Southeast Asia is a popular destination for travellers all over the world. Whether it be the cuisine, natural landscape, or cultural ambiance, Southeast Asia offers a plethora of experiences to thrill and excite.
If ever there was a time to visit the region, it’s now. With the gradual erosion of long-standing sociopolitical issues in the region, opportunities to travel to previously obscure destinations have opened up. Take Myanmar, for example. The lift on the tourism ban in 2010 has definitely paved a new way for its people and the rest of the world to embrace cultural exchange.
So then, in light of that, I think it’s high time we paid a little bit more attention to some of the cities in Southeast Asia that have slipped under our radar for too long! Here are 9 underrated Southeast Asian cities that will offer you a bit of everything and leave you in awe! Get your bucket list ready!
1. Bagan, Myanmar
I cannot think of any other city to kick this list off with than Bagan, Myanmar’s most active cultural centre. After over a decade of isolation, Myanmar has been on the tourist radar for almost 8 years now.
Built way back in the 9th century, Bagan is an ancient city with glorious temples that have been restored periodically over the years by UNESCO. But, why Bagan and not the more renowned Angkor Wat in Cambodia? I’m glad you asked.
For starters, Bagan offers much more variety in terms of architectural design. As a centre of Theravada Buddhism in the 11th century, you can find over 10,000 temples and pagodas here that were built to gain religious merit. Over 2,500 remains of those temples now adorn the landscape. It is truly one of the world’s most surreal sights and will leave you in wonder.
Take full advantage of your time in the city and do a temple run with local tours. It’s the only way to know for sure where the best (and hidden!) places are to visit. You’ll definitely warm up to the locals after a while as they’re always very eager to help despite the language barrier.
Apart from that, I highly recommend hopping on board a hot-air balloon to catch an unforgettable sunrise. It’s not exactly cheap but how often do you get to see a sunrise from a hot air balloon? Think about that.
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The capital city of Cambodia has often been overlooked as tourists flock to Siem Reap instead. In truth, Phnom Penh’s captivating history alone makes the city a deserving entry on the bucket list of any traveller.
The reign of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party in the 70s resulted in the mass genocide of over 3 million people in Cambodia. The emotionally-gruelling exhibition in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields of Choeung Ek documents the events of that dark period in the city.
Once nicknamed the Pearl of Asia, the city of Phnom Penh is also known for its historical French architecture. Dubbed as one of the loveliest French-built cities in Indochina, this city is perfect to explore by bike.
Stop by the Independence Monument of Phnom Penh, a stupa built to celebrate Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953 or visit the Russian Market to get the affordable deals on souvenirs!
3. Semarang, Indonesia
Semarang is the obscure capital city of Central Java that most of us have probably never even heard of. The story goes that the Chinese Muslim Admiral Cheng Ho visited Semarang when he was on his seafaring expedition. As a result, Semarang is a city adorned with the aesthetics of Javanese, Malay, Chinese, Arabian, and Dutch influences.
Start off by heading to Semarang Old City (also dubbed as Little Netherlands) to admire the well-preserved Dutch-colonial era buildings. Next, visit Chinatown and Sam Poo Kong temple and admire the prevalent Chinese cultural influence there. On the other hand, the Gedong Songo Hindu temples, located at the foothills of Mount Ungaran, offer a refreshing change of scenery in contrast to the cityscape.
Your travel in Semarang is also not complete without trying out the local food there. Do you know that Ayam Penyet originally comes from Semarang? Yes, you can have a taste of truly authentic ayam penyet here!
You could also sample some Lumpia, a Chinese-Javanese fried spring roll served with Chinese-style dipping sauce. For a special dining experience, visit Toko Oen, a colonial-style cafe or Semawis Night Market over the weekend.
4. Vigan City, The Philippines
Let me just get one thing out of the way: no, Vigan City is not a city of vegans. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan City can’t be any more different than Manila. Boasting Spanish colonial-style buildings and cobblestone streets, this city’s pristine architectural zones might just make you forget you’re in Southeast Asia.
For instance, Calle Crisologo (Vigan Heritage Village) is the most well-preserved Hispanic town in Asia. Its vintage brick walls and quaint cafes exude a romantic vibe which makes it a perfect place for couples and lovers.
Apart from that, you can also sign up for a peaceful river cruise around the city, and admire colonial-style churches like St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral. If you’d like to try your hand at pottery, head to Pagburnayan to learn how to make Vigan-style burnay for free!
If you consider yourself a foodie, I have three words for you: Sitio Food Park. Heck, I didn’t even know I needed a food park until right now! A relatively new addition to Vigan food scene, Sitio Food Park will satiate your appetite with over 26 food stalls selling mouthwatering international and local cuisines.
With so much to see, do and eat. it’s no wonder Vigan is listed as one of the Seven Wonder Cities of the World (Yes, that’s a thing. Look it up.)
5. Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An was a major trading port between the 15th and 18th centuries and during that time, Japanese, Chinese and European culture found a way to seep into the city’s locale. Hoi An is the only city in Vietnam that has preserved most of its original streets and buildings. That’s why it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The best way to explore Hoi An is by bike or on foot. The Hoi An Ancient Town is the perfect prelude. Take your time to stroll through the yellow-hued buildings, all the while admiring the intricate weaving of Japanese and Chinese architectural styles.
In the evening, Hoi An turns into a colourful lantern-lit city. Believe it or not, there is actually a law here that states each shop lot must hang lanterns from their facades. Take this opportunity to dine at the lit up waterfront, or visit the Hoi An Night Market for some delectable street food. Then, make your way to the Japanese Covered Bridge at Japanese town for that coveted #potd.
Hoi An’s specialty food is remarkably delicious and hard to recreate elsewhere. This is because the ingredients used can only be sourced in the city itself. Delicacies like Cao Lau (a noodle dish with local greens and pork) and Banh Bao Banh Vac (special rose-shaped dumplings) can only be found here. So, make sure to indulge a little while you’re in Hoi An!
6. Luang Prabang, Laos
Once upon a time, Luang Prabang was a French colony as well as the royal capital of Laos. Situated in the north of Laos, this ancient city is the final destination of the popular two-day Mekong Boat Trip that starts from Chiang Khong, Thailand.
Once you’re in Luang Prabang, take the time to enjoy the scenic views of French architecture in the city and temple hop around the Buddhist temples such as Wat Mai, Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Sensoukaram.
Near the central roundabout in Luang Prabang, you’ll see a classic Laotian style food market. Here, you can indulge in an all-you-can-eat buffet which will only cost you 10,000 Kip (RM5)!
If you want hot and fresh food, you can find barbecued meats and fishes, spring rolls and Laotian speciality Khao Piak Sen in this market as well. For an exceptional French-Laotian cuisine, make a reservation at L’elephant Luang Prabang and indulge in the most sophisticated fusion cuisine in the city.
After filling your belly, take some time to visit the unsullied Tad Sae Waterfall situated 30km away from the city. You can frolic in the turquoise water, have a picnic or zip line through the beautiful jungle.
7. Chiang Mai, Thailand
There isn’t a single person I’ve met who doesn’t like Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2017, Chiang Mai has a long-standing tradition of crafts, music, and performing arts. Creative co-working spaces are mushrooming to cater for the increasing number of digital nomads in the city. Most of them congregate on Nimman Haemin Road.
There are a few night markets here that you can visit for some amazing food and shopping: Chiang Mai Gate Night Market, Chang Puak Gate Night Market, Kalare Night Bazaar and Anusarn Market are all some of the top picks here. Even vegans who are hard to please (sometimes!) love Chiang Mai because of how vegan-friendly the city is. Check out Goodsouls Kitchen for their vegan Khao Soi and Reform Kafe for their vegan Pad Thai.
As if those aren’t enough to appeal to travellers, Chiang Mai is also home to hundreds of enigmatic Buddhist temples. Among the most popular ones are Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Doi Suthep, Wat Umong and Wat Pha Lat. Feel free to chat with a monk at Wat Suan Dok or Wat Sri Suphan too.
At the end of the day, reward yourself with an excellent Thai massage after walking for a full day out under the Chiang Mai sun. If you’re looking for a more meaningful session, you can support female ex-convicts by visiting the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution for your massage.
8. Da Lat, Lam Dong Province
Next, let’s talk about a city in the highlands of Vietnam. Dubbed as Le Petit Paris (Little Paris) by the locals, Da Lat is a highland city 300 km north of Ho Chi Minh City. It is said that Da Lat was initially built in the 1900s as a vacation spot for French colonialists in the area.
Sitting at 1500 meters above sea level, Da Lat is perfect for those who want to take a break from the tropical Southeast Asian heat. Here, you will learn that Da Lat is the agricultural powerhouse of Vietnam. From coffee, vegetables, fruits, dairy to even silk, the pleasant weather here enables it to produce these goods consistently.
Da Lat also goes by the nickname of Honeymoon Capital. You can stroll around the Valley of Love and visit the impressive man-made Xuan Hong Lake with your significant other. Another must-do attraction in Da Lat is to visit Hang Nga Guesthouse, also known as Crazy House. Listed as one of the ten most creative buildings in the world, it’s the brainchild of Dang Viet Nga, an impressionist architect and daughter of the former president of Vietnam.
When it comes to local food, Da Lat does it best with Banh Trang Nuong, a.k.a., Vietnamese Pizza. It features grilled rice paper topped with conventional pizza ingredients, perfect for a chilly night. You can get this delicacy at Da Lat Night Market which only opens on the weekends. Make sure you don’t miss it!
9. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
The ancient city of Yogyakarta is arguably the de facto cultural capital of Indonesia. Traditional Javanese culture is exceptionally preserved here and continues to evolve and flourish alongside more conventional art forms.
This is a city where classical dance, shadow puppetry and Javanese orchestra are on display every day at the Yogyakarta Royal Palace. Filmmakers, artists and dancers congregate in this city to exchange ideas and bring life to Yogyakarta’s art scene. Yogyakarta is also home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Borobudur and Prambanan temples, which are magnificent sights to behold in their own right.
The Javanese people were once Hindus and Buddhists before Islam gained a strong foothold in the region. Perhaps, it’s this humble embrace of different religion, cultures and values that paved the way for Al-Fatah Pesantren to exist. It is the only mosque in Indonesia specially built for transgenders.
When travelling to Yogyakarta, it’s best to just immerse yourself in the culture. Have some Gudeg, a Yogyakarta speciality, or hunt for the best Sate Klathak. Better yet, join the Yogyakarta Evening Street Food Tour! Don’t forget to catch an unforgettable Ramayana Ballet performance when you’re at Prambanan and make time to visit the Ullen Sentalu Museum too!
Travelling in Southeast Asia is definitely an experience in and of itself. The complexity of Southeast Asian cultures is sure to provide a refreshing perspective, especially if you stick to some of the region’s less mainstream locations, like the ones on this list.
Wherever you decide to travel to in this region, keep an open mind to make the most of it. It’s also best if you can look up some of the common etiquettes beforehand as well. With that in mind, you might just embark on the most rewarding Southeast Asian journey yet!