8 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations
For many English-speakers, Southeast Asia is too far to travel to quickly and cheaply. There are many hidden gems in this part of the world, though, and nature lovers have a vast array of places to explore. With budget airlines becoming more numerous, flights are becoming cheaper and easier to book than ever. Check out these destinations for your next far-flung getaway.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Though Kuala Lumpur is a major city with something for everybody, it doesn't make it onto many travelers' bucket lists - which is a shame. Think of it as Beijing but without the pollution; Tokyo without the crowds; New York City without the expense. This capital city is full of shopping, delicious food, gorgeous architecture, and cultural sites. It's also a great launch point for day trips to the surrounding scenic areas.
Since Kuala Lumpur has a major airport, it's probably the easiest city on this list to get to, though you'll probably have to make a connection in Hong Kong. You can also take a train from Singapore, but that option takes seven hours.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Like most capital cities, Phnom Penh offers a range of cultural and historical activities in addition to shopping and nature excursions. There are a number of sobering memorials to victims of the region's conflicts, but there are just as many cheerful theatre venues and museums. There's even a royal palace with numerous sections open to the public. The city has many modern conveniences, but is just as inexpensive as most other southeast Asian cities.
Heads-up: the Cambodian government has announced plans to build a larger Phnom Penh international airport south of the main part of the city. This will hopefully allow for more flights and cheaper travel options in the future. For now, the current airport offers a decent number of international flights.
If you're looking for a remote tropical getaway, the Batanes archepelago is the place to be. Gorgeous clean waters, lighthouses, caves, mountains, traditional villages, and other quiet locales are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Manila. History buffs will be fascinated by the area's history and culture, especially since there have been many attempts to conquer the islands over the past several centuries.
Unfortunately, getting to Batanes can be a little tricky, as airlines only offer a handful of flights to Batan Island per week. If you want to get around the different islands in the archepelago, you'll have to take a boat. There are regular ferries on some routes, but the more remote islands can be hard to get to. True adventurers will find the effort to be well worth it, though!
On the south side of the Philippines, you'll find Palawan, a slightly more developed area that still offers peace and quiet. Grab a hotel in El Nido and use that as your launch point for trips to various beaches and more. Nearby Puerto Princesa is also worth a visit, though it's a little too far for a day trip from El Nido. There's a lot to do in this area, but it's not the most tourist-friendly of spots yet, so consider booking a tour to get the most out of your time.
El Nido and Puerto Princesa both have airports with direct flights from Manila and other major cities in the Philippines. While boat options are available, they take a full day and aren't a great option for travelers with limited time.
Chiang Rai, Thailand
Chiang Rai is becoming increasingly popular, so hurry up and check out this hidden gem before it gets crowded! Visit the royal temple of Wat Phra Kaew, the self-explanatory Monkey Temple, and a wide range of other cultural sites. There's a lot to do here, but it never feels overwhelming.
Plus, like many cities in Thailand, it's relatively cheap to eat well and stay in a decent hotel here. Hiking the nearby mountains is an inexpensive way to relax away from the crowds of the more tourist-heavy cities.
Bonus: Chiang Rai is only a bus ride away from Chiang Mai, a city popular with Western digital nomads. If you don't want to spend your entire trip in peace and quiet, consider doing part of your trip in Chiang Mai as well.
If beaches are more your thing, then Krabi's peaceful paradise will be perfect for you. This area is nowhere near as popular as crowded Phuket. Railay Beach is nearly untouched, making it well worth a trip from anywhere in the world. Also check out the Phi Phi Islands not far from the coast. The rock climbing in this area is also fantastic, so more adventurous members of your party can give that a try while everyone else swims or naps in the shade.
Krabi is about an hour away from Bangkok by plane, and there are dozens of flights per day. While you can take a combination of trains and buses, or a direct bus route, any of those options will take you about twelve hours! If you have the cash for a plane ticket, flying is probably the best way to make the most of your time in Thailand.
Hue is the old imperial capital of Vietnam, and has a rich cultural and architectural history to offer. The Imperial City alone makes Hue worth checking out for history buffs, and a range of pagodas and museums offer stunning sights as well. Vegetarians will love the local cuisine, which offers more meatless options than most areas of the country.
Though Hue has an international airport, there are no regularly scheduled international flights. Almost every option for travel to Hue requires you to travel through Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. Flights between Hue and Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh are cheap, but not numerous. Long overnight bus routes are available, and you can break up the bus route with stops in any of the worthwhile cities along the way. The last option is the train, which offers a more comfortable overnight travel option.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang rests deep in the heart of northern Laos, and offers a rich blend of Laotian culture and temples alongside old French architecture. It's the place to go for Buddhist traditions and spiritualism in Southeast Asia. The scenery is also fantastic, and there are plenty of waterfalls, mountains and more within a few hours' travel from here.
Unfortunately, Luang Prabang can be more expensive to get to and stay in than the country's capital of Vientiane. Flights from cities in Vietnam and Thailand are abundant, though, as are 45-minute flights from Vientiane. There are also bus options from Vientiane, but all the routes take at least 7 hours.