After spending nearly a year and a half in Southeast Asia, I’ve certainly come to appreciate a few places more than others. Here are five of my favorite cities, with a focus on food, nightlife and sightseeing.
I got started with a trip to Bangkok, as most Americans do when they start a round-the-world (RTW) trip — it’s one of the largest hubs in the region. I’d been told to “land there and get out as soon as you can” by several people but I found it to be an amazing, dynamic and fascinating city. I recommend booking a Bangkok hotel and staying around a couple days to really explore the city and everything it has to offer. Every city has its character and Bangkok is definitely worth being explored.
There are several “must see” attractions: the Grand Palace and Wat Pho (home to the massive Reclining Buddha) are within walking distance of each other and the nearby Khao San Road, which is the epitome of cheesy backpacker tourism. Yes, it’s completely lame but it’s a must-see for just that reason. It’s also the place to go for cheap restaurants and the cheapest beer/drinks/hotels in the city.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is huge and overwhelming and well worth a half-day’s visit. Amazing photographic opportunities present themselves at every turn and I enjoyed a plate of the best pad thai I have ever eaten from a $1 roadside cart. Don’t miss it.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is rather like Bangkok’s smaller, mellower sister. With a metro-area population of just under one million (compared to Bangkok’s fourteen million), it’s much more relaxed and laid back. And, most importantly, it’s probably 30-40% cheaper than Bangkok. I rented a clean, quiet room there for $7 US per day and one can find nice apartments for rent for about $150 US per month.
The street food is amazing and incredibly cheap — most meals are $1 US or less. Check out the Chiang Mai Gate night market for a huge selection of some of the best street food you will ever eat.
Each Saturday and Sunday, Chiang Mai features a “Walking Street” market where hundreds of vendors sell everything from clothes to candles to more amazing street food. Both evenings start at 6pm and you should go early to avoid the massive crowds that pour in later. End the evening with a $4 sidewalk foot massage — highly recommended.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is Laos’ largest tourist attraction and though it may not feel overly ‘authentic’ any longer, it’s just so pretty that I find it hard to complain.
Built at the confluence of two major rivers, the Au and the Mekong, the city is a fascinating look into 19th- and early 20th-century Lao culture. A World Heritage site, the old city has been frozen in time and is a wonderful place to wander and relax for a few days. The river shore is lined with tasty outdoor cafes serving fish, noodles and several local specialties. Both the food and beer is cheap and hotel prices are surprisingly affordable for such a popular destination.
Hanoi is one of those places that you either love or you hate. The Old City is a warren of narrow, twisting alleys and you’re guaranteed to get yourself lost within ten minutes or less. But it’s a scene like no other full of life and noise — I stayed there a week and enjoyed even moment.
Grab a business card from your hotel, step out and get lost — this is the best way to see Hanoi. Forget about guidebooks and just wander. Stop at a local ‘beer hoi’ place and enjoy the locally brewed “world’s cheapest” beer. Then stop at a corner Pho shop and enjoy the best noodle soup you’ll ever find.
At the end of the day, hail a taxi to take to you back to the hotel. Be sure to agree on a price upfront — Hanoi’s taxis are infamous for using rigged meters.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I’ll admit — Cambodia was probably my least favorite of the SE Asian countries. I’m not saying it’s a poor place to visit but compared to the others, it pales a bit. Angkor Wat is a must and worth a trip even if you see nothing else of the country.
But Phnom Penh is something entirely different. For a capitol city, it is surprisingly worn and rundown. But there’s something about it that charms you. Cheap beer and food are easily found at riverside restaurants with great views of the Mekong or even cheaper street food and drink are found at small grills right on the river bank.
Those are my favorite cities. What are yours?