Southeast Asia is a very diverse region that makes it great for exploring. Whether you are on a several month long backpacking trip or a quick holiday, there are loads of places to choose from. From beaches to jungles, relaxing to trekking, there is much to offer. This post particularly focuses on some of the cities in the region. There are many great cities in Southeast Asia to visit, full of fantastic things to do. This ranges from exploring historic temples to finding street art, enjoying great street food to checking out museums and much more.
The criteria I used to pick these 10 awesome cities in Southeast Asia is simple. They are my favourite from those that I have personally visited. However narrowing it do was tough. I have journeyed across a lot of the region and visited many. These 10 made the cut because I really enjoyed my visit to each of them, and I am very happy to recommend them to other visitors. I feel this list is quite varied too, and spread out across the region well. This area of the world is somewhere I feel a lot of affection for, it’s one I love exploring. You can also check out my suggested Southeast Asia backpacking itinerary for tips about where and when to travel in the region.
So lets take a look at 10 awesome cities in Southeast Asia and at what makes them great to visit. For each city I will talk both about the attractions to see there and why I personally love the city. I hope this inspires you to visit them yourself one day!
Located in the North of Thailand, Chiang Mai is the cultural hub of the region. There are many Buddhist temples here and several of them are worth a visit. Right at the old historic centre of the city you can find Wat Chedi Luang where you can join monks for a chat in the afternoons. Taking a ride up the nearby mountain you find Doi Suthep, which as well as Buddhist religious significance also gives you some great views over the surrounding area. I personally also really like Wat Chiang Man and Wat Umong. I feel like they both have a pleasant atmosphere and some great Buddhist artwork and architecture to view.
Along with temples the city is well know for it’s great food, cafes and Night Bazaar. Importantly for me the city has a relaxed vibe, and even though it’s a big city with a large population. There is good diversity in the food on offer, from street food to sit down restaurants. If you like Thai cuisine this a great place to try different Thai curry’s and soups such as Tom Yam. As well as staples like Pad Thai and spring rolls. The markets are good too, and the Night Bazaar has a food hall for tasty cheap eats.
The city is also a great base to explore the surrounding area. The nearby Doi Inthanon National Park has some nice scenery and you can join treks through the jungle with local guides. The local area is home to ‘hill tribes’ of different peoples and cultures such as the Karen. With a guide you can visit their villages and see how they live their every day life
Visiting Elephants ethically
The Elephant Nature Park is nearby to the city and have an office in the centre. Here you can see and learn about Elephants in an environment which is healthy for them. Many Elephants in Southeast Asia are tortured and abused to force them to accept people on their backs for ‘rides’. This sanctuary has a strict no riding policy. Many of the Elephants here have in fact been rescued, some from riding and others from logging. The sanctuary really is a pioneer in ethical Elephant tourism. If you want to see Elephants that are well cared for when you visit Southeast Asia then I really recommend this sanctuary. They are very popular so book in advance.
Thinking of visiting? You can check out my list of things to in Chiang Mai here.
The city state of Singapore is a really modern city that blends together technology with tradition. It has a good China town and Little India to explore, the latter in particular has some amazing vegetarian restaurants. Singapore is well known as a cultural melting post and there really is a vast variety of great food available here. As well as food there are of course many different temples to see. Buddhist and Hindu temples are some of the highlights here. These include the great Buddha Tooth Relic Temple located in Chinatown and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Little India. You can also find Christian Churches and Islamic Mosques as you explore the city.
The Gardens By The Bay are really mind blowing, the feat of engineering to create the super tree grove is very impressive. They are worth visiting both in the day and again in the evening, when they put on a light and sound show. The Art science museum is awesome too, making technology fun and accessible.
I personally think the Asian Civilisations Museum which is located in the Singapore is one of the greatest museums in the world. It is full of artefacts, artwork and information from across the Southeast Asia area. Along with this the National Gallery has an astounding collection of artwork from Singapore and across the region. In addition to these the National Museum really gives a good insight into the history of Singapore and educates you well about the city. Honestly these 3 places are just so well designed and organised, they play a big part in why I love the city.
Stuff yourself with Singaporean food
Food is a big deal here and honestly I had some amazing meals in Singapore. As a vegetarian I found the Indian dishes were particularly fantastic. In the Little India part of the city you can find many great restaurants. I recommend trying a ‘Thali’ so you can experience several different flavours. I also liked finding the vegetarian stalls in the hawker centres and food halls. There was some really interesting things to try such as soy balls in ginger sauce and vegetarian versions of local dishes like curry’s or soups.
The capital of Malaysia is a huge city with over 7.25 million people in it’s greater urban area. I have always had the feeling Kuala Lumpur gets overlooked by many travellers who use it simply as a transport hub. Certainly with it’s connections it’s great for getting to other places across Malaysia and the wider region. But in truth I love the city in it’s own right and feel it has a lot to offer.
The iconic Petronas Twin Towers and Batu Caves are obvious starting points. They are both visually striking and the subject of many a social media post. Moving from on from them you can find a whole host of awesome things to see and do. The KL Tower for example gives you amazing views over the city. And the Perdana Botanical Gardens (dating from the British Colonial era) are a pleasant place to go walking.
Like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur is also great for food. Again there is a fantastic Little India here and I really love all the Indian food on offer. And as with Singapore the food halls offer some great dishes too, I found great vegetarian versions of Malaysian curries. Shopping is a big deal here and there are several big malls serving customers. They normally have food halls as well as loads of different restaurants, both local and international.
A great place to see culture
I think the city has a lot going on and of fantastic variety. There is a real cultural mix here of the different peoples who make up Malaysia. I was blown away by how much I enjoyed the Islamic Art Museum here. It’s collections of artwork from across the Islamic world was really interesting to see and learn about. I think the temples are good to see here too. Though maybe not as large as others in the Southeast Asia region, China Town has some good ones like the Taoist Guan Di Temple and Hindu Sri Mahamariamman Temple. The Islamic Masjid Jamek Mosque is an impressive place to visit too, with great aesthetics both inside and when views from a distance.
Interested in visiting Kuala Lumpur? You can find my travel guide for the city here.
Many people don’t like Bangkok on their first visit, and I was the same. However after a few more visits the city has grown on my and I simply had to include it in on this list of awesome cities in Southeast Asia. Yes, the Thai capital is full of traffic and pollution. But it has a certain charm to it, and the more you scratch the surface the more you discover.
A good way to start any trip here is by checking out the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Thai Buddhists take their dedication to the religion very seriously and these 2 sites offer a great insight into worship in the country. They feature some great Buddhist architecture and artwork. The Grand Palace has been the official residence for the Thai Monarchs since 1782. And the latter features a huge golden reclining Buddha, which is an impressive 46 meters long.
Khao San Road is a backpacker hub and full of travellers and backpackers. Whilst it’s good for a drink to socialise with others, honestly I would go elsewhere to try street food or if you need to do any shopping. Bangkok is full of street food and malls, both of which are very ingrained into local life here. The MBK Centre and Siam Paragon showcase the modern side of the city. They are always busy with locals shopping, eating and hanging out with each other. China Town is always a good place to visit in any city, and there is a large one here. The Chatuchak weekend market can be fun too, and is always crammed full of locals.
Check out Bangkok’s parks
Surprisingly given how much traffic and skyscrapers there are in the city, Bangkok has some excellent parks. Lumphini Park and Rot Fai park are my two favourites. As well as offering some pleasant walks around green areas, they give you the opportunity to spot the huge monitor lizards. They roam around the wet areas and I find them really interesting to observe. In what is a very busy city a trip to the park can certainly be a welcome break for the afternoon.
Looking for things to do in Bangkok? Here’s my 10 recommended highlights.
The heart of Northern Laos, Luang Prabang is a laid back city with some great sites to visit. Its location on the Mekong helps gives it a great vibe, and it’s a real backpacker hub. There is a strong French Colonial feel here too, with many old buildings from that time period.
One of the popular things here is the Night Market. Its one of the largest in Southeast Asia and has many wares on offer. In particular I recommend trying the Vegetarian buffet, it’s great value and the food is amazing! Look for it down a side corridor off of the main market road. Laung Prabang has a lot of good food and coffee places and is a great place to relax. Utopia bar is a popular place here, expect to see many of those doing the Southeast Asia backpacking trail to pass through here at some point.
Kuang Si waterfalls are found 29K to the south of the city, and are a ‘must visit’. They really are beautiful, with many layers to admire. Be sure to check out the ‘secret’ pool at the top. You can get Tuk-Tuk’s there from the city centre, be sure to drive a bargain with the driver. Haggling is expected and you won’t get a good deal otherwise.
As with other many cities in Southeast Asia there are temples here to check out. I particularly liked Wat Xieng Thong Sim and its intricate artwork. Phousi Hill is a popular spot to climb, as well as Buddhist imagery you get a great view over the Mekong.
The Slow Boat
If your coming into Loas from Thailand be sure to get the slow boat here. You can cross over from Chiang Kong to Houay Xai via immigration. Boarding the slow boat, you will then sail down the Mekong river for 2 days until you reach Luiang Prabang. Don’t worry you don’t need to sleep on the boat! It stops at the town of Pak Beng, which is full of guesthouses and restaurants to cater for travellers. Additionally this is a great way to meet other backpackers and make friend to explore Laos with.
The boat also goes the over way of course, so if Luang Prabang is your last stop in Laos then it’s great way to exit the country.
Formerly known as Rangoon, this city is full of reminders of Myanmar’s colonial history. Back when it was known as Burma, the country was under British rule, which lasted from 1824 to 1948. Wandering the streets you can see many old colonial buildings. I really enjoyed taking my camera out and photographing what I could find.
Mynamar is of course a Buddhist nation, and the religion has a long history here. There are several temples worth checking out in the city. The Crowning jewel though is the Shwedagon Paya. This pagoda features a huge golden stupa at it’s centre, and is surrounded by many more Buddhist shrines and decorations. Its a big pilgrimage spot for Buddhists, particularly those of the Theravada sect. I spent 3 hours here, from afternoon until dusk, and enjoyed it greatly. Remember when visiting here that you must remove both your shoes and your socks! Therefore you may want to come either early morning or late afternoon, to avoid the midday sun burning your feet as you walk around the grounds. Those floors get very hot!
As with many of these awesome cities In Southeast Asia, there is some great food to be had here. Don’t miss an opportunity to grab some lunch or dinner in a Burmese restaurant. As well a string out the food the local atmosphere is really something. 2 restaurants I recommend trying are Aung Thukha Myanmar restaurant and Feel Myanmar Food restaurant.
Taking photos with the locals
One of the thing I really noticed in my first few days in Myanmar was how happy many of the locals were to meet foreigners. Yangon was my first stop and I was amazed at how happy people were to pose for photographs. I would never normally ask anyone to take their picture. But I had so many locals ask me for mine, I thought why not try? And a lot of the time people were pointing at my camera telling me to take a photo of them. Whether this will last as Mynamar opens up to tourism I do not know. But it was certainly a great experience to interact with so many locals.
In the picture above are a family which called me and the guy I was walking with over. I’d met him on the way to the Botataung Paya temple and we hung out for the afternoon, taking photos of the city. As we were walking along this family saw us with our camera’s and called us over. They asked us to take photos of them and happily posed! If your interested to meet local people away form the tourist sites then Yangon is a fantastic city to explore.
You can read more about Yangon in my recommended things to do in the city.
I’m sure many who have been would say Hội An is the prettiest of this list of awesome cities in Southeast Asia, and I would have to agree! Its found in central Vietnam and historically was an important trading port. Merchants came from China, Portugal The Netherlands and elsewhere. Japanese traders have particularly left their mark, the city has a famous ‘Japanese Bridge’. This was constructed in the 16th Century CE to link the Japanese community to the Chinese one.
Hội An’s main trading period was the 15th to 19th centuries. What attracts so many visitors now is just how well preserved the cities old town is and how great the locals make it look. The streets are fun to explore, they are very photogenic, and there are lots of interesting stores to check out too. The market area is a good place to observe locals going about their daily business. And of course you can try Vietnamese food too. Phở is of course the most well known Vietnamese dish, and it is great. Hotpots are popular too, as well as platters.
Whilst your walking around the old town look out for the temples and meeting halls. There are several that were built by Chinese merchants from varying provinces, and they have some great artwork and architecture.
Relax at the beach
As well as it’s beautiful streets Hội An has some wonderful beaches to visit. In fact when I visited after staying one night in the city I actually moved out to by the beach and i’m really glad I did. It’s easy to get back to the city centre by taxi or bicycle so there are no worries there. I stayed at a place by An Bang beach and there was a great relaxed atmosphere in the area. This is definitely one of the cities in Southeast Asia where you can combine urban exploring with some quality beach time!
Street art is a real big deal here, there are amazing pieces everywhere. Its one of the main reasons why Penang has become one of the most popular cities in Southeast Asia. The Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic has done several pieces that are fantastic to admire. There are plenty of other pieces by different artists too, you can spend hours and hours just wandering the city seeing what you find. In particular the old Hin Bus Depot has been converted into a community art centre and has some amazing murals there.
Another massive draw of Penang is it’s food. Malaysia is a country with a big ethnic mix, particularly of Malay, Chinese and Indian. Penang in particular has a large Chinese community and a Little India. This means there is a great variety of food and honestly it is of such an amazing quality. You find so many amazing places here and try many different styles of food.
This mix also means you can find various different temples here. There are several Chinese temples here serving the different Chinese communities. For example the Penang Teochew Association temple serves the Teochew community, who originate from the Chaoshan region of China. Look out Mosques, Churches and Hindu temples too.
Kek Lok Si Temple
Right on the outskirts of George Town, in the Air Itam suburb, you can find Kek Lok Si temple. Its a Buddhist temple blending the Theravada and Mahayana branches, along with Chinese traditional rituals and practises. The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, it attracts pilgrims from all over Southeast Asia. Personally I love this temple, I found it to be one of my highlights of not just Malaysia but the region as a whole region. There is so much colour here and lots of Buddhist and Chinese symbolism to admire.
This city in South Vietnam is one I found really fun to visit. There are all kinds of things to do here and I was surprised by how much I fell in love with the city. Plus it’s home to my favourite hostel in the world, Cozy Nook! Its a friendly family run place that does home dinner every night. Some of the best food I’ve ever had.
Some of my surprise came from the fact that most of the city itself isn’t actually that great. The road layout can be confusing and there are cars everywhere. Its the activities and the vibe here that really make the city a fun place to visit. For example swan boat rides on the lake are a great way to relax for an hour or so. And if you feel more active, hiking the nearby Lang Bian Mountain is fun and reqards you with great views at the top.
Dalanta Waterfall is a fun place to check out. You can take a roller-coaster ride there as admire the scenery. The 100 Roofs Cafe is a popular place for backpackers in the evening. Its a bar, haunted house, hide and seek venue and multi story adventure maze all rolled into one. Consequently it is an excellent place to play hide and seek. And whilst I haven’t done it myself, bouldering is a popular activity in the Da Lat area. In conclusion there is tonnes to do here!
The Crazy House
One of the more bizarre attractions in Da Lat is Hằng Nga Guesthouse, aka ‘The Crazy House’. It was designed and built by the architect Đặng Việt Nga and visitors can wander around and admire her creation. Its like a weird fairy tale land full of surprise! Should you wish to stay here there are 10 guest rooms, all designed differently.
Rounding off this list of 10 Awesome Cities In Southeast Asia is Yogyakarta. Found on the island of Java, Indonesia, it’s a vibrant city full of art and culture. Looking around the city I was really impressed by how much street art there was and how good it is. The city is also known as ‘Jogjakarta’ and ‘Jogja’ for short. The area of the city and around is known as the Yogyakarta Special Region. It is home to Indonesia’s only Monarchy, the Yogyakarta Sultanate.
One of the things Yogyakarta is famous for is it’s Gudeg. Its a cuisine made from jackfruit, coconut milk and palm sugar. The term Gudeg is used interchangeably with restaurants that serve it, where you can great food at reasonable prices. It is generally eaten with rice. You can additionally choose from tofu, tempeh, egg and chicken to accompany it.
At the centre of the city is the Kraton. This is the cities core and home to the Sultanate. The Sultans Palace is open to visitors and is a great place to admire Javanese culture and architecture. Another interesting place to visit in the city is the Water Castle. Taman Sari as it is also called was built in the 1700’s and was the Sultanates bathing house and garden.
Borobudur and Prambanan
These 2 fantastic temples are the main reason why Yogyakarta has become a well established destination for foreign tourists. They are both huge, in fact Borobudur is actually considered the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Prambanan is itself Hindu, and was likely built in response to Borobudur. The 2 religions were competing in the region at the time, though of course the island of Java has converted to Islam since. You’ll find loads of tour companies offering tours from Yogyakarta to see them both, and it’s a great day trip.
If your planning a visit you can check out my Yogyakarta travel guide here.
Thank you for checking out this post about these 10 Awesome Cities In Southeast Asia.
The region as a whole of course has many more amazing cities, and I could have listed many more here. Hanoi for example is somewhere I loved spending New Years in, and a place I really want to go back to and explore further. Melaka in Malaysia is another place I feel I should specifically mention, it offers a great blend of culture, art and history.
If you haven’t been to the region I hope this post inspires you to visit. And if you have feel free to comment your Favourite Southeast Asian Cities below!
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