Friday, August 22nd, 2014

The Most Overrated Places in Southeast Asia

44

I adore Southeast Asia — and I especially treasure my favorite places in this part of the world.

But not every place captured my fancy, though I found something to love about every place I visited.

Here are my picks for the most overrated places in Southeast Asia:

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Koh Phi Phi was the setting of the movie The Beach and featured the heartbreakingly beautiful Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh.  It’s no wonder that so many tourists flocked there, looking for their own private deserted beach.

That can happen on lots of islands in Thailand — but not on Koh Phi Phi.

The Phi Phi of today is overrun with tourists.  The effects?  Huge crowds, limited lodging, sky-high prices, and quaking infrastructure.  The island smells like sewage and Maya Bay is filled with hundreds of people walking around, dumbfounded, wondering where that beautiful beach went.

Where to go instead: Koh Lanta, Thailand, is everything Koh Phi Phi is not: blissfully undertouristed, immense with plenty of space, filled with places to explore, and home to a welcoming Thai community.  And cheaper — much cheaper!

Click here to read my posts about Koh Phi Phi.

Pai, Thailand

A tiny town in the mountains of northern Thailand became a hippie enclave, and turned into a small town filled with cafes serving mushroom shakes and yoga studios.  So what held Pai back from being a chill backpacker paradise?  The hippie community itself.

I have never been treated with such rudeness and hostility as I was treated by the local community in Pai (unless they were busking and I happened to be walking by.  Then they were all smiles).  Normally I wouldn’t mention something subjective like this — but it happened to me over and over, and was such a contrast from every other place on the continent!

I loved motorbiking in the stunningly beautiful countryside surrounding Pai.  But as for the town itself, where I constantly felt unwelcome, I couldn’t wait to get away.

Where to go instead: Koh Chang, Thailand. Koh Chang, and Lonely Beach in particular, has such a friendly communities of hippies, expats, and people who just liked the island and stayed — and who will gladly invite you out to hear live music or recommend a tattoo studio.

Click here to read my posts about Pai.

Luang Prabang, Laos

I can see why some people adore Luang Prabang — it’s beautiful, it’s quiet, it’s cheap, and there are plenty of Western amenities (not to mention wine bars — practically a unicorn in this part of the world).

But to me, it felt incredibly fake — a Lao Disneyland that didn’t resemble anywhere else in Laos whatsoever, from the handicrafts locals never used to the skimpy fashion show outfits that most Lao girls wouldn’t dream of wearing in public, let alone in front of an audience.

Luang Prabang was custom-built for the middle-aged, fawning tourists who declared everything so authentic and adorable, and who were unlikely to set foot anywhere else in the country.

Where to go instead: Kampot, Cambodia. It’s another small, French-flavored riverside town, but it retains so much of its local flavor — without bending over backwards for affluent tourists.  Yet.  Go now before it’s too late.

Click here to read my posts about Luang Prabang.

Kuta, Bali

Kuta is most visited beach destination in Bali — but I have no idea what the appeal is. The beach is full of trash.  The guesthouses are overpriced and falling apart.  The nightlife is like a low-rent version of Cancun, and souvenir shops on every block sell homophobic stickers and t-shirts.

Where to go instead: Seminyak, Bali. Seminyak is just up the road from Kuta, but it’s so upscale — it’s home to nicer guesthouses and trendy Vegas-style nightlife, with prices to match.  And the beach is much, much cleaner.

Click here to read my posts about Kuta.

Did I just diss your favorite place?  Let’s hear it in the comments.

Comments

44 Responses to “The Most Overrated Places in Southeast Asia”
  1. Scott Lennon says:

    Not trying to plug my post but I don’t think I can recapture my expression of hippies in Pai better than I did.

    http://www.watchscotttravel.com/pai-and-hippies/

  2. Alex says:

    Such a shame when places are destroyed by our over enthusiasm to exploit them. Still, I’m hoping to make it to Pai this year, if only for the bike riding!

  3. Betti says:

    the good thing with Pai is that it only takes a 5 min bike ride to get out of it. the countryside and riding the whole Mae Hong Son loop is delightful (I spent 2 weeks exploring the loop.) don’t miss the bat cave (Tham Lot) . dozens of exciting sights like hot springs, waterfalls, Shan temples, ethnic villages and all those mountains. Pai is just half a square kilometre of that province.
    the same is true of Luang Prabang. just a few minutes by bike, or a short boat trip upriver, and it gets a lot more authentic. I loved the temples in LP though.
    I first went to Ko Phi Phi exactly ten years ago. never wanted to return after the tsunami, but had to. shouldn’t have. on Lanta, be careful when picking a beach. many have rocks at low tide making swimming impossible, but of course guesthouse websites won’t go out of their way to advertise this. also, Ramadan is coming up soon and it is not easy to find restaurants open if you go off the main stretch of road during that holiday.

  4. Kris says:

    Interesting list. I’ve heard the same things about Bali and and Koh Phi Phi. Buyer beware I guess…

  5. Melvin says:

    It seems that Luang Prabang has changed a bit. :(

  6. Thanks for sharing! Love that you provide “where to go instead” suggestions. we’ve also heard a lot about how some of the places like Bali and Koh Phi Phi were overrated. Good to know the alternatives!

  7. Justine says:

    Gosh, all this girl ever does is complain! Just stay home, then. Its much cooler then any of these places ever will be. (In your head, anyways.)

  8. Zoe says:

    I’ve always found that anywhere listed in a guidebook is worth avoiding, or at least finding another island. Koh Phangan (where the full moon party is held) is a great example. I was attempting to go to one of the other islands, but missed the ferry and ended up in koh phangan instead. Not being a fan of drunken backpackers, I found a tiny spot on a beach on the north of the island – as far from the full moon party as possible. it was 2 weeks of quiet and peaceful bliss with only about 5 other travellers on the beach. I did a dive course and had one on one instruction for the entire time. Where else can you find that?

    • Great idea, Zoe — that’s one thing people don’t know about — Koh Phangan outside Had Rin is totally different from Had Rin. That works on larger islands like Koh Lanta — Koh Phi Phi is so tiny, there’s nowhere else to go.

  9. We’re heading to SE Asia soon, so I appreciate this list… and that you included alternatives! Travelers have to learn about cool destinations from someone, but popular travel guides aren’t always the best option. I much prefer small independent travel bloggers. :)

  10. Naomi says:

    Really interesting list. I’m knee-deep in about a thousand SE Asia travel blogs at the moment and it’s quite intriguing to see what people have to say about all of these places (Kuta and Ko Phi Phi seem to suck, universally ;). Although I do have a question, when you say you were treated rudely by the local community in Pai, do you mean the long-term Western expats there, or the Thais? If the former, why do you think that was?

    • Ooh, I should have clarified that — by that, I meant the Western community who lives in Pai on a long-term (months or years) basis. I think it’s just natural insularity. We see that insularity and snobbiness in lots of places — this just happened to be one of them.

  11. Roy says:

    Not to mention that Kuta is also really really crowded… OK, maybe not the beach, but the surrounding areas are.

    Haven’t been to Seminyak though, might try that next time :)

  12. Chris says:

    Wow, this couldn’t be any more accurate. Just got back from SEA, have hit 3 of 4 of these spots, and you are 100% right. Pai is particularly unfortunate, as biking in the countryside there is incredible, but yeah the community ruined itself. Ton of amazing sights/beaches away from Kuta, and Luang Prabang is definitely diff. than anywhere else in Laos. Great article!

  13. Kathy says:

    Sadly, I have to agree about Luang Prabang. I fell in love with it back in 2002, but after revisiting it, I just posted a piece to my own blog titled “Losing Luang Prabang”.

  14. Most of the places you listed are the ones I have read so much about and how wonderful they are i guess either everyone experience was different or people just wanted to believe they were great. I really like that instead of just giving a list you gave options of places to go instead.

  15. I really enjoyed this article. I’ve personally done two large scale backpacking trips in SE Asia & I’ve visited all the places that you’ve mentioned – both over & under rated. I agree with many of your observations. The worst offender IMO is Phuket/Ko Phi Phi. It’s off the charts touristy and has lost any kind of charm it likely once had. I’m wondering if you’ve been to Battambang? I found it charming & ended up staying much longer than I originally planned – it’s one of more unsung destinations I’ve traveled to in recent times.

  16. Great piece, and would definitely agree about Pai now. We first visited it in 2001 and now again in feb/11, and boy, has it changed. Now, it has ‘attitude’, whereas before it was just a characteristic little town. We visited Luang Prabang in 2003, like it then. but it seems that Laos is definitely on the ‘backpacker trail’ now, and everyone seems to be headed there, so we won’t be, especially Vang Vieng–i’ve heard how much that place has changed! sadly, this seems to happen to a lot of places that become popular, and the local people become complacent and even a bit jaded. Thailand in general seems to have become like that in the 8yrs since we last visited, but luckily, its still a great country.

  17. Sonja says:

    Oh GAAAAD! Koh Phi Phi is a nightmare! I was there for a year and as addictive as the Thai way of life is, i will never return to that island again. It’s overrun by Westerners and the Thai’s are SO NICE but it’s kind of turning into Hell on earth. Trust me, it’s fun for a few days of partying but i wouldn’t really bother.

  18. Kate says:

    Bali gets my pick as the most over-rated place on earth! I have been to Indonesia a few times but will never return. Besides being incredibly dangerous (with westerners being targeted by the hateful Javanese JI), it is overcrowded and most of the beaches are polluted. The weather there is uncomfortably hot and the place is crawling with relentless beggars and scammers! Why Aussies would go there is beyond belief! Why would anyone want to go there when you consider that Australia has the loveliest, cleanest beaches in the world located only an hour south of Sydney at Jervis Bay where the white sanded beaches with its clear turquoise waters are full of resident dolphins and pods of whales. Want to go overseas to an unbeatable paradise? Visit the incomparable Bay of Virgins at the Marquesas Islands (go on the cargo ship, the Aranui 3) – it is so beautiful, so pristine, it takes your breath away. It gets my vote as the number One Island destination in the world.

    • Hmmmm. Kate, I do think that Bali can be overrated, but I wouldn’t go as far as you. And I wouldn’t categorize it as any more dangerous a destination than New York City, also home to a major terrorist attack (actually multiple attacks). But thanks for sharing. The Marquesas sound lovely!

  19. hollie says:

    Totally agree with your Luang Prabang / Kampot post – I thought I was the only person disappointed by LP! Thank you for confirming my original impression as I was considering returning to see what I missed, but would have hated to be disappointed again. I loved Kampot.

  20. seb says:

    I don’t think you can really put Kuta on a list like this. I mean who really rates it?? Everyone knows that it’s trashy. Did anyone actually recommend it to you?

    Funny thing it, I actually quite liked it just because it wasn’t pretentious. It is what it is and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. But yeah, I don’t think anyone rates it enough to warrant it to ever be “overrated”

  21. Merv says:

    So dissapointed to hear both Pai and Luang Prebang have gone so far downhill. I was there 8 years ago now (2005 just after the tsunami) and i LOVED both of those places. Pai was a nice, chilled out peceful place to spend some time – I actually overstayed my visa by 3 days cos i loved it soo much. Youre right about the surrounding area too – one of the best days of my trip wasrenting one of the Honda “Looks like a Harley but isnt” bikes and just riding off into the distance – amazing times. I’d heard it’d changed, i’m sad its changed soo much.

    As fo Luang Prebang – it sounds much the same – when i went it was sooo chilled it was fantastic, especially after the hustle + bustle of Bangkok. It sounds liek the ususl story – money + tourists = destruction of the culture everyone came there to see.

  22. *Fei* says:

    Thank you soo much for your alternative destinations,
    I had a month long holiday in Koh Samui and stayed 10 days for a great deal at the Amari chain, just over 2years ago before I got pregnant, I wanted to relive that holiday again but try a different part of Thailand…
    I have another opportunity to take 10 days (child free) to relax and unwind and can’t go pass Thailand but know I want to try another part of Thailand, I can’t stand over run places ruined by tourists as I am trying to get away…!!!!
    So thank you again for not just naming over rated places and giving a true picture, (my holidays a few and far between) I would have been ‘robbed’ of time and money if I insisted to go to Koh PhiPhi, I will be looking for resorts in Koh Lanta
    Thanks again for your honesty and alternative suggestions

  23. Michelle says:

    I agree with most points about Phi Phi after traveling to thailand to go there as the beach is a favourite movie of mine. I was staying there for 4 days and loved it (I’d just come from stinky harassing Patong beach in Phuket) and in comparison found the island very laid back & beautiful. The smell like every where I went in Thailand was bad but bearable again after my Patong experience (I still call everything that smells Patong). It wasn’t til we took a day snorkeling trip over to Maya Bay that my heart sank! Full of rubbish and so many people I couldn’t get the photo I’d be dreaming of and didn’t even bother to swim in all that rubbish, quite literally a wall of trash in the sea that was 20 meters long. I still had an amazing time on the island and loved the nightlife & better quality things to buy but I wouldn’t probably go back due to the boat almost capsizing in 20 foot waves on the way back to the mainland -_-
    Love your posts Kate!

  24. sillyashy says:

    i am glad i saw this post before heading to luang prabang! it has been a while since i last went back. and yes, kuta and koh phi phi are reallly overrated. they are also the tourist traps. and seriously i dun quite understand why kuta beach was hailed as one of the best beaches in SEA. it filthy and overcrowded. went once and never went back.

  25. Balbo says:

    Just back from a trip to Bali, and I’d add Ubud to the list… I had a good time in Kuta on the other hand, much less crowded than anticipated and mainly encountered nice people there, rather than the hordes of drunk jerks I was expecting.

  26. My. says:

    Hi Kate,

    I like your blog.
    We’re in Bali right now with our two kids. For the moment we’re staying at Jimbaran Bay.
    This is our first trip to Bali and we have heard and read such great things about the island. I guess when expectations are high, the risk of being disapointed is high too!
    On the positive side is that the local people are really nice and very friendly. Yesterday we spend the day at Balang beach watching the surfers riding the pipes. We had a really good time there and enjoyed the beach.
    For the rest, we haven’t had our ‘wow’ moments yet! We have been driving around the Bukit Peninsula yesterday later in the afternoon with a stop at Nusa Dua. We didn’t like Nusa Dua as it is mainly a gated community of resort hotels and has no soul in our opinion.

    So our first impressions are ok but not coming close to what we had expected after what we had heard and read!
    This said, we still have to explore the island and get a feel for it. This is our third day here and what we’ve seen right now is only a tiny bit of the island. So I’ll keep you posted and hope that I can share our wow moments in the next days!:-)

    Cheers,
    My.

  27. Mike Jones says:

    So refreshing to see some critical thinking. Why are people so naive? They come back from a short visit to Asia and tell their friends: “The Thais/Vietnamese/whoever are sooo nice!” What do they know? Do they speak the language? Do they know the history? It’s all hype. They’re fashion victims – and I’m another!

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  29. Vern says:

    I agree with Kuta/Bali as being an unattractive destination. Seminyak, the next area along the beach is not much different and I don’t consider it any better. It is overcrowded, touristy, endless rows of shops and no genuine Bali to see. Drainage canals flow into the sea at all beaches.
    All of Bali has become extremely crowded and you continuously run the risk to be overrun by scooters. Any place to reach by car requires about 1 hour for each 30 km. Even remote places inland are packed with traffic jams and hours of driving behind slow trucks. The positive sides are low prices and good food.

  30. Kia says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I always try to go to places which are not overrunned by tourists, so especially your alternatives are a great info :)

  31. Antoine says:

    Couldn’t agree more about Seminyak vs Kuta!!!
    I can’t believe some people travel all the way from Europe to end up in horrible Kuta. Seminyak is so much more beautiful and still you can easily find cheap accomodation with great service there. It’s NOT a pricey destination.
    Anyway I think the inland of Bali is what really makes the trip worth it, one shouldn’t go on a pure beach holiday there but move around the island. It’s a gem. I personally was blown away by Bali’s beauty and the kindness of the locals when visiting last summer.

  32. Sazzle says:

    Pai is actually my favourite place in Thailand and my partner and I have returned 3 times! It seems you were very unlucky with the locals you ran in to as everyone we met was so lovely. Perhaps you chose the wrong guest house? We are friends with the locals and ex-pats there and find them to be incredibly friendly and helpful. Don’t get me wrong the people that go there just to become the ultimate barefoot pretentious hippie annoy me so much i want to rip their dreadlocks out, but you just have to choose your company wisely! Cannot believe you suggested Koh Chang instead, my most hated place in Thailand due to all the gogo bars and young girls offering their services to fat westerners, thats something you DONT see in Pai!

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