South-east Asia best places to visit: 23 hidden travel highlights

There are about 4.5 billion people in Asia – that's more than half the world. This is a continent that spans almost 45 million square kilometres. It is made up of 55 countries; its citizens speak thousands of different languages and dialects; and they practise an almost infinite medley of cultures and traditions.

Asia is a destination that can never be "done". No matter how many times you've visited and how many places you've been, there's always something new here, always something exciting, always something undiscovered. There are places you haven't been, things you haven't experienced, dishes you haven't tried, cultural rites you haven't witnessed. It's that sort of place.

Though Asia's mainstream destinations are undoubtedly great, there's something to be said for the lesser-known side of the continent, for the mystery and the vastness of its uncharted reaches. These are the surprises that Asia still has in store, the places and the experiences, the culture and the history that sometimes hides in plain sight, that are a source of pride for so many, and yet relatively unknown to the rest of us.

It's time to reveal "Asia Minor", the parts of this vast and fascinating continent that are not so well known, and yet still hold so much appeal.

Here are 23 of these lesser-known highlights in south-east Asia. - Ben Groundwater

THAILAND: BLISS OUT ON A QUIET ISLAND

Blissfully isolated in the Gulf of Thailand near the Cambodian border, Koh Kood is an unspoilt paradise (yes, they still do exist!) with white sand beaches lapped by crystalline, balmy waters. There is just one concrete road along the west coast, a handful of local shops and restaurants, coconut and rubber plantations, two quaint fishing villages and a pleasant waterfall where King Rama VI allegedly once bathed. Accommodation ranges from simple bungalows to five-star luxury, with some great mid-price options providing direct beach access where hammocks strung between swaying palm trees beckon.

THAILAND: BIKE AROUND BANGKOK

Better known for tuk-tuks than bike trails, Bangkok is surprisingly cyclist-friendly. On a Bangkok Trails day-ride you'll see the mega-city's quieter, greener side across the Chao Phraya river, riding a mountain bike through villages and pockets of rainforest, along narrow canal paths, over bridges and railway tracks – while high-fiving local kids, visiting small temples and stopping to taste mangosteens in markets en route. See grasshopperadventures.com

VIETNAM: SCOOT INTO THE MEKONG DELTA

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Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Photo: Shutterstock

You only have to get about 50 kilometres outside Saigon, into the Mekong Delta, before everything changes, before you're suddenly passing through rural villages where no one speaks a word of English, where people stare at you like you're an astronaut, where everything is foreign and different and fascinating. This is the real Vietnam, and the only way to access it is by scooter. Hire one in Saigon. Just make sure you have experience first. See tigitmotorbikes.com

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CAMBODIA: CAMP ALONE IN WILDERNESS

It begins with a heart-of-darkness boat ride into south-east Asia's largest surviving rainforest, in south-western Cambodia, then a short hike to a private riverside campsite. Two guides set up your hammocks, with built-in mozzie nets, before returning to the lodge. Until they pick you up the following morning the night is yours – to swim in rock pools, sip sunset Angkor beers, cook a barbecue dinner and enjoy a rare Asian wilderness experience. See rainbowlodgecambodia.com

THAILAND: SHARE A STUNNING SECRET

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Khao Sok National Park. Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock.

Waking to sunrise over a misty lake, mirrored with reflections of soaring limestone cliffs cloaked with dense rainforest where gibbons swing and whoop, is sweet joy indeed. Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park is one of Thailand's best-kept secrets, spectacularly beautiful and far from the crowds of Phuket. Until recently, basic bamboo raft houses were the only option for lakeside accommodation, but several luxurious floating resorts have opened recently, including an annex of the ethical elephant sanctuary, Elephant Hills. See khaosoaklake.com and rainforestcamp.com

TIMOR-LESTE: DIVE PRISTINE REEFS

Atauro Island, a raw, sun-blasted paradise about two hours by boat from Dili in Timor-Leste, boasts some of the world's best diving and snorkelling. Make the effort to get to this rarely visited place, and be rewarded with magnificent reef walls plunging into the waters of the Ombai and Wetar Straits, and untouched reefs filled with turtles, endangered dugongs, small sharks, technicoloured corals and more. See sharingbaliandbeyond.com.

INDONESIA: ENCOUNTER OLD JAKARTA

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Jakarta's Old Town, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock.

Indonesia's notoriously traffic-choked mega city hides an interesting historic heart around Jakarta's Taman Fatahillah square. Ramble around Kota and you'll find Portuguese churches among a clutter of Dutch townhouses and art deco banks. In backstreets, Muslim and Hindu arts and theatre thrive. Sunda Kelapa at the mouth of the Ciliwung River was founded as a 12th-century port, later found itself at the heart of the Dutch trading empire, and has an excellent maritime museum. See jakarta-tourism.go.id

MYANMAR: MEET SEA GYPSIES

There's only one way to visit Myanmar's Moken people. Just 2000 visitors a year will do so, aboard boats sailing to the remote Mergui Archipelago, a 400-kilometre-long strip of 800 islands off southern Myanmar. The Moken live off the sea on small boats, though many settle in villages on the archipelago's tiny islands. Sail from Kawthaung near the Thai border to observe their 4000-year-old hunter-gatherer ways. See burmaboating.com

THAILAND: WITNESS EVERYDAY LIFE

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Prapiganesh National Park, Chachoengsao, Thailand. Photo: Shutterstock

Just 90 minutes' drive east of Bangkok, the small riverside town of Chachoengsao offers a terrific slice of ordinary Thai life away from the tourist haunts. The blindingly white-marble Wat Sothorn houses one of Thailand's most revered Buddha images, dolphins leap from the Bang Pakong River, and rickety old Ban Mai market, with its wooden stilt shops, coffee aromas and tumbling tropical fruit, is regularly used to film historical Thai dramas. See au.tourismthailand.org

THAILAND: ENJOY A CULTURAL EXCHANGE

North-east Thailand's Isan region is among the most densely populated parts of the country, yet has few overseas tourists. It's colourful, with monks in saffron robes and tribeswomen in traditional woven garments, their necks gleaming with silver. Highlights include the Khmer temples of Phnom Rung and Phimai, and cave paintings at Pha Taem. Udon Thani is an ancient village on the World Heritage list. National parks and lakes unfold around Sakon Nakhon. See au.tourismthailand.org

THAILAND: PRAY IN PHRAE

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Suthon Mongkol Khiri temple and reclining Buddha, Phrae, Thailand. Photo: ShutterstockWith its ancient wall and profusion of temples, Phrae is sometimes compared to Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang, but happily devoid of tourists. Granted, there's not a lot to do here, but for a taste of "real" Thailand, it's a charming provincial city to while away time. The old town, best explored on foot or bicycle rickshaw, features some of the most impressive teak mansions in Thailand, harking back to Phrae's glory days as the headquarters for the East India Company.

MALAYSIA: FEAST ON HAWKER FARE

While Penang is world-famous for its street food, two hours to its south, Ipoh flies completely under the radar, yet last year it was the only Malaysian destination to make Lonely Planet's Top 10 Asian Destinations. Here, hawkers serve cheap but delicious local delicacies such as ayam tauge (chicken and beansprouts) and char kway teow (stir-fried noodles with prawns) among colonial buildings set around the slow-moving Kinta River. See ipoh-city.com

INDONESIA: ENTER THE DRAGON LAIR

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Komodo dragons, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock

Forget Bali. Flores, a little-known jewel off the east coast of Java, is the Indonesian idyll to which you should be headed. Book an overnight boat trip and you'll visit the destination's most famous residents, the komodo dragons, lounge on pink sand beaches, snorkel with frisky manta rays and, during the spectacular sunsets, watch thousands of flying foxes glide over your head as they set out for their nightly feed. See indonesia.travel.

 

VIETNAM: EAT THE BEST BANH XEO

You can stop searching. Call it off. Hands down, Banh Xeo Ba Duong in Danang serves the best banh xeo in the world. Its turmeric-infused pancakes are fried crisp, stuffed with seafood and bean sprouts, then sliced into manageable chunks, rolled in lettuce and rice paper, and dipped into a rich calves liver sauce. They're amazingly good. The eatery is hidden down a narrow alleyway in Danang, surrounded by copycat restaurants, but it's well worth the effort to locate. See vietnamtourism.gov.au

PHILIPPINES: SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS

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Snorkelling with a whale shark in the Philippines. Photo: Shutterstock

Donsol, near the Philippine city of Legazpi in south-east Luzon, has the highest concentration of whale sharks anywhere. The largest fish in the ocean linger here from December to June. Spotting a butanding (the local term) in the cloudy waters, we slip from the search boat to snorkel (no scuba gear permitted) alongside the eight-metre leviathan. I swim eye-to-eye with the giant until, probably bored by this curious intruder, it flicks on a burst of speed and descends to the depths. See donsolecotour.com

MYANMAR: MAKE FRIENDS IN YANGON

Is there a friendlier city in Asia than Yangon? After 50 years of military rule, power was passed to a civilian government in 2010 allowing tourists to enter Myanmar. Numbers have escalated since – 3 million foreign tourists entered last year – but it still feels like you're the first foreigner in the city. Downtown is walkable and it's where locals wave and shout greetings wherever you venture, and petty crime is still years away. See myanmar.travel

INDONESIA: BE RIVETED BY RITUALS

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Old torajan burial site, Tana Toraja, Indonesia. Photo: Shutterstock

Their elaborately carved and painted houses, topped by sweeping roofs, may be eye-catching, but the most intriguing thing about the Toraja people of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, is their elaborate death rituals. This Indonesian tribe not only believe in a big send-off – think three-day funerals during which buffalos are slaughtered by the dozen – but also specialise in eye-catching burials, from cave graves to vertiginous cliff graves, all of which can be visited. See Visittoraja.com

THAILAND: BEACH YOURSELF

Koh Tarutao was once Thailand's version of Devils Island, the infamous French gulag off South America. It was also a base for rogue prisoners and their guards who turned pirate during World War II. Today this large island off Thailand's southern Andaman coast is a tranquil Marine National Park, a place of jungle, sea-eagles and beaches that are mercifully, perfectly "unimproved". There is basic bungalow accommodation, crystal-clear waters and long cycle paths. See phuketferry.com

VIETNAM: SLURP OODLES OF NOODLES

Of all the tasty dishes to eat in Vietnam, of all the myriad flavours and styles to sample and savour, this might be the most surprisingly delicious: bun rieu, a noodle soup made using a crab-based broth mixed with vermicelli noodles, roasted tomatoes, a crab meatball, a cake of pork blood, plus fresh herbs, bean sprouts and banana flower. Challenging but delicious, and available throughout the country's south. See vietnamtourism.gov.vn

INDONESIA: GIVE YOURSELF A SURF BREAK

While many of Indonesia's waves have become crowded, rest assured there will never be more than 10 surfers out beside Nihi Sumba. A 45 minute flight east of Bali, the resort sits above one of the world's best surf breaks, Occy's Left, and numbers are capped at 10 surfers a day. One of Asia's most private luxury resorts, come in after riding the 300-metre-long wave to an open-air bar set by the shore, and a villa looking across the line-up. See nihi.com

PHILIPPINES: VISIT A GLOWING LAGOON

Even by night the gods of El Nido seem incapable of dimming their palette. Beneath a full moon the lagoon shallows still glow like pale jade. El Nido (the Nest) Marine Reserve in the heart of the northern Palawan archipelago is a world of upstart isles and limestone spires with wild jungle topknots. Tucked among its 45 mostly uninhabited islands and secret lagoons are several upscale, low-key resorts – palm-shaded escape ramps from a relentless world. See elnidoresorts.com

MALAYSIA: GET STRANDED ON A PRIVATE ISLAND

Overlooked by travellers flying right over it to Langkawi or Thailand, Pangkor Laut is a private island resort five kilometres off the west coast of Malaysia. It's just 120 hectares in size, 85 per cent of which is 2-million-year-old rainforest set within a national park. There's just one resort on the island, where endangered great hornbills and long-tailed macaques roam, and the odd metre-long monitor lizard bathes in the swimming pool. See pangkorlautresort.com

MYANMAR:CRUISE THE CHINDWIN

The good ship Pandaw Katha, a teak-and-brass descendant of last century's classic Irrawaddy steamers, heads up the Chindwin River to remote north-western Myanmar. It's a two-week, 1000-kilometre journey past shores studded with golden spindles and holy beehives of Buddhist stupas and pagodas. Alongside them, and modernity, is old Burma seemingly in rewind: market towns where the main street is still called The Strand and crumbling mansions echoing a colonial past. Just add gin and tonic. See pandaw.com

Contributors: Ben Groundwater, John Borthwick, Brian Johnston, Ute Junker, Nina Karnikowski, Julie Miller, Louise Southerden, Craig Tansley

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