It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking Southeast Asia is all jungle (or palm oil plantations!), islands and beaches, but it is also home to some of the greatest and most intriguing cities in Asia. Those who enjoy time in the big smoke won’t be disappointed.
Over the last couple of decades, Southeast Asian cities have gradually become more homogenised. Fuelled by booming economies, they’ve embraced modernity, constructing skyscrapers, massive malls, grand bridges and intricate transport systems to tie it all together. This has been led by Singapore, easily the most Westernised city in the region, but other cities, notably Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta, have also boomed.
That said, if there is one quintessential Southeast Asian city remaining, it would be Yangon. Only relatively recently opened to foreign tourism and large scale international investment, the city is at least a generation or two behind its contemporaries on the development front, so if you’re looking for old-school Southeast Asia, this is where you want to head. Think street upon street (many of which flood badly in wet season) lined with dilapidated colonial buildings and street side eateries and vendors.
Second comes Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, which has sprawled out way beyond the confines of its historic Old City. Visit it for the bustling winding lanes, street food, tiled roofs and Francophile feel. Though, as with Yangon, be quick; the heritage is being steadily replaced.
The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh has an unbeatable riverside setting, impressive French colonial buildings and tree-lined boulevards. The traffic though can these days take a bit of the pleasure out of the experience. Get up early. While the city is not dangerous, it does pay to be aware of your environment as theft, especially snatch and grab, is a problem. Some of the city’s prime attractions are focused around the traumas Cambodia has survived, with a visit to Tuol Sleng being an essential stop for those looking to gain some insight into what took place. Phnom Penh also boasts a vibrant cafe and dining scene, some great hotels and interesting shopping.
Bangkok boasts a vibrant and in places very sleazy nightlife, but like Phnom Penh, has a fantastic riverside setting. Watching the sun set over the Chao Phraya from a riverside bar or on the river itself is a memorable experience. Off the river, think gleaming skyscrapers and condos, infamous traffic and an energetic vibe. The city has a rich selection of museums, galleries and temples, and is also home to some more offbeat attractions and excellent cultural excursions. Food is everywhere.
We’ve always thought of Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta as three cities on the same continuum, with Singapore at one end, Jakarta at the other, and KL somewhere in between. They’re all punctuated with skyscrapers, amazing eating and decent nightlife, and each has that overbearing humid, right-by-the-equator vibe. Jakarta’s traffic is a slow motion train wreck while Singapore’s is quite smooth sailing. Travelling regionally, you’ll invariably pass through all three of these cities at some point, and each has its charms.
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.