Big cities have always been melting pots. It’s in cities where you can observe how local people live, where the young and educated aspire for more – and, more profanely – you can do most of the sightseeing.
Simply put: You haven’t seen Southeast Asia if you haven’t been to these six cities.
Top 6: Chiang Mai (Thailand)
Chiang Mai is a city of almost 300 temples. Most visitors spend 2-3 days walking around the old quarter inside the moat, temple hopping from Wat Phra Singh via Wat Chedi Luang to Wat Chiang Man.
Chiang Mai’s other drawing card are its evening markets with good choices and low prices for all kinds of souvenirs, including handicraft and paintings. There are numerous open house artist workshops, where you can watch the painters do their work.
When you are done with city sightseeing, go on daytrips to admire the scenery in the Golden Triangle border region between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) – don’t wander too much off the beaten track here, this is traditionally a drug trafficking hotspot.
Our GuideGecko Rating for Chiang Mai:
Historic Sights: **** (4 of 5 stars: Almost 300 temples will keep you busy)
Modern Sights: - (nada: Not much modern of interest here)
Nightlife: ** (2 of 5 stars: Some bars are good for a few beers, with a lively student and backpacker scene)
Shopping: **** (4 of 5 stars: Large markets with good prices for souvenirs, handicraft and paintings)
Mood: Weekend trippers
Top 5: Hoi An (Vietnam)
Hoi An is a small, picturesque town in central Vietnam, conveniently located on the Thu Bon River near the South China Sea. Founded as a trading port in the 17th century, Hoi An’s narrow lanes and quaint old shophouses are full of “Old Vietnam flair” making you want stay to for a few days to soak up the atmosphere.
Many visitors also come to Hoi An for shopping. Besides the usual souvenirs, this includes tailor made clothes of all kinds: Shirts, suits, dresses, even shoes - all made to order.
While some shops are good, others feature rock bottom prices – and so is the quality of the material and the craft. You get what you pay for.
Our GuideGecko Rating for Hoi An:
Historic Sights: **** (4 of 5 stars: Hoi An Old Town is a potpourri of little heritage buildings)
Modern Sights: - (nada: And you wouldn’t want it any other way)
Nightlife: * (1 of 5 stars: Hoi An is a small town, but the sheer number of tourists means you can get your beers even late at night)
Shopping: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Tailor make everything!)
Mood: Travelers become shopaholics
Top 4: Singapore
Singapore is Southeast Asia's most westernized city. Founded in 1819, it is no wonder there are no ancient monuments to admire, but the ethnic districts offer a diverse and authentic background to the glittering façades of the modern skyscrapers. Make a day trip from Chinatown through the Colonial District to Malay Kampong Glam and Little India, and you will have seen most of it.
Orchard Road offers more shopping malls than you will ever need, and Clarke Quay is one of Asia premier nightlife spots. Surprisingly, Singapore also offers many green areas, parks and open spaces. All in all, Singapore is well worth 2-3 days, and perfect to acclimatize yourself to Southeast Asia.
Our GuideGecko Rating for Singapore:
Historic Sights: ** (2 of 5 stars: Chinatown, the Colonial District and Kampong Glam offer interesting historic buildings)
Modern Sights: ***** (5 of 5 stars: We say no other city in the world has that many interesting modern landmarks)
Nightlife: **** (4 of 5 stars: Some of the best nightlife in Asia, but not cheap!)
Shopping: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Singapore must be the only shopping mall in the United Nations)
Mood: No nonsense
Top 3: Hanoi (Vietnam)
While Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is dull and - yes – ugly, bustling Hanoi is Vietnam at its best. Often described as the Paris of the East, Hanoi stands out not for certain buildings or monuments, but for its authenticity. Walk through the streets and soak up the atmosphere in the old quarter. While you try to escape the motorbikes, notice how each street is home to a certain profession: Smiths on one, bakeries on the next, butchers another – and the list goes on.
In the evening, make your way to Bia Hoi corner for some roadside beers. Brewed locally, these light beers just cost a few cents and taste great!
Our GuideGecko Rating for Hanoi:
Historic Sights: ** (2 of 5 stars: It’s the overall vibe and authenticity that makes Hanoi special)
Modern Sights: - (nada: Nothing we can remember)
Nightlife: * (1 of 5 stars: A tight curfew leaves few opportunities for nightlife when Bia Hoi corner closes)
Shopping: *** (3 of 5 stars: You will find everything you need, but better buy your souvenirs in Hoi An)
Mood: A busy metropolis, Vietnamese style
Top 2: Luang Prabang (Laos)
Luang Prabang is the Laotian version of Chiang Mai – a very picturesque town of temples, monks and photo-hunting tourists. Situated on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang’s highlights include the Royal Palace Museum, Wat Xieng Thong, and watching the sunset from Phu Si hill. There are countless temples in the old quarter, and walking or cycling through the little lanes is a real pleasure.
Luang Prabang is an anchor point on the tourist radar for some time now, and as a result, a number of small, fine international restaurants have sprung up. Having a good dinner and strolling along the night market is a favorite traveler past-time. Don’t make it last too long into the night, though. You risk missing the absolute photo highlight - the ceremony of orange-dressed monks lining up for alms around dawn the next morning.
Our GuideGecko Rating for Luang Prabang:
Historic Sights: ***** (5 of 5 stars: The whole town feels like an open-air museum)
Modern Sights: - (nada: Any modern sights would ruin the show)
Nightlife: * (1 of 5 stars: Some restaurants double-up as bars)
Shopping: *** (3 of 5 stars: Good souvenir shopping at the night market)
Mood: A relaxed travelers’ town
Our Winner: Bangkok (Thailand)
Welcome to the heart of Asia. Bangkok can be described by only two words: Bustling and amazing. The whole city is constantly on the move, the traffic is frightening, the heat is overwhelming, and still, there are amazing spots where you can leave it all behind.
Visit the Grand Palace and the temples nearby, then go on a river cruise and ride through small canals past stilt houses and bathing children. Watch the floating market, haggle for a T-shirt, and wash it all down with some Sang Som and beers in one of the naughty bars and clubs. You’ll survive it - likely.
Our GuideGecko Rating for Bangkok:
Historic Sights: ***** (5 of 5 stars: The royal palace and temples offer Southeast Asia’s finest city sightseeing)
Modern Sights: * (nada: Mostly uninspired concrete, unfortunately)
Nightlife: ***** (5 of 5 stars: Rough and rowdy in the streets, chilly on the rooftop bars)
Shopping: ***** (5 of 5 stars: We bet you will tailor-make at least one suit or dress)
Mood: Always on the move, 25 hours a day
Want more highlights?
When you have enough of cities, check Southeast Asia’s other top highlights:
Agree or disagree with our best cities? Want to suggest another? Let’s discuss!