Everybody loves getting off the beaten path—but there’s still plenty of magic to be found on it. Southeast Asia expert, John Borthwick, shares how to make the most of some of the region’s most popular spots.
The beaten path has had lousy press ever since Adam followed Eve’s footprints across the garden. But let’s be frank: Almost anywhere on the planet now can trend as someone’s digital version of the beaten track. So, does avoiding them mean we are doomed to skip the world’s great destinations?
When visiting a heritage-listed visitor magnet, today’s traveler has to strategize their route along that beaten (but not defeated) path. This might mean fine-tuning your traveling season (preferably not peak), your target days (usually mid-week), and even the time of that day. Try it when planning your time at these still-great Southeast Asian spots.
Angkor Wat, the superstar of 12th-century Khmer creativity, looks like a horizontal Tower of Babel, grandiose enough to be seen from Hindu heaven by Vishnu, the god to whom it was built. Extravagant guesstimates—like 800,000 laborers and 40,000 elephants—are tossed around in reckoning how it was constructed in just 30 years. More verifiable is the headcount of current visitors. In the early ‘90s, there were around 7,000 a year. Today, there might be that many on a single, peak-season day.
Several of the neighboring temples in the huge Angkor Archaeological Park can be equally busy. At Angkor Thom (‘Great City’), come midday, the line-up (and the waiting time) to climb its central Bayon tower grows ever longer. Skip the sweaty, yelling queue—at least until the later afternoon, when it’s quieter—and instead head to the park’s other gems such as the gloriously un-restored Ta Promh or 10th-century Prasat Kravan.
In fact, probably the best way to contemplate Angkor Wat is to arrive before dawn and catch sunrise over the largest temple in the world—you won’t skip the crowds, but it’s worth every second of lost sleep. And don’t forget, Cambodia has other Khmer glories like the UNESCO Preah Vihear in the mountains of northern Cambodia, and Banteay Chhmar in the eastern jungles, where large crowds haven’t been seen for 800 years.
Koh Samet (aka Ko Samed) is a Siam-style contradiction: An official National Park that’s also home to scores of private resorts—welcome to ‘Amazing Thailand’. Even so, this pretty, eight-mile-long island, just off the Gulf coast and three hours’ drive southeast of Bangkok, is somewhere you can always revisit. Unauthorized resort development has halted (so they say), the tribes of farang gappers are no more ebullient than usual, and the afterburner sunsets that blaze across the western Gulf waters each evening remain magnificently undiminished.
Koh Samet was once known as Vast Jewel Island and in the 19th century, its beauty inspired Thailand’s best-loved romantic poet, Sunthorn Phu. His tale of a lovesick mermaid and an exiled prince is commemorated today in statues of the two lovers that you’ll see on Hat Sai Kaew (‘Glass Sand Beach’), Samet’s most popular shore.
Sai Kaew is a 700-meter stretch of sand, crowds, bungalow hotels, and beachfront dining— there are even fire-dance floorshows to entertain the hordes. But from here, smaller beaches loop down the east coast like links in a silica chain and become increasingly pristine—and decreasingly busy—the farther you go. So, traveler, head south, go mid-week (Bangkok escapees invade on the weekend) and bring a good book.
A town that tourism saved. When UNESCO placed a World Heritage listing on Luang Prabang in 1995, this old Lao royal town, a Mekong-moated outpost, was in dire straits. Abandoned by the French and unloved by the succeeding Communists, its shophouses, villas, and 32 Buddhist temples were crumbling.
Enter the budget traveler, and then tour groups and now river cruises. Prosperity and preservation—and tourism—to the rescue. The old, French-speaking Lao monks whom you used to meet in the early days at Wat Xieng Thong have now passed on, but a new generation of monks now tend to the magical, glittering glass mosaic mural, ‘The Tree of Life.’ Similarly, the Communist hammer and sickle flag still flies on the town’s main street.
Has there been a downside? Today’s jam-packed crowds at Phu Si Hill and the Pak Ou river caves are very missable (unless you visit early in the day), while a massage parlor in a World Heritage-listed colonial home seems a bizarre anomaly. But anomalies have always been part of travel’s attraction and Luang Prabang has its share.
In the old Royal Palace—now a museum—see the photo of a laughing Ho Chi Minh and the last Lao King ripping it up, dancing with a pair of their pretty countrywomen. And having wandered the town’s gilded temples, be reminded that one of the best meditations around is still to sit beside the Mekong at sunset with a chilled beer and grilled satays at hand.
“Stay ahead of the blacktop,” the old Australian Outback opal miners used to say. Once the sealed road—the “blacktop”—arrived, plus a cop, a café and rubbernecks, a place was truly stuffed. Time to move on. Perhaps these days, the best that a traveler can do is gamely try to stay ahead of the Instagrammers, cigar bars, and selfie obsessives.
Canggu, far up the sands from Bali’s frenetic Kuta-Legian-Seminyak strip, is a case in point. Not much more than a decade ago, its beachfront was still a gaggle of local warungs that sold jaffles, juice, and smoothies to surf-sated wanderers. Nowadays, Canggu (‘Cang-gone’) is looking like Seminyak 2.0 with its motorbike jams, boutiques, quinoa-and-kale menus, rice paddies paved-over by villas, and five-star resorts.
What to do? Keep heading west, traveler, past the thriving surf schools and restaurants of Echo Beach. Farther up the sands sits Pererenan, the last outpost of kicked-back afternoons, sunset homage, and low-key accommodation. Beyond here, it’s all volcanic sands, local temples, and seafront estates. Enjoy it, as it is, while you can.
Floating markets have become a cliché, often degenerating into tour group fly-traps, baited with souvenir drek and with the original hawkers marginalized as photo opp props. The Cai Rang market at Can Tho, capital of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, is none of these.
As the sun rises (you’re already aboard a small local boat), scores of vessels—skiffs, scows, longtails, sampans, and barges—materialize from the mist. They’re riding low in the water, laden with pineapples, coconut, taro, and every kind of fruit and vegetable.
Trading between vendor and buyer boats is snappy and serious. No ditzy “I Love Can Tho” T-shirts or stuffed panda toys here, although smart operators do zip around the flotilla, selling coffee, snacks, and fresh coconuts. Can Tho means ‘River of Poems’—there’s no longer much that’s poetic about the morning’s hard work here, but it’s still a fine name.
Ironically, the more prosperous and industrialized the Delta becomes, the fewer of its families want to spend another generation on the river. Consequently, the market fleet diminishes around 10 per cent each year. Catch the real thing while you can; within decades we won’t be able to.
Palawan—the name trips off the tongue. This daisy chain of 1,770 islands that stretches some 400 miles down the South China Sea is a world apart from the rest of the Philippines. And Northern Palawan’s El Nido (‘The Nest’) Marine Reserve gives you hidden lagoons, karst limestone cliffs, and a handful of quality resorts.
The reserve is an encouraging example of how responsible, albeit upmarket, tourism management can preserve rather than trash a sublime place. With illegal logging and dynamite fishing largely kept at bay, you can visit El Nido today and see the same pristine beauty you might have reveled in 20 years ago.
Palawan’s main, namesake island is less spectacular than El Nido, but so are most places on earth. It is home, instead, to World Heritage-listed Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park whose underground river is on the list of our planet’s New Seven Wonders of Nature. Here, you hop into a canoe which a guide paddles into a formidable limestone cavern that’s navigable inland for over two and a half miles. Stygian darkness. Bats swirl. Stalactites drip. Surreal flowstones bloom.
One of Australia’s leading travel writers, John Borthwick's work appears in The Weekend Australian, Fairfax Traveller and many others—all of which keeps him too long away from surfing good waves or hiking some gob-smacking coastline.