5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024

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When Southeast Asia is mentioned, the bustling streets of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh or images of the beaches in Da Nang and Cebu often spring to mind. But Southeast Asia is so much more than these familiar places.

 

It’s time to dive into Southeast Asia’s hidden corners and immerse yourself in a mosaic of cultures, stories and experiences.

 

From the historical sites of Luang Prabang in Laos to the tranquil landscapes of Ninh Binh, Vietnam, here are five often overlooked tourist destinations in Southeast Asia to add to your 2024 travel bucket list. Whether you’re a first-time adventurer or a seasoned traveller, it’s time to embark on an adventure to these lesser-known, yet magnificent locales.

1. Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Often referred to as “Halong Bay on land”, Ninh Binh is one of Southeast Asia’s best, yet underrated scenic wonders. It offers an idyllic retreat with its towering limestone cliffs and serene rivers, as well as local homestays and motorcycle tours.

 

Take a traditional boat ride through the Trang An Grottoes or cycle around the peaceful rice fields. Just a two-hour drive from Hanoi, the ancient capital of Hoa Lu and the majestic Bai Dinh Pagoda also showcase the region’s rich history and spirituality.

 

5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024 - Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Photo: @laughtraveleat / Instagram

Established in the year 968 by King Dinh Bo Linh, Hoa Lu was the very first capital of what we now consider Vietnam. Originally surrounded by a citadel and the Yen Ngua limestone hills, the village today offers a rare glimpse into ancient Vietnamese history and traditional Vietnamese culture. Do visit landmarks like Dinh Tien Hoang Temple, Le Hoan Temple and Nhat Tru Pagoda, or plan a trek up the 200m-high Ma Yen Mountain.

 

If you time your visit to Hoa Lu right, you might even get a chance to witness traditional cultural festivals like the Truong Yen Festival. Held annually from the eighth to 10th of the third lunar month, it commemorates ancient kings Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh through dragon dances, traditional games and other activities.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site, effortlessly marries natural beauty with spiritual depth. This enchanting town, nestled at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, is an epitome of tranquillity and cultural richness.

Start your day by witnessing the daily alms-giving ceremony, where monks clad in simple saffron robes walk silently through the streets to gather alms from locals. Visitors are encouraged to observe respectfully, or you can join a local early morning tour to partake in the alms offering as well.

5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024 - Luang Prabang, Laos
Kuang Si Waterfall
Photo: Hongbin on Unsplash

Take a step deeper into Laotian culture and history by visiting any of the 30+ temples and cultural institutions throughout the town. With its sweeping roofs and intricate mosaics, Wat Xieng Thong showcases traditional craftsmanship, while the Royal Palace Museum, once the King’s residence, offers history buffs a window into Laos’ royal past.

No trip to Luang Prabang is complete without a visit to Kuang Si Waterfall. Located just a short drive from the town centre, the multi-tiered waterfall cascades into turquoise pools, creating a refreshing oasis. Hike up to the top of the waterfall for a panoramic view, swim in the inviting pools or simply relax by the water’s edge.

3. Rayong, Thailand

If you’ve been to the beach resorts of Phuket, Ko Samui, and Pattaya and loved them, you’ll have to add Rayong to your Southeast Asia travel bucket list. Characterised by unspoiled beaches, lush landscapes and a rich cultural fabric, Rayong offers a tranquil escape from the bustling city life.

A 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok, Rayong makes a great day trip destination especially for those who want a break from the hustle and bustle of city life.

Each of the pristine beaches along Rayong’s coastline offers its own unique charm. Mae Ramphueng Beach is a popular destination for its long sandy stretch and calm waters, ideal for sunbathing and swimming. For a more secluded experience, Sai Kaew Beach in Samed National Park is a hidden gem, thanks to its crystal-clear waters and vibrant marine life which is perfect for snorkelling.

5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024 - Rayong, Thailand
Phra Aphai Mani mermaid on Sai Kaew Beach
Photo: MERCURY Studio / Shutterstock

You can also take a short boat ride from the mainland to Koh Samet, an island boasting white-sand beaches such as Ao Prao and Ao Noina. Indulge in water sports, explore the island’s natural beauty on a scooter or kick back on a deck chair and unwind by the sea. At night, the beach resorts come alive with fire shows and beach bars, offering a taste of Thailand’s vibrant nightlife.

Foodies are in for a treat as the province is famous for its fruit plantations that produce the sweet and juicy Rayong mango. Local markets such as Ban Phe Market offer a plethora of freshly caught seafood and Thai delicacies along with souvenirs which make great mementos of your trip.

4. Surigao del Sur, Philippines

Begin your adventure at Tinuy-an Falls, often hailed as the “Niagara Falls of the Philippines”. Each level of this multi-tiered waterfall offers a unique perspective and experience – from the grandeur of the main drop to the serene pools perfect for swimming. You can hire a bamboo raft to get even closer to the waterfall, relishing the refreshing mist of the water’s spray.

Another nature spot to explore is Britania Islands, a group of 24 serene, tropical islands and islets. Each island has its distinct character – from the powdery white sands of Hagonoy Island to the rocky outcrops of Boslon Island. Island-hopping is the best way to explore these islands which offer plenty of opportunities for snorkelling, swimming and picnicking on secluded, yet beautiful beaches.

5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024 - Surigao del Sur, Philippines
Britania Islands, San Augustin
Photo: Cris Tagupa on Unsplash

End your island-hopping experience with a visit to the Enchanted River in Hinatuan, a deep spring river with stunningly clear, blue waters. The river is ideal for swimming and snorkelling, offering a surreal experience as you explore its depths. There are picnic spots, cafes and other facilities conveniently located around the river for chilling out.

5. Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia

Spanning over 4.4 million hectares, Cardamom Mountains is one of the largest rainforests in Southeast Asia. Teeming with wildlife, native flora and plenty of natural landmarks from waterfalls to swamps, the rainforest is an off-the-beaten-track escape for eco-conscious travellers and nature lovers who want to immerse themselves in a raw, unfiltered nature experience.

For an immersive back-to-nature experience, stay at Cardamom Tented Camp. Located in Botum Sakor National Park, the eco-lodge camp offers safari-style glamping tents in an environmentally conscious ecotourism setting amidst the dense forest.

5 Underrated Southeast Asian Destinations to Explore in 2024 - Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia
Photo: Cardamon Tented Camp

Camp activities include guided trekking, self-guided hiking, zip lining, tubing and kayaking. But where the eco-lodge really stands out is its conservation-related activities for visitors such as cataloguing flora and fauna in conservation areas; learning sessions about poaching and logging; setting up camera traps to monitor local wildlife; and accompanying park rangers on their patrols.

For a genuine immersion into Cambodian rural life, a visit to Chi Phat is a must. This community-based ecotourism village offers homestays, allowing visitors to live and interact with local families. Activities in Chi Phat are diverse and range from trekking and ancient burial sites to bat caves, bird watching and night-time wildlife spotting. The village is also a starting point for mountain bike tours and jungle treks, offering a deeper exploration of Cardamom’s natural wonders.

*This article has been edited and adapted from Now Boarding by Changi Airport’s “Hidden gems await: 5 underrated Southeast Asian destination