All the countries in Southeast Asia have established art scenes, but each have a few destinations that really stand out, and they can form a highlight for culture-vultures.
Some of these towns, especially those with UNESCO World Heritage listing, may have a certain Disneyland-esque feel to them, thanks to gentrification: Boutique hotels and cafes have moved in as the residents have moved out, but the appeal still remains. We’d rather have this as the price to pay for the heritage listing than have had the charming buildings all demolished for gleaming glass and brass. In high season, some of these towns can be extremely busy with tourists.
A trio of World Heritage favourites are Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An in Vietnam and Georgetown in Malaysia. All three boast excellent colonial and traditional buildings, a thriving food scene and some tremendous accommodation options. They also all lure staggering crowds. Visiting in high season—or even across holiday weekends—can verge on being downright unpleasant. Pick your timing carefully. Built on the back of their heritage listing, all three have a broad range of interesting activities aimed at the more culturally minded. These can be anything from traditional cooking classes to bicycle trips out to the surrounding countryside. Be careful to allow enough time in these destinations.
While lacking a UNESCO listing, Cambodia’s Battambang shares some similarities with the above three. It has a developing creative arts scene, while also offering an escape from its far busier neighbour, Siem Reap. We’ve long been big fans of this town, which offers lovely traditional shopfronts and solid eating. If you find Siem Reap too frantic, consider some time here.
The Thai capital Bangkok is the epicentre of the country’s art scene, but we like to stray a little over the river to Thonburi or south to Amphawa. Thonburi in particular is well worth a look—even for just a day trip. While there are homestays in Thonburi, for those looking for a more far-flung experience, Amphawa, an hour or so to the west of Bangkok, is an excellent destination for those looking for a bit more of an insight into traditional ways of life.
The erstwhile trading enclave of Melaka, towards the southern tip of Peninsular Malaysia, offers many of the same attractions of its northern neighbour Georgetown. You'll find plenty of museums, galleries and cultural attractions, walking and cycling tours and a tremendous food scene.
From Melaka it is but a hop, skip and a jump (well, actually just a bus ride) to Singapore. The island state is home to more than a dozen museums and galleries, many of them truly world class. The museums cover everything from art and science to culture to urban development—and to a superior standard. More of an art lover? The National Gallery attracts world-class exhibitions and also displays outstanding local efforts.
For many, Bali is the destination on the lips when it comes to art and culture in Indonesia. While it's certainly true that Bali has a vibrant art and culture scene, we’d suggest culture vultures also cool their heels for a spell in Java's Yogyakarta. A university town, Yogyakarta could be described as the cultural hub of Java and is internationally recognised for its creative talents. It is also within convenient striking distance of Borobudur, one of the most magnificent Buddhist monuments you’re likely to see. Back to Bali, yes there are the throngs of painters in Ubud, but the true charms are a little further flung; you could easily while away a week solely visiting museums and galleries day in, day out.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.