6 Surprising Hidden Gems in Southeast Asia

Everyone knows how to find the famous places in Southeast Asia. Places like Halong Bay, Bagan, Angkor Wat and Ko Phi Phi are full of package tourists. Yes, those places are amazing and very pretty but for me beauty lies also in the pureness of a place. A place that isn’t all about tourism and a place that is still untouched and ‘undiscovered’. Every country has its hidden gems. These are the hidden gems in Southeast Asia I would like to share with you.

1. Ban Lung, Cambodia

Waterfall Ban LungBan Lung is a small town in the northeast of Cambodia. It has a beautiful lake, Yeak Laom Lake where you can picnic and swim with the locals. After I arrived in Ban Lung I had some dinner at The Green Carrot Bar and Restaurant. The waiter was a nice guy who loved to talk to the customers to improve his English. He was a 24-year old high school student. His parents didn’t have the money to pay for education but this guy was motivated and started working at the restaurant to pay for his own education. Now, he went to school five times a week. In the evenings he worked at the restaurant and in the weekends he was a tour guide for tourists (if there were any). The next day he showed me the three best waterfalls in the area. It was beautiful, and every time we were the only ones there. For those who love hiking, there are different treks in the Ban Lung area you can book so there’s enough to do.

How to get there?
It was a long journey getting there. I wanted to go from Siem Reap to Ban Lung but that wasn’t possible. I had to go to Phnom Penh first to get a minivan to Ban Lung. Recently they opened a new road from Siem Reap to Ban Lung so it’s easier now to get there.  From Phnom Penh it took me 8 hours to get there by minivan. Don’t expect a comfy ride, you’ll be packed with as much boxes, bags and stuff that fit in the van. If you want to break the trip a little bit you can stop for a couple of days in Kratie, also a very nice place.

 2. Hpa-An, Myanmar

IMAG4099_1A small city in the southeast of Myanmar. It’s a nice and quiet place. We went to the market and the market in Hpa-An is great. I really love the markets in Myanmar! We bought some deep fried food, fruit and veggies. I also bought my longhi (traditional clothing) at the market. Some friendly local ladies helped me picking out the right one. There is enough to do around Hpa-An. You can visit ‘Bat Cave’ where at 6pm thousands of bats will fly out of the cave. You can climb the Mt. Zwegabin early in the morning (1,5 hour) and visit the monastery at the top. The area has numerous caves to visit. You can ask a tuk tuk driver to show you all the caves. It´ll be 15 dollars p.p. for the whole day.

How to get there?
From Mawlamyine you can take the bus to Hpa-An but for tourists only there’s a boat going as well. I recommend to take the boat. It’s a longtailboat with ten plastic seats on it but it’s a nice way to travel! During the 2 hour journey you can enjoy the view of small towns next to the Than Lwin river. You see people catching some fish and washing themselves in the river. Kids will wave at you, it is amazing. Are you coming from the north? From Yangon you can take a bus to Hpa-An too.

 3. Kanchanaburi, Thailand

IMAG3908A small city with a lot of history, two hours west of Bangkok. You can easily get around by bicycle (50 THB a day) or do a boat trip. We visited the Death Railway, builded by pows and Asian labourers. There are several musea in town and they can tell you more about the interesting history of Kanchanaburi and Thailand during the second World War. Some 60km from Kanchanaburi you can find the Erawan Falls. A beautiful waterfall with different levels. The water is clear blue which makes it even more special. You can get there by bus from Kanchanaburi or rent a motorbike and go there yourself. Kanchanaburi has also one of the best night markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia. There is a lot of choice, the food is delicious and the prices are low. The people at the night market don’t speak English so make sure you practiced some Thai.

How to get there?
From Bangkok we took a minivan to Kanchanaburi (from Khao San Road, not that adventurous). It departs two times a day and it takes 2 hours to get to Kanchanaburi.

4. Kong Lor Cave, Laos

Kong Lor Cave LaosThe Kong Lor Cave has an amazing 7,5 km long river flowing through it. So for 7,5 km it´ll be you, the driver, your headlamp and the dark. It´s an unique experience. Halfway, the driver will drop you in the cave and you can walk around to see something of it. At the end of the route he´ll be waiting for you and takes you to the end of the cave where you can buy some food or handcrafts. When you´re ready to go back, he brings you back to the other side. Not only the experience in the dark cave is amazing, also the views outside. You´re surrounded by limestone mountains and beautiful trees. You see locals fishing and the sun shining. Back at the entrance of the cave you can go for a swim and after that enjoy the hospitality of the locals by doing a homestay at Kong Lor Town.

How to get there?
The Kong Lor Cave is part of the Thakhek loop. ‘The loop’ is a route of 500 km which starts and finishes in Thakhek. You ride the route on a motorbike and, depending of you pace, takes 3 to 4 days to finish. The loop is definitely one of the best things I did in Southeast Asia because of the beautiful views. Mountains, nature, small towns and locals, that’s it for those days. The map of the loop is available in every guest house in Thakhek or at the place where you rent your motorbike. I would recommend WangWang, a reliable place and not that expensive.

5. Phong Nha National Park, Vietnam

Phong Nha National Park VietnamDriving through this national park was an awesome experience. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The scenery consists of endless karst mountain landscapes, quiet roads and little villages. Phong Nha contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed 400 million years ago. The town Phong Nha Ke Bang has a nice backpacker atmosphere and is only one road with nice hostels, guesthouses and hotels. Sometimes there’s no power during the day and there’s only one ATM in town so make sure you have enough money with you. The National Park has different amazing caves. Paradise Cave for example, is a big but beautiful cave. Usually I prefer the smaller caves where you climb rocks and stuff. Paradise Cave isn’t like that at all but it’s definitely the best cave I’ve seen. Another great experience was Dark Cave. You zipline from one side of the water to the other side and swim the last part to get into the cave. Inside the cave it’s dark and not that special until you reach the mud bath and feel yourself floating on the mud! When your whole group turns the light of their headlamps off, it’s an amazing feeling to float on the mud in total darkness. In the cave you can also slide of a mudslide. When you’re outside again, you can wash yourself in the river and canoe to the last zipline.

How to get there?
Since we bought motorbikes in Vietnam we drove to Phong Nha-Ke Bang on our motorbikes. We came from the north and followed the Ho Chi Minh Highway. If you prefer the bus than you can take a local bus from Dong Hoi or a tour bus from Hué.

6. Tam Coc, Vietnam

Tam Coc Ninh Binh VietnamThey also name it ‘Halong Bay on land’. Tam Coc is definitely as pretty as Halong Bay and way more peaceful. After leaving busy Hanoi and a couple of hours driving, Tam Coc was a beautiful surprise. The best way to experience the huge karst rock formations is by boat. Only they rip you off because they don’t allow more than two foreigners on one boat while six locals isn’t a problem. The boats pass through karst caves and the view of limestone mountains never gets boring. Even though this place is in this list of hiddem gems, Tam Coc is very touristy. Only most tourists here are Vietnamese.

How to get there?
From Hanoi we drove to Tam Coc on our motorbikes in 3 to 4 hours. Ninh Binh is the nearest place and buses from Hanoi or Hai Phong can drop you there. In Ninh Binh you can arrange a tuktuk or a motorbike to get to Tam Coc.

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