If the flocks of postgrad travelers in elephant print pants haven’t told you already, Southeast Asia is having what we like to call “a moment.”
It’s not an area of the world that tops everyone’s bucket list, but Southeast Asia does have its share of over-touristed sites, and tourist traps certainly exist.
Want to know which authentic places backpackers really get amped about?
1. Pai, Thailand
If you uprooted the hippie neighborhoods of San Francisco and plopped them into the jungles of northern Thailand, you’d (roughly) end up with Pai. Ride your motorbike a few hours into this mountain town for a chillaxing weekend of zenning out at Rasta bars, napping in woven hammocks, and — if you can manage to leave your field hut — exploring the waterfalls and hot springs.
2. Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Almost everybody agrees that Phu Quoc is about to become Vietnam’s next hot destination, but thankfully the perfect beaches are still mostly empty. You can rent a motorbike (no license needed, no questions asked) and zip up, down, and around the red dirt roads of this island paradise. Then, take a snorkeling or scuba dip. Hurry up, before other people discover the secret.
3. Bagan, Myanmar
Temples seem to pop out of nowhere in Bagan, which has the highest concentration of Buddhist ruins the world. A hot air balloon ride over the temples during the quiet dawn or sunset hours is an absolute must.
4. Mui Ne Sand Dunes, Vietnam
They’re not far from Saigon, but these sand dunes seem like they belong on another continent entirely. You can sled, bike, or just freely frolic down both white and red mountains of bliss. Be sure to find the Fairy Stream, a magical river with a soft, sandy bottom that flows between dry rocks.
5. Mergui Archipelago, Myanmar
This is a pristine chain of hundreds of tropical rainforest islands in the Andaman Sea. Check in at one of the two hotels and kayak or sail the uncharted blue waters, where you might run into sea gypsies who, for part of the year, live on boats while they dive for pearls.
6. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
This is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular hill stations, holiday towns at the base of lush, low mountains. Travelers agree the Cameron Highlands are a perfect escape when you’re too hot to withstand another day of astronomically-sizzling Malaysian temperatures. You can tour one of several authentic tea factories before cozying up to a mug overlooking the rolling green hills.
7. Ngwe Saung Beach, Myanmar
Weary travelers looking to literally escape it all should head to Ngwe Saung, an astonishing NINE MILES of beach that just recently opened to the public. It’s unspoiled, uncrowded, and some of the best scenery you’ll see in Myanmar.
8. The Mekong Delta, Vietnam
The Mekong River creates a rich marshland responsible for the bulk of Vietnam’s rice crops. There are oodles of tiny villages and floating markets to visit, with kindly locals who will gladly let you sample their fruit or teach you to birdwatch. Avoid feeling like a yuppie in a tour boat by biking the Delta— that way, you can see the impressive rice paddies and stop off at destinations on your own.
9. Sapa, Vietnam
There’s nowhere on Earth like Sapa: tiers on tiers of bright-green rice fields are dotted with the colorful clothes of hill-tribe dwellers and roofs of French colonial villas. Sometimes the view gets clouded by a warm, jungle-y mist, but it only makes your day of hiking even prettier.
10. The Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
This $5.7 billion hotel — which also boasts shopping, a dinosaur museum, and a concert hall — has a yacht-shaped infinity pool teetering on the 57th floor. When you take a swim, it feels like you’re about to spill over the edge and onto glittering Singapore beneath you.
11. The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand
It may look ancient, but the White Temple (technically named Wat Rong Khun) was actually designed by a Thai artist in the 1990s, and it’s still a work in progress. A tangle of gnarled statues and outstretched hands — symbolizing the cycle of rebirth — lead you into the temple, where you’ll find intricate (although haunting) murals of Keanu Reeves and planes hitting the Twin Towers.
12. Luang Prabang, Laos
UNESCO named Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, partly for its architecture that fuses Asian and European styles together. As in much of Asia, elephant tourism is huge here. But not many places have four-day mahout courses where you can learn to expertly (and humanely) ride elephants as their keepers do.
13. Kep, Cambodia
This seaside village was a hip getaway for wealthy Frenchies in the early 1900s, and it’s about to tip over into another big tourist boom. For now, though, you can feel like a total local in Kep’s tranquil beaches, where cute seafood spots on stilts serve some of the yummiest crab in the world.
14. Mae Sot, Thailand
“Perfectly remote” might be a good way to describe Mae Sot, which teeters right at the border of Thailand and Myanmar. The crowd here is a zesty mix of Burmese, Thai, hill-tribe natives and Westerners making visa runs. Locals hang out at the town’sherbal sauna and open-air markets, and visitors get a kick out of adorably furry rescued apes at the Highland Farm Gibbon Sanctuary.
15. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
This larger-than-life temple complex really is as epic as it looks. The biggest religious monument in the world is surrounded by a wide-open moat– you’ll march down a massive stone causeway to enter a village of temples, life-size stone-carved faces, and giant tree roots that have grown to twist over and around dark, windowed hallways.
16. Inle Lake, Myanmar
This massive, shallow lake is over 13 miles long and a big draw for visitors, as it’s inhabited by many local tribes who set up waterside “workshops” for intriguing traditional crafts. Despite the touristy-ness of it all, most agree Inle is unmissable because of its peaceful floating gardens and entire towns hoisted onto stilts.
17. Ko Lanta, Thailand
When backpackers want to visit one of the hundreds of islands off Thailand’s coast, they normally head for the “big names” like Ko Tao (known for its scuba diving) or Ko Phangan (home of the famous full moon parties). These islands are pretty and so are the foreigners that visit them, but for a true Thai experience, try the blissfully emptyKo Lanta, where the National Marine Park protects unpolluted oceans that explode with angelfish.
18. Cu Chi Tunnels in Saigon, Vietnam
Viet Cong soldiers used these narrow, claustrophobia-inducing tunnels as hiding places during the Vietnam War. Trap doors in the jungle led down into the underground network, where soldiers suffered from malaria and parasites while guarding food sources. The eeriness is all too real during a modern-day tour.
19. Chiang Dao, Thailand
This forested region is a Disneyland for nature junkies complete with waterfalls, hot springs, and incredible limestone cliffs. The biggest attractions of all are the Chiang Dao Caves, which consist of about 100 caverns that extend as far as 40,000 feet into the mountains. You can enter five of the caves alone or with a guide to explore narrow rocky hallways, hanging stalactites and hidden Buddha statues.