The backpacking trail in Southeast Asian countries is a well-trodden one. Unless you head to off-the-beaten-track Southeast Asian destinations, it may be difficult to find authentic encounters: ones that haven’t been experienced a hundred thousand times before!
Keep your adventures new, unexpected, and exciting by adding these off-the-beaten-track Southeast Asia destinations to your itinerary.
Recommended by other travel bloggers, here are some hidden gems to discover!
Koh Yao Noi
By Wanderfully Living – follow them on YouTube
If you’ve been to Thailand and seen the swarms of tourists in every landmark, island, nook and cranny then you will know how hard it is to get off the beaten path in this magical country. But it is possible as I found out when I took a boat trip from Phuket over to the little island of Koh Yao Noi.
I fell in love immediately with the chilled out island vibes, the friendly people and the beautiful coastline. It felt like I was a million miles from the party island of Phuket. Spending a few days on this island was like traveling back in time and experiencing what Thailand was like 20 years ago.
There was plenty to do on a backpackers budget. The whole island was like an almost deserted playground so we hired a motorbike for the day and went exploring. We found an abandoned pavilion up in the hills, trekked to a waterfall, went snorkeling in the coral cays and walked out to a sand bar on the West of Koh Yao Noi at low tide.
While I was in Chiang Mai, a friend I invited me to come to a small village nearby, Chiang Dao. She had found a beautiful home on Airbnb overlooking the magnificent views of the mountain-scape there. It’s possible to take public transportation from Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao for just a few Thai baht, under $2 USD.
One of the main excursions there is exploring a magnificent cave. The cave is more than 12 km of underground passages and caverns, and outside of it you will find many Buddhist temples. It’s possible to spend an entire day wandering around here.
Chiang Dao is a great place to unwind and immerse yourself in nature. There are many restaurants with outdoor seating, where you can laze around and enjoy the sunset. Many accommodations in the area have stunning views from outdoor decks as well, perfect for more sunsets! We spent many days exploring the region and escaping the mass tourism in nearby Chiang Mai and Pai.
By How She Wanders – follow her on Instagram
A tiny island in an open sea faraway from everything, such unspoiled beauty that can only be found in a truly secluded place. Seco Island lies in the Sulu Sea, 50 kilometers west of Panay Island in the Philippines.
Seco Island (Seco meaning “elbow” in the local language) features a long curved sandbar which makes the island look like an elbow when viewed from above. The island is almost bare, no facilities except from few open cottages available for rent. No comfortable rooms and fresh water here. Only hardcore backpackers would dare to camp overnight.
Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge National Park
By Brainy Backpackers – follow her on Facebook
Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge National Park is an incredible off-the-beaten-track Southeast Asian destination to visit in the Philippines. It is situated on the island of Samar in the Eastern Visayas and can be visited in a day-trip from Tacloban.
The main attractions are the Panhulugan Cave and the Natural Bridge. It is possible to access both from the Sohoton Visitor Center and Eco-Lodge. Bangkas (traditional Philippine wooden boats) take you out to the cave where you get a guided tour. The interior of the caves is incredible with, among others, formations that look like the Chocolate Hills in Bohol and the Great Wall of China.
To see the Natural Bridge, get in a kayak and explore the river winding its way through limestone rocks. Once you get to the Natural Bridge, created by the limestone, you kayak beneath it and into a perfect pool of water with rock walls on all sides. It is truly magical.
For a local experience, make sure you take a Jeepney (typical Philippine colorful minivan with seats on the sides) from Tacloban to the tourist office in Basey. From there, take a motorcycle taxi to the Sohoton Visitor Center.
We love getting away from the tourist hotspots when we travel and that’s exactly why we decided to make the journey to Romblon Island in the Philippines. It takes an internal flight and three local ferries to reach Romblon, so it’s definitely fair to call it an off-the-beaten-path Southeast Asia destination. We were well rewarded for taking the effort to come here, since we ended up on an island paradise with almost no other tourists around.
The main reason we travelled here was to visit Bonbon Beach. It may be one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen and we had it all to ourselves. Swimming in the crystal clear water and walking along the sandbar was the ultimate way to spend the day.
We also rented a scooter and drove around the island to see what other hidden gems we could find and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Romblon has a lot to offer for those willing to make the journey.
Kaoh Trong Island
Kaoh Trong Island is a 6km long island located on the mighty Mekong river in Cambodia. To access the island we took a passenger ferry from the boat dock at Kratie. Once on the island there are mototaxis or ox carts to transport you around, but the cheapest and most fun way is by bicycle – around $1. These are available to rent on the island at the ferry drop off point.
For our visit we spent the evening on the island and stayed at the community homestay. This is a stilted house where everyone sleeps in one big room on the floor, with individual mats and mosquito nets. The homestay owners cooked a delicious meals for all of their guests to enjoy too.
During the day, we cycled around the island to visit an old stupa and to see the Vietnamese floating island located just off the west shore of the island. Armed with a few beers available to buy on the island from small shops, we parked our bikes and walked onto the beach to enjoy sunset.
Known primarily for its crab market, Kep is also a lovely hidden beach getaway. Kep is usually just a pit stop, on a whirlwind tour from the mellow, riverside town of Kampot. You shouldn’t bypass this little beach town! Why? For now, it’s still relatively off-the-beaten-track, with azure waters and a white sand beach. The aforementioned crab market is an interesting way to spend an afternoon, but there’s still plenty to do beyond that.
Kep National Park is easily accessible from the town itself, located just behind Veranda Resort. This jungle paradise is not only accessible but affordable – for an entrance fee of around $1, you can enjoy a eight kilometer hike around the park. Home to a variety of flora and fauna, you might get a glimpse of monkeys and snakes, as well as a whole host of bird and insect life. Go early in the morning for the best chance of wildlife spotting (and to avoid the heat!)
Myanmar in-and-of-itself is an off-the-beaten path Southeast Asia destination. Throw in the small city of Kalaw and most people wouldn’t be able to tell you where it is. While this tiny city might not seem like the most interesting place to stop, it is the starting point for a three-day trek that ends at Inle Lake.
Over the three days, you get the chance to walk through tiny villages, jungles and chili farms. You get to see local life, visit a monastery, and eat traditional Burmese food. It’s a way to see what Myanmar is really like.
Our guide brought news to the villages since there was limited electricity and word still travels by mouth. We visited villages that had their own dialects, traditions, and customs. Best of all, this can all be done on a shoe string budget. The three day/two night tour cost us less than $40 USD each including accommodations, food, and a boat ride on Inle Lake when we arrived.
By Erika’s Travelventures – follow me on Instagram
Myanmar itself is a country often overlooked by travelers on the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia. Many who visit Myanmar will skip Yangon completely in favor of more famous Myanmar spots like Bagan or Mandalay. Yangon is an off-the-beaten-path Southeast Asia destination that’s a total gem, and should not be missed on your next Southeast Asia holiday. It’s a vibrant and cultural city with amazing architecture, a long history, and the friendliest locals.
The main attraction in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive gold-covered stupa that draws thousands of Buddhist pilgrims every year. The vast majority of visitors to Shwedagon Pagoda are locals, who are coming to pray to the gods. The Bogyoke Aung San Market is another must-visit location in Yangon, where locals go to shop for clothes, jewelry, art, and where tourists can find souvenirs.
Another highlight of Yangon is its sprawling Chinatown area. During the day there’s a bustling fresh food and meat market covering every inch of the street. In the evening, it transforms in to a barbeque heaven, with all the restaurants opening its doors in to the streets. Sit on small plastic chairs and pick your own meat and vegetable skewers to BBQ, then sit back and enjoy the company around you with a Myanmar beer in hand.
Yangon is the perfect place to experience local culture. I highly recommend coming to this off-the-beaten-path Southeast Asia city before the masses come!
Bako National Park
Bako National Park is located in Sarawak, East Malaysia, established in 1957. It is smaller than many other national parks in Sarawak, which makes it a great budget and off-the-beaten-track Southeast Asia destination.
Located only around 25 km from Kuching, you can do either a day trip or stay overnight at the forest lodge. The night rate for a bed at the shared room starts from as low as 15 Malaysian Ringgit, or $4 USD. You could book the room through the Sarawak eBooking Portal.
While there are plenty of options to join the tour from Kuching to Bako National Park, it is also easy to do a DIY tour on your own. The small national park could be an advantage for you as even the trekking path is not that difficult. Although be aware of the wildlife around the forest. Trust your instinct, and you’ll be fine.
One of my favorite places traveling through Southeast Asia was the Kinabatangan River in Borneo. The best thing to do there is to stay at eco lodges on the river and look for some of Malaysia’s wildlife. In this area you can see pigmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and the famous orangutang, among many other species.
Although experiences like this can typically be expensive for backpackers, there are affordable packages. I loved my stay at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. For 380 Malaysian Ringgit ($90 USD), you can get a 3N/2D River Cruise Package. This includes transportation to and from Sepilok, three nights in a shared dormitory at the lodge, four river cruises, two guided hikes, and all meals at the lodge.
The lodge was set right in the jungle, yet the rooms were kept clean, and even had air conditioning. The food choices were excellent, and our guides were knowledgeable. They were able to show us many different types of wildlife on the river cruises.
When most backpackers visit Malaysia, they head straight to Penang, Kuala Lumpur, or one of the tropical islands off the coast. Unfortunately, they overlook the charming city of Ipoh in western Malaysia. Ipoh has some of the best food in Malaysia, street art that rival Penang’s, beautiful colonial shophouses, and unique Buddhist cave temples.
Start your day with breakfast at Sun Yoon Loong Kopitiam for the best noodles in all of Malaysia (perhaps all of Asia) and a cup of Ipoh’s famous White Coffee. Then spend the morning wandering the streets looking at the street art and the beautiful colonial shophouses around Chinatown. Don’t miss the two most famous streets in Ipoh: Concubine Lane and Third Concubine Lane, where the wealthy Chinese merchants kept their mistresses.
At lunch, sample Ipoh’s famous dish: chicken rice with bean sprouts at Lao Wong’s. Next, hop on a local bus and spend your afternoon at the cave temples in the limestone mountains in Ipoh’s suburbs. Return in the evening to splurge on dinner at Plan B, a trendy new restaurant at Kong Heng Square.
By Got My Backpack – follow him on Instagram
The south of Laos is an often-overlooked tourist destination in favor of the better-known cities in the north, or neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. But for those who do venture further south than the capital city, there are some incredible destinations to discover.
At the top of my list of favorite places in Laos lies Pakse. Although it’s the third biggest city in Laos, it has the friendly vibe of a small community with a relaxed pace of life. There is little to do in the city itself except enjoy the various markets and cafes. The real gems lie outside of the city.
Wat Phou is a 10th century temple that lies about one hour from Pakse by motorbike. The winding country roads make for a perfect drive with stunning scenery all the way. The temple itself, nestled away in the cliffs of Mount Phou Khao, is built in a Khmer style – similar to those at the Angkor Wat temple complex, only without all of the tourists.
Pakse is also the starting point for the Bolaven Plateau motorbike loop that winds through the Champassak Highlands. The plateau is known for the many coffee plantations that flourish in the region due to the volcanic soil. There are also a vast number of waterfalls that can be visited along the way. It’s possible to take the short loop lasting 2-3 days but the most beautiful parts lie on the long loop, which takes 3-4 days.
By Silly Little Kiwi – follow her on Instagram
Laos is an underrated country with heaps of off-the-beaten-track destinations within it. Luang Namtha, in northern Laos, is an outdoor lover’s paradise. With jungle treks, friendly homestay accommodations, and delicious local foods all at an affordable price, Luang Namtha offers plenty for budget travelers looking for off-the-beaten-track destinations.
During my time traveling through the Luang Namtha province, the highlight of my trip was a trek through the Nam Ha Biodiversity Area with local guides leading the way. The one-day trek will only set you back $26 USD and is inclusive of your guide and meals.
Treks finish at a Khmu village for a night in a homestay, which gives you a real feel of local life. If you’re wanting a post-hike shower, you can hit up the cool river for a soak, since there is no electricity and only one well in the village.
As an added bonus, pay the extra to spend the next day kayaking the Nam Ha river. It’s some of the clearest river water in Laos.
Kong Lor Cave
Kong Lor Cave in Laos is a 7-kilometer long cave that is the main attraction near Kong Lor village. The village itself only has a couple hundred residents, a handful of simple guesthouses and even fewer restaurants for tourists. It is an agricultural village surrounded by fields and mountains, giving it a very relaxing vibe.
To explore the cave you will be fitted with a life vest and headlamp and a guide/boatman will guide you through the cave all the way to the other side. Inside is pitch black, with your headlamp as only source of light. Some sections are accessible only on foot, where you walk through amazing lit up stalactites and stalagmites.
Kong Lor Cave is not easy to reach. From the capital of Laos, Vientiane, a daily bus leaves for the closest village Ban Na Hin. From there it is dusty one-hour ride in a local sawngthaew (an open pick-up truck for passengers). You can also take a sawngthaew from Thakhek, which is an 8-hour ride.
When I first arrived in Kuta Lombok, I was shocked I hadn’t heard about it earlier. Kuta Lombok is a sleepy little beach town on the south side of Lombok island, next to Bali.
Kuta Lombok had the best beaches I had ever seen. For the most part, I had them completely to myself. For days, I drove around the near-empty roads around the island, exploring beaches each more stunning than the next. Most beaches had a few little warungs, or local eateries, where I could grab a bite to eat. Beach lounge chairs were included if you bought food.
Both surfers and non-surfers will find things to keep themselves occupied around Kuta Lombok with the world class surf breaks and world class beaches. In fact, there is so much to explore that I ended up extending my trip from a few days to over two weeks.
Ta Van Village
By Glam Granola Travel – follow her on Instagram
If you’re backpacking through Vietnam, there is an extremely high chance you’ll be stopping by the gorgeous, mountainous, and aggressively touristy Sapa. Do yourself a favor and avoid the crowds in Sapa Town—by staying in a homestay in Ta Van Village.
I stayed at Hoang Kim Homestay, which I’d recommend to anyone. There are a few beds for backpackers at the family’s home, and a massive patio covered in hammocks overlooking the village and mountain rice fields.
The best part? You can take part in a guided trekking tour or have a DIY trek, right out your homestay’s doorstep. There are several lovely waterfalls and neat trails winding around the Ta Van village area.
By Walk My World – follow them on Facebook
Travelers to Vietnam are spoiled with endless incredible places to visit, but one of our favorites was the rural gem Phong Nha. Until 10 years ago, Phong Nha was a virtually unknown village in Central Vietnam, before one of its caves was classified as one of the world’s largest (Hang Son Doong). Cave exploration took off and there are now dozens more caves which can be visited, ranging from beginner-friendly to full-on expeditions.
Despite this, Phong Nha still flies under the radar for most backpackers. It’s a beautiful village surrounded by towering limestone mountains and hammocks struck up along the river. You can choose to explore one of the incredible caves, cruise the countryside by motorbike, float in the electric blue water of Mooc Springs or simply chill in the unique riverside bars (one has actually been built in a bomb crater from the Vietnam War!).
Phong Nha is a great place for budget backpackers wanting to get to a more off-the-beaten-track Southeast Asia experience. There’s plenty of cheap accommodation and food options as well as a cave for every budget. It’s the kind of place where you find it hard to leave and should definitely be added to your Vietnam itinerary!
Pu Luong Nature Reserve
By Wander-Lush – follow her on Instagram
Pu Luong Nature Reserve is an off-the-beaten-path Southeast Asia destination, located 160 km and four hours from Hanoi. It’s close to Mai Chau and Ninh Binh, but because Pu Luong is more remote and difficult to access without your own transportation, it attracts far fewer foreign tourists. The best way to get there is either by motorbike (recommended for experienced drivers only), or by chartering a taxi through your guesthouse.
Pu Luong Nature Reserve is a slice of paradise: Dense forests, cascading waterfalls and small rivers that are perfect for swimming. Families from Vietnam’s Thai and Muong ethnic minority communities live in villages inside the Reserve, cultivating rice terraces and building bamboo waterwheels to channel water from low-lying riverbeds into their fields.
Pu Luong is the perfect place to disconnect and unwind for a few days. The best thing to do is relax at a traditional Vietnamese homestay. Trekking can be done with a local guide or independently, making it a great activity for anyone who’s traveling on a budget.
Con Dao Islands
By Life of Doing – follow them on Facebook
Con Dao Islands is one of the best-kept secrets when traveling through South Vietnam. Located off the southeast coast, Con Son is the largest island and has everything that you want in a vacation – quietness, nature, beaches, and history. Due to its remoteness, tourism hasn’t boomed yet.
What we love about Con Son are its numerous outdoor activities. If you’re a nature lover, head to the National Park. Spend the day hiking in the forest and spot wildlife in the evening. If you prefer the water, relax at one of the unspoiled beaches, such as Nha Beach. Enjoy the clean sand and turquoise waters.
One of the most unsetting parts of the island’s history was its usage as a former prison (known as “Hell on Earth”) for 113 years. Thousands of Vietnamese fighters and revolutionary soldiers were tortured and killed for their beliefs here. If you’ve heard about the gruesome tiger cages, then you get the opportunity to see them at three of the prisons open to the public. The admission to see the prisons is affordable at 40,000 VND ($1.70 USD).
Cat Ba National Park
As a backpacker, one of the things that we are constantly searching for are off-the-beaten-path destinations that most people overlook. One of those places that we stumbled across during our travels was a place called Cat Ba National Park in Vietnam.
Located on Cat Ba island which itself is a hub for backpackers, the park remains relatively unexplored despite its beauty. There are two routes within the National Park that you can take to be in nature. It’s advisable to take a guide with you for the longer route, and you have to set out early. The shorter route is also really pretty.
Hiking through the forests in the park isn’t difficult and the trail is relatively easy with the exception of a few parts. The end however is really worth it as you get a panoramic view of the landscape. The green is a refreshing change from the more hectic city life.
Tam Coc is one of those places that looks like something straight out of a movie (literally). The small town is located in northern Vietnam and the surrounding region was a setting in the most recent King Kong movie. Tam Coc is often overlooked by travelers passing through Vietnam, but the backpacker vibe and incredible countryside scenery makes this one of my favorite places in Southeast Asia.
When in Tam Coc, take a river boat tour. It takes place on a traditional wooden Vietnamese boat where the drivers row using their feet instead of their hands! You will pass through towering limestone cliffs, endless rice fields, and even through tiny caves.
A visit to Vietnam’s central city Da Lat is a must on any budget backpacker’s itinerary. It’s a great off-the-beathen-path Southeast Asia destination in Vietnam.
Da Lat offers a unique full day “canyoning” experience of repelling down waterfalls, water sliding down rapids, and cliff jumping for only $25 USD. It is an awesome opportunity to spend the day with a fun group of young travelers.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s busy cities, you’ll find a small street in Da Lat, home to Da Lat Family Hostel. This family-run hostel is a hidden treasure for young backpackers, especially those traveling solo and looking to make friends. Owner “Mama” made me feel right at home the second that I arrived, welcoming me with a large hug and a hearty lunch. It is worth a visit just for a bite of Mama’s delicious cooking, offering a buffet-style family dinner each night.
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Are You Prepared For Your Off-The-Beaten-Path Southeast Asia Adventure?
- Book Your Flights – To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is key. I use both Google Flights and their low fare calendar, and Skiplagged, which uses airfare loopholes to get the lowest prices.
- Book Your Accommodation – Check out Booking.com for the largest selection of accommodation around the world. For backpackers, Hostelworld.com is also a favorite.
- Buy Travel Insurance – It’s better to protect yourself from mishaps when traveling. Get a quote from World Nomads to see how much it’ll cost to get you covered!
- Check Visa Requirements – From E-Visas to Visas-on-Arrival, iVisa has all the info on country visa requirements. If one is required, you can order one hassle-free through their site.
- Book Local Excursions – Don’t miss out on world-class experiences by booking tours and tickets online, ahead of your arrival. GetYourGuide has fun experiences from all around Southeast Asia like visiting an ethical elephant sanctuary in Thailand, day-tripping to Halong Bay in Vietnam, or going on a sunrise tour of Angkor Wat in Cambodia!
- Pack Your Essentials – Check out my posts about Long Term Travel Gear, and Carry-On Luggage Packing Essentials.