We carried out a poll in our Facebook community asking members which places in Southeast Asia should be avoided. When we originally carried out this poll, we chose a very inappropriate word. We asked our readers “Where is the WORST place in Southeast Asia you’ve ever travelled to?” This choice caused a lot of offence. We have added a statement about the offence we caused to the bottom of this article. (Read the statement now)
First, though, let’s understand why we carried out this poll at all…
Why Even Ask This Question?
The responses to our poll tended to centre around a few key issues – Safety, Traffic/Pollution and ‘Westernisation’. So let’s deal with each of them…
Southeast Asia is popular with first-time travellers, often travelling alone. It is mostly an extremely safe place to travel. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. We think it’s important to let travellers know about these places.
It’s a sad truth that some cities in SE Asia suffer from extremely poor air quality due, in part, to excessive (and sometimes very stressful, if you need to cross the road) traffic. It’s OK to want to avoid these things.
…and here things get tricky… We firmly believe that when you travel anywhere in the world, you should do so without any pre-formed ideas of what the place you visit ‘should’ be like. If you’re going to be disappointed to find shopping malls on your travels, you’re probably better off staying at home! In fact, shopping malls can really play a part in building the character of a city. Kuala Lumpur boasts a shopping mall with a rollercoaster in it!! Surely that’s pretty cool, no matter where you’ve come from!
All that said, of course, it is perfectly legit to want to see things that open your eyes to something new while you travel. There are destinations (hint, a couple of them are mentioned in this guide) where you can essentially spend a few weeks on a tropical island, whilst eating in the same chain restaurants and drinking the same sugary drinks as you always have and then go home to consume the same goods in the rain. Sorry, but yes, we do believe that if you do that, you’re missing out. Those travellers lucky enough to spend long-extended periods travelling this wonderful region will know full well the guilty pleasure of tucking into a pizza or burger while visiting a major city. People who are on a tighter schedule are well within their rights to want to avoid such things.
This article is a round-up of travellers’ opinions. Opinions vary. Some of our readers deeply love one or several of the places listed here. A travellers’ view of any place is always going to be very limited. We believe that anybody who truly explores any place will discover that it has a huge amount to offer.
The opinions expressed here are the opinions of some of our readers. They are not the opinions of South East Asia Backpacker.
Anyway… without further ado – here’s a list of your 13 least favourite places in Southeast Asia!
Read more: (opens in new tab)
- Readers Poll: The Cheapest Place to Travel in Southeast Asia
- Backpacking Southeast Asia Route: The CLASSIC Itinerary
- 69 Backpacking Tips for Travel in Southeast Asia!
13 Places to avoid in Southeast Asia: As Voted by Our Readers!
13. Koh Samui, Thailand
With five votes, the island of Koh Samui comes in at joint 13th place. Some of you simply said, “Samui is shit.” Whilst one of you went into more detail, “Samui isn’t really an island, more a shitty city stuck on an island.”
We’ve stayed in Samui a few times (on the way to the nearby islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao) and the resort town of Chaweng is by far our least favourite place, with the nearby Lamai being a much better place to spend a few nights.
Our favourite place is the small fishing resort of Bo Phut in the north of Koh Samui which has managed to retain some island charm.
12. Pak Beng, Laos
We were intrigued at how this tiny little village made your ‘least favourite’ places list. Pak Beng is the village where you’ll spend one night if you decide to take the 2-day slow boat from Chiang Khong in Thailand, to Luang Prabang in Laos. (Read about the boat trip in this article.)
Pak Beng is a run-down place right on the banks of the Mekong with a few guesthouses and restaurants that cater to the boat-trippers. Some of you called it a “shit hole” and one of you said that you suffered food poisoning there.
By far the strangest comment though was this one: “All I can remember from that place is that the lady owner of the guesthouse where I was staying passed out because of opium whilst she was making our sandwiches. Opium is a big problem in that place, unfortunately.”
11. Hanoi, Vietnam
Nevertheless, we’re sad to see Vietnam’s capital on this list. It seems that people found the locals unfriendly and some people said that they were targeted by thieves during their visit.
On the contrary, we found the people of Hanoi to be lovely, and many people did, in fact, post counter-arguments to those saying that they found the city unwelcoming. So it seems that Hanoi is another one of those ‘Marmite’ cities. What did you think?
10. Cebu City, Philippines
“Dirty.” “Noisy.” “Polluted.” These are just some of the words that you used to describe the city of Cebu in the Philippines, which came in at 10th place on our list. The city was also described as “all shopping malls and no culture” and the food as “bland and Americanised”.
We found ourselves in Cebu City for the annual festival of Sinulog, when the city was alive with a carnival atmosphere, full of colours and brimming with culture. We can’t imagine what it’s like on a normal day, though we did see some grey bits of concrete in-between the floats and dancing angels.
9. Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Coming in at 9th place it’s the most famous backpacker road in the world, which we almost expected to come in at number one, to be honest!
Many people made comments to the type of ‘wet-behind-the-ears’ backpacker that you’re likely to find here (wearing a Same-Same T-shirt), but hey – we’ve all got to start somewhere right? And if that somewhere means that you’ll spend your first few days in Thailand with a Changover, eating street pad thai, buying a fake degree and croaking a wooden frog that you’ve just bought, then so be it!
We still reckon that the Khao San Road is of cultural interest to Bangkok (the actual city got three of your votes, I’ll add) if only for a short while, mainly because of the history of the place.
So many backpackers have passed through a street that was once just a normal street within the city. It’s an example of how tourism can blow up in one tiny area and completely transform it forever. Read our article here on why one traveller loves the Khao San Road!
8. Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia
Poor Medan in northern Sumatra just doesn’t seem to have much going for it at all, apart from the fact that it’s one of the cheapest places to fly to in the whole of Southeast Asia!
One person explained “there’s very little to do there, and it just didn’t feel very welcoming’, somebody else complained of the dirt and pollution.
We haven’t been to the city so can’t comment, but what we do know is that just a chicken bus ride away is the amazing Lake Toba, the jungles of Bukit Lawang filled with incredible Indonesian animals and the diver’s paradise island of Pulau Weh. So, if you’ve found a cheap flight to Medan, get in, get out, and start exploring what the rest of the wonderful island of Sumatra has to offer!
7. Pattaya, Thailand
Not many backpackers venture to Pattaya, a city that is renowned for its sex tourism, just a few hours from Bangkok. If you do find yourself here, however, we’re not at all surprised that you hate it.
‘Absolutely disgusting’ one person said. With not a backpacker hostel nor traveller-friendly bar in sight, this rather unattractive city is geared to giving Western men on a short holiday a good time.
The city came into existence during the Vietnam War when the American Army decided to base themselves here. Many poorer women from countryside areas of Thailand (such as Isaan) came to earn money here amongst the soldiers in pursuit of ‘R&R’.
Take a stroll down the most famous road in Pattaya at night time ‘Walking Street’ and you’ll have your eyes opened to some of the seediest aspects of Thailand you’ll ever encounter.
As well as ‘sex tourists’ and ‘sex-pats’, Pattaya has also recently become popular with holidaying Russians, and there are a few more attractive islands, such as Koh Lan, Koh Krok, Koh Sak, Koh Phai and Koh Si Chang, off the coast of Pattaya, that tourists like to visit.
6. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
In sixth place, it’s the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, which is one of three capital cities on our list. One person described the city as a ‘concrete jungle’ and another said that they thought the ‘food was bland’.
On the contrary, we’ve often heard great things about the variety of food on offer in KL and although there are less desirable aspects of the city (just like any city), we were actually surprised to have KL as one of the highest ‘least favourite’ places on your list.
Crowded and polluted, well yes, but with its mix of cultures and religions, we think KL is a very interesting place to visit. Perhaps you could try out some of these ‘alternative things to do in KL’ and then get back to us.
5. Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
In fifth place is the party destination of Kuta in Bali that some of you took a very strong disliking to! Whereas Bali (the entire island) actually received four votes of its own, more of you focused on this little beach resort town that was originally made famous for its surf and secondly for its nightlife.
One girl said that the sea was dirty and that whilst she swam she was “surrounded by floating plastic and rubbish”, whilst one guy said that he even saw a dead dog on the beach!
Although it wasn’t mentioned here in the comments, we’ve heard time and time again that the island of Bali is not the tranquil paradise that people hope it to be, particularly if you spend any time around Kuta, which is a very commercialised area with fast-food joints, huge nightclubs and those dreaded ‘two-weekers’.
Popular amongst holidaying Australians, Kuta is the ‘Magaluf’ or ‘Cancun’ of Indonesia. So, if you’re looking for that, please, be our guest! If not, check out our guide to the whole of Bali here and find somewhere that’s more to your taste.
4. Phuket, Thailand
Thailand’s ‘Pearl of the Andaman’, the oldest star of the Thai Tourism scene, Phuket, gets fourth place. We thought your words ‘fat old Westerners with young Thai women’ was a little harsh, (but true?).
The main gripes were overly persistent salespeople trying to get you into bars and massage parlours, although this was specifically mentioned only in the main party zone of Patong. One person simply said – “this is not the best part of Thailand” – and we’d have to agree.
However, every place has its silver lining and if you’re feeling sick of Phuket and want to see a different side to the island, we’d encourage you to pay a visit to Phuket’s little-visited Old Quarter, full of Sino-Portuguese shop-houses, cafés and jazz bars. Or, hire a motorbike and explore the quieter beaches on the island, such as the fisherman’s village and the beach of Hat Rawai.
3. THIRD PLACE: Sihanoukville, Cambodia
The notorious Sihanoukville (also known as ‘Sinville’ or ‘Snooky’ gets your votes for many reasons…
More than one person complained about the sex trafficking and drug problems there, as well as the overly-persistent tuk tuk drivers, who followed one bloke down an alley-way to try to get a ride out of him. One commentator told us that it’s best to avoid the ‘burnout expat bar area known as ‘Victory Hill’ which he described as the ‘dark side of Sihanoukville’.
As well as the sex, drugs and prostitution (some mention under-age prostitution, though we cannot comment on whether this is true or not), other, less serious, problems in Sihanoukville were mentioned.
One person said that the beach was “rubbish-strewn and dirty” and one guy said that his guesthouse was infested with rats (though he didn’t mention which guesthouse). The dirty beach comment, however, was counteracted by someone who is actually in Sihanoukville right now and told us that the beaches had been cleaned up.
Somebody also mentioned that visits can be much worse in low season when there aren’t many people around and sales-people can be more persistent. One guy, who spammed almost every post where Sihanoukville was mentioned, with a photo of himself in Koh Rong, the nearby island simply says – “Get out to Koh Rong!”(We bet he owns a guesthouse there.)
Sihanoukville has often been a place that people tend to love or hate, our destination guide has contributions by more than one backpacker who couldn’t get enough of the place, which leads me to mention its final nickname “Stuckville”. So what did you think?
2. SECOND PLACE: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Coming in at a close second place, this time it’s the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh. (Although there were more than a few counter-arguments with people saying that they experienced wonderful moments in the city!)
Most people’s complaints, again, were that they felt unsafe here (whether this fear was actually founded or not, we did not receive further evidence).
One girl says that after spending most of the time in their tiny guesthouse room, they decided to leave and go and stay in an expat area where they felt much safer. One boy commenting on all of the other ‘I felt unsafe’ posts said that he spent one night there, wandered around during the evening, rode a scooter at night and felt totally safe the whole time. What was your experience of the city?
1. WINNER: Manila, Philippines
In first place, it’s the capital of the Philippines, Manila, with people’s main gripes about the city being that it is polluted, has a deficient infrastructure, is overcrowded and that people felt unsafe during their visit. (It seemed that one of the major factors that make people dislike a place is, naturally, the lack of safety.)
One bloke said he was robbed by a taxi (we didn’t get more details other than that) and someone said that they were grabbed by people as they walked down the street in a district called Mandaluyong. On the bright side, however, more than one person mentioned that they encountered “friendly” and “lovely humans” whilst they were there. And, one girl from Italy said that she felt safer in Manila than she does in her home country.
As always, it depends on the experience that you have whilst you are there, the people you meet and the choices you make of which neighbourhoods you visit. Every city has its dodgy parts and if you are from Manila, or are a backpacker who had a positive experience in Manila, I invite you to send in your story to us!
So, there you have it. 13 of your least favourite places in Southeast Asia. Do you agree or disagree?
Of course, you disagree! That’s what being a traveller is all about! Now don’t listen to me, or to the people who posted in our Facebook group, get out there and start making your own opinions!
The Word ‘Worst’ and a Twitter Backlash
As mentioned at the top of this guide, we first conducted this poll using the word ‘worst’, which was, up until recently used in the title of the article.
The word ‘worst’ was a very poor choice and a choice that we now very much regret. The motives travellers have to want to avoid one place or another do not constitute “good” or “bad” ratings for that place. We understand that our previous use of the word “worst” was always bound to cause negative reactions. In a world as divided as ours is today, we do not want to contribute to the endless cycle of negativity.
We sincerely apologise for this choice of words. It was a childish, inaccurate choice and one that had negative consequences.
Since we published this article, it has provoked a number of responses. Soon after it was published, it was used as one of many examples of negative press for Manila, used in a call-to-action article in a major Filipino newspaper that seemed to be (perhaps we’re reading between the lines) encouraging debate around how to improve the city’s issues with safety, pollution and public transport infrastructure.
It was written about in a number of other Filipino newspapers, all of which seemed to take it in good spirits and, thankfully, all of which had taken on our disclaimers and the alternative opinions we offered up to balance out the debate. (One offered up examples of proof that Cebu certainly did offer delicious food if you look in the right place)
In late May 2021, however, it was picked up and then tweeted about by a New York-based Chinese-Filipino Netflix, Hulu and Comedy Central celebrity.
“if you’re really feeling good about yourself, you should check out @SEA_backpacker, a site where a bunch of white people took it upon themselves to rank parts of asia. LOVE to see my family’s hometown on the list of “worst places in southeast asia”!”
What followed was a series of abusive “quote-tweeting”, the majority of which were simple expressions of racial hatred, one implied death threat and some expletive-filled religious condemnation (“You’re all going to hell you massive c*nts”).
We sincerely hope this article does not cause any further offence. We never intended to provoke anger and would like to live in a world devoid of visceral hatred of the sort that we witnessed during this “Twitter storm”. We firmly believe that ALL forms of bigotry are abhorrent. We firmly believe that generalisation is NEVER a true depiction of the truth.
On that note…
South East Asia Backpacker readers are not a colour, they are many colours, from many places and with many backgrounds. This website is a celebration of the diversity of the region we discuss, of the people that live there and of the people that visit.
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