Travellers heading to Southeast Asia in search for the continent’s original and authentic spirit know it pays to wander off the beaten track. YouDiscover have released a study analysing 93 cities, across eleven countries, for nine criteria, including: accommodation costs, hotel variety, and proximity to the most beautiful sights. Taking the time to get to know an unfamiliar city or landscape can be a humbling and eye-opening experience, and findings from YouDiscover offer a useful roadmap for those embarking on their next adventure. While the modern metropolises offer accessible transport and plenty to see, national parks provide time for reflection, wildlife, and observation of the world’s natural wonders. The following results reveal the 15 cities in Southeast Asia that deserve to be top of a 2019 travel itinerary.
The numerous temples and floating villages that surround Siem Reap bestow a memorable mysticism upon the city. The world-famous Angkor Wat, a complex of temples covering 402 acres, is only 15 minutes away by car. Considered Cambodia’s national symbol, it’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It’s five towers resemble a lotus flower – a symbol of the old Khmer culture that represents purity in present day Cambodia. If you’re looking for evening activities after dark, Pub Street in Siem Reap comes to life with numerous nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, and offers a surreal contrast to the serenity of Angkor Wat. It’s these contradictions and sentiments that place Siem Reap top of the ranking as the ultimate Southeast Asia experience.
It’s hardly surprising that the Thai capital is ranked one of the top travel destinations for Southeast Asia. Known as the “city of contrasts”, the daily life of locals takes place next to bustling roads and street food stalls that sit humbly alongside air-conditioned shopping centres and financial towers. The boom in Asian investment since the 1980s has prompted many multinational finance and business companies to move their headquarters to Bangkok, and skyscrapers now form an impressive panoramic view of the financial skyline. With over 4,000 hotels and 700 restaurants, Bangkok offers a world of hospitality options and culinary possibilities. The biggest attractions in the city include the Grand Palace, a complex of buildings and gardens in the heart of the city, and the many floating markets with fresh fruit, flowers, and vegetables.
In the last two decades, the metropolis at the tip of the Malay peninsula has become the most dynamic country in Southeast Asia. With countless entertainment options, museums, galleries, and gardens, day or night: Singapore has plenty to see and do. The Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest ferris wheel, provides an unforgettable panoramic view of the city. Home to the world-largest rooftop infinity pool, the Marina Bay Sands hotel is also a popular viewing platforms for tourists. The Singapore Botanic Gardens are a necessary and charming retreat. At 158 years old and home to over 10,000 species within the park’s 2.5 kilometers, the gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the evening and twilight hours, the Clarke Quay promenade on the banks of the Singapore River offers cool drinks, exotic menus, and vibrant nightclubs for sleepless nights.
In contrast to the rest of the country, Phnom Péhn presents itself as a dynamic metropolis and modern economic centre. With 1.5 million inhabitants, Phnom Péhn is less populated than Bangkok, but boasts extensive entertainment possibilities. The Buddhist Stupa temple, Wat Phnom, sits on an artificial hill surrounded by a manicured green park. A visit to this temple during the Cambodian New Year – known as ‘Khmer New Year’ and the most important event in the Cambodian calendar – is a must. If you prefer to witness the excitement from afar, the spectacle can be observed by boat tour along the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers uniting Phnom Péhn. The trips start daily at the riverside promenade and offer an unforgettable view of the urban skyline, the Silver Pagoda, and the Royal Palace.
Đà Nẵng’s well-developed tourist coastline is home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Snow-white sand stretches over five kilometers alongside crystal-clear waters and mild waves. The World Heritage Site Hội An is less than an hour’s drive away. Considered the best trading destination in the 18th century, the well-preserved ancient town is cut-through with canals and decorated with Chinese, Japanese, and French colonial architecture, and oozes a blend of indigenous and foreign influences. Lanes decorated with lanterns offer attractive photo motifs for tourists. The old temple city of Mỹ Sơn is also worth a day trip from Đà Nẵng, and getting there costs just four euros. Temple ruins and tombs nestled within lush valleys bear witness to the regions Hindu past, as well as the Kingdom of Champa that dominated maritime Southeast Asia roughly 4,000 years ago.
Huế sits in the foreground of a mountainous landscape. The former imperial capital of Vietnam served as the seat of the emperor of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945. Today, the old Imperial City encompasses palaces and shrines that sit within a vast citadel surrounded by a moat and robust stone walls. A magnet for visitors: numerous hotels, restaurants, and bars have been built across the city. After dark, the Nguyen Dinh Chieu night market also comes to life, selling household goods, clothes, and souvenirs. For those who prefer a more tranquil evening, a walk along the southern bank of the Song Huong, “the Perfume River”, is a quieter alternative. The Bạch Mã National Park is less than an hour’s drive away in the Annamite Mountains, boasting an impressive and diverse array of plants. Popular walking routes include the path to the Hai Vong Dai viewing platform, and the five-lake hiking trail.
Brunei, the only sovereign state on the island of Borneo, is known for its beaches and biodiverse rainforest. The country gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1984 and has since then developed a thriving economy. The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, has relatively little tourist infrastructure compared to other Southeast Asian hotspots. Tourists pay the same price as locals for a water taxi to Kampong Ayer, the water city. This historical settlement consists of a cluster of traditional stilt villages on the Brunei River. Roughly every tenth inhabitant lives on the water, and schools, workshops, and mosques are connected by a network of wooden walkways. Brunei is also home to the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the Asia Pacific. Completed in 1958, it’s surrounded by an artificial lagoon that serves as a reflecting pool in sunny weather. Inside, the floor and walls are made from the finest Italian marble.
The second largest city in Vietnam, Hà Nội, offers a perfect blend of tradition and modernity. The picturesque old town in the east, next to the Red River, contrasts the contemporary downtown in the west, home to skyscrapers like the 336 meter high Keangnam Tower. Both parts of the city are worth a visit, and sampling all the traditional coffee variations is a must. The Vietnamese egg coffee made from filter coffee, sugar, condensed milk, and egg yolk tastes better than the list of ingredients might suggest. Less adventurous, but equally refreshing, is the local iced coconut coffee, made with condensed milk and coconut milk on ice. Hà Nội is also an ideal starting point for a day trip to the magical bay and mystical islands of Vịnh Hạ Long, featuring thousands of limestone isles in various shapes and sizes, just 2.5 hours drive from Hà Nội.
Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, is easy to reach for tourists from all over the world thanks to its international airport. A city full of character, there are more than 400 hotels and 1,100 restaurants of all price ranges to choose from. From every corner of the city, the 99 meter high golden Shwedagon temple can be spotted. Historians estimate this pagoda to be built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th centuries, and it is believed to contain relics of four previous Buddhas. Its top is encrusted with over 4,500 diamonds, and locals often visit the pagoda on their birthday to perform rituals and prayers. The reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, is just a short taxi ride away. At 65 metres long and with a modern style, it offers a glimpse into the Buddhism of the future.
Chiang Mai is a mountainous city in northern Thailand known as the „Rose of the North“. Founded more than 700 years ago as the capital of the Kingdom of La Na, its old city still adorns walls and moats built to protect it from the Taungoo Dynasty and the armies of the Mongol Empire. More than 300 temples and shrines have been built since then and over time, as the classic northern Thai style has merged with other Southeast Asian regions, Chiang Mai’s temples have evolved with architectural peculiarities as the city fuses old and new-style arts. Today, Chiang Mai is the starting point and adventure playground for hikers and climbers off to conquer the foggy mountains and colourful slopes of the surrounding area.
A visit to Myanmar, the former Burma, should start with a stay at Mandalay. The former royal capital is considered the centre of Burmese culture. Mandalay Hill, one of the city’s main attractions, offers a spectacular view of the city, and the pagoda on top is delicately adorned with small mosaic stones. For almost 170 years, the oldest and longest pedestrian teak bridge in the world, U-Bein, has been leading locals and tourists across Lake Taungthaman. Built from wood reclaimed from the former royal palace, it’s supported by 1,086 pillars towering out from the water. Mandalay offers an ideal starting point for an excursion to Mount Popa. This inactive volcano houses the unique pagoda Tuyin Taung. Home of the Nats spirits, the area is known as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, and draws thousands of pilgrims every year.
Nha Trang is a coastal resort city in southern Vietnam, known for its beaches, diving sites and offshore islands. Visitors should prepare to get wet: almost everything worth seeing in the region and its surroundings is associated with the liquid element. The coastal city, with more than 1,000 hotels, is considered one of the best diving spots in Vietnam. On a boat trip to Hon Mun Marine Park, you can experience a natural, healthy reef with numerous ray species, frogfish, squid, and seahorses. By international standards, diving in Vietnam is relatively inexpensive, and Nha Trang is perfect for beginners and snorkelers looking for an experience within their depth. Inland, a hike through the Ba Ho mountains can be a challenging alternative to snorkeling. The mountains are home to the Ba Ho waterfalls, including three exceptional cascading pools. Visitors to the Ba Ho mountains should prepare for a day of bouldering and hiking.
Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, is characterised by its artistic and creative spirit. Known for acrobatics, clown shows, and unique circus artistry, the city is home to Phare Ponleu Selpak, a non-profit art school supporting the local community through artistic, educational, and social programmes. Evening performances tackle difficult themes such as war trauma and HIV, and tickets are a reasonable price. Siem Reap is 175 kilometers away, and a 5-9 hour boat trip there along the Sangker river is an option from Battambang. The river banks along the way are seamlessly built and inhabited, offering plenty for the eye to see.
A visit to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, is essential to understanding the country’s religious past. Known as the “City of the Moon” by the locals, Vientiane is home to Pha That Luang, built by King Setthathirat in 1566 after Vientiane became the capital of Laos. The Laotian national symbol, Buddhists believe this golden Stupa temple symbolises the rise of the earth to heaven. A short drive in a traditional tuk tuk will take you to the Watchan district on the banks of the Mekong, home to most of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and affordable spas. Winter is the best time to travel in Laos, the rainy season has passed and temperatures are roughly 27 degrees cooler than the rest of the year.
The up-and-coming international business centre offers an ideal blend of tradition and modernity. The Petronas Towers rise 452 meters into the sky, and numerous surrounding buildings indicate the city’s rich cultural and religious history. The Sultan Abdul Samad is one example, located on Merdeka, or “Independence”, Square. Originally housing the British colonial administration, the building’s Moorish Islamic style is typical of many colonial buildings found in major cities throughout Malaysia. Impressive Hindu temples can be seen scattered throughout Kuala Lumpur, and the temples in the Batu Caves are by far the most surreal. Rising almost 100 meters above ground, the temple complex consists of three main caves as well as a few smaller ones. Formed of limestone estimated to be 400 million years old, the caves are one of the most popular Tamil shrines outside of India, and are guarded by 140ft statue of Kartikeya, a Hindu god of war.
This study is based on 3 broad categories: Accomodation, Excursions, and Experiences, each of which were broken down into 3 further factors.
Considering not all the factors are equally important in determining a traveller’s experience of Southeast Asia, we used the following weighting for the final ranking:
Scoring: Travel costs, Travel Time, and Distance were ranked from low to high. The lower the result, the higher the city ranked for this factor.
This included the number of hotels, the average overnight price per person, and the number of restaurants available in each city.
The number of hotels and restaurants were found from detailed research and sources, and an average value was calculated from all the results.
The average overnight price includes hotel accommodation rated 0/1 to 4 star, as some of the cities analysed do not have 5 star accommodation. For each star category (0/1, 2, 3, and 4) 20-25 hotels and their overnight prices were researched. A mean value was then calculated from each of the results. An average was then calculated from all the mean values, to indicate the average overnight price for a city.
This included information on the average distance, travel time, and travel costs to the five most popular tourist attractions in the respective country. The most popular attractions were determined with the help of official data on visitor numbers, and various journal and blog articles.
The average distance and travel time was based on various map services, such as Google Maps and ViaMichelin. The travel time and distance to the five most popular attractions in each country were determined for each city. The mean value was then calculated from the results.
The average cost of travel per kilometer was calculated using ViaMichelin in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The figure also includes fuel and toll costs. The respective costs per kilometer with then multiplied by the respective distances to the various attractions. For these results, a mean value was calculated, indicating the average travel costs from each city to the five most popular attractions.
This category includes information about the range of activities, day trips, and local sights that a tourist can see or visit in the city. TripAdvisor, Wikipedia, and blogs were used as sources.