South East Asia is one of the most popular regions in the world for backpackers heading off on their gap year, and in general has a well deserved reputation that draws travellers to it time and time again. But not every part of the region is deserving of that adulation and there are some parts of south east Asia that are overrated in the extreme. Here are just some of my choices for the most overrated destinations in south east Asia.
I absolutely love south east Asia, I really do, I have been travelling through the region on and off for over 15 years now, but I don’t love all of it. There were some parts that I just didn’t gel with at all, and other tourist traps that in my opinion have been ruined by overtourism or other reason, yet are still for reasons I just can’t understand lauded as an ultimate destination with an unassailable reputation, and there are definitely parts of south east Asia that are vastly overrated.
I do take the fact that personal preference will always play a part in any perception of a place, what I hate about something someone else may completely love about it which is of course absolutely right, but these are my picks for the most overrated and disappointing destinations in south east Asia.
I have written about this before, but Bali’s reputation as a white sanded tropical paradise is long gone. The image of the ultimate escape destination, filled with luxury spas and resorts yet still exotic enough to provide a magical panacea to heal your mind and soul through a bit of yoga is still peddled by travel agents and fuelled by overly saccharine movies and books aimed at middle aged women.
The truth is Bali is overrun by drunken tourists just looking for a generic beach and booze package holiday, it has been heavily – and rightly – criticised for its treatment of wildlife in exploitative wildlife attractions, and the few bits of beach that aren’t overpolluted are cordoned off by private resorts. There are some redeeming parts of Bali of course, but on the whole it does not deserve it’s highly lauded reputation.
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.
Phi Phi is a victim of its own success. It has been the poster island for the backpacker culture for decades now and was the setting for the film ‘The Beach’. Koh Phi Phi is inextricably linked with the image of setting of on a gap year and finding a secluded tropical paradise.
Which is why so many people are so, so let down by it.
The problem is now over 5000 tourists a day flock to Koh Phi Phi, and it is not just backpackers either after the islands unsuitable infrastructure has been overloaded with package tour resorts. Maya bay in particular, the inspiration for a thousand gap years, is constantly overcrowded with hundreds of tour groups wondering what happened to that secluded beach from the movie completely bereft of any self awareness. The island is vastly overpriced because of the package tourists and has very little to offer any backpacker any more.
The good news is the Thai government has finally taken steps to limit the amount of tourists on the island to protect Maya Bay in particular which was approaching the point of no return with the damage being caused by overtourism. Only time will tell if they introduce real long term measures.
In a country famed for white sand beaches and tropical islands, Boracay topped them all. It was once the backpacker paradise that eventually made it one of the Philippines top tourist draws.
Unfortunately that popularity brought with it a ridiculous and unsustainable level of growth, with vast resorts swallowing up huge chunks of the famous white sand, hotels that didn’t conform to safety standards and raw sewage pumped out into the sea, visitors to Boracay arrived expecting paradise and found a polluted and overcrowded hell hole, with over 71,000 package tourists alone filling the beaches and fueling the infamous party seasons.
The government has instituted a series of restitutional measures to get a grip on many of the areas environmental problems, but only time will tell if they are successful.
Koh Samui, Thailand.
Just like Phi Phi, Koh Samui is a bit of a victim of it’s own success. It did used to be the exact thing people still flock to it for, a tropical paradise with cheap backpacker beach huts, laid back vibes and white sand beaches, but now it is filled with expensive resorts, has been Westernised to such an extent the entire island caters to tourists, is so overpriced – even by Thai island standards – and is as far from the ideal of a tropical paradise most people expect.
Vang Vieng, Laos.
I think you can probably tell by now that I am not a huge fan of the drink and party package holiday culture, and I totally accept that a lot of others won’t agree with me on that and actively look for and love party destinations. That’s fine. Each to their own and all that.
But some places just take it to the extreme and ruin it for everyone.
Laos has been a firm fixture on the banana pancake trail for decades, and the vast majority of it is truly amazing. The experience of taking a slow boat up the river from Luang Prabang, the stunning Bolaven Plateau, infinite adventure activities to partake in and stunning scenery to see.
Yet what gets all the attention? The tiny town of Vang Vieng. The Shagaluf of south east Asia. The place where everyone goes tubing. The hedonistic mecca of alcohol, drugs and floating down the river on big rubber tubes.
Having a party town is one thing, but Vang Vieng is a strange, grotesque caricature of itself, and things have gotten so bad with drunken behaviour and backpacker deaths and accidents there have been frequent calls to shut it down.
Backpackers do still continue to flock here in droves, usually after they have ‘done’ the full moon party’, but I just don’t get the appeal of this exaggerated stereotype of the backpacker bubble.
Mount Bromo, Indonesia.
This addition may be a little surprising to a lot of people, and I can understand why. Mount Bromo itself is truly stunning, and there is a lot of very good reasons why it is consistently included in top ten world bucket item lists. In fact I am genuinely glad that I have had the opportunity to see it in my lifetime. But it isn’t really the mountain itself that is the problem. It is the mass overtourism industry that has sprung up around it.
Apart from the fact that the ‘trek’ up to the summit for the quintessential and infamous sunset tour was more akin to a cannonball run into hell with cars, jeeps and bikes all clamouring for exhaust filled and polluted space on the way up, and just too many crowds at the top to ever be considered a safe or fun experience, it was the poor treatment of the horses and donkeys at the ‘sea of sand’ on the way back down that has led me to rank this as one of my most disappointing travel experiences.
Walking across the sand filled plateau to peek into the edge of an active volcano is a genuinely awesome experience with major bragging rights, and is a popular tour activity. Travellers genuinely flock from all over the world to do it and tours can be bought from tour operators and hostels all over Indonesia and Bali.
But the treatment of the horses and donkeys, who were obviously malnourished, stamping nervously, showing signs of mental anxiety and chewing on their bridles as well as being visibly distressed has led me to actively discouraging other travellers to visit until conditions improve for the animals.
South east Asia is still my favourite region in the world, and despite some parts of it not living up to the hype or being ruined my mass package tourism, there is still so much to genuinely love about it, and remember we are all different too so what I don’t like you may end up loving, so make sure you make the effort to discover things for yourself too.
But hopefully for all of you out there who are currently planning your epic trip through south east Asia this will give you a little bit of perspective and make you think about some of the places you are planning to visit.
What about you? Do you disagree with anything on this list? Think I have left anything off? Let me know!
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