Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
First published 20th December, 2007
Everyone knows about Pai, Muang Sing, Siem Reap and Sapa but what about if you're looking for somewhere a little bit more off-the-beaten-track when it comes to exploring Southeast Asia's great interior. Not surprisingly there's loads and loads of places that you'll read precious little about in your guidebook, that could be just the spot you're looking for. Here's a few of our favourites across the countryside.
Ban Toei, Nan province
Tucked away on the edge of Doi Phu Kha National Park in Thailand's Nan province, the village of Ban Toei is home to the perfectly named Bamboo Huts -- a rustic hideaway clinging onto the edge of a steep riverine valley. Owned and run by Lawa hilltribe guide, William and his family, Bamboo Huts has been running for years. The accommodation is basic -- we're being generous describing it as rustic as it's nothing more than a wobbling bamboo hut, a well-aged mattress chucked on the floor and the coldest shower this side of the Kathmandu valley -- but the place more than makes up for this with its welcoming family atmosphere and simply breathtakingly fantastic views.
Bamboo Huts also happen to run some of the best trekking we've done in Thailand -- primarily focused on caving. If you're looking for hilltribe trekking where you stay with different ethnic minorities each night, then you're in the wrong place, but we did a two day one night caving-trek with Bamboo Huts a few years back that still sticks in my mind. It's not for the claustrophobic nor the less than able -- on occasions we had to enter caves crawling through on our belly, only to emerge four hours later -- on the other side of the mountain -- into tremendous, jungle filled sinkhole straight out of Jurassic Park. There we camped rough by the riverbank, caught and ate jungle rat for dinner (curry with lots of chilli please) and slept under the jungle canopy. I'll never forget it. With four to five nights, you'd have ample time to get to Ban Toei from Nan town, do a trek and lay around for a day.
Note that after sending out the newsletter last week, a keen reader pointed out that Bamboo Huts is closed this season. Given you need to be just about standing next to William for his mobile phone to work, we had no way to verify this tip, so please check once in Nan to see if he has re-opened.
Phrao, Chiang Mai province
Everyone knows about Pai and Mae Hong Son, but how about Phrao? In some ways, this quaint village is reminiscent of Pai. It's a broad, rice cultivated valley with striking hills on each side and there's a variety of hill tribes living in the surrounding countryside. But that's about where the similarities end. There's no bohemian scene, nor dozens of guesthouses, cafes, bars and restaurants. There's a few noodle shops, a 7-eleven, one or two spots where you can pick up a cold Beer Chang -- but that's about it.
There's at least one guesthouse in town, but you're best to head six km out into the valley and rest your laurels at Doi Farang Bungalows. From there, you can sleep in converted rice barns (which are smarter than they sound) and catch up on your tan at their swimming pool. You can use the resort as a base to explore the valley -- it's full of people just getting on with their life and has a really unadulterated feel compared to somewhere like Pai. Doi Farang can arrange tours into the surrounds, including motorcycle tours. There's a few minor attractions -- village temples and hilltop viewpoints, but the real attraction is just spending a few days in a hidden away spot. And it's but a hop-skip and a jump from Chiang Mai! If you've got two nights up your sleeve, keep it in mind.
Phu Lang Ka, Phayao province
Aforementioned Ban Toei has great views, but you've got great views and you've got Great Views and Phu Lang Ka is absolutely in the latter category. Its ramshackle bungalows are perched on the edge of a sheer cliff that plunges down to the valley below. Within the valley there's a bunch of limestone outcrops -- think Ha Long Bay in the rice field -- and in the morning, the valley is bathed in mist with the limestone outcrops jutting out through the mist to the sky. The views will take your breath away.
The bungalows have been designed with the views in mind -- large open air terraces connected to what are admittedly very ordinary lodgings -- but who cares about old mattresses when you have a view like this? Pack a few good books, a hammock and your walking shoes and you're set. You can also organise trekking here -- both to the summit of Phu Lang Ka and to surrounding villages. Rustic but recommended. Allow at least three nights, as Phu Lang Ka is time-consuming to reach.
Muang La, Udomxai province
Some would consider Muang La to be nothing more than a day-trip from Udomxai, but if you're going to make the effort to get there, why not stay a night... or two. There's plenty of walking possibilities - hot springs, riverine scenery, nearby villages and even a Buddha footprint you can make your way to. Muang La also sits on the bank of the Nam Pak river, so be it early morning or late afternoon there's always lots of typical village life scenes going on.
There's little in the way of creature comforts, but there is accommodation available and we've heard that home stays are also possible, so with Udomxai being the rather bleak town that it is, why not strike a bit further north and explore Muang La? Allow two nights.
The Gibbon Experience, Bokeo province
Fancy a bit of monkey business during your time in Laos? The Gibbon Experience could be right up your tree. Located north of Huay Xai along the route from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha, the Gibbon Experience accommodates guests in tree-sits -- so you actually sleep, eat and hang out in the jungle canopy. The sits are connected by zip lines of up to hundreds of feet long -- allowing you to travel from one tree sit to another without having to climb back down the tree. It's all a part of an environmental programme aimed at protecting the gibbons and their habitat.
The Gibbon Experience has become so popular that they specifically asked a major guidebook publisher to not list them in the guide to try and keep numbers under control. It's a unique experience and reservations are essential. Allow three nights depending on the package you're interested in.
Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey province
It's not all that far, as the crow flies, from Siem Reap ... one of the last redoubts of the Khmer Rouge -- Anlong Veng. However, unless you're a crow, it takes a good bit of rough riding to get to this historic little lakeside town. When the road is good you can make the run in just three hours, but when it goes sour in wet season, it can take a lot longer. Set near the base of the Dangrek escarpment, and running around the edge of a man-made lake, Anlong Veng feels like the town Cambodia forgot, and for a long time, that is just what it was. Today, with an international border crossing and growing cross-border trade, the town is growing and it offers the intrepid visitor something a little different from anything else in Cambodia.
The best thing to do is take a moto to the top of the escarpment, where you can have a drink beside Ta Mok's old house, explore the very creepy ruins of Pol Pot's old house and enjoy spectacular views as far afield Phnom Kulen (on a very clear day). Allow two nights if coming from Siem Reap.
Ban Lung, Rattanakiri province
It's not mountainous, but it's about as remote as provincial capitals come. Capital of the northeastern Cambodian province of Rattanakiri, Ban Lung has a dusty, cowboy town feel to it, yet there's a glistening crater lake just a bicycle-ride from the centre of town. Surrounded by forest, the cool waters beckon, and, with a wooden platform built out over the lake, there's no excuse for not spending at least one afternoon there sunning and swimming. There's a selection of big guesthouses in town and they're all willing (and able) to set you up on a range of trips, from visiting some of the nearby waterfalls to two and three night trekking trips up into the wild Virachay National Park.
But what we found to be the most interesting was to grab a moto (we actually got the moto in Sen Monorom, but that's another story) and head north to the San river where we then hired a boat to head upriver to explore some minority village cemeteries. Standing all alone in a massive stand of trees these burial grounds were absolutely fascinating. An trip we heard about, but didn't have the time to do, was a two day one night trip from Vieng Say west along the San river to Stung Treng. If you have the time and money to do something like this you'd be up for a great trip -- and you wouldn't be sharing the boat with 100 other travellers -- that's for sure. Allow at least two nights in Ban Lung, a week if you plan to visit Virachay National Park and the minority cemeteries, and a couple more days if you want to try for the boat to Stung Treng.
Striking north from Kon Tum, Central Highlands
When most people think of Vietnam and mountains, their minds tend towards the soaring peaks of northern Vietnam where it abuts the Lao and Chinese frontiers, but they forget about the whole central part of the country, aptly known as the Central Highlands. Admittedly it's a plateau rather than a mountain range, but it's a pretty hilly plateau -- especially the stretch heading north from Kon Tum. Most travellers who make it to Kon Tum head east from there, rejoining Highway 1 in the vicinity of Quang Ngai, but you can actually continue north on Route 14 (parts of which form the original Ho Chi Minh Trail) through the towns of Dak To, Ngoc Hoi, Dak Glei and Phuoc Son from where you can take a right turn on 14E and cruise downhill through Hiep Duc till you reach Highway 1, leaving you not all that far south of Hoi An. From Phuoc Son you can also continue even further north, through Nam Giang, Prao and A Luoi before finally reaching Route 9 and the DMZ just to the east of Khe Sanh.
These two routes are back to basics travelling, but you'll be greeted with stunning vistas, winding roads and old-style hospitality. Ok the area isn't overflowing in "big ticket" sights, but half the fun is the journey. Allow four nights to a week.
Heading to Sapa the backway, Northwest Vietnam
Sapa is, for many, the highlight of a trip to northern Vietnam. And as much as it is a very well-touristed destination, it's well touristed for a reason -- don't miss it. Most opt for an overnight train from Hanoi, as that's the fastest way to get there, but fastest isn't always the best! If you've got a spare five to seven days up your sleeve, take the scenic route, looping through northwest Vietnam through Mai Chau, Son La, Dien Bien Phu and crossing the spectacular pass that straddles Mt Fansipan -- Vietnam's tallest peak.
As with heading north from Kon Tum, unless you have your own motorbike or other transport, this is very rough and ready -- old-style public buses packed to the gills and with less leg-room that an AirAsia flight -- so you've been warned. There's a steady trickle of travellers who are doing this route -- many of whom are using it to cross into Laos at the relatively new crossing into Laos near Dien Bien -- but that's not much use if you're going to Sapa!
Have you got a favourite mountain hideaway in Asia? Tell us all about it on the Travelfish messageboard.
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (19)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Gibbon Rehabilitation Project
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Khlong Toey Music Program
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (24)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Why you should stay longer in Siem Reap
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (20)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Northern Laos or Southern Laos?
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (8)
- Thailand (85)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Chang's east coast
- Ko Lanta's best budget guesthouses
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Loy Krathong in Thailand
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Songkran festival in Thailand
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The changing face of Ko Lipe
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay DIY
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay midrange budget
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Ha Long Bay: Which tour is right for you?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (14)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi 2015
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (18)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Great river trips in Southeast Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- Where is the best place in Southeast Asia for ...
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.