The underrated cities in Southeast Asia to add to your Asia trip itinerary include provincial cities such as Cambodia’s lovely riverside Battambang, which feels like a big country town, to laidback Yogyakarta, the capital of the Indonesian island of Java, which is popular with local tourists, but gets few foreign travellers. Each city is worth a couple of days exploration.
Underrated cities in Southeast Asia that we love include smaller second cities to major destinations, from Battambang in northwestern Cambodia, which is little-visited compared to Siem Reap, and Dalat in the Southern Central Highlands of Vietnam, which is rarely included on itineraries in contrast to Vietnam cities such as Saigon, Hanoi, Hue, and Hoi An.
We’ve also included cities that are more popular with locals than foreigners, such as and Kota Kinabalu on Malaysian Borneo and Yogyakarta on the Indonesian island of Java, along with lesser-visited cities in popular destinations, such as Phuket Old City on the island of Phuket, Thailand’s second most popular destination, but many visitors overlook the old town, instead focusing on the beach.
Before I tell you about the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia, I have a favour to ask. Grantourismo is reader supported. If you find our guides inspiring and informative, please consider supporting Grantourismo by using our links to buy travel insurance; book flights with CheapOair, Kiwi.com or Etihad; rent a car; or book accommodation with Booking.com, Agoda, Expedia, Wotif, lastminute.com, ebookers, or Trip.com.
Or, you could book a luxury holiday for less with Luxury Escapes or book a beautiful apartment or home with PLUM; book transfers, guided tours and tickets to museums and sights on Get Your Guide; book bus and train tickets in Asia on 12Go, or a cooking class, food tour or meal with locals on EatWith. With any of these bookings, we may earn a commission but you won’t pay extra.
Alternatively, you could buy something on Amazon, such as these cookbooks for culinary travellers or travel books to inspire wanderlust or browse our Grantourismo store on Society6 for products designed with Terence’s images. Now let me tell you more about these underrated cities in Southeast Asia, in no particular order.
Underrated Cities in Southeast Asia to Add to Your Itinerary from Battambang to Yogyakarta
Add these underrated cities in Southeast Asia to add to your itinerary on your next Asia trip for an experience of local life that’s more challenging to get in major tourist destinations.
Cambodia’s provincial capital of Battambang must be one of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia and it’s one of our favourites. The laidback little riverside city feels more like a big country town and that’s its very appeal.
Short on sights, after a hectic schedule in Siem Reap seeing temples, it’s a fantastic place for you to spend a few days strolling the historic centre and trundling on a tuk tuk through sleepy villages.
Battambang’s historic centre has some 800 heritage buildings, as well as cute boutiques, art galleries, cafés, and bars. Spend some time ambling the petite grid of narrow streets lined with atmospheric Chinese shop-houses.
After, hire a tuk tuk driver to take you on a circuit, starting with the grand former Lord Governor’s mansion, now a municipal museum, and then visit some of the many pagodas dotted around town, decorated with faded murals.
Battambang is also home to some of the most colourful markets in Cambodia, easily some of the best street food in the country, along with some brilliant restaurants, cafes and bars. See our guide to eating and drinking in Battambang for recommendations, as well as tips to eating safely in Cambodia.
See our itineraries for one day in Battambang and a weekend in Battambang, and our guides to the arts and architecture in Battambang and things to do in Battambang or browse our full Battambang travel guide for more information and ideas.
An Essential Thing to Do in Battambang
Don’t miss a circus show at Phare Ponleu Selpak, Battambang’s brilliant performing arts school and circus school. This is circus arts, so no animals. Phare Ponleu Selpak means ‘brightness of the arts’.
The performing arts school was established by a group of Cambodians who met in a refugee camp on the Thai border in the post-Khmer Rouge period. This is where the highly skilled performers from the Phare Cambodian Circus AKA the Siem Reap Circus trained.
Where to Stay in Battambang
You’ll find some of Cambodia’s most charming small boutique hotels in Battambang. Our pick is colonial-inspired Bambu Hotel, which has airy high-ceilinged rooms with colonial floor tiles and balconies in the main building, which overlooks a stunning swimming pool, and cosy lodgings in traditional-style wooden houses beyond the pool.
Battambang has two more intimate boutique hotels with swimming pools that we love in Wat Kor village on Battambang’s outskirts. Maisons Wat Kor has spacious rooms in two-storey traditional-style timber houses and a swimming pool in the lush tropical gardens while Battambang Resort is set amidst the rice fields with contemporary rooms.
Dalat in Vietnam‘s Southern Central Highlands is another one of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia that’s a must-visit, but sadly most travellers to Vietnam don’t get here. A former French colonial hill station and tea, flower and coffee-producing centre, Dalat is set amidst pine-forested mountains, rolling green hills and serene lakes.
Located at a cool 1,500 metres (4,900 feet) above sea level, Dalat was established by the French during the colonial era as a cool retreat from the sultry and often sweltering coastal cities.
Laidback, friendly and picturesque, these days Dalat is a destination for Vietnamese honeymooners, coffee lovers here for the emerging coffee culture, and foodies here for Dalat’s fantastic markets and delicious Dalat street food.
Dedicate part of your time in Dalat to exploring the surrounding countryside and picturesque mountains and valleys, peppered with sprawling lakes, for a taste of this agriculturally rich region.
Thanks to its fertile volcanic soil, Dalat is known as Vietnam’s fruit bowl. It’s Dalat’s fruit and vegetables, particularly strawberries and artichokes, as well as coffee, tea, flowers, and wine, for which Dalat and the surrounding region is best known.
Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee producer after Brazil and world’s largest grower of Robusta coffee and it’s Robusta coffee that is used for the ubiquitous Vietnamese filtered coffee, sipped everywhere from footpath stalls to coffee houses in the form of cà phê sua đa, iced coffee made with condensed milk.
An Essential Thing to Do in Dalat
If you’re a coffee lover, it’s essential to do a Dalat coffee tour or two. Don’t miss La Viet (Là Việt), for Dalat’s finest bean-to-cup coffee, some shopping for liquid and edible souvenirs, and a first-rate coffee tour. Located in a huge, airy warehouse space, La Viet is a café, coffee producer and barista training centre in one.
Also book a tour and Dalat coffee tasting at K’Ho Coffee on the hilltop of Langbiang village, home to the K’Ho ethnic minority peoples, 10kms from the city centre. You’ll get an introduction to the work of the co-operative, which grows 100% Arabica, an explanation of the coffee process, and on a hike through their coffee garden will hopefully see some coffee cherries, depending on the season. See our One Day in Dalat Itinerary for more info.
Where to Stay in Dalat
Check into 5-star Dalat Palace Heritage Hotel overlooking lovely Xuan Huong Lake and a 10-minute walk downhill to Lam Vien Square and Da Lat market in the centre. Dating to 1922, it has high ceilinged rooms, polished wooden floorboards and is furnished with antiques.
Nearby, in a handsome 1930s building, the four-star Dalat Hotel Du Parc has its original steel cage elevator, sweeping staircases and affordable prices, which make up for the modernised rooms.
Dalat’s most luxurious accommodation is Ana Mandara Villas Dalat Resort and Spa, a collection of 17 beautifully decorated French colonial villas with four-poster beds, claw-foot bathtubs and fireplaces. Set in pine forest with a gorgeous outdoor pool, it’s a 3km drive from the centre.
Phuket Old City, Thailand
The island of Phuket is Thailand’s most popular tourist destination after Bangkok, so while it might seem strange to include Phuket Old City on this list of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia, you’d be surprised how few visitors to the island spend time in Phuket’s Old Town, which is really a city, or, more correctly, the historic heart of a sprawling city.
Most visitors to Phuket island don’t visit Phuket’s capital. They are on the island for the beaches and water-based activities. If they do visit Phuket city, it’s generally on an afternoon or evening tour or they visit independently but tend to do little more than linger at the weekend market in the late afternoon and then stay on for dinner.
Very few travellers to the island of Phuket actually check into a hotel and make Phuket city their base on Phuket island, which is what we love to do. Too few travellers see Phuket as the cultural and culinary destination that we do.
We love Phuket Old Town for its wonderful Sino-Portuguese architecture, distinct Peranakan culture, and delicious Phuket cuisine, all of which warrant far more than half a day in Phuket Old Town.
Scattered across Phuket Old Town are ornate incense-filled Chinese temples and grand Sino-Portuguese mansions built from the wealth of Phuket’s tin-mining boom and long history of trade.
Many are now dilapidated with peeling paint, others transformed into fascinating museums. Make your priorities the Thai Hua Museum, the new Phuket Peranakan Museum and Phuket Baba Museum, all of which reveal different aspects of Phuket’s intriguing history.
An Essential Thing to Do in Phuket Old Town
Phuket is home to a special cuisine that has been influenced by historical connections to China and Malaysia, resulting in Peranakan or Baba Nyonya cuisine. We recommend starting with a tasting of Phuket-style street food at Lock Tien Food Court, a 1950s-era hawker centre. This Phuket Old Town 15-taster food tour also offers a comprehensive introduction to Phuket’s culinary history and culture.
Where to Stay in Phuket Old Town
Built in 1929, The Memory at On On is one of Phuket’s oldest hotels. It starred as the seedy backpackers in the movie The Beach before extensive renovations in 2013. Book one of the lovely mid-range rooms with balcony, although note that most of the charm lies in the public spaces, which are furnished with vintage pieces, such as antique wireless radios, and the light-filled courtyards and tranquil nooks.
Casa Blanca is a comfortable boutique hotel with a feminine sensibility – pastel colours, pretty furnishings, fresh flowers – and a well-travelled, English-speaking Thai owner who is a passionate baker and foodie and generous with dining tips. Both are centrally located and handy to markets, shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars.
Yogyakarta on Indonesia’s island of Java is another of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia, and yet Yogyakarta has fabulous accommodation (it’s fantastic value, too), along with some of the most delicious Indonesian food, lively markets, atmospheric neighbourhoods, and the stupendous archaeological sights of Borobudur and Prambanan are on Yogyakarta’s doorstep.
If you’re planning a holiday in Bali, do consider adding a few days in Yogyakarta on the neighbouring island of Java to your itinerary. Home to incredibly delicious food, fab shopping, fascinating sights, and the majestic Buddhist and Hindu monuments of Borobudur and Prambanan, ‘Jogya’, as the locals call it, is an absolute must as far as we’re concerned.
An Essential Thing to do in Yogyakarta
Visiting Prambanana and Borobudur are absolute musts. Borobodur is the Angkor Wat of Java, the Indonesian island between Bali and Sumatra. The world’s largest Buddhist monument, it is colossal in size, decorated with splendid sculptures and elaborate bas-reliefs, and looks like a lotus flower from above. It was the reason we went to Indonesia.
Prambanan is even closer to Jogya. Dating to 865AD, Prambanan is actually home to four temple complexes – Prambanan and three Buddhist temples, Candi Sewu being the most impressive as the second largest Buddhist temple in Java, (Borobudur, while not strictly a temple, but a stupa, is the largest), and in between two diminutive temples, Bubrah and Lumbung, which were being restored and inaccessible when we visited.
Where to Stay in Yogyakarta
Yogyakarta’s most idiosyncratic and most atmospheric boutique lodgings in the centre of the city is the Adhisthana Hotel. Set within a white-washed building there are as many colonial touches as modernist details – from the French doors that open onto the central courtyard to the shutters to the breeze blocks of the first floor wrap-around balcony.
The central courtyard almost feels like a Moroccan riad interior with its striking jade-coloured swimming pool fringed by palm trees. This is unquestionably where to stay in Yogyakarta if you really want to be in the Prawirotaman area, which is home to atmospheric markets, cafes and restaurants, and some of the oldest batik crafts houses.
Greenhost Boutique Hotel Prawirotaman is a favourite of Instagrammers for its hanging vertical gardens around the central courtyard swimming pool. The lobby is photogenic, furnished with vintage chairs, and the hotel has an eco-friendly mission, and a rooftop hydroponic farm and vegan, and vegetarian and halal food on the restaurant’s menu.
See our Where to Stay in Yogyakarta guide for more boutique hotels and resorts in and around Yogyakarta, including luxury lodgings close to the ancient temples that are Yogya’s main sights.
Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Kota Kinabalu is easily another of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia. For many visitors to the state of Sabah on Malaysian Borneo, Kota Kinabalu is the base for seeking out monkeys and marine life in other parts of the island of Borneo. However, the lush, low-key city of Kota Kinabalu is also a formidable base for exploring Borneo’s culture and cuisine.
While the night markets of Kota Kinabalu, or ‘KK’ as locals call it, are alive with the sounds and smells of chicken grilling and seafood sizzling, the early Sunday morning market on the downtown’s main thoroughfare of Gaya Street offers up a little bit of everything that makes this city worth far more than a stopover before seeking out macaques and morays.
An Essential Thing to do in Kota Kinabalu
The Sunday morning Gaya Street market is a must. Generally quiet during the week – apart from a few well-regarded traditional Chinese shop-house eateries – Gaya street roars to life on Sunday mornings when vendors selling everything from iPhone cases to fluffy kittens stake their claim. While surrounding streets are home to ad-hoc markets selling fresh fruit and vegetables, Gaya Street runs the gamut either side of the road.
Coffee is grinding with improvised Honda generators, impressive knives and kitchen knick-knacks are being demonstrated by vendors with the polish of a TV chef, while cute kittens and puppies sweat it out in cages as they await a new home. As tourists haggle over Malaysian-made clothes, jewellery, accessories, and souvenirs, locals jostle for tables at few of the highly fancied local eateries along the strip.
A local shop-house eatery called Yee Fung, specialising in laksa (a famous, spicy Malaysian noodle soup), is extremely popular, as is a collective shop-house food-court style restaurant selling a mix of noodle dishes (a must-do in Malaysia), as well as steamed Chinese buns, and coffees.
As the market traffic passes by, locals call in to buy some take-away pastries and coffee to take back home for their own Sunday brunch. For us, the simple setting is reason enough to give the hotel buffet breakfast a miss and enjoy a very local experience in this underrated little city.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu have a good range of city centre hotels although many visitors prefer the beach resorts on the outskirts and islands. We stayed in the centre so we could thoroughly explore Kota Kinabalu.
The smart, central Horizon Hotel is a comfortable business hotel with several restaurants, a rooftop pool and brilliant views of the sea and city.
Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu is probably one of the world’s most affordable Meridien resorts. Located in the heart of Kota Kinabalu, it has a stunning swimming pool, four restaurants, city and sea views, and is a short stroll to the Kota Kinabalu waterfront and night market.
Update: as at the time of republishing this post (18 May 2023), it’s not recommended to go to Myanmar at this point in time. See your government’s travel alerts for more information. When democracy is restored and the situation is stable, we will update this.
Myanmar’s Mawlamyine or Moulmein is probably one of the most underrated cities in Southeast Asia, however, put this wonderful part of the world on your bucket list for the future when democracy has been restored in Myanmar.
We don’t believe it’s ethical to go to Myanmar right now, as much as it breaks our hearts to write that, as it’s one of our favourite countries in Southeast Asia – and nor are we confident that it’s safe to visit Mawlamyine.
If you’ve even heard of Mawlamyine or Moulmein, it’s probably thanks to Rudyard Kipling: “By the old Moulmein pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea; There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me.”
A romantic, Kipling was thought to have been dreaming of a beautiful Burmese girl he’d become besotted with when he called into Moulmein, the first capital of British Burma, on his brief three-day trip through the country.
When I dream of the sleepy seaside city of Mawlamyine, as it’s now named, I’m dreaming not of the same gleaming hillside pagoda, pictured, that featured in Kipling’s poem Mandalay, I’m dreaming of my next bowl of mohinga, Myanmar’s famous breakfast noodles.
That’s right, fish noodle soup – one of the many specialties of this fantastic eating city. There’s a popular saying in Myanmar: “Mandalay for speaking, Yangon for bragging, Mawlamyine for eating.” Some of the best mohinga comes from Mawlamyine, home to an active fishing community, with phenomenal seafood and food in general.
Mawlamyine is the Mon state capital and on our last trip there we hunted down and tested out Mon-style mohinga in every market and street stall we found the noodle dish, and we recommend you do the same if you’re a food lover – when it’s safe and ethical to return.
Don’t miss the delightfully dusty museum to Mon culture, where I studied maps and scrutinised archaeological relics and shards of pottery as part of my food research. You can also take a local boat across to Bilu Kyun, a Mon island opposite the city, where we visited a rice factory, as well as sleepy villages and pagodas set amidst rice fields.
Where to Stay in Mawlamyine
Located in manicured gardens on the riverside with a prime sunset watching location, and just a short stroll to the city centre, The Attran has spacious bungalows with polished floorboards and terraces with water views. The manager and staff are outstanding and go out of their way to assist.
And if you can’t get to Myanmar for a while, you can get a taste of Mon culture at another underrated destination, an island on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River called Koh Kred in Nonthaburi, 30 minutes from Bangkok by ferry, where residents are Mons and speak the language. Koh Kred is famous for its pottery and has a market that’s a destination for Thai foodies.
Important Travel Tips for our These Underrated Cities in Southeast Asia
- International travel is expected to be chaotic again this summer, so as soon as you book your flights, buy travel insurance so you’re covered in case of flight cancellations, missed connections and lost luggage, not to mention accidents, emergencies, and medical evacuations.
- We recommend Get Your Guide for booking local tours and hiring guides, as well as tickets to attractions and sights, after-hours museum visits, airport transfers, and more.
- For travel between cities, consider overland travel if you have time; in Cambodia bookmebus is excellent for buying bus tickets online.
- If the route is scenic, consider renting a car in countries such as Thailand where the driving is easy.
- Keep in mind that during the Southeast Asian high seasons, the best small boutique hotels can be booked out months in advance, so book accommodation as soon as you book flights.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you’ve been to or get to any of the underrated cities in Southeast Asia to add to your itinerary from Battambang to Yogyakarta.