Home The ETG Take On Travel Idea vs Reality | Finding those sweet spot places in Asia

Idea vs Reality | Finding those sweet spot places in Asia

by Matt Brazier
Canvas and Orchids in Cardamon Mountains, Cambodia

Did you know that there are over 100 beautiful coffee shops in Chiang Mai? Actual independent, trendy ones with endless varieties of great quality coffee. You could be in London, Stockholm or, actually, Chiang Mai.

If you google Chiang Mai, you might find pictures of temples and idyllic countryside made up of paddy fields and karst mountains, but now even the Lonely Planet describes it as a modern sprawling city….with coffee shops aplenty.

It can easily get plonked on your itinerary because that’s ‘where people go in Thailand.’ But before putting together a holiday, we think it’s worth spending a little bit of time to really have a think about what it is you’re looking for.

We often get clients coming to us with a set idea regarding what they want to see and where they want to go – but is that research coming from outdated information and archaic images portraying places from 20 years ago?! That’s not to say Chiang Mai is lacking reasons to visit it, but making sure it’s aligned with your holiday expectations is more crucial than ever as Asia develops.

So, on that theme, we wanted to share some categories we feel may resonate with you and arm you with as much up-to-date, first-hand knowledge as you plan your next adventure. This way, you end up experiencing exactly what you had in mind… What more could you ask for from a holiday?

Are you looking for… .

Rural way of life in Eastern Bhutan


Without the fakeness

Ok, so you want to see a country’s more ‘traditional’ way of life, and that’s completely fair. This is something that is getting increasingly difficult as commercialisation of travel creeps further and further afield. The destinations below offer snapshots of what we in the West might consider a more ‘authentic’ traditional culture… whatever that means.

  • Visiting the Vedda people near Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka
  • Mahiyangana and Jaffna, Sri Lanka
  • Mongar and Trashigang, and most of the Eastern flank of the country, Bhutan
  • Villages like Chandelao and Narlai in rural Rajasthan, India
  • The area around Phayao or Phattalung, Northern Thailand
  • The Spice Islands of Sulawesi, like Ternate, Indonesia


That remain untouched by mass development (so far)

The locals don’t want you to know about them. But we do. We know – like them – that these places are really special in an ‘under the radar’ kind of way. There will always be places travellers will relish but developers won’t. And that’s fine by us.

  • Rohet and Satpura, India  
  • Tam Coc, Vietnam   
  • Nizwa, Oman  
  • Thakek and Nong Khiaw, Laos  
  • Chiang Dao, Thailand  
  • Sideman, Indonesia 


Without the faff

Sometimes you want to arrive somewhere and feel like you’re ‘in the middle of nowhere’ … but not actually be in the middle of nowhere. A bit like the Cotswolds vs. the Outer Hebrides. Below are some wonderful rural spots that are accessible, yet still offer that remote and charming feel.

  • Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai, Thailand  
  • Anything about 15 minutes outside Luang Prabang, Laos  
  • Pretty much the whole of Bhutan (except inner parts of Thimphu)  
  • Notary’s house and Ashburnham, Sri Lanka  
  • Jebel Akhdar, Oman  
  • Riverhouse Kerala & Neelambari, India 
  • Rajbari Bawali,  ninety minutes’ drive from Kolkata, India  
  • Phu Chasai in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand  
  • Azerai Can Tho (or Bassac Cruise), Vietnam
4 Rivers Best Floating Resort Cambodia


With the faff

Some faff can be worth it as the rewards are often much greater. These destinations offer a less polished tourism front, a simpler way of life and somewhere where time feels like it’s passing more slowly…

  • Gangtey, Bhutan 
  • Muang La, Laos 
  • Anywhere on Sumba, an island just off Bali, Indonesia 
  • Gardenia Inn and Gangga Island in Sulawesi, Indonesia  
  • Koh Kood and Ko Pra Thong, Thailand  
  • Bhoramdeo Jungle retreat in rural Chhattisgarh, India 
  • Periyar Forest Bungalow in Kerala, India 
  • Ban Lung/Ratanakiri, Cambodia 
  • Canvas and Orchids in Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia 
  • Phong Nga Caves,Vietnam 
  • Sapulot, Borneo 
Nihi Sumba luxury hotel in Indonesia


BUT in the remotest of places

A whole army of these hotels exists, and no one should be made guilty to want to travel to them. Ultimately, the majority of Africa’s safari tourist model is built like this. There really are some stunners out there and, trust us, they’re worth the effort and money.

  • Song Saa and Shinta Mani Wild, Cambodia 
  • Nihi Sumba, Bawah Island Reserve and Amanwana, Indonesia 
  • Zannier Bai San Ho in Phu Yen, Vietnam 
  • Soneva Kiri, Thailand 
  • Six Senses and Amankora, Bhutan 
  • Six Senses Zighy Bay, Oman 
  • Amanbagh, Six Senses Fort Rajbara, Ahilya Fort and Jalakara, India 
Puluong Retreat in Vietnam


BUT in the remotest of places, AND without the steep price tag 

Rare gems, but they do exist – you just need to know where to look. Thankfully, that’s our job. Let’s not pretend that these options cost $10 a night; that’s you romanticising your backpacking days. However, these lovely properties all offer value by the bucketload.

Taking a picture of Angkor Wat Sunrise


Than you might think

Some of these places are perhaps guilty of dining out on nostalgia and stock imagery portraying scenes that don’t quite exist anymore. However, don’t strike them off. Just get clever, do the research or talk to us…

  • Siem Reap, Cambodia 
  • Seminyak, Yogyakarta and Ubud, Indonesia 
  • Chiang Mai, Thailand 
  • Thimphu, Bhutan 
  • Hoi An, Vietnam  
  • Parts of Sri Lanka like Galle, Mirissa, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna  
  • Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam 
  • The backwaters of Kerala, India
Fireshows in Thailand


We’ve all got the Singha t-shirt

Ok, ok, we hear you, they were fun when you were 18, but maybe not so much now. However, sometimes it’s ideal to be ‘close to’ backpacker areas if you’re taking your older kids away with you (who may offer lots of eye-rolling if you take them to truly the middle of nowhere). So avoid or stay close by, the choice is yours…

  • Kuta and Gili Isles in Indonesia 
  • Haad Rin, Koh Phangan and Ao Nang in Krabi, Thailand 
  • Hikkaduwa and Hiriketiya, Sri Lanka 
  • Vang Vieng, Laos
Phu Chai Sai in Northern Thailand


Head to our website for more ideas and information about travelling around Asia with ETG

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