers come here for the excellent and uncrowded dive sites, easy offshore snorkelling and the feeling of having reached one of Southeast Asia’s — and the world’s — less trudged corners.
© Stephane Bidouze/Shutterstock
Top image © joesayhello/Shutterstock
Explore more of Southeast Asia with The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.