Planning 2020 Southeast Asia travel? Hate crowded, overly touristy cities? Then skip Ubud and try Nusa Penida. Go beyond Hoi An and visit Phong Nha. These are some places not totally overrun with tourists in this part of the world — yet.
“Overtourism” is when crowds of tourists swarm destinations, causing locations to lose a degree of authenticity, and causing quality of life issue for locals such as jumps in short-term housing prices.
We spent all of 2019 in this part of the world. And while I certainly have not seen it all (or even close), I have seen a lot. So this list for 2020 Southeast Asia travel is an experiential share with my opinions from our real-world journeys.
2020 Southeast Asia travel
1. Cat Ba Island/Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam
To be clear: Cat Ba Island in Vietnam has many tourists. There is a young crowd of Caucasians who frequent this area as a launch point into the famous Lan Ha and Ha Long bays. The two bays are politically divided by a provincial border line. Lan Ha is less touristy.
Despite Vietnam’s growing popularity with travelers, Cat Ba and Lan Ha Bay mostly still feel authentic – like they aren’t totally warped (yet) by tourism. (Hoi An is a Vietnamese place that has fallen victim to overtourism, in my opinion).
But what is really great about Cat Ba Island is Cat Ba National Park, in addition to the less-crowded Lan Ha Bay. The park has hiking trails that are not crowded. There are overlooks, beaches, locals offering boat rides on rickety wooden boats seaworthy for decades. There is no Starbucks in town, but there are plenty of locally-owned places for visitors to get local coffee and eats.
We stayed on Cat Ba and from there went on to spend several nights on a floating house on Lan Ha Bay – one of the most unique places we’ve stayed since we started traveling the world in 2015.
2. Nusa Penida, Indonesia
Nusa Penida is worth a side-trip from Bali. Hell, it might be worth all of your time instead of Bali if you want to find a more relaxed place without huge tourist crowds.
This island is on the verge of a tourism explosion. That’s why it’s on the list – you should try to see this place before it’s overrun. Roads aren’t all paved yet, there are no Starbucks in town, and there is spotty WiFi — which is awesome if you need extra encouragement to disconnect.
This is a great place for divers, snorkelers, travelers looking for more authenticity than the ‘Eat Pray Love’ Ubud crowd.
3. Pai, Thailand
This area of northern Thailand has been a hot spot for backpacking travelers for years. And again – there are many tourists here. In fact, Pai Canyon fills up with visitors at nearly every sunset.
But there’s no comparison between Chiang Mai and Pai. Chiang Mai feels like a tourism mecca with western-style malls, air-conditioned public buses with wifi, organic cafes and boutique shops females flock to for “authentic, healthy” dining, and cheap souvenirs.
None of that is in Pai. No fancy malls, no high-end shops, and plenty of family-run small restaurants where you sit on a stool and pay $1 for a spicy, tasty, authentic papaya salad. And that’s why it’s one of my top places for 2020 Southeast Asia travel.
Yes, there are souvenir stands. Yes, there are tourist traps. Of course – that’s virtually everywhere tourists go. But I didn’t see any Starbucks.
In delightful Pai, you can still get lost in the country, you can still find an adventure around every turn outside town, you can still see elephants walking down the road with their mahouts.
4. Phong Nha, Vietnam
This is a magical place of caves and mountains and valleys and rivers and farms. The region has a sad history – and there still is ordnance in the area from the Vietnam War, so don’t stray off the trails. But the park is breathtaking, and the caves are gigantic and so special.
Phong Nha is the type of place with no doctor. So there ain’t no Starbucks in this town!
This is the type of place I might not tell anyone about — only, the cat’s already out of the bag. And so I put in on my list of top 2020 Southeast Asia travel spots.
Crews are widening the roads and building more infrastructure. More hotels and homestays are popping up all over. Locals are expecting a tourism boom. In fact, more people visit this rural place every year because of the fabulous caves.
This is the type of place an aspiring author might go to write her book. Plenty of peace and serenity on the mountains, plenty of inspiration inside Earth. No distractions, unless you create them. And like most of Vietnam, it’s inexpensive.
5. Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
Again, there are tourists here, but you will not find many (if any) on the nature trails outside of town. We hiked down a mountainside by waterfalls, and we didn’t see a single other person!
We then hitchhiked to a tea plantation at the top of the next mountain. After tea and cakes, we hitchhiked back down. There’s no public transportation out there, and you are lucky if you see an idle taxi. And when you need a taxi, it’s really cheap – a dollar or two depending on where you are going.
Malaysians have been going to the Cameron Highlands villages for decades as an escape from the heat. At 5,000 feet above sea level, it’s as cool as Dalat, Vietnam. In fact, weekends have traffic problems because it’s just a two-lane road to the villages. Our advice: take the bus on a weekday.
Despite its popularity with Malaysians, I put this as a 2020 Southeast Asia travel destination for a few reasons. It’s a cool break from Asian heat, it’s relatively easy to get to, and there are not many places where we hike and don’t see anyone else, or places where we hitchhike.
People are friendly, and the prices are workable for budget travelers. There is one small mall in one village, but you can easily avoid it with a main drag that’s filled with restaurants and shops run by locals.
6. Labuan Bajo / Komodo National Park, Indonesia
Komodo National Park is stunning. The islands and coral reefs and Komodo dragons are unforgettable. Like every other spot on this planet that is gorgeous, once it’s “found” it often is ruined by overtourism.
There’s much talk about what the Indonesian government is planning to do about rising visitor numbers. In 2008, 44,000 people went to Komodo Island. By 2018, 176,000 people had gone. Four islands have Komodo dragons, but it seems only two – Komodo and Rinca islands – take tour groups of foreigners.
The governor of the province takes issue with the region named as a Top Value Destination for 2020 by Lonely Planet, because he believes people should pay a premium to visit.
Meanwhile, the tour boats to see the dragons all leave from Labuan Bajo. There are a few nice restaurants, many “warungs” (family-run small eateries), tour offices, and a few convenience stores. The sewerage lines are covered, but it still smells bad if the wind hits you right.
Head to the other side of the airport, into the village by the same name, and you will find a mostly Catholic community of locals who seem bemused by the random Caucasian like us. And that is exactly the charm of the place.
There isn’t much to see or do in the village, but sometimes that’s the point. Why not stay off the beaten path while you are in the area for Komodo?
Other spots for 2020 Southeast Asia travel
This list isn’t exhaustive. One that comes to mind is the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Every climate change map I’ve seen with sea level rise estimates has this region wiped off the map.
Another 2020 Southeast Asia travel spot to see is in Cambodia – outside the famous Angkor Wat complex in Siem Reap. We took a ride into the countryside, and we saw more poverty there than anywhere else on our journey so far. These are people with hard lives, and yet, smiles go a long way. Your tourism dollars would be a boon to the locals there.
Wherever the next year takes you, I hope you find adventure and fulfillment through travel – away from urban chaos in cities with overtourism.