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?
Great tips! I like to think that touristy places should be left to the tourists while those who make the extra effort get rewarded.
Another tip I’d give is to try and find locals who have the same hobbies as you while you’re travelling, be it playing an instrument, photography, soccer/football, cooking, music, etc., etc.. Hooking up with locals over a shared interest definitely enhances the experience way beyond a simple homestay! Couchsurfing has been getting kind of a bad rap lately, but it’s still one of the best ways to meet locals.
Great idea about the hobbies!
All of these are excellent tips. I love walking five minutes in any direction away from any major tourist trap, as it will lead to authentic areas. This works well in SE Asia, as most areas are safe!
Very true – it’s incredible how quickly you can from a ton of tourists to…none!
I agree with the tips. Most people can be heard asking – when is the best time to travel and yet few realize that travelling in the off season comes with its own advantages!
There are definitely pros and cons to traveling in either season!
Touristy areas are good to visit as long as you don’t stay long. It’s part of travelling and getting to know the country.
That’s very true – I hate it when I hear people saying they’ll refuse to go somewhere or see/do something incredible because it’s too ‘touristy’ – you can’t go to Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower, that’s just silly!
I agree with this too. Like you said, the touristy places became famous for a reason. Maybe there are other tourists there, but it is still new for you and it’s your own experience that you’re creating.
“Take an unexpected turn,” is my favourite tip. Often the tourist hubs are concentrated in one small area, so it’s actually not that hard to go around a corner and find quieter areas that are more “local.” I really enjoy going on tours when I travel, particularly if you have a good guide who is knowledgeable. I find this to be a great way to connect with locals.
I’ve been off the tourist trail many times in Thailand. I’ve been to the northeast in Isaan 3 times and you don’t get many tourists in those parts. I spend most of my time in Bangkok and if move away from the tourists areas you can find lots of hidden gems.
useful advice, thank you for sharing your experience
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I quite like the tourist trail. Sometimes the road most travelled is the most popular one for a reason.
Having said that, though, I’d never only hang out in really touristy spots all the time. You’ve got to seek out some “authenticity” and try to mix it up with the locals.
I like your point about taking an unexpected turn. That’s what I like to do.