South East Asia is a big place, it’s densely populated and there are so many different people and different languages. It’s generally pretty hot most of the time, with only a few places in the north ever really cooling down substantially (such as Hanoi, which had maximums of around 15 degrees when I was there!) and the history over the last 100 years or so does get ugly at times. But also, this region has been, prior to Covid-19, been bursting at the seams as far as tourism is concerned. It’s probably having a well-deserved break right now, although the tourist industry is probably really struggling.
So today I look at my favourite cities – and indeed towns – in this region. Generally I have to say that whilst all the countries from Myanmar to Indonesia really offer something to the traveller, some of the cities aren’t much to write home about. I mean, they are big and polluted and not the MOST pleasant in the world I guess. Or others are actually super clean but really didn’t show me anything unique or anything that made me want to come back and explore. But then, there are some cities that I thought were pretty amazeballs too. And so, here’s my list for South East Asia.
Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam
Vietnam’s busiest city, the former Saigon, encapsulates all the craziness, the busy-ness of your typical large South East Asian city. Somehow though, compared to others such as Bangkok or Phnom Penh (one of my least favourite cities in the region) there is something special and enticing about Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s really an incredible place, always moving, always buzzing. Vietnam is a pretty friendly country, and in the middle of town there are parks where if you hang out for a short time you will be approached by young locals who want to practice and develop their English. People in general like to get out and about in the parks for exercise. The roads are wide and full of all forms of traffic – bicycles to cars to trucks. It’s that sort of organised chaos that leaves you a little breathless, in a good way.
There are some interesting, if quite different museums too, including the museum to the war, showing a different history that we don’t get to see in the west. Confronting, and will challenge the western visitor. Truth is never absolute, it always is seen through a filter. Travel challenges in so many ways, and challenging perceptions is not a bad thing. Also – HCMC is a great place to start your Vietnam adventure. You can do a day trip to the Cu Chu Tunnels or take a tour out to the Mekong Delta from this city as well!
Singapore is an interesting one. I haven’t met someone who said they hated Singapore. It’s a city state, and is a very different city to the others on my list. Start with the fact that the official language of Singapore is English, and that it is undeniably the richest city on this list, it’s a real success story of the entire region.
It’s a modern metropolis, it has great public transport, Malay, Chinese and Indian people live together without much issue (and others), it might be the model for cities of the future because it has made a success through finance and from making it the perfect ‘stop-over’ city in the region.
It’s a modern tourist city – the sights are created really, the districts historical, the cuisine excellent and incredibly varied. You will find pretty much any kind of food you might be looking for if you look in Singapore, but that’s not to say you can’t head to markets and get fantastic Chinese food at reasonable prices.
If there’s one criticism, it’s that it’s not the cheapest city there is, certainly not in the region and so for the backpacker it can be tricky to keep your costs down. If you have a little cash to splash though, the hotels are amazing and the sights are great fun, innovative and colourful.
There is the entire small island of Sentosa set up for tourists, and it includes Universal Studios Singapore, a lot of fun for the family. You can take a cable car/gondola to the top of Singapore for great views, and of course I visited the incredible Gardens by the Bay earlier this year, a very unique and modern take on botanicas! Having said that, Singapore also has some beautiful Botanical Gardens worth visiting which are more traditional. And for your history, check out the Changi Prison and learn about the battle for Singapore in World War II. Oh, and then at the famous Raffles Hotel try a Singapore Sling!
Luang Prabang, Laos
The smallest on this list, Luang Prabang is everyone’s favourite town in Laos. This sleepy little town on the banks on the Mekong doesn’t have tourist attractions by the dozen, but it’s laid-back pace and beautiful setting more than makes up for that. Besides, take a day tour to the Pak Ou caves or the Kuang Si Waterfalls – a perfect spot where you can swim to spend the entire afternoon.
Dinner by the river is a must, there a plenty of spots to eat as well – My favourite was enjoying a Lao BBQ where we had a little BBQ thing on our table and we were instructed in how to use it and cooked our own meat, vegies and eggs! There’s a little hike to the top of the hill to get a great view of the town and surrounds. There are a few temples to explore as well, and then some rickety but very cool indeed bridges across the river. Or find a book to read and spend a week doing that. Sounds pretty good to me right now!
Chiang Mai, Thailand
I struggled to decide on my final city, and in the end I settled on this one in Thailand. Its main rival was Myanmar’s Mandalay, but I feel I haven’t spent enough time there. Chiang Mai I have been to twice, and it is a very agreeable city in many respects. My only issue with the city is that, for so long now, it is a real TOURIST city.
By that I mean, you can lose the city in amongst the tourists, and we all go there for the same reasons, to see the same temples, to do an elephant trek (I did one in 1999) and to see ‘Tiger Kingdom’. I regret doing both, especially the second one. They swear they don’t drug the tigers, and for some reason only five years ago I was naive enough to believe them. As awesome as it is to get a photo of yourself snuggled up against a tiger, DON’T. One of my biggest travel regrets.
So wait, I was recommending this city??? Yes. So, the markets are pretty cool. Night market is the most famous, and it has every trinket you might want to buy. I think the best thing I did in Chiang Mai was actually see Muy Thai. Not normally my sort of thing, and most of the crowd were foreigners, but it was interesting and it seemed to be run fairly.
Chiang Mai has an old part and new part of the city, and there are old city walls, parts of which still stand, and a moat as well. The temples are worth seeing, and although I feel disappointed that the town is ‘over run’ with foreigners, you can see that they have a real sense of community. Also, compared to the other cities in Thailand that I have visited, Chiang Mai was clearly the most likeable. It certainly is a much nicer place than Bangkok in my mind.
So, there they are. Chiang Mai just scraping in above Mandalay which if I was to write this post on a different day with slightly different thoughts in my head, might pip it for the final place. Other notable towns – Hoi An and Dalat in Vietnam, and Penang in Malaysia. Sadly I’ve only been to one place thus far in Indonesia and am yet to get to the Philippines. Thanks for reading today – what are your favourites in South East Asia? May the Journey Never End!