I’ve recently had several people tell me, when talking about their upcoming trips to Southeast Asia, that they’re sure Thailand is nice, but they won’t be visiting because it’s too touristy. While there’s no denying Thailand is an incredibly popular tourist destination – Bangkok was the second most-visited city in the world in 2014 – and that certain areas of the country have been irrevocably changed by tourism, there are still unique and authentic experiences to be had as well as enjoying some of the tourist offerings.
In fact, Southeast Asia as a whole is very well traveled and, as a foreigner, you’re bound to come across many tourist hubs even if you’re determined to ‘get off the beaten track’. Sure, there are some places throughout the region I’d recommend travelers avoiding because they’re too overdeveloped, but you’re really going to come across other foreigners just about everywhere. And that’s okay – that means there’s enough infrastructure in place for you to easily get around and experience all these new places filled with interesting things!
That said, depending on the location and time of the year, sometimes it can start to feel that there are more tourists than locals and you’re seeing the same travelers everywhere you go as you all follow the same routes. With a little bit of planning and effort however, you can still break away from the tourist track.
Travel in the off-season
For most of the region, this means the rainy season around May through September. While you may come across some transportation delays or limited services (and often on the smaller islands things will shut down in the low season), things won’t be nearly as busy or crowded as in the high season. It also doesn’t usually rain all day, everyday and the little daily storms or downpours can be a welcome break from the heat!
Stay out of town
There’s definitely value staying in the center of all the action, it’s closer to more points of interest and easy to get around, but if you truly want to get away, then simply don’t stay in the most popular areas. Sometimes this can mean choosing a neighborhood that isn’t known for its proximity to other activities or completely getting out of town and staying in a more rural region. The more complicated it is to get there, the fewer travelers you’ll come across.
Take an unexpected turn
Often, even when you’re in the center of a tourist destination – say, Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Bali’s Kuta Beach – you can still get away from the crowds by simply choosing to walk down a side street and see where it leads. It’s amazing how quickly a couple turns can get you out of a major touristy hub and into a local residential or commercial area. You never know what you might find… plus the food is usually better and cheaper in the smaller, unexpected places as well!
Connect with the locals
Choosing to find accommodation through homestays or Airbnb, taking time to volunteer at a local organization or enroll in a class, and seeking unique places to explore are all great ways to see the region and connect with it – and its people – on another level that most other tourists don’t see while just passing through.
Choose a new destination
It’s easy to quickly tell what places are popular with tourists – you’ll start hearing about them from everyone once you start traveling. In Vietnam, for instance, the commonly-used hop on-hop off buses that go the length of the country all stop in the same towns. Most travelers either start at the top of the country in Hanoi and work their way down the bus route, or begin in the southern Ho Chi Minh City and go up. If you want to get away from the tourists, then simply pick an out-of-the-way spot! The risk with this is that often places are popular for reason and you never know what you’re going to get when you go off the beaten path – you may find a magical paradise… or you may be stuck in an area that offers nothing of interest.
What other tips do you have for getting off the tourist trail when you travel?