Famous for its opulent temples, pristine beaches and rich cultures, Southeast Asia has long been one of the most popular travel destinations for the adventurous backpacker. From the bustling modern cities of Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to the sleepy oceanside villages of Ko Tao and northern Bali, Southeast Asia’s immense diversity has the power to lure and impress even the most experienced traveler.
Well-trodden paths ply between the most prominent cities and cultural sites of Southeast Asia’s big tourism hitters of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. But venture just beyond the headliners and you will encounter a Southeast Asia that is in many ways still waiting to be discovered. Emerging destinations in the more popular countries along with the less traversed Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar offer travelers a fascinating glimpse of the region with the added bonus of much smaller crowds. With less Western visitors in these areas travelers will encounter a Southeast Asia that is worlds away from Khao San Road; an experience within which you can more easily connect to the endearing and friendly locals who make any journey to Southeast Asia so unforgettable.
5 Emerging Destinations in Southeast Asia
Without further ado here is a list of five of the most popular emerging destinations in Southeast Asia in no particular order. These places are by no means completely off-the-beaten path or off-the-radar but rather are becoming increasingly admired among the backpacker and independent travel crowd. Naturally, this does not claim to be an exhaustive list. Southeast Asia as a tourism destination is continually evolving and with more investment into tourist infrastructure pouring in this list could conceivably be re-titled five years from now minus the word “emerging”. Before making the decision to travel to any of these destinations, however, it is prudent to seek out up-to-date travel advice including required vaccinations, visa requirements and travel advisories.
The temples of Siem Reap in Cambodia may have prestige and grandeur but perhaps no destination in Southeast Asia can compete with the sheer volume of spiritual dwellings in Bagan, Myanmar. With over 2,000 remaining temples gracing the area, Bagan continues to be one of the least known yet unmissable destinations in the region. Hidden southwest of the more recognizable Mandalay and considering the long journey from the former capital and largest city, Yangon, Bagan sees significantly fewer visitors than other temple complexes in Thailand or Cambodia, giving travelers an opportunity to revel in its beauty with relative calm. For one of the truly great experiences in Southeast Asia, perch yourself atop one of the ubiquitous empty temple-top terraces just before dusk to gaze upon the sunset reflecting brilliantly off of the temples’ golden spires.
Traveling to Bagan (and Myanmar), however, is definitely not for the faint-hearted or time-pressed traveler, which may explain why it has not yet caught up with its potential. To enter the country visas are required for and must usually be applied for in advance. Distances between cities are also quite large with road conditions that often leave something to be desired. Traveling to/from Bagan is no exception with daily long-distance buses plying the roads to/from Mandalay (8 hours) and Yangon (14-15 hours) while trains trudge the same routes albeit significantly slower. Air travel is an option but keep in mind that safety standards in Myanmar may not be as robust as in Western countries.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers lies the crown jewel of Laos, the majestic town of Luang Prabang. Few cities are as timeless as the UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang with its reminiscent French colonial architecture, grandiose Buddhist temples and traditional Laotian wooden houses jammed neatly into its endearing old quarter. In the shadow of Phu Si and its hillside temples, buzzing markets, ornate spiritual sites and restaurants serving up local and international specials capture the attention of all those passing through. Possessing an elusive charm, Luang Prabang has quickly become a favorite destination for independent travelers on the Southeast Asia circuit and continues to move up the travel ranks as it lures back old friends and deftly seduces new ones.
Road improvements have made bus travel in Laos significantly more comfortable and getting to Luang Prabang considerably easier. Buses to/from the capital Vientiane (9 to 11 hours) and adrenaline-fueled Vang Vieng (7 hours) leave regularly while boats can be chartered for the amazing trip to Nong Khiaw (7 hours) along the Nam Ou.
Home to a burgeoning backpacker culture of sorts, Yogyakarta, Java’s geographic and cultural center, is rapidly evolving into one of the most popular travel destinations in Indonesia. Strategically located on the main line between Jakarta and Bali, Jogja, its moniker to locals and admiring travelers alike, has become an almost mandatory stopover for those trekking across Java. And with good reason. Jogja itself has a wealth of attractions including art galleries and museums showcasing Javanese culture and the famous kraton, a grandiloquent walled palace at the heart of the city, once home to the sultans. The traveler’s enclave centered around Jalan Sosrowijayan is a surprisingly lively introduction to Indonesian, particularly Javanese, culture and hospitality, where it is not unusual to see hip, friendly locals mingling seamlessly with tourists in the area’s streets, bars and restaurants.
Yogyakarta’s biggest tourist drawcard, however, is the iconic Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, situated just 42km away. Constructed somewhere around 800 AD, the temples intricate panels and stupas are best seen under the gentle radiance of a sunrise when large tour groups have yet to arrive.
Transport to/from Jogja is fairly simple since the city is well connected to the rest of Java by buses, minibuses and trains. The journey to/from Jakarta is most comfortable and shortest by train (8 hours) while the long-haul to Denpasar in Bali (15 to 16 hours) via Mt. Bromo (9 to 10 hours) is most directly accomplished by bus/minibus.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Possessing a distinctive character that is all its own, the charming riverside town of Hoi An captivates visitors with its enticing blend of graceful architecture and a bucolic pace. At the heart of Hoi An sits the enduring Old Town, a veritable open-museum distinguished enough to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Partially because of this status, Hoi An is remarkably well-preserved and in walking the narrow alleyways it is not difficult to see why so many travelers are becoming increasingly enchanted by the town and its entrancing atmosphere.
Located on the main coastal highway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, although quite far from each, Hoi An has reliable bus connections to many cities in Vietnam. Buses to/from Hue (4 to 5 hours), Danang (about 1 hour) and Nha Trang (9 to 10 hours) are available. If you are short on time but still want to visit Hoi An, flying to/from Danang to HCMC or Hanoi is a possible option.
Throw the spirit of Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 into a misty valley in the foothills of northern Thailand and something resembling Pai may just materialize. An increasingly popular backpacker hotspot, laid-back and uber-cool Pai is one of Thailand’s fastest growing tourist destinations. Unlike the other places on this list, Pai has seemingly little in the way of sights; but what Pai lacks in landmarks it more than makes up for in atmosphere and location. Once a mere stopover for those heading north of Chiang Mai, travelers now venture to Pai for its fantastic trekking, rafting, elephant riding and spa relaxation options.
Located in northern Thailand, Pai is accessible by bus from Chiang Mai (4 hours), the second most popular international gateway to the country, and Mae Hong Son (4 hours), a major hill-tribe trekking center.
Other Emerging Destinations
With so much to discover in Southeast Asia, choosing only five emerging destinations can hardly do justice to such a diverse and exceedingly engrossing region. Here are some other destinations to keep on radar that deserve an honorable mention:
- Kalaw (Myanmar)
- Palawan (Philippines)
- Kinabalu National Park (Malaysia)
- Ko Tao (Thailand)
- Battambang (Cambodia)