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Southeast Asia is the perfect place for a vacation. Its abundance of chilled-out beach bars, insanely beautiful sunsets, exotic wildlife, mysterious temples, gorgeous waterfalls and emerald jungles makes it the ideal — and affordable — destination. Unfortunately, it’s been discovered, which means you definitely will not be alone in your obsession with vacationing in the region. As more and more tourists frequent countries like Thailand, travelers are constantly on the lookout for the next supposedly undiscovered destination. After spending several months exploring eight different Southeast Asian countries, here’s my go-to list of less touristy places you can still escape to.
Beach Bums: Gili Island Instead of Bali
While Bali is gorgeous, it’s definitely not the sleepy beach town it once was. The Gili Islands, on the other hand, have managed to retain a certain element of unspoiled charm, perhaps because they’re so tiny they don’t even allow cars. The three islands (Gili Meno, Gili Air and Gili Trawangan), which are located of the northwest coast of Lombok in Indonesia, are pristine beach spots that are also known for having incredible snorkeling and scuba diving. It’s not unusual to be completely alone on a deserted beach here, accompanied only by the giant sea turtles swimming close to shore. Gili Meno is the sleepiest island of all, perfect for an escape — rent a bicycle and head to the saltwater lake in its interior, which offers especially amazing views at sunset. Getting between islands is easy, too, thanks to frequent boat service, so try and visit all three during your stay.
Cultural Enthusiasts: Bagan Instead of Angkor
The temples of Angkor Wat are breathtaking, but you’ll likely be watching the sunrise shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other tourists. The 2,000-plus ancient temples located in Bagan, Myanmar, are also stunning and you may find yourself exploring some of the lesser-known temples by yourself here. Myanmar isn’t the easiest country to visit, but that’s why it offers a much more bonafide travel experience. If you want to see the sunrise all by your lonesome from the top of a temple in Bagan, ride your rented e-bike over the dirt roads to Law-ka-ou-shaung Temple around 4:30am. Head to the hut behind the temple, where dogs and roosters will alert the gatekeeper to your presence. A sleepy-looking man will come out of a hut and unlock the temple gates with a giant iron key and direct you up the spooky stairs with a flashlight so you can watch the sunrise high above the temples.
City Seekers: Phnom Penh Instead of Bangkok
I adore the craziness that is Bangkok — in fact, it’s one of my favorite cities in the world, thanks to its awesome food scene, the Chao Phraya River and its busy street markets. Unfortunately, it’s also a favorite of many other travelers and can get quite crowded. If you want to experience something new, try Phnom Penh in Cambodia. A budding foodie destination, this spot is still recovering from the reign of the Khmer Rouge, and you’ll find kind, resilient locals dedicated to helping their city recover and grow. Its colonial buildings are transforming into cool coffee shops, bars, hotels and boutiques, but as it hasn’t been a prime tourist destination in the past, the city isn’t yet overrun with visitors. Visit the Royal Palace temple complex and stop by the weekend riverside night market, the Phsar Reatrey, to shop for traditional goods and, of course, street food: steamed pork buns, fish amok and for the adventurous, balut, a Cambodian delicacy of duck embryo.
Nature Lovers: Borneo Instead of Chiang Mai
Many head to Chiang Mai to enjoy the elephant tourism, but there’s been a lot of uproar recently about the ethics of the industry. Instead, head to Borneo to see another species that’s slowly becoming extinct: orangutans. The island of Borneo spans three countries: Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia and the best areas for spotting these primates are the jungles near Kalimantan in Indonesia and near Sandakan in Malaysia. Besides orangutans, there are plenty of other amazing wildlife to be seen, like many bird species including several types of kingfishers, gibbons and proboscis monkeys, owls, flying squirrels, bats, snakes, lizards and insects, among other jungle-dwelling critters.
Adventure Seekers: Taman Negara Instead of Ha Long Bay
Kayaking and cliff jumping in Ha Long Bay is super fun, but the number of boats and tourists the bay sees regularly are borderline excessive. The bay is slowly but surely filling up with trash, and it’s hard to have an experience where you feel truly away from it all. In contrast, the Malaysian rainforest of Taman Negara is much more off the beaten path. Getting there from Kuala Lumpur involves a bus or train and a few hours of rafting or boating up a river. One of the oldest rainforests in existence, the Taman Negara is home to the impressively long suspension pedestrian bridge called the canopy walk, which allows you to stroll along the treetops for more than 1,500 feet. There are plenty of hikes and night treks at varying levels of difficulty, as well as fishing and rafting, among other available activities. A word of warning: bring along some leech socks, as these uncomfortable parasites often work their way into hiking boots and pants along Taman Negara’s trails.
Have you visited any of these spots? Tell us about your experience, below.
Featured image of the Gili Islands courtesy of Lori Zaino.
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