The Worst Tourist Traps of South East Asia

I spend a lot of time on this site talking about just how incredible South East Asia is.

This is my easily my favourite part of the world. Most of the time the scenery is stunning, the people are friendly, the culture is fascinating and the food … oh the food.

But, now and again, I find somewhere that I just can’t stand.

I don’t expect everywhere to appeal to me, and nor should it. What I’m looking for in a destination is not the same thing as a family on a two week vacation or a bunch of guys on their gap year.

That said, after a year or so travelling in this region, I’ve spent time in a few different tourist traps that have almost no redeeming features whatsoever for me.

These are those places.

Kuta Beach, Bali

Kuta Beach stickers

Kuta is, almost certainly, one of the worst tourist destinations I have been in my life. Once a sleepy fishing village with a beautiful beach, it is now a crowded, polluted tourist hellhole.

Rubbish blows in the streets and out to sea, only to be washed back in again on the next tide. Vendors keep up an incessant clamour to sell you taxis, sunglasses and offensive t-shirts or stickers. Who wouldn’t want to buy items emblazoned with such charming slogans as “Hi 5 for Herpies”[sic] and “Dan loves it in the stink”?

Bloated foreigners – mainly Australian – drag their sunburned carcases around the beach all day and the clubs all night. The local watery brew, Bintang, is in the hands and on the singlets of every passer-by. And this is in the low season – it’s even worse later in the year.

Luckily not all of Bali is like this – clean, quiet beaches or picturesque rice fields are only an hour’s drive away.

The best thing about Kuta was, undoubtedly, leaving it.

 

Chaweng, Koh Samui, Thailand

ChawengMy first experience of an island in this region was Koh Samui, the largest of a small cluster in the Gulf of Thailand. The experience was far from enjoyable.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the line of expensive resorts that blocked access to the beach and pickup trucks with loudspeakers blasting advertising all day and night wasn’t quite what I had in mind for my ‘tropical paradise’.

Food was twice the price of the mainland, and so westernised as to be unrecognisable. The delicate mix of flavours and searing heat of my meals in Bangkok and Chiang Mai was replaced with bland, tasteless sludge. Or a ham sandwich.

Things got better outside of the main town of Chaweng, but two nights on Samui were more than enough for me. I boarded the ferry to Koh Tao and went diving for a week instead. A much better option.

 

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang ViengLaos is a wonderful country to backpack through. Lying in a hammock for days in the 4000 islands, exploring the Bolaven Plateau by scooter, taking a slow boat up the river from Luang Prabang … the gentle people and natural beauty meant that I loved my month there.

Except when I went to Vang Vieng.

This tiny town is infamous on the SE Asia backpacker circuit as “that place where you go tubing”. Every year tens of thousands of backpackers drink a few buckets, maybe take a few drugs, and float down the Nam Song river in an inner tube admiring the limestone karsts.

Sounds like fun, and indeed it was – but the small town has now become a caricature of backpacker life, completely at odds with the conservative local culture.

During the day stoned and hungover tourists slumped into comas while watching infinite loops of ‘Friends’ and ‘Family Guy’ in the bars, while at night wasted teenagers stumbled around the streets in board shorts and bikinis vomiting, fighting and hooking up in equal measure.

All the while unhappy-looking locals stood handing over yet another banana pancake or lao-lao bucket, obviously not enjoying what their town has become but welcoming the influx of money at the same time.

Outside Vang Vieng it is still beautiful, and rock-climbing and kayaking trips away from the drunken hordes get rave reviews. With both heavy rain and mild depression settling in, however, I headed north after less than 48 hours. Some people keep finding excuses not to leave this place where the party never ends, but I couldn’t find a single reason to stay.

 

Just About Anywhere on Phuket, Thailand

PhuketSimilar in many ways to Koh Samui, I struggled to enjoy my time in Phuket. Perhaps I have been spoiled from my time elsewhere in SE Asia, but one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand felt … well … just like one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand.

Having been used to travelling on the cheap, Phuket was a rude awakening. Taxi prices are fixed at a price double or triple the rate elsewhere in Thailand. I was recently quoted 400 baht for a (literally) five minute ride from the airport.

The only place with reasonable prices on the island is Phuket Town, and that’s because it is not really a tourist destination. Anywhere near a beach is overpriced, especially outside low season. Sex sells in places like Patong, and I found even areas further north full of the kind of ‘tourists’ that give Thailand a bad name.

The food is generally terrible and attractions unexciting, but mostly I can’t stand Phuket because I feel like nothing more than a walking ATM, suitable only for withdrawing cash from. Try as I might I just can’t form relationships with anyone that aren’t built on money, and that makes me sad.

The only place I’ve found that I like in any way is Nai Yang in the north. It’s still expensive and very tourist-focused, but at least the pollution and hassle from touts is much more limited. Still, I doubt I’ll be rushing back any time soon.

Do you agree? Have you found other tourist destinations in SE Asia that you really don’t like?

Images via jetalone (Chaweng), Ianz (Vang Vieng), tata_aka_T (Patong)

51 Responses to “The Worst Tourist Traps of South East Asia

  • As a first time international traveler, maybe Malaysia later this year, articles like these are very informative and helpful. Thank you for sharing.

  • Totally agree with all of these. When we visited in Koh Samui though we stayed on the opposite side of the island in Bang Po and it was an entirely different atmosphere. Super quiet and there was some killer food. Drove through Chaweng once and was not impressed.

  • Carl Sagan
    7 years ago

    Angkor wat for my money (to a lesser extent siem reap). Maybe I was victim of over expectating idk.

    I actually abandoned my exploration of it after only a couple hours because I was so put off by the tourist crush and how locals have effectively built small strip malls near all of the temples.

    Renting a bike/riding to the airport/playing with local kids proved to be about 100% more fun the next day.

  • Thanks for the tips! Haven’t been to SE Asia yet but we’re definitely not fans of the whole ”Spring Break” type of place and Vang Vieng sounds exactly like it. Will definitelyl check out the Bolaven Plateau though!

  • I agree mostly on this except Vang Vieng. We stayed at the far end of town and just avoided the drunken crowd. My 3 boys and I rented scooters and spent everyday out in the countryside and LOVED it! We spent 2 1/2 weeks there and still miss it. If you know what it is going in and avoid the main areas of it all it is an amazingly beautiful, fun, and authentic place! (outside the town center of course:)

    • Thanks Mary, and yup, I’ve heard that from a couple of people. As I mentioned, people who stay outside the main town do give the area good reviews. It was wet season when I was there, though, and raining heavily for most of the time so kayaking, scooter trips and rock climbing weren’t on the cards. Debauchery and cultural insensitivity weren’t my idea of fun, so I just moved on.

      • Hi Dave! I’m thinking about planning my second trip to SE Asia this July and I agree completely with everything here. Its a shame because most of these places are so beautiful but majority of the travelers are the worst! I’m thinking about doing Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Myanmar.. Hoping to avoid the young, party crowd this time around. Any recommendations on places that aren’t super touristy and filled with trashy backpackers? How was Bali? Mixed feelings on this one. Thanks for your input!

        • It’s hard to say, as everyone is looking for different things. I personally didn’t find anywhere in Myanmar full of trashy backpackers when I was there a few months ago, so that’s definitely a good choice. In Indonesia, anywhere outside the Bali “hotspots” is likely to yield a better trip, and Palawan in the Philippines is absolutely amazing (I wrote a post about the boat trip I took from Coron to El Nido here). Of the relatively few places I’ve been in Malaysia, Malacca was the least tourist-filled spot — but that was a few years ago.

  • Thanks for sharing this! It’s really true in most part of South East Asia that locals think tourist as business. Same with me, I don’t want to be followed and being offered of something not my interest and being overcharged. Maybe one of the reasons of that behavior is because of their country’s poor economy. They don’t have jobs and they get their income from tourists. That means no tourist, no money. Though, I feel sad for them how they get greedy over money.

    • Hi Shiela,

      While the behaviour you mention is certainly evident in the places I listed, and others like them, I definitely wouldn’t ever suggest that it is the case in most of South East Asia. I’ve had wonderful experiences in every country I’ve been to in this region where people are warm, genuine and friendly, will do anything for you and would be highly offended if you offered them money for it – never mind asking you for it. The further away from the traditional tourist centres I get, the more true that statement tends to become.

      It’s precisely because of those experiences that the time I spent in the tourist traps was so unenjoyable – if everywhere was like that, I wouldn’t have singled out places like Vang Vieng or Kuta. 🙂

  • I haven’t been to Koh Samui or Kuta Beach, but I agree with the rest of the above. Another place I thought was way overrated is Boracay. The beach was nice, but the constant stream of touts and never ending sea of boats right next to the beach, combined with crappy, mostly westernized food and resorts did it for me.

    • Belinda Schafer
      4 years ago

      So glad someone mentioned Boracay. Had the worst time there a week ago..local perverts taking photos of women everywhere..wherever there are women in bathingsuits..And being watched by locals when in your bathingsuit (perverts). Always walking towards you when in your bathingsuit..using excuses as selling something ,but actually perving mostly.. And constant bothering of touts/ sellers/ vendours..non stop. I couldn’t read a page of a book without 20 people trying to sell me pearls/purses/snax, etc..nonstop..no end to it. What a pity..because it would have been my no.1 tourist destination if it weren’t for that.

      • Belinda Schafer
        4 years ago

        Comparing Boracay to Phuket ( Kata Beach), there is just no comparison. No peace ever when enjoying the beach at Boracay(no matter what you choose to do), always people bothering you). I will gladly go back to Kata Beach PHUKET (stayed at Serene Hotel or new name Chanalai Flora Resort – Kata Beach and Peach Hill Hotel – 2 good choices) on different sides of the village/area AUGUST 2014. Has been my second time to Kata Beach in the last two years. Never had problems with noise/drunks/perverts , one could do your own thing and enjoy your holiday in peace without being watched or perved on. Food was lousy everywhere in Boracay and a rip-off . You are always ripped-off in Boracay..a walking ATM..as some writers here mention..exactly. Sad that the locals have to spoil Boracay and nothing is done about it.

  • I just threw up a little in my mouth remembering Kuta. Gag.

    Agree with all of these as well. Although, the one saving grace of Vang Vieng is that you can grab a bike and hit some awesome caves and outdoor attractions rather than just get drunk and go tubing.

    Well done!

  • I couldn’t agree with you more about Phuket. I didn’t even really feel like I was in Thailand anymore! And 200Baht for a small beer? I couldn’t believe it after travelling around Bangkok and Northern Thailand.
    I had a good experience in Vang Vieng because I didn’t participate in any of the drunken tubing etc. Had a wonderful time exploring the countryside on bicycle and kayaking down the river. I just had to ignore the drunken half naked backpackers in town 😉 It’s a beautiful part of the world.

  • Those places must be fabulous if you’re young AND want to get drunk. Period. For everyone else it’s a pity that such fine places have become so ruined. It is also a pity for the locals who can’t do otherwise than make a living in a rural area where the only alternative is going into the big cities for an uncertain future, or in the case of women for a certain (unwanted) future. I visited Vang Vieng three years ago and had the same experience – and rushed on to wonderful Luang Prabang after one day. I visited Koh Samui and Boracay may years ago, before any hotels had been built. I will not go back, but try and find more remote places.

  • We mainly went to Samui because we had to fly out. The only thing we could afford on Chaweng was our 200 Baht massage. LOL

  • I felt that way about Pattaya, Thailand. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

  • I actually found a night market in Phuket that had just a couple other tourists that was really fun to walk through AND had the best fried chicken I’ve ever had… but besides that, you’re right. It was really depressing to be where all the action was; the locals selling their souls to the tourists, which was why I ended up wandering toward the market in the first place.

  • Yup, you’ve pretty much got it spot on Dave! – HATED Kuta beach with a passion! But I would second Mary on Vang Vieng tho – if you avoid the main resort, it really is stunning. So beautiful – like most of Laos, which was our favourite country in SE Asia.

  • WonderingYolene
    7 years ago

    I’d add Koh Phi Phi. Apparently it was great before the tsunami, but now it’s just a tiny island crammed with souvenir shops and touts, no decent beach, drunk teenagers creeping in the streets at 11am, overpriced everything, not a single thing written in Thaï, and basically getting harassaed all the time by DiveMasters trying to earn a decent living with commissions. Yuk. Some people told me it’s paradise on earth and the best place they’ve ever been. I find it hard to imagine : in Thailand alone there are so many better places.

    • Agree about Phi Phi, but it was actually ruined way before the tsunami. As tragic as the tsunami was, it gave Phi Phi a chance to start over again with a fresh slate. Unfortunately they made all the same mistakes all over again when rebuilding. The small island can not support the amount of tourists it gets, and short term money grabbing thinking prevails over long term sustainable tourism. Such a shame.

  • Do I see a common theme here? This post is exactly why Thailand is at the bottom of my travel list. I am sure there are some great parts, but they don’t out weight the “bad” on my list of priorities.

  • Good to know that people can still go to Vang Vieng and enjoy the beauty. I am planning to go there in a few days and want to stay away from the party scene. Thanks everyone for the insightful comments!

  • Great post, Vang Vieng will probably end up on our round the world trip just as a place to pass through, but we have no intention of tubing and partying! Glad to hear other comments suggesting there are good places to go which are more local and cultural! For a couple travelling thats reassuring!

    We’re planning on travelling from north Thailand to Vientiane (http://www.worldlynomads.com/index.php/travel-the-world/) but do you have any thoughts on whether we should avoid Vang Vieng or at least stay on the outskirts? Thanks!

  • Awesome post! So glad that I’m not the only one that absolutely hates these kinds of places. Travel is supposed I be about seeing authentic, new places not some aberration tailored to western consumerist appetites. Loved your description of Kuta. It confirms what I described it as even though i gave it a wide berth when I went to Bali here http://nomaddream.wordpress.com/2011/10/12/heat-pay-shove/

  • Personally I quite like places like these. All the people I want to avoid are herded into one area and away from me and, for an added bonus, every now and again someone drunkenly falls off a balcony or cracks their skull on a submerged rock and fails to pass on the moron gene to another generation.

    Slightly more seriously, I actually do have a soft spot for Kuta. We were there a couple of months after the bombings and the atmosphere was very different. With far less trade, the touts and business people had more time to talk to us and did so like we were fellow human beings rather than walking wallets. The only rude t-shirts I saw – with the slogan ‘Fuck Osama’ – were handed out for free.

  • Walking ATM, yes that’s the one. I didnt fall in love with SEAsia the best bit was leaving! We felt like that in Fiji too, always an extra $ 5 for snorkel, for paddles, for pre paid coach!

  • I agree with Shane. These places are for the unadventurous who like to herd together. Those of us who enjoy total cultural immersion go elsewhere, each to his own. Know about them, avoid them if you wish, but they do serve an important function for both local and tourist alike.
    And expect to be ripped off and treated like a walking ATM if you don’t stray off the usual tourist trail.

  • I feel like Kuta the way you feel about Phuket – I’d spent 6 weeks in Sumatra – and Kuta, was loud, expensive and I got more harassement from Ozzie males there than I’d got from any local in the rest of Indonesia. And that was 1990 – I doubt its improved.

    I actually like Phuket, not Patong. We went low season and got fantastic deals on 3 star accommodation. If I didn’t have the budget it I’d skip it. But I’d rate it over Koh Phi Phi – as its large enough to have a lot of variety.

    Chaweng was OK for some western food- but we stayed in the north -which was far more laid back. Vang Vieng – totally agree I skipped it in 2004 – I guess its just got worse. Shame – the rest of Laos is amazing

  • Fun post, Dave

    Avoided Kuta bc I heard it was all about surfers and the crime was a bit nasty there. So I went to the second worst tourist trap- Seminyak! (A girl I was traveling with wanted to go and there was little time for me to find a quick trip to anywhere else.) Avoid.

    Vang Vieng and Phuket, I’m glad I’ve detoured around those. But they’re mostly party places, which I”m not into anyways.

  • Totally agree about Chaweng, I tried not to get my expectations up too much but I was really disappointed. The beach itself was nice, but it could have been a beach anywhere in the world. There was not much left that told you you were actually in Thailand. I left after 3 days and spend Songkran in Chiang Mai. Didn’t regret it at all!

  • Agree with you about Phuket. I visited that part of Thailand for the first time this year and thought Patong was disgusting. Thailand was the first country we visited (many years ago) and it’s where I fell in love with travelling. We had thought about visiting Phuket back then but decided to go elsewhere. After visiting now, I just imagine how turned off I would have been if we had visited! I may never have travelled again…

  • It always amazes me how people will go to such expense and hassle to travel to another country, only to huddle together in some Westernised “hot spot” and get wasted. Why? I suppose if you’re on an island, your only alternative is to leave, but if you’re on the mainland, you can usually escape the nonsense in 10 minutes or less. I should know. I live in Sihanoukville and am glad Ochheuteal Beach is so popular because it leaves the better parts of the city and province to be enjoyed.

    • Totally agree – I just left Sihanoukville a couple of days ago. Ochheuteal/Serendipty were really nothing special at all, but I spent close to two weeks on Otres. I’m sure there are plenty more amazing places that tourists don’t even know about…

  • Putheary
    6 years ago

    I would also include Pattaya, Thailand. Probably one of the worst cities I’ve been too. Working girls galore! Perverts roaming the streets.

    Vang Vieng is quite pretty but my experience overall is subar. The tourist there seem to have very little respect for the Laotian culture. My mother and aunt who were well in their 50s were offered $15 a night for “date.” Seriously? The lack of clothing on females are even worst. Wonder if they know that local people bath are clothed when bathing in public.

    • Yup, I think the only reason I didn’t include Pattaya was because I haven’t been there – I’ve never heard a good word said about the place. And I’m very happy to see that most of the bars along the river were bulldozed recently … if only the ones in the town were as well. 🙂

  • Cynthia
    6 years ago

    Good article. I think you described the SE Asia tourist scene pretty well!

  • Great article and I agree with all of them. However, Phuket is a large island with nice roads, so cruising around on a scooter is fun, and as you said the northern part is better. I would also highly recommend the Gibbon Sanctuary on Phuket. Worse than Phuket still is Pattaya, which has virtually no redeeming qualities. Unfortunately, Thailand has the dubious claim to having some of the worst tourist hell holes in Southeast Asia, but getting off the beaten path isn’t difficult in Thailand due to a good country wide transportation system. All it takes is to educate yourself with great articles like this and your Southeast Asian odyssey will be the experience of a lifetime.

  • Definitely agree with the opinion of Kuta. Haven’t been to the other tourist traps, though I was thinking of spending a couple days in Phuket this fall. Maybe I’ll just head back to Bali instead.

  • Charlotte
    5 years ago

    Not included in your post but noticed it in your comments.. Sihanoukville. It’s another young backpacker/gap year students’ hot spot and launch point for the party boats around the nearby islands. More specifically, Victory Hill was where we stayed unfortunately, and it was yucky. Given that it used to be a French Colony, it’s fair enough that there are French expatriates living there, but most of these were uncultured fat old men, with a prostitute or five on his arm, and were all bar or restaurant owners who all served Western style food.

    • Totally agree – in fact, the only reason I didn’t include Sihanoukville in this post is that at the time, I hadn’t been there. Now that I have, it completely deserves a mention, for the reasons you list.

      The good thing is that you can at least get away from ‘Serendipity’ beach and the associated bleurgh, and head over to Otres instead. A much, MUCH nicer experience, that I wrote about here.

  • Thailand: I will never EVER go back in that shit hole. Everywhere you go and everything you do, someone is ready to screw you big time.
    Cambodia: Harassment at it’s best. Those people make me sick by offering massage every 10 feet.
    Philippines and Japan: The most respectful persons I’ve met and I enjoyed those places. I’m going back 2 months each country this winter.
    Malaysia: Was my biggest surprise. So clean and so developed. Deserve to be discovered a way before Thailand and Cambodia.

    • Completely disagree with the generalisations in this comment, I’m afraid. Thailand and Cambodia are two of my favourite countries in the world – while you’ll find scams and harassment in some of the tourist areas, you’ll also find warm, wonderful people, great food (in Thailand particularly), gorgeous beaches and mountains and a rich, welcoming culture. Like most places in the world, a little exploration away from the most tourist-filled spots yields significant rewards.

      I’m a fan of the parts of the Philippines I’ve been to, and I like the food scene in particular in Malaysia, although interestingly enough the part that attracts you (the cleanliness and development) is the part that was least appealing for me. If I want that, I just head back to the Western world. 🙂

  • Phuket isnt all bad, Patong is a little feral! BUt we usually stay in Rawai or Nai Yang, very peaceful and relaxing. Not a huge fan of over the top ladyboys in your face!

    The Phuket Town weekend markets are really nice if you want to do a bit of shopping. Well priced and no ladyboys!

  • Agree with all those places and would also suggest Gili Islands/Senggigi Beach at Lombok, Indonesia – a once charming spot now discovered by the wrong type of traveller/tourist and undergone significant development in the last 10 years. Will soon be on that list, if not already. Sad to think that seaside hangouts like Nha Trang and Mui Ne in Vietnam are probably going the same way as Kuta and Samui while Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan, China are historical marvels in stunning mountain landscapes fast becoming a parody of themselves as the banana pancake trail has extended from SE Asia into China. Haven’t been to Guilin for ages, does anybody know what this place like these days?

  • Hi Dave, congratulations for your fantastic blog and for your excellent information. Unfortunately, a few (not most, emphasis) of the replies above are so loaded with sense of entitlement that hits on my nerves. To the one who said “Locals spoil the place”… uhn… did you know that the locals are actually PART of the place, and you are merely a guest there? Of course nobody likes perverts, but it is also a fact than in some cultures the sight of a woman in bikini isn’t usual, and it takes a lot of sense of entitlement to think that locals should adapt to our own culture, not the other way around. “Locals see tourists as business”… uhn… maybe because tourism IS a business? Of course, we would prefer the locals to just cultivate their rice fields and smile to us when we take a photo of them, to felt content with their idyllic life in houses with no electricity and deficient healthcare systems, and to feel thankful only for the facts that we are visiting their land and that our countries are massively importing their cheap commodities made with semi-slave labor. But that’s not how it works. “These people make me sick by offering me massages every 10 minutes”… hmm, yeah, why would Southeast Asians, typically with their strong culture of saving face and modesty, degrade themselves by insistently offering massages to every passerby? Do you think that they do that for pleasure? Geez, a bit of human empathy doesn’t hurt. Sorry Dave for the rant, and just to make clear, this has nothing to do with you and your excellent post.

  • Thanks. You may have just saved our trip.

  • A few extra places from experiences:-
    1 – Phi Phi, Thailand (expectation “the beach”, reality, hordes of drunken, booze-cruise travellers from England and gangs of touts hassling you everywhere you go.)
    2 – Petronas Towers, Malaysia (just 2 big buildings that you spend a lot to stand on a little bridge in the middle).
    3 – Full moon party, Thailand (worst place I ever went to in Thailand. Full of aforementioned boozed up Britons and general idiots, girls passed out, people vomitting, people shagging on the beach and corrupt Thai police waiting to plant drugs on some unsuspecting foreigner then extort from him. Only time I ever came close to a fight in all my time in Asia was with some wasted, tribal tattood scumbag from Liverpool. Other parts, even in Koh Phangan are so much better).
    4 – Khao San Road, Thailand (just a street in an otherwise working class and uninteresting part of Bangkok thats full of touts, scammers, Burger Kings, fake TEFL diploma issuers and dreadlocked, elephant pants wearing backpackers “discovering themselves” while getting wasted with a bunch of other dreadlocked losers and planning their trip to the other boozey hotspots of Phi Phi or Full moon party).
    5 – Manila, Philippines (crap food, shopping malls and latino-wannabes with no culture of their own. Just…don’t!)
    6 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia (sure, the temples are amazing. But the touts, scammers, beggers, street kids and 5000 Chinese and American tourists there with you aren’t. Nor all the buses and aggressive tuk tuk drivers. Theres plenty of other Khmer style temples around without all the hassle).
    7 – Ubud, Bali (yeah, its beautiful but the insufferable, pretentious yoga hipsters on “quests of self discovery” will put you right off!)

  • This post but more so comments section was so comforting to read. The thoughts and opinions weren’t comforting – its that I’m in TOTAL AGREEMENT with SO MANY PEOPLE that wanted to add Thailand to the list. Im currently compiling information and writing up an extremely long blog post about how disappointing Thailand was – the overrated cities, the disgusting seedy streets, and the terrible food. Glad I’m not the crazy one.

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