Ancient temple sites, secluded beaches, dense forests, peaceful monasteries and an overall balmy climate await you in Southeast Asia. With most countries in the region relaxing their COVID-19 restrictions gradually, it is the best time to explore the hidden spots in Southeast Asia. By Pyusha Chatterjee
Why hidden spots? That’s because many of us would want to move away from the cacophonies of city life in search of the less explored and unwind in the tranquillity of the place, all by ourselves or with someone special. While there are getaways off the beaten track, all around the globe, Southeast Asia has a little world of its own that is distinct from others.
Here are some of the hidden destinations in Southeast Asia
While nibbling on scrumptious bun cha is a must when in the country, this paradise in Southeast Asia is much more than Hanoi and Hoi An. Majorly known for its busy cities, beaches, nightlife, delicacies and Buddhist pagodas, it also has some hidden spots amid its pristine wilderness. The best time to visit is during March and April, when the temperature is suitable as well as rainfall is low.
Cat Ba National Park
The Cat Ba island is primarily known for the Cat Ba National Park, which houses 1,500 plant species, around 118 of which have medicinal properties. Extremely rich in biodiversity, it is known for limestone formations, majestic peaks and exquisite flora and fauna, including 78 species of birds, 32 of mammals and 20 reptiles species. Not much thronged by people in general, wildlife enthusiasts can be in for a treat here, especially since you get to spot animals like the macaque monkeys.
Luxurious accommodation options are available on the island, too, but the popular ones can be found in the Cat Ba town. You can take a bus from Hanoi and reach the place in around five hours.
Quite a few explorers choose to head to Ninh Binh, which is protected by UNESCO. Perched at the top of Mua Caves is a huge dragon statue which can be reached by the majestically designed 500 steps for a breathtaking view.
You can also take boat rides on the river along this untouched beauty. Locally known as ‘Ha Long Bay on Land,’ the best way to navigate this hidden gem is through the waters and spot some gorgeous grottoes on the way.
The nearest town of Tam Coc is less than three hours from Hanoi and easily accessible by road.
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Almost everyone wishes to visit the tranquil Inle lake at least once, and with Myanmar fully open to tourism, the inflow of travellers has increased. However, if you wish to witness Myanmar’s best-kept secrets, then you should surely hit these hidden places in the country. And, try visiting during the dry season which is between October and May.
The capital of Kayin State, Hap-an, lies on the way to Yangon after crossing Thailand’s border. This place is one of the best options for a cave lover, especially the Bat Cave, where one can spot a host of bats leaving for their shelters during sunset. Or, you can choose to take a refreshing hike up to Mount Zwekabin, too. Not to mention a peaceful cruise down the Thanlwin (Salween) River is one of the best things to do in Myanmar.
Surrounded by karst mountains, it takes around seven hours by bus from Yangon to reach this hidden gem in the country.
Being the capital city of a dominant Arakan kingdom between the 15th and 18th centuries, Mrauk U has a thousand stories to tell. The forsaken city that lies on the northern Rakhine State hilltops has numerous temples and pagodas. It deteriorated after the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826. However, it can turn out to be a gem for lovers of offbeat places.
A bit different from its popular counterpart Bagan, the best way to reach the place is via Sittwe. And, you can easily take a flight to Sittwe, Myanmar from anywhere.
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Quaint localities, serene islands, intricate architecture and tourist-friendly cafes — Cambodia has it all. While places like Angkor Wat and Siem Reap are on the bucket list of most travellers, it is not surprising to see tourists flocking to the other popular destinations here.
However, it is always interesting to head to the hidden places the country has to offer. Banteay Chhmar and Koh Rong Island are two such places that are untouched by heavy tourism and can turn out to be marvels for those travellers who love getting ‘lost’ amid nature or ancient ruins. The best time to visit Cambodia is from November to February as summers are very hot here. However, it starts raining from June onwards, making it pleasant thereafter.
An ancient temple site built in the Angkorian period (802-1432), it is located in Banteay Chhmar commune, in the district of Thma Puok, Banteay Meanchey province, about 65 km north of Sisophon city. It is approximately 110 kilometres from the Angkor World Heritage Site in Siem Reap.
The architecture is intriguing and speaks a hundred stories. The official website of UNESCO reads, “Banteay Chhmar was one of the most extensive architectural undertakings Jayavarman VII built in a politically sensitive region in the final years of his reign. The architecture shows signs of haste in its construction, as do his other temples, and it appears to have been left unfinished. There are clear indications that new architectural forms were still being developed at the site in the course of building.”
It adds, “The iconography expresses both Buddhist and Hinduist beliefs, as well as the supremacy of the king, themes that are also represented in his other temples. However, the representations of individual deities and their juxtapositions are, in many cases, unique to Banteay Chhmar.”
For lovers of history and architecture, this ancient place is a must-visit. One can easily take a bus or a taxi from Sisophon to reach this place, however, there are other ways too.
Koh Rong Islands
While visiting this part of Cambodia, the trick is to head to the one that is often missed, while trying to reach the other. Confused? The fact is that there are two Koh Rong Islands. One is called Koh Rong Sanloem (Samloem) and can be reached from Sihanoukville and the other falls on the way but is left unnoticed by people. Thus, it is free from heavy tourism.
You can enjoy golden sands in the west coast, however the east coast is all about white beaches along turquoise waters. With lush green forests in the backdrop and wildlife roaming in their natural habitat, this is one of the best places in Southeast Asia to be with your special someone or yourself.
As this part of the country is developing fast with resorts and water villas, you need to head to these destinations and soak yourself in the pristine blues and dense greens before more tourists start flocking to them. Carry your hammock and other essentials and look for these secret spots, while on your way to the popular ones, on a boat.
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There’s a lot more to Indonesia than just Bali. If you wish to delve into the history, art and culture of the country, then Old Jakarta is your go-to place when in Indonesia, which houses many churches, townhouses and museums. However, if you are looking for peace and tranquillity and are an ardent beach lover, then you should head to Nusa or Kuta Lombok. Although these parts of SEA can be visited all year round, the months from May to September are comparatively dry and easy to explore.
Lembongan, Penida and Ceningan are the three islands that together comprise Nusa Islands. Penida is one of the four islands in Indonesia that house the gentle creatures called Manta Ray. If you are a diving enthusiast, you can swim with these harmless beings by getting in touch with local operators who organise these dives. Often called a ‘hidden paradise’, these islands are sure to surprise you with serene hidden lagoons and natural pools as you explore deeper.
People often say that Nusa resembles Bali, as it was over 30 years back. One can reach Nusa by ferry from Sanur, Bali and it hardly takes around 30 minutes. Nusa is the best place to have a laid back vacay as it has some gorgeous luxury villas and resorts for you to unwind. Some of the must visit spots here include Mahana Point (cliff jump) and the Blue Lagoon.
One should not confuse this place with Kuta, Bali as this is a totally different version of the Balinese culture. There are different ways to reach this place but the easiest being a ferry or a bus from Ubud (Bali). Also, the Lombok International Airport is just around 20 minutes from this little wonder in Southeast Asia.
The town of Kuta and the beach is not technically offbeat, as many travel enthusiasts are aware of its existence. However, renting a bike and heading towards the secret roads that take you to interesting and less explored locales is something that visitors can do.
Other than that, this surfing/fishing village is sure to keep you busy and occupied for a week or more.
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Malaysia is a melting pot of cultures and a foodie’s paradise. This makes it one of the best places for vacations, too, with the months between December and April being the best time to visit. Rest of the year sees a hot and humid climate with light drizzles.
While Penang is one of the world’s popular street food destinations, a less explored Ipoh has hawkers serving various preparations of chicken and seafood that are a must-try.
However popular Malaysia may be for food or otherwise, only very few know about gems like Kapas Islands and Pahang.
If you wish to meet one of the most interesting characters that you have met or will meet in your life and stay at one of the coolest places, The Captain’s Longhouse in Kapas is your place to be. The ‘Captain’ will welcome you, host you like a family member and send you back with fond memories. People rarely visit this place. If you wish to relax for a few days with quietness all around, head straight to Kapas.
You can reach Kapas Islands via boat from Marang Jetty. And, if you are a marine life enthusiast then this place is the best for you. You can try scuba diving, snorkelling or jungle trekking here. Apart from indulging in adventurous activities, you can unwind the way you like in this serene island.
Ever imagined a place that offers views of majestic mountains, lush green forests and pristine beaches, too? If yes, then one of the most beautiful hidden gems in Southeast Asia, Pahang, is sure to have you spoilt for choices. Although it is the third-largest state in the country and home to numerous ecotourism destinations, it is less visited by tourists.
One of the must-visit places here is the Taman Negara National Park. It is one of the oldest rainforests in the world and home to some interesting flora and fauna, like parasite plants such as orchids and monster flowers. For lovers of lush greenery, there are many reserves and forests like Endau-Rompin National Park and the Krau Wildlife Reserve. Although it is home to popular places like Genting Highlands and Cameron Highlands, the forests and reserves are mostly untouched and suitable for lovers of offbeat locations. Pahang can be reached via bus, taxi or car from Kuala Lumpur.
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Many know Thailand as one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. Not just the popular floating market, beaches, street shops, street foods and nightlife, this country in Southeast Asia has a lot more to offer. If you want to experience Thailand beyond Pattaya and Phuket, then you need to explore the hidden gems here.
Like Nan, which was a former kingdom and lies in the valleys along the Thai-Laos border, Mae Hong Son and Koh Kood (Kut) are some places that are still untouched by heavy tourism.
While history enthusiasts can visit Nan, which was incorporated into the country in the 1930s as it was difficult to reach it (stayed autonomous for a while), wildlife enthusiasts can head towards the other two.
Best time to visit Thailand is between November and April. The mercury lies between 29-34 degree celsius during this time. However it can be visited all year round as temperatures vary in different parts of the country.
Mae Hong Son
Image Courtesy: Polina Kocheva/Unsplash
Backpacker alert! Mae Hong Son is indeed a trekker’s paradise. With mountains covered in mist, nature trails, hidden caves, hot springs and waterfalls to greet you now and then, it is a place where you can immerse in nature and submerge in the gushing beauties, quite literally. Don’t forget to see the Su Tong Pae bamboo bridge, which is an important part of traditional ceremonies like the one in which the monks (very few are there now) use this bridge to receive offerings.
This place can be either reached by bus from Bangkok but it takes around 15 hours or by flight from Chiang Mai as this place has a small airport too with connecting flights from Chiang Mai.
There is only one road along the island, which is all about pearl white sands and soothing waters. You can spot a couple of shops and restaurants and a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall near this place. It is said (allegedly) that King Rama VI bathed in this waterfall once.
You can spend some moments of peace at the vacant monasteries and the lush green forests all by yourself. Koh Kood is a must-visit for the ones who actually take ‘the road less taken’ very seriously.
You can either take a flight, ferry or a bus from Bangkok, depending upon the time you have in hand to reach this beautiful island.
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(Main and Featured Image Courtesy: Ben Peacock/Unsplash)
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