Southeast Asia in ones 20s is, usually, all about being a backpacker. It’s about traveling the banana pancake trail cheaply, staying in dorms, wearing harem pants and Chang tank tops, attending full moon parties, drinking from buckets instead of glasses, and generally having the time of one’s life.
Trust me, I know, I have even been made to into a very flattering meme:
Spending several years of my 20s in Asia meant having these experiences that, while amazing, stop being appealing after a while. There are only so many ‘where are you from?’ conversations you can have in a dorm in a lifetime.
When I went back to Southeast Asia at the beginning of this year, I wondered, is it still fun for someone who is in her 30s and is a bit more grown-up?
Thankfully, Southeast Asia is amazing at any age, and wherever you are in your life, you can find something to suit your interests there. These are 10 amazing places I found that are not on the backpacker trail and are all the better for it:
1. Nusa Penida, Indonesia
Bali has famously been the top destination Indonesia for decades.
Dreamy rice patties, monkeys, and gorgeous beaches have enticed travelers over and over, to the point that Bali is one big traffic jam and to me, has lost most of its luster. However there’s a little secret next-door, the Nusa islands.
This trio of islands, Lembongan, Ceningan, and Penida, are only a 30 minute ferry ride away from Bai but are already so much quieter. The beaches, particularly on Ceningan and Penida are super blue and have hardly any people around, and Penida really does feel like Bali must’ve been 30 years ago. The roads are bad, it’s quite rural, and the people are so adorable and friendly. Do yourself a favor and go now!
2. Lombok, Indonesia
On that note, Lombok, the major island next to Bali, is also an absolute paradise. There are tons of waterfalls, the amazing Rinjani volcano trek, and the laid-back back beach town of Kuta, not to be confused with Kuta, Bali.
This island gets less rain, far fewer tourists, and is much lesser known then Bali, but that’s changing. There’s so much to do on Lombok that you barely have to share with anyone else.
This is another one to check out before it explodes.
3. Siargao, Philippines
Filipinos have a reputation for being incredibly friendly and I found this to be true. The whole country is beautiful and with so many islands it can be hard to narrow it down.
Though the backpacker and resort haven, Boraracay, is the most famous, it’s overrun with people and there are better alternatives, one of which is Siargao. This surf paradise also receives far fewer tourists, works to reduce plastic and keep the beaches clean, and while it does have some backpacker accommodation, in general it’s higher end and caters more to a conscious, non-party crowd.
For non-surfers Siargao still has a lot to do including island hopping, Sugba lagoon, and snorkeling.
4. Hoi An, Vietnam
Vietnam’s Hoi An is located right in the center of the country and is in a word: charming.
This is where you can check out the UNESCO World Heritage old town, get shoes, dresses, suits, and all kinds of other clothing custom made, and eat some really good food. Other coastal towns in Vietnam are more about the party but Hoi An has so much more to offer.
5. Koh Yao Noi, Thailand
In sharp contrast to the glitz and raging parties in Phuket and the loads of tourists in Krabi, Koh Yao Noi has flown under the radar for quite some time despite being very easy to reach from both Phuket and Krabi, and just as beautiful.
Koh Yao Noi is perfect for those who are seeking more of an eco-lodge vibe. It mainly attracts rock climbers and yogis.
6. Kampot, Cambodia
While Cambodia’s coastal town of Sihanoukville has become a little Macau with casinos and tons of tourists, Kampot in coastal Cambodia is still a lovely place to visit, with colonial architecture, a plateau to climb, numerous waterfalls in the national park next door, and gorgeous coastline.
Be sure to try the famous Kampot pepper sauce, it’s delicious!
Fishing boats on the Kampot River in Kampot Province source
7. Raja Ampat, Indonesia
If you’re into diving then Raja Ampat just might ruin you.
This part of Indonesia is just beginning to become popular on the diver scene and is famous for the incredible corals, sea fans, the abundance of fish, variety of sharks and rays, and the Robinson Crusoe-like islands. An extra visa used to be required to visit Raja Ampat but now it’s opening up more to tourism.
That said, it’s still out of reach for most backpackers because of the cost of getting there, but once you’re there, it’ll be hard to top in terms of overall adventures in Southeast Asia. I still can’t believe it’s that beautiful and uncrowded! The best way to see it is with a liveaboard dive ship, though visiting the local islands, like Arborek, is fantastic too.
8. Georgetown, Malaysia
One refreshingly unique thing about Malaysia is the diversity. And nowhere is this more evident than in Georgetown.
In one day you can travel from Little India, which has delicious food and can be fun for shopping, to the gorgeous Chinese Kek Lok Si temple, and then back to town for a hipster coffee. Most of all, Georgetown is a foodie paradise, one of many in Malaysia.
Be sure to try the samosas, laksa, rojak, and cendol.
9. Sipadan, Malaysia
Switching gears to Malaysian Borneo, Sipadan is another diving paradise that doesn’t have the crowds of Koh Tao (which is a good place to learn, though!). The waters are protected, which means limited permits are available for diving, but this has helped to create an underwater menagerie teeming with life in crystal-clear waters.
It’s common to see schools of Bumphead parrotfish, barracuda, and sometimes hammerhead sharks.
10. Doi Inthanon National Park, Thailand
The area surrounding Thailand’s northern capital, Chiang Mai, is a treasure trove of unique temples and national parks that very few tourists visit. It doesn’t take much to get off of the tourist trail up there, which basically just means getting out of Chiang Mai, until you’re in lush jungles and up in the mountains.
Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon, Has two lovely pagodas at the top dedicated to the late king and queen that are perfect for the sunset. To get there you can either self-drive or take a day tour From Chang Mai.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of possible grown-up places to visit in Southeast Asia, these are a few of the things that I have really enjoyed now that I’m a bit older and my travel style has changed from doing things as cheaply as possible and hanging out with other backpackers, to having more local interaction, spending more time attending retreats, doing yoga, being in nature, and prioritizing comfort, food, and experiences that were harder to afford when I was younger.
There’s more than one fantastic way to travel through Southeast Asia, and that was a gift I learned by traveling there in my 30s.
Kristin Addis is a solo female travel expert who inspires women to travel the world in an authentic and adventurous way. A former investment banker who sold all of her belongings in 2012, Kristin has roamed the world for more than five years and visited over 70 countries. You can find more of her writings at Be My Travel Muse or on Instagram and YouTube.