Never has South East Asia been receiving so many tourists. While larger cities like Bangkok, Singapore, and Saigon may get the lion’s share of attention, there are many smaller, less-travelled cities in the region offer far more in the way of experiencing authentic South East Asian hospitality – the most recommended of which I have listed in this article.
Chiang Mai is a northern city in Thailand and is a firm favourite with travellers in their escape from the city lights of Bangkok. You cannot find any beaches in Chiang Mai, rather it is a city for culture, and, perhaps surprisingly, nature. Whatever your budget, Chiang Mai will be enjoyed. Further reading: Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh Chiang Mai!.
Hoi An is very much an ancient town, and is located within the central area of Vietnam. Although this sleepy town does not have a train station or an airport (Danang is the drop off point), it nevertheless provides a great insight to Vietnamese culture. Further reading: Hoi An Ancient Town.
Hue is also situated in Vietnam and is not too far from Hoi An, making the pair of cities easy to visit in one itinerary. The main point of interest in Hue is the Imperial Tombs, but the city is also known for its tasty food! Further reading: I Love Hue, Too!.
Luang Prabang is arguably the most visited place in all of Laos, and it is not hard to see why. It has astounding natural beauty all around, especially with the Mekong River close by, and Mount Phousi looming large at all times. Luang Prabang is also a great place to se Buddhist monks receiving alms. Further reading: Sleepy Luang Prabang.
Mandalay was once the most famous city in Myanmar, then went through a period where it was ‘forgotten about’ by travellers, but thankfully is now enjoying a resurgence. A much more sleepy city than Yangon, Mandalay has many treasures to explore – and monks are never too far away! Further reading: The Road to Mandalay.
Phnom Penh is situated in the southern reaches of Cambodia and is often visited before an overland border crossing into Vietnam (enroute to Saigon). This city – the Cambodian capital – has quite a lot to offer travellers, especially those who are interested in its local cuisine and culture. Further reading: What Wat? A Guide to Phnom Penh’s Best Temples.
Siem Reap is located in the centre of Cambodia, around a 4-5hr drive from Phnom Penh. It is known of course for being the site of the Temples of Angkor, which all travellers surely must see at least once in their lifetimes. Siem Reap, however, is a very cheap and easy city to visit even if temple-trampling is not your thing. Further reading: Top 5 Siem Reap Experiences (without temples).
Sihanoukville is situated on the coast of Cambodia facing out to the Gulf of Siam and is undergoing a major renaissance in tourism. Although the beach itself is the main draw, Sihanoukville is a charming seaside town with extremely friendly locals. Further reading: Backpacking in Cambodia: Siem Reap or Sihanoukville.
Yangon is, for most visitors, the entry point to Myanmar and is probably the best city in the country to get used to Burmese contemporary culture (Mandalay best for history). For all the traffic and noise in Yangon, it nevertheless retains that vibe of yesteryear which makes visiting so interesting. Further reading: The Top 10 Attractions in Yangon.
Yogyakarta in central Java, Indonesia, has long been known as backpacker haunt, and is also the launching pad for the 1hr drive to Borobudur temple at Magelang. However, the town itself (known locally as “Jogja”) should be explored in detail, as there is nowhere better in Indonesia to be accepted into the community as a tourist. Further reading: Exploring Jogja.