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Underrated cities in Southeast Asia to avoid the tourist crowds

Planning a quick getaway soon? Singaporeans tend to be a predictable lot when it comes to places to visit in Southeast Asia. Most of us have friends who repeatedly visit Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Bali. But do you really want to escape to a foreign land only to find yourself surrounded by your fellow countrymen? It’ll be like you never left home. If you are looking for more interesting cities to check out on your next weekend getaway, we have some recommendations on up-and-coming places to visit in Southeast Asia that you need to check out before everyone else does.

Hat Yai, Songkhla Province, Thailand

Skip Bangkok for Hat Yai: Hat Yai is the largest city in the Songkhla province, and its location close to the border with Malaysia makes most people just think of it as a popular stopover when travelling between the two countries. Shopaholics will love Hat Yai as it is a prime shopping and commercial centre in Southern Thailand, but there are also some natural wonders around the area worth checking out.

Hat Yai attractions 

  • Hat Yai’s markets are a must-see: the largest day market Kim Yong Market is bursting with local food, Khlong Hae Floating Market with its clusters of traditional longboats is quite picturesque, and the ASEAN Night Bazaar and Greenway Night Market are a great way to cap off a busy day of exploration
  • Nature lovers should consider an easy hike to see the beautiful Ton Ngong Cha waterfall with seven levels and one that’s shaped like elephant tusks, or head up to Khuan Chedi for the sunrise and a view of cloud sea below you
  • Ko Yo is a small island in the middle of Songkhla Lake famous for handwoven textiles, cotton and delicious seafood. Hat Yai is also the gateway to another favourite island destination Ko Lipe
  • Wat Hat Yat Nai is home to one of the biggest reclining Buddha statues in Thailand, or take the cable car up the hill in Hat Yai Municipal Park to see more Buddhist statues against a scenic backdrop of the surrounding city

Best time to visit Hat Yai

Hat Yai’s climate is similar to Singapore – hot and wet throughout the year. A good time to visit is between January to April as temperatures are slightly cooler and there is less rainfall, which is typically heaviest during the monsoon season at the end of the year.

How to get to Hat Yai

Scoot and Bangkok Airways offer non-stop flights from Singapore to Hat Yai (HDY). The flight time is 1 hr 20 mins.

Davao, Mindanao, Philippines

Skip Manila for Davao: Davao is busy as the central hub of Southern Philippines but much less crowded and touristy compared to Manila and its more popular island neighbours. Whether you’re looking to explore a bustling city or soak in spectacular natural attractions, there’s plenty for you to do here.

Davao attractions 

  • Hike the iconic Mount Apo, which is the highest peak in the Philippines and great for those who love trekking and outdoor adventure
  • Animal lovers will enjoy the diversity on display in Davao, from the endangered national bird at the Philippine Eagle Centre to the snappy crocodiles at the Davao Crocodile Park 
  • Davao is famous for its tropical fruits like rambutan, mangosteen and marang, but it is best known as the Durian capital, so brave the stench and spikes and dig in
  • For a little island life, hop over to the coconut trees of Kopiat Island, multicultural Balut Island or stayover on the private Island of Buenavista 

Best time to visit Davao

Davao has a tropical climate and while fruit season is around August, it is also quite a hot period to be travelling. If you are looking for cooler temperatures and less rainfall, consider visiting during the winter monsoon period from December to February.

How to get to Davao

Cebu Pacific Air and Singapore Airlines offer non-stop flights from Singapore to Davao (DVO). The flight time is 3 hr 45 mins.

Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

Skip Kuala Lumpur for Kuching: With a name that translates to ‘cat’ in Malay, it’s not surprising that you’ll find hints of our favourite feline all around Kuching. However, the real draw of Sarawak’s capital is really the rare flora and fauna to be found in Borneo’s rainforests and coastline – check out our detailed guide to Malaysian Borneo for more information.

Kuching attractions 

  • Kuching’s national parks are home to fascinating creatures – see rare proboscis monkeys in Bako National Park, head to Semenggoh Nature Reserve or Matang Wildlife Centre for orangutans and Kubah National Park for all sorts of birds
  • Stay overnight in a traditional longhouse to experience the local culture – Annah Rais Longhouse is located in an indigenous Bidayuh village and also has famous hot springs nearby
  • Outdoor lovers are spoilt for choice – go kayaking down the Sungai Sarawak Siri, go caving and rock climbing in the gold mining town of Bau or take a hike through the diverse landscapes that Kuching has to offer

Best time to visit Kuching

Like Singapore, Kuching is hot and humid all year round. High season is from May to September when the weather is drier and the outdoors can be enjoyed more compared to the year-end period which tends to be quite wet.

How to get to Kuching

Air Asia, Scoot and Malaysia Airlines offer non-stop flights from Singapore to Kuching (KCH). The flight time is 1 hr 25 mins.

Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

Skip Bali for Surabaya: The second-largest city after the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the East Javan capital was one of the earliest port cities in Southeast Asia and remains one of Indonesia’s most important economic and industrial hubs today. Check out our guide to the top 10 things to do in Surabaya.

Surabaya attractions 

  • Surabaya is the gateway to the famous Mount Bromo, an active volcano that’s a popular hiking route for enjoying the sunrise
  • One of the city’s best museums is the Sampoerna Museum, housed in a 19th century Dutch colonial house where you can learn about the local tobacco industry and see how Sampoerna cigarettes are made
  • Religious buildings worth checking out in Surabaya include the impressive and modern Masjid al Akbar, Sanggar Agung or Hong San Tang temple which has a beautiful beach view and the Masjid Muhammad Cheng Hoo which was named for the 15th century Chinese naval Admiral Cheng Ho who helped promote Islam in his travels around the region 

Best time to visit Surabaya

The dry season in Surabaya is from May to September, with cooler average temperatures at a pleasant 24ºC around July and August. If you are climbing Mount Bromo, note that it’s colder on the mountain, dropping to around 15-20ºC during the day and down to single digits in the night and early morning before sunrise.

How to get to Surabaya

Jetstar Asia, Scoot, SilkAir, Singapore Airlines, China Airlines and Garuda Indonesia offer non-stop flights from Singapore to Surabaya (SUB). The flight time is 2 hr 25 mins.