Enjoy art, pop culture, and traditions in these five emerging destinations in Southeast Asia

Most bucket lists tick off the usual Chiang Mai, Da Nang, Yangon, Luang Prabang, and who can blame them. These locations have their own charm, but there are interesting alternatives perfect for travelers in search of a more unique holiday destination.

We’ve got five travel gems where you can travel in hype for their hidden charm. Each destination has recently launched an art collaboration with an ASEAN artist under the program ‘ASEAN Pop Culture’, which pairs a lesser-visited city with a dose of out-of-the-box creativity. Visit and get a pop culture update on everything from art to fashion, food, literature, and local lifestyle.

Sawankhalok, Sukhothai (Thailand)

Fun fact: Sukhothai used to be the capital city of Thailand from 1238 to 1378, and it’s actually where the Thai alphabet originated. It has quietly wowed visitors with historical parks, signature pottery crafts and temples ever since.

The old-world charm of artefacts and archaeological sites is balanced out with the new, as artists and creators Kenji Chai (Malaysia), Ceno2 (Singapore), Peap Tarr and Lisa Mam, and local illustrator Jackkrit Anantakul (Thailand) are here to lend a hand. These artsy individuals are spreading their murals and graffiti work throughout Sawankhalok district, as part of a collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for the ‘ASEAN Pop Culture’ project.

Each mural is inspired by different characteristics of Sukhothai, everything from its people, local Muay Thai idols and even local flowers.

Laem Ngop, Trat (Thailand)

Ko Chang may take the spotlight when it comes to beaches in driving distance from Bangkok, but trust us when we say there’s plenty to see at Laem Ngop, a seaside city on Thailand’s Eastern shore. It functions as a gateway for adventurous tourists looking to explore Cambodia and thanks to its position on the Gulf of Thailand, foodies can look forward to inexpensive, fresh seafood.

If you’re looking to up your Instagram game (ocean shots, so overdone) find two murals scattered around Laem Ngop by award-winning National Geographic photographer Andrew Suryono (Indonesia) and illustrator Jirayu Koo (Thailand). Jirayu’s painting “Dancing Together” is a reminder for Laem Ngop to stay active and revitalized after the port crossing to Ko Chang was relocated to another part of Trat. Music by DJ-producer Alisson Shore (Philippines) and local rappers is further proof of Trat’s burgeoning music culture.

Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai (Thailand)

Sitting on the bank of the Mekhong River in the north of Thailand, Chiang Khong is a city that still has untouched nature to offer. The community welcomes tourists with open arms, and prides itself on the natural resources and innovations. Chiang Khong shares many things in common with Lao PDR.; the Mekhong River, traditional culture, and a love of art. Just ask the artistic collective comprising of Lao PDR.’s representatives from the Ministry of Information, illustrators Willian Luong and Toma Nguyen (Vietnam), and Nadzri Harif (Brunei).

Thailand’s Vinn and Patararin, the artists behind Vinn Patararin Thai designerwear, have created art installations inspired by bamboo and fishing nets — staples of Chiang Khong’s culture.

Battambang (Cambodia)

If you’ve checked Trat off the bucket list, head northeast across the border into one of Cambodia’s main rice-producing territories. In Battambang, you’ll find locals speaking Khmer, English, and French (and pretty well too, if you’re wondering).

As dusk falls each day, don’t be alarmed by the cloud of blackness shrouding the sky — those are just some bats leaving their cave to go hunting. Talk about putting the ‘bat’ in Battambang! Like many of the cities under TAT’s partnership, Battambang features art projects created specially to reflect the city’s charm. Take this mural from 2Choey (Thailand), which features rice straws and a sickle to form a heart, illustrating Cambodia and Thailand’s shared passion for rice farming.

Another surprise for the art scene in Battambang — a myriad of artwork painted across the city for the S’Art Urban Art Festival, as part of the ‘ASEAN Pop Culture’ connection between Phare Ponleu Selpak School and TAT.

Mandalay (Myanmar)

You may have come across an immaculate white temple as you flip through travel videos or the pages of a guidebook — that’s Hsinbyume Pagoda. If you can’t help but follow in the footsteps of those travel influencers, we won’t blame you. Mandalay has other attractions such as U Bein Bridge, Kuthodaw Pagoda, sunset views over Mandalay Hill, or even a remote part of Mandalay, Mingun.

TAT’s ‘ASEAN Pop Culture’ takes a different turn in Mandalay by focusing on food. Chiang Mai-based Chef Black from Blackitch Artisan Kitchen (Thailand) created a chef’s table menu infusing local art and culture, drawing inspiration from the four elements of earth, wind, fire, and water. Chef Black and TAT have also teamed up with local punkster and advocate of the Food Not Bombs cause, Kyaw Kyaw to feed the homeless.

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