Where should you go on your Southeast Asia vacation? Build your itinerary around these ten cities.
Asia’s cities can get a harsh rap compared to their European counterparts. With one or two exceptions, they’re not particularly orderly, and there are very few cobblestone streets that look like they belong on the lid of a chocolate box. That’s also part of the fun! Southeast Asia in particular moves to its own rhythms, with vast differences and some surprising similarities observed as you move from country to country. There are plenty of standout urban adventures to consider, but here are ten that stand out for us as Southeast Asia’s best city breaks.
“The Big Mango” is many Globetrotters’ first taste of Southeast Asia, and the poster child for just how colourful, chaotic, and fun the region can be. Bangkok has everything you could ask of a modern capital, alongside hundreds of years of Thai history. The Royal Palace, eye-popping temples, delicious street food, and sleepless nightlife all come together to create a swirling sensory overload, and an unforgettable urban adventure. It’s also a great base for day trips, including to the ruins of Ayutthaya, and the River Kwai region. It’s a great place to start your Southeast Asia vacation, but you could easily spend two weeks here and not get bored, whether you’re a foodie, a shopaholic, or a history buff.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Feeling a bit overloaded by the Thai capital? Your respite lies in the north of the country, where Chiang Mai has preserved Northern Thailand’s traditions in a way that offers visitors an insight, without ever feeling too “touristy” (though it’s certainly a popular tourist town). A few days here is all about great food, exploring the walled city, perhaps visiting an elephant camp, and immersing yourself in a gentler, less hurried and less westernized Thailand. Take a trip into the hills to meet some of the unique hill tribes that make Northern Thailand so distinctive.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Asia’s most laid back country continues to cast its spell on visitors. Nowhere is this truer than in Luang Prabang, where the sight of monks collecting their morning alms has almost become the country’s signature image. Peace and natural beauty are the main attractions here, and the surrounding area reveals entrancing sights such as the Pak Ou Caves, and the Kuang Si Falls, where a refreshing swim is a must. Low prices and a distinctive culture make Luang Prabang a popular choice on an Asia vacation, with young travellers in particular.
The centuries old Vietnamese capital of Hanoi is often a favourite among travellers, delivering all the swirling mayhem of a busy Southeast Asian hub, with the unmistakable grace and confidence of a thousand-year-old city. The narrow streets of the Old Quarter harbor countless shops, eateries, and local watering holes, ideal for hours of shopping, snacking, or just people watching. Relax with a walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, pause for some reflection at the Temple of Literature, visit the father of the modern country at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and explore the grand architecture of the French district. That’s before you’ve gotten out of town to take in the surreal beauty of either Ha Long Bay, the hilly Sapa region, or both.
Hoi An, Vietnam
Looking for a picture perfect, “chocolate box” town, on your Asia vacation, filled with traditional architecture and a gentle pace of life? Hoi An is the answer to your prayers. This small city’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Ancient Town is a respite from the rapid modernization of Vietnam. With its colourful low rise buildings, ancient temples, quiet (often pedestrianized) streets, peaceful waterways, and abundant tailor shops, walking through Hoi An can feel like you’ve stepped into one of the paintings on offer in countless markets elsewhere in Vietnam – except this town is very real. Budget travellers be warned that while Hoi An is one of the most affordable cities you’ll ever visit, prices skyrocket within the Ancient Town. Dine and drink outside of it to keep things under control.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, still known to the locals as Saigon, is the chaotic face of a modern Vietnam that never sleeps and barely slows down. If you can handle the year-round heat and rush of traffic, on your Southeast Asia vacation, you’ll be rewarded with a “big city” experience that remains uncompromisingly Vietnamese. History buffs interested in the “American War” won’t want to miss the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Hall. But Saigon is more about the experience at street level, where you can eat, drink, shop, and explore 24/7. Ordering up a delicious (and cheap!) dinner with a glass of local beer and watching Saigon go by at night is a Vietnam must-do. A day trip out to the picturesque Mekong Delta is a great way to escape the chaos if needed, though the city also boasts plenty of parks and green spaces.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh can be a little intimidating at first. The town has a rough reputation, and several of its biggest draws aren’t exactly uplifting tourist attractions. Still, one can’t begin to understand Cambodia without understanding the horrifying years of the Khmer Rouge. That begins at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, and at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, 11 kilometres outside town. A visit to the two will put your whole trip into perspective. On a less somber note, Phnom Penh is also one of the few cities in Asia where you can still enter an active king’s residence, in this case, the Royal Palace. Don’t miss the Silver Pagoda, and pop into the National Museum when you’re done to see the best collection of Khmer artefacts outside of Angkor. Phnom Penh is also the heartbeat of modern Cambodia, with a rapidly expanding restaurant and nightlife scene, if you care to explore.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
There’s really only one reason Siem Reap is on the tourist map, but it’s a big one. The town’s economy is powered by visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Once the capital of the vast Khmer Empire, this is one of the world’s most expansive ruins sites, surrounding Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Taking in dawn over the massive central temple is a visitor’s rite of passage, before exploring the abandoned city of Angkor Thom, along with ruined temples such as Ta Prohm and Preah Khan in detail. Just be sure to leave a little time to enjoy Siem Reap itself. While the town is unabashedly touristy, its popularity has helped cultivate a great restaurant and bar scene, one of Southeast Asia’s most shopper-friendly night markets, and some accessible opportunities to engage with locals.
Visit the Angkor Wat Temples – a “Must-See” Cambodia Tour Gem
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur tends to get sidelined as travellers to Malaysia head to Borneo, the Cameron Highlands, or beach destinations. It can seem overwhelming and chaotic at first, on your Asia vacation, but persevere. KL mashes up the best elements of Bangkok and Singapore, overlaying them with Malaysia’s unique mix of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian culture. Strikingly modern triumphs, like the Petronas Towers, overlook traditional temples and mosques, along with serene green spaces. Trek out to Batu Caves to bring nature and religion together in a memorable half-day trip, and above all, allow plenty of time to shop and eat like never before, all at bargain prices.
Singapore is like no other city on this list. It’s an independent city state shaping itself more as an idyllic garden with skyscrapers and neighbourhoods than a city. A fusion of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures, Singapore finds itself bringing Asia’s traditions into the future with cutting edge technology, eco-friendly priorities, well-oiled public infrastructure, and a serious addiction to shopping and good food. It’s also wildly expensive compared to every other city here. Still, unless you’re a big drinker or want to dine and sleep in top-notch restaurants and hotels, Singapore remains a good deal. It’s also an ideal choice for “beginners” on their Southeast Asia vacation who want to experience the region in a well-ordered, easy-to-navigate city that captures the continent in miniature, or for those wanting to spend a few days in what could be the region’s future.