One of the advantages of being an expat in South East Asia is the opportunity you have to experience destinations most people back home never hear about. You have probably also found out already that trying to do all travel arrangements yourself is seldom worth the trouble when the alternative is to get your eVisa hassle-free via an online service like ByeVisa.com.
In the following, let me share some insider tips that may also be good to know if you should be on an Asia roundtrip originating in Europe.
Kampot on the south coast of Cambodia is such a pearl. A friend of mine, a journalist, lives there half of the year during winter in Europe and the other half of the year (plus a few weeks) in Bulgaria so as to be able to collect his full pension and then come back and spend it in Kampot.
My friend spends months there, so he rents a house, but there are plenty of charming guesthouses in Kampot. One is Blissful Guesthouse – which ScandAsia once wrote a story about because of its Danish owner Angela. But since the Covid pandemic has pushed the prices down on even the luxury hotels, why not upgrade yourself for the same money? Check out two often mentioned favorites, Rikitikitavi or Hotel Five.S (yes, it is spelled that way.)
It is recommended to rent a bicycle – not a motorcycle – to get around in this sleepy coastal town with lots of French colonial architecture. Motorcycles should best be avoided for all destinations because of the very high risk of getting severe injuries and the likelihood that you as a foreigner will be without much legal protection should you by accident damage the property of somebody else.
A must visit while there is the Bokor Mountain in the national park, but you should better leave the bike at the hotel for that trip and take a tuk tuk or let the hotel help you with another form of transportation. Wake up very early on the day you plan to go there and might see the sea of mist covering the land below – then slowly disappearing an revealing an amazing view in front of your eyes.
In town, be sure to visit – and probably get lost – in the Kampot market. It’s huge and you will find everything from live animals to gold that is actually made of gold.
Sumatra, Indonesia is huge. If you put it over a map of Europe, it will stretch from Oslo and Stockholm down over Germany to Marseille on the French Mediterranean coast. Needless to say, it is a very different country in the strictly Muslim northernmost province of Banda Aceh and the capital Medan in the centre of the island.
Only the most adventurous would drive from Jakarta, take the ferry over from Java to Sumatra and continue driving for the next twenty hours north, through Palembang, Jambi, Riau to Medan. This tour does, however, offer some interesting options like visiting the ancient Buddhist Muara Takus Temple near Pekanbaru. Similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Muara Takus sits in the middle of a jungle clearing and is the largest Buddhist temple in Sumatra.
Flying into Medan is a quick trip from either KL or Singapore. This is where most visits to Sumatra starts. The city itself is worth experiencing with its 5 million inhabitants and an interesting history and many unique architectural finds.
Should I recommend one trip you should take from Medan, it would be to visit to Lake Toba, one of the largest volcanic craters in the world and a stunning experience. The road trip will take you 5 hours, depending on traffic conditions. On the way, stop by the Sipisopiso waterfall – it is hard to imagine but this is a 120 meter free fall of water!
There are other places to stay, but see if you can get a good price at Zoe’s Paradise Waterfront Hotel, a unique hotel in Tuktuk on Samosir Island. The island is located in the middle of Lake Toba so sit back and enjoy the lake breeze on your 1-hour ferry ride from Parapat to your hotel. Then go the next day with one of the many boats on an exploration of the huge lake.
Another popular trip is an orangutan trip to Bohorok/Bukit Lawang, the orangutan rehabilitation centre that is part of Gunung Leuser nature reservation in North Sumatra province. With an experienced local guide in the tropical primary rainforest you will be able to see orangutans and several other species of monkeys. Return to Medan the next day – unless you go for a more extended jungle safari.
Kapas Island, Malaysia
Most visitors to the islands east of the Malaysian peninsular go to Perhentian islands. I would like to recommend a lesser known alternative, Kapas Island.
Kapas Island is a “do nothing”-location. You can snorkel, read a book, sunbath, have dinner, repeat. My suggestion for a great handful of days there is to make the bed and breakfasts and a few more luxury places the attraction. Every morning after breakfast, check out and go by boat to the next place that looks nice along the shore until eventually you are back at where you started. It makes the trips seems longer and gives you many more memorable experiences than if you stay at one place.
If you want to make a preselection of where to sleep, make a list before you go to the island. There may be today, but during my visit there was no Internet access on the island, or at least I never managed to get connected.
Make sure you plan your trip during March to September. During the monsoon season from October to February, the weather is so bad that most island accommodations have closed down.
Trang is a little visited province south of the more well-known Krabi. Offering the same unique limestone rock formations shooting out of the ground, plastic free garbage beaches – at least almost – and great accommodations along the Andaman coast.
In October 2019, my wife and stumbled on the rare opportunity to rent a special resort located up on a small hill near the Hat Yao harbour from where ferries go up and down the coast from Langkawi to Phuket. Our dream was to make it a pearl among the resorts for naturists or nudists visiting Thailand, since it is located on top of a hill making away with the need for fences and other shielding from curious views from the outside.
Well, Covid-19 laid our dreams to rest. Since April 2020, the Heaven Hill resort has been for mainstream travelers wearing as much clothes as they like. The place still has its unique charm, though. The resort is the only one offering a birds eye view of the unique coast and you can even enjoy this from the pool on top of the little mountain on which the resort is located.
During the day, if you can pull yourself away from the pool, you can visit the natural hot spring nearby, go on a kayak exploration into the unspoiled mangrove forest, go for a beach lunch in the sleepy town of nearby Pak Meng or enjoy a few kilometers of walking nude on the beach. Ask at the resort, which beach. The seafood in the local restaurants is so fresh that fish are almost still wiggling as they go down with the cold beer in the sunset.
A lot of people still don’t know this beautiful island. Sumbawa is a place that has been largely overlooked. Everybody knows Bali, some knows Lombok island to the west of Bali, but few know Sumbawa further to the west from Lombok.
When my wife and I visited Sumbawa it was on a familiarization trip offered to promote the island. We were picked up in Sultan Salahuddin Bima Airport and had lunch in Bima after a short sightseeing to Dana Traha – the grave of the Kings of Bima. Then we went to South Lakey Beach, famous among surfers because of its “Left Hand Waves”.
The next morning we slowly moved along to Kab, stopping again and again to take photos. At lunch, we arrive at Dewa beach before we were taken on a city tour of Sumbawa Besar. I found visiting the Old Palace in Loka most interesting – the palace is one of the largest wooden palaces in Indonesia.
The unique buffalo race of the area was on the agenda before we were treated to a shopping experience with typical Sumbawa souvenirs, such as: Wild Horse Milk, Sumbawa Original Honey, Cow Milk Candy, Sumbawa Oil which is famous for its properties, and Sumbawa Tepal Coffee. That night, we stayed at Samawa Seaside Cottage and enjoyed the sunset from Ai Loang Beach.
Next day was a boat trip to Moyo Island for snorkeling. this was amazing since the water and marine life is completely unspoiled. This was where British Princess Diana went to escape from the paparazzi. Here, we went on a forest adventure on the back of motorbikes for 30 minutes to the Mata Jitu Waterfall area and Moyo Island’s Green River Nature pool – an amazing journey – before going back to Samawa Seaside Cottages.
Next morning, it was all over. It was like having tasted one bit of a chocolate bar. We wanted more, but for that we will have to come back on our own some other time. Understandably, Sumbawa is still on the wishing list.
Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
Over fifteen years after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the Cardemom Maountains was the hideout of the infamous Red Khmer – or in French the Khmer Rouge. Because of that, the area never experienced the tourism boom of Thailand and the Wat Angkok and is still relatively untouched until today.
The mountain range is one of the last unfragmented rainforests in Southeast Asia. It’s one of the world’s foremost biodiversity hotspots and if you are into eco tourism, this is a real gem. My own discovery of the forest was of a different nature. I was the Asia Correspondent for a daily newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark and went there with an adventurous photographer in the hope of meeting the leader of the hostile Khmer Rouge. We never succeeded but the trip into the area and the natural beauty made an unforgettable impression on both of us.
Going there today is not dangerous but you should be mindful of your impact on the area as a tourist and select your operator and accommodation carefully to ensure they operate sustainably. There is enough pressure on the environment as it is with both poachers and illegal logging being reported frequently.
Located on the Thai border, the Cardamom Mountains is surprisingly easy to get to if you’re travelling from Thailand. Bus services to Koh Kong from Bangkok and Pattaya City take just over 6 hours. Conversely, those looking to continue their journey to Thailand from the Cardamom Mountains can do so easily, with Koh Kong being just 10km from the border.
The sheer abundance of water in the Cardamoms makes it one of its most important natural resources, with the forest receiving a staggering 3.5 to 4.5m of rainfall annually that supply 22 major waterways. In turn, the Cardamom Mountains supplies water to 16 hydro-power dams across the country that generate an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s electricity.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Maybe Hoi An in Vietnam should not be on this list. It is certainly not little-known, but rather one of the top destinations in Vietnam. And it shows. Expect crowds, high prices and dishonest sellers. It is a typical tourist-geared town. But if you can cope with all of that, Hoi An would reveal itself as a true pearl of South East Asia.
So let’s take you outside the UNESCO World Heritage Site and you’ll find one of Vietnam’s most pleasant, unspoiled beaches, An Bang. With its fine sand, lovely waters and views of the surrounding Marble Mountains, it’s a wonderful spot to spend a few days relaxing. Most hotels offer a shuttle bus to Hoi An Town so you can visit in the evening. If you are staying in the town of Hoi An then there are several public beaches that can be easily reached too.
Just within cycling distance from An Bang you could do a one day trip to My Son (ruins of the city built by the ancient Cham civilisation), Marble Mountains (caves with Buddhist temples) or Ba Nang Hills (with the iconic bridge held in giant hands).
Last but not least, Hoi An is famous for its sophisticated cuisine. In a word, it would be a shame to miss it even in the shortest itinerary.
Kuang Si Falls, Laos
Kuang Si Falls is the reason why my wife and I visited Luang Prabang, the well-known UNESCO Heritage town in Laos. The Kung Si falls are just 29 kilometers outside Luang Prabang and we had seen these amazing pictures of this multi-tiered waterfall with its gorgeous, turquoise-blue water and we just had to see if it was really true. The pictures reminded us of the “Princess Diana Falls” on Moyo Island near Sumbawa that we want to visit again some day.
There is a legend about Kuang Si Falls that they were formed when a wise old man was digging deep into the Earth. After the waters came to Kuang Si, a beautiful golden deer made its home under a big rock that protruded from the falls. The sound of the water falling on this rock created such an enchanting echo that it drew people to it all the way from China.
Unfortunately, the big rock is no longer visible as it fell off after an earthquake in December 2001 and we didn’t visit it until 2009. But Tat Kuang Si got its name from this legend. “Tat” means waterfall, “Kuang” means deer, and “Si” means dig.
Going there, again I will repeat my warning against hiring a motorcycle. It is not worth being a cripple for the rest of your life even it does give you that coveted freedom. Hire a Tuk-Tuk. Go with a group or haggle down the price for a private pickup truck to around 20 USD – and live to tell!
Xe Bang Fai river cave, Laos
The Xe Bang Fai river cave is deep in the heart of the Khammouane Province in Southern Laos where limestone mountains are covered with untouched jungle. In the middle of this fantastic landscapes, the giant Xe Bang Fai Cave has been “rediscovered” and exposed to the world by a National Geographic expedition in 2008. But visitors are still rare.
The cave is navigable by boat for 2km until a section of rapids is encountered. The grandeur of the limestone chamber, the
spectacular natural decorations, flowstones and cave crystals provide an eerie beauty rarely experienced. A climb through a
branch cavity reveals a chamber evocative of a Dragon Hatchery. This chamber leads to an elevated balcony providing a
dimly lit view of the massive opening .
If you have come this far, I suggest you go for the longer 2 hour trip into the underworld. This is for adventurers only, who want to experience the eerie atmosphere deep within the cave; hear the pound of rapids in the darkness.
What gets to you is the size, the height of its ceiling, it’s astonishing. But at all times, you are just in awe discovering what your tiny headlamp reveals from the darkness.
This darkness is eerie. The fact of staying alive… depends on the little batteries inside your headlamp. There isn’t a single speck of light inside. The darkness is total and spatial landmarks are all gone. But eventually you will return and climb up the steep limestone slope to the Dragon’s Balcony to view the final river bend before it exits the cave. Then finally you re-emerging into the daylight.
Like with so many other sights, the journey there is part of what makes them so attractive. The Xe Bangfai River Cave is about 150 km East-south-east of Thakhek and the road is mainly unpaved and suitable only for experienced riders. Once again, do not rent a motorbike but opt to sit on the back seat. When negotiating with your driver, see if you can make him return to Thakhek on the Ho Chi Minh trail from Boualapha.
To do that, when you come to Ban Pakphanang there is a river crossing without a bridge. Motorbikes cross in canoes which locals know how to balance so you and the bike doesn’t end up in the river. Further on the trail, at Ban Senphan village, you may need another boat to cross the river before continuing north to Langkhang. From there it is paved road for the next 128 km to Thakhek along Route 12.
Welcome back to civilisation.
My final recommendation comes possibly as a surprise. But I really need to convince you to go and visit Nan province in the North of Thailand. – this remote city near Thailand’s border with Laos remained autonomous until the 1930s, and still retains its secluded character.
According to Bangkok Phil on the blog Ajarn.com, Nan is the Thailand that many of us dream about – peaceful, orderly towns surrounded by incredible scenery, welcoming and friendly locals. Not a scrap of litter in sight, and best of all only few other foreigners.
The countryside and the views are uniquely beautiful and the downtown of Nan City is so charming that I have never heard anybody coming back disappointed from Nan. Make sure to visit the temple of the Whisperer of Love – you will se replications on T-shirts sold in the night market.
The best descriptions of all the attractions in Nan province that I have ever found is on www.thestupidbear.com/things-to-do-in-nan-thailand/ The Stupid Bear herself is Snigdha Jaiswal who is from India. She lived 10 years in Bangalore and then moved to Bangkok. Her posts about Nan are so genuine and advocating sustainable tourism only. I have personally visited only about a third of the places, she recommends, but I am surely coming back to Nan to experience more..