Southeast Asia is the quintessential backpacker destination – all noodle stands, grungy hostels and full moon parties, right? Not necessarily. There are still plenty of authentic Southeast Asian escapes. You just need to know where to find them. Start here.
Want to trek Thailand in peace? Head to Umphang, a spectacular drive south of Mae Sot, and spend a few days walking around the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary, spotting gibbons and giant lizards. The highlight is a dip in Tee Lor Su waterfall, a three-tiered thunderer that is at its best in November, just after the rainy season. There’s accommodation at Umphang Hill Resort, who can also take you trekking and rafting.
Tiny Kratie (pronounced kra-cheh) was largely unscathed by war and retains its appealing mix of French colonial and traditional Khmer buildings, strung along the Mekong river. It is also the best place to see not only some of Cambodia’s beautiful watery sunsets, but also the rare freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin. A pod lives upriver at Kampi and sightings are more or less guaranteed if you take a boat trip. Take a dip afterwards at the nearby Kampi rapids.
Few tourists stop in Quy Nhon, where the main industry remains fishing and the long sandy beaches remain (largely) the preserve of the Vietnamese. During Cham rule this was an important commercial centre (and during the American War a US supply centre) and evidence of this remains in the imposing Banh It towers on a hilltop just north of town. Head up here by xe om (motorcycle taxi) for sweeping views over the unspoiled countryside before returning to town for a seafood supper.
Champasak may be sleepy now but it was once the capital of a Lao kingdom that stretched as far as Thailand. Grand colonial-style palaces share the streets with traditional wooden houses – and even the odd buffalo. From the town’s central fountain it’s just a few miles to Wat Phou, the most bewitching Khmer ruin complex you’ll find outside Cambodia. Little restoration has taken place here, and the half-buried ruins that fill this lush river valley are an unbeatably romantic backdrop to a stroll.
It’s worth getting up early in the tranquil Shan town of Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw), where the atmospheric market opens as early as 3am, the shopkeepers handing over their local produce by candlelight. There are numerous monasteries surrounding the town, as well as some truly off-the-beaten-track trekking, to hot springs, waterfalls and local villages, easily arranged through Mr Charles hotel. Don’t miss the area locals jokingly call Little Bagan, where crumbling stupas sit photogenically beneath the trees.
Ivory sandbars in an electric blue sea, and more volcanoes per square mile than any other island on the planet. Yes, Camigiun Island is ridiculously beautiful, and yet it has remained largely untouched by large scale tourism – so you might just find a hot spring, waterfall or offshore beach to call your own. Divers shouldn’t miss the submerged cemetery near Bonbon, which slipped into the sea following an earthquake, while the (literal) high point of any visit is the climb up active volcano Mount Hibok-Hibok.
Hibok-Hibok Volcano and Mount Vulcan © walterericsy/Shutterstock
Want to see the orangutans in Indonesia? Avoid the worst of the crowds by heading deep into unspoiled forest in the Tanjung Puting national park for the best chance to see one in the wild. Take a boat from Kumai to the Rimba Ecolodge to sleep among the macaque monkeys and gibbons on the edge of the Sekonyer river and join a tour in search of orangutans. If you don’t see any in the wild don’t worry, tours call at Camp Leakey rehabilitation centre for close-up encounters.
Skip livelier Perhentian Kecil in favour of its twin, the sedate Besar, or “large”, island with its roadless jungle interior and white-sand beaches. The diving is superb here, with reef sharks and turtles darting through towering underwater rock formations and around the Sugar Wreck, a wreck dive suitable for relative beginners. Hop aboard a speedboat to Three Coves Bay on the north coast for some land-based turtle spotting; the secluded beach is a favoured egg laying spot of local green and hawksbill turtles.
An undiscovered Thai island? Well, largely. Ko Adang sits inside Tarutao National Marine Park, which has saved it from development and kept its jungle untamed. The flat white sands of Laem Sone beach lead up to a cluster of beach bungalows, owned by the national park, while the island’s interior is criss crossed by forest trails leading to waterfalls and lookout points over the neighbouring islands.
Explore more of Southeast Asia with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.