South East Asia is a well-established traveller’s rite of passage – the opportunity to experience a new culture, sample tasty dishes, feed your soul in the awe-inspiring temples and feast your eyes on the stunning scenic beauty of Indochinese nature is rarely passed up! So it’s no surprise that Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur, at least, are key backpacker’s destinations, with many tourist attractions and a huge body of young adventurers passing through every year. But Indochina has so much more to offer than most backpackers ever get to experience – Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia are often overlooked, and within the most popular areas of Indochina, if you’re traveling a well-trodden route, you may have to dig a little deeper to find a truly authentic experience. We’ve compiled this insider’s guide to the unexplored corners of South East Asia to help you set your expedition apart from most, and create experiences which offer real insight into the Indochinese way of life – while having a lot of fun in the process, of course!
The world’s largest and most impressive cave, Hang Son Doong (as it’s called in Vietnamese) was found in 1991 by a local man named Ho Khanh, but remained unexplored until it was officially discovered by British cavers in 2009. More than 200 meters high and 5 kilometers long, this spectacular cave is so vast it has its own river, jungle and misty climate. Yet despite its awe-inspiring interior, the cave wasn’t opened to tourists till August 2013, and passes currently are only made available in limited amounts, with just 500 permits having been issued in 2015 – so if you can snaffle yourself a pass, this is a really exclusive, off the beaten track experience.
While we’re on the topic of incredible caves – Myanmar is often overlooked on the typical tour of Eastern Asia, but it’s an extraordinary, comparatively untouched destination – and the labyrinthine complex of limestone caves which makes up Shwe Oo Min is one of its most amazing experiences. Otherwise known as “the temple in a cave”, this natural underground formation is home to more than 8000 gleaming Buddhist statues – quite a sight to behold! Try to time your visit around the Full Moon festival – locals visit the cave in their hundreds, dressed in traditional garments. Not one for the claustrophobes, but definitely something to write home about!
If you’re looking for a genuinely unspoiled island, look no further than Koh Thmei – a nature lover’s paradise, it’s scarcely inhabited, and rarely ventured to by travellers. With just one, ecologically-focused, resort on the whole island, you’re unlikely to be accosted by the hordes of tourists you may find on party islands such as Koh Rong. Right next to Ream National Park, where you can trek, boat and birdwatch to your heart’s content, Koh Thmei has a coral reef for snorkeling, a dense jungle to explore and a pristine beach – the perfect taste of laid back island life.
Bangkok is brilliant, but if you want to experience what life in Thailand is really like, head to this huge section of northeastern Thailand. Named after the Hindu god of death, Isan is home to a third of the population, yet gets the least tourist traffic of anywhere in Thailand. Stay in one of the family-run guesthouses or homestays to really experience rural life – and just because there aren’t many tourists, doesn’t mean there aren’t some amazing things to see and experience. Phi Ta Khon (or “Ghost Festival”) takes place for three days in Dan Sai, Loei Province, Isan every year between March and July (the exact dates are selected yearly by the town’s mediums). Bawdy masks and bells are worn, a series of games are played and the spirit of the Mun river is invoked – offering an electrifying insight into traditional Thai life.
If you want to experience panoramic mountaintop views, lush greenery, orange mud rivers and tiny villages only accessible by riverboats, head straight for Chantanohm Banna in Northern Laos – otherwise known as The Valley of the Rice Fields, this is (just about!) as rural as you can get. You’ve never seen the colour green till you’ve seen the rich emerald of sunlight on a Laon rice paddy – and locals are happy to accommodate you, as the slight tourist trade goes some way towards bettering these rural communities.
So if you’re looking for off the beaten path experiences around South East Asia, look no further – each one of these experiences offers insight into a different area of South East Asian life. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the big cities are to be avoided, by any means – just that a well-rounded and well balanced trip involves a nose around all different kinds of areas! And if you’re looking to experience a taste of South East Asia without paying the price for a plane-ticket, you can always head to your local Banana Tree. With plenty of fresh, fragrant dishes from all over South East Asia (not to mention a wealth of vegetarian and gluten-free options), we’ll treat you to the full South East Asian experience – no mosquito spray or Visa required!