Getting Off the Tourist Trail in Asia

the fields of bali and jungle

In Southeast Asia, all roads lead to Bangkok. And, for most backpackers, Bangkok means Khao San Road. Khao San is the first stop on the Southeast Asian tourist trail, which loops through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. You could follow the tourist trail to Chiang Mai, float down the river to Luang Prabang, cross over the mountains to Vietnam, dip into Cambodia, and finally head back to Bangkok, hitting all the major tourist stops along the way.

Or maybe you could follow the trail south to Krabi or Ko Phi Phi, rock out under the Full Moon on Ko Phangan, and go diving in Ko Tao. Maybe you’ll even drop into Malaysia. Maybe not.

But why stick to the major sights? Sure, places like Angkor Wat and Luang Prabang are famous for a reason, but unique and memorable experiences await if you take the initiative to explore a bit further than the average backpacker.

Here are some suggestions for those who want to get off the well-worn tourist trail:

Bike the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Many tour operators offer cycling trips throughout the delta. This is a more adventurous way to see the area than the typical bus/boat packaged tour option. Bike tours take you off roads and into rice paddies, giving a face-to-face experience with the delta. You feel less like a tourist being shuffled from attraction to attraction and more like a traveler. Even if you aren’t an experienced cyclist, the tour companies set a pace everyone can follow. But if you are an experienced biker, why not do it yourself? You can set your own place and see your own sights.

Visit a national park in Vietnam. Most people travel to Vietnam and do the typical nature tours of Halong Bay, Sapa, and the Mekong Delta. But Vietnam has a plethora of national parks that allow each traveler to see what I think is the best part of Vietnam – its natural beauty. Most of the parks go unvisited by tourists who stick to the more popular destinations. But for those who want a better chance to glimpse the rare gibbon, head to the national parks. They offer rewarding scenery, excellent trails, hidden gems, and a little bit of solitude from the masses.

Explore Lopburi, Thailand. Those seeking historical ruins in Thailand tend to focus on the two main sights: Ayutthaya and Sukkothai. While Lopburi doesn’t compare to these places in terms of grandeur, there are still some really nice temples here that make the city worth a visit. Most people come on a day tour from Bangkok, but those who stay longer can experience a typical, small Thai town. Enjoy the great night market near the train, watch the school children socialize in the town center, and meander through the area to catch a glimpse of rural Thai life. But watch out for the hyperactive bunch of monkeys that roam the city. They are known to grab things right from your hand!

thailand long boats in ko samuiChill out in Kep, Cambodia. This quiet French colonial town is a nice alternative to Sihanoukville, the fast-paced, party capital of Cambodia’s beach scene. Kep’s beaches are equally as nice, but you won’t find as many people here. You can get to Kep by detouring in Kampot instead of going right to Sihanoukville. This quiet town sees less tourists and is generally more “Cambodian” than Sihanoukville.

Visit the Northeast of Thailand. Sometimes referred to as the Isaan (so named after the style of fiery — and I do mean fiery — food that comes from the area), this area is mostly rice paddies and dusty towns. The poorest region of Thailand is also the least touristed. Most people don’t speak English here, and there are few major attractions. But the area holds a certain charm and gives you a unique view of rural Thai life. The roads are less paved, have fewer tourist services, and you won’t find as many posh hotels here. But you will find Thai life at the local Thai price. Experience what travel in this region of the world was like before all the grunt work was taken out if it. For those looking for the real Thailand, this is it.

Find a Random Thai Island. Ko Phi Phi, Samui, Phuket, Ko Chang, Ko Tao. You’ve heard the names. They are all amazing islands – but they are also some of the busiest in Thailand. Secluded beach life is hard to come by here. You may find it, but only for a fleeting moment. If you really want peace and quiet, find a random island. Thailand has hundreds of islands and, sure, most have some form of tourism, but find one that is not in the guidebook and is hard to get to, and you will find your paradise. Ko Chang has a large chain of islands around it. Most are private and used for dive trips, but there are still many to visit that most people have never heard of. Beach paradise is out there, it just takes a little searching for. But that’s what getting off the path requires. Some good recommendations are: Ko Jum, Ko Ravi, Ko Maak, Ko Taratao.

Meander through Southern Laos. Most people tend to skip through Laos, hitting the major destinations on their way to Vietnam or before looping back into Thailand. They see Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Luang Prabang – the major sites. There isn’t much to do in Laos and the road is pretty rough, so most people skip over the really exciting part – the south. Laos is a rugged land, but the south is even more rugged. Don’t miss a chance to check out this area, especially the amazing Si Phan Don, a large river delta with over 4,000 islands to see. Who knows, maybe you will see the famous pink dolphin before it goes extinct!

Trek in Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia. Just north of Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah are great examples of rugged Malaysia. Though not completely off the tourist trail (the area does see its fair share of tourists), it is still remote. Most people follow the South Asian trail from Thailand to mainland Malaysia and on to Singapore. Some do come over to Sarawak, yet not enough for this area to make it on the beaten path. If the mainland is an interstate, this is a small side highway. Here you will find the beautiful Mt. Kinabalu and its surrounding jungles. For those who want to explore their inner Joseph Conrad, this is the place to do it.

Leave Bali and the Gili’s Behind. Most travelers go to Indonesia and visit Bali before heading to the Gili islands. But there’s more to Indonesia than Kuta Beach. Head to the islands of Lombok and Flores to avoid the majority of crowds in Indonesia. Saluwesi and Sumatri are also off the main Java-Bali tourist trail that most travelers now follow. (You only get 30 days in Indonesia  on a tourist visa now.) However, even on Bali, there are plenty of ways to get off the grid. Head north or northeast and you’ll avoid the crowds. Once I left Kuta beach and Ubud, there were hardly any tourists around. I highly recommend spending a few days in the center of the island, near the Jatiluwih Rice terraces.