When we talk about Southeast Asia, images of Da Nang’s beaches or the bustling streets of Bangkok, often spring to mind. But Southeast Asia is so much more than these familiar horizons, each country a vibrant piece of a larger, breathtaking picture. It's time to dive into its hidden corners and immerse yourself in a mosaic of cultures, stories, and experiences, each more breathtaking than the next.

From the historical sites of Luang Prabang in Laos to the tranquil landscapes of Ninh Binh, Vietnam, here are 5 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. This travel destination offers an idyllic retreat with its towering limestone cliffs and serene rivers, as well as opportunities for local homestays and motorcycle tours.

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

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 hills, the village today is now a rare glimpse into ancient Vietnamese history and traditional Vietnamese culture. Spend your day there visiting 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 between the 8th to 10th days of the 3rd lunar month (16 to 18 April 2024) it commemorates ancient kings Dinh Tien Hoang and Le Dai Hanh through dragon dances, traditional games, and other activities.

Getting there: Getting to Ninh Binh is a breeze when you’re flying in from Singapore Changi Airport. Book a plane ticket to Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) via one of the many airlines that fly there, including VietJet Air, Vietnam Airlines, Scoot, and Singapore Airlines. Once you’ve arrived in Hanoi, you can opt to take a 2.5-hour to 3-hour train, or a 1.5-hour to 3-hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ninh Binh City.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang,  one of Southeast Asia's umpteenth UNESCO World Heritage sites, 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.

Take a step deeper into Laotian culture and history by visiting any of the 30+ temples and cultural institutions throughout the town. The exquisite Wat Xieng Thong, with its sweeping roofs and intricate mosaics, 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 day spent at the Kuang Si Falls. Located just a short drive from the town centre, multi-tiered waterfalls cascade into turquoise pools, creating a refreshing oasis. Visitors can hike up to the top of the falls for a panoramic view, swim in the inviting pools, or simply relax by the water's edge.

Getting there: Several airlines offer connections from Singapore Changi Airport to Luang Prabang International Airport (LBQ) via stopovers in Bangkok, Siem Reap, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, and Hanoi. This includes Scoot, Lao Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Thai AirAsia, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, and Singapore Airlines.

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. Located a 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok, it’s perfect for a dedicated day trip, or for visitors to Bangkok who want to experience something different from the typical cityscape.

Each of the pristine beaches along Rayong’s coastline offers its own unique charm, so you’re sure to find the perfect fit for you. 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 another of Southeast Asia’s hidden gem thanks to its crystal-clear waters and vibrant marine life, perfect for snorkelling.

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

Food enthusiasts will also have the time of their life in Rayong. The province is famous for its fruit plantations, particularly the sweet and juicy Rayong mango. Local markets such as Ban Phe Market offer a plethora of freshly caught seafood and Thai delicacies, as well as souvenirs to bring home as an unforgettable memento of your trip.

Getting there: Begin your journey to Rayong by flying directly from Singapore Changi Airport to Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) in Bangkok. From there, board a bus, van, or private taxi to take you straight to Rayong’s sandy shores.

4. Surigao del Sur, Philippines

From azure waters to cascading waterfalls, prepare to marvel at nature’s artistry at Surigao del Sur in the Philippines, a hidden gem lying in wait towards the north-eastern edge of maritime Southeast Asia .

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 falls, relishing the refreshing mist of the water’s spray.

Another nature spot to explore is the 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, with opportunities for snorkelling, swimming, and picnicking on secluded yet beautiful beaches.

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. Picnic spots, cafes, and other facilities are conveniently located around the river, making it a leisurely day out with truly uninterrupted relaxation.

Getting there: Your first step to arriving in Surigao del Sur is to take a direct flight from Singapore Changi Airport to Mactan–Cebu International Airport (CEB) in Cebu or Ninoy Aquino International Airport (MNL) in Manila. Several airlines offer direct flights to these airports including Cebu Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Scoot, and Philippine Airlines. From Cebu or Manila, you can opt to take a domestic flight to Surigao Airport (SUG) on Cebu Pacific. There are also night ferry options available between Cebu and Surigao, so you’ll arrive bright and early in the morning, ready to explore its breathtaking landscapes.

5. Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia

Spanning around 4.4 million hectares, the Cardamom Mountains are the largest rainforest range in Southeast Asia. Teeming with wildlife, native flora, and plenty of natural landmarks, from waterfalls to swamps, it’s a truly off-the-beaten-track escape for eco-conscious travellers and nature lovers who want to immerse themselves in the raw, unfiltered beauty of the world.

Ground your journey with a stay at Cardamom Tented Camp. Located in Botum Sakor National Park, this eco-lodge offers safari-style glamping tents in an environmentally-conscious ecotourism setting amidst the dense forest.

Visitors can look forward to typical outdoor activities like trekking, zip lining, or kayaking. But where the eco-lodge really stands out is the unique opportunities to join in conservation-related activities, like cataloguing flora and fauna in conservation areas, joining learning sessions about poaching and logging, 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 – from trekking to ancient burial sites and bat caves to 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 the Cardamom's natural wonders.

Getting there: Getting to the Cardamon Mountains takes some time, but it’s a destination that’s well worth the wait. Begin by flying directly from Singapore Changi Airport to Phnom Penh International Airport (PNH) in Phnom Penh on Singapore Airlines. From Phnom Penh, board a public bus or minivan towards Trapeang Rung via Highway 48. The journey might take around four to five hours. Disembark at a T-junction about 3.8-kilometres before Trapeang Rung, and contact Cardamom Tented Camp for a pick-up or follow the signs leading to the camp’s Departure Lounge.

See a side of Southeast Asia you’ve never seen before

The most underrated gems in Southeast Asia beckon with their unique charms, each offering a different facet of this diverse region. From the historical grandeur and ancient temples of Luang Prabang to the natural splendours of Ninh Binh, these destinations are a testament to the beauty and variety of this corner of the world. As we explore these hidden jewels, we not only discover new places but also new aspects of ourselves. So, pack your bags and set out for what could be the most memorable adventure yet in some of the best Asian countries to visit. Each destination is a story waiting to be told, a memory waiting to be made.

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