a man riding a bicycle with a child on a cart

The bucket list is an extremely overused term, but how else are you supposed to keep track of all the things you need to do before you die?

When it comes to ticking places off, few regions win more hearts and minds than Southeast Asia, where delicious cheap food, friendly people, great hotels and stunning scenery are seemingly everywhere.

With food always on the mind, here are five great city options in Southeast Asia which are pretty much perfect, and tick all the boxes for foodies and culture creatures alike.

a group of people riding motorcycles on a street

Luang Prabang, Laos

When to visit Laos: The dry season in Laos runs from October to April, which is when most people go. If you don’t mind a little bit of rain, it’s actually really beautiful with lush vegetation and far less crowded in July. 

Laos may sound intimidating, but it’s not nearly as scary to visit as you think. Here’s everything you need to know, before you go. 

There are direct flights from many Southeast Asian gateways like Singapore and Bangkok, and on arrival there’s so much to love. Speaking of which, the visa process is extremely simple and even if you mess up, you just pay a small fee to have them fix it for you. Plus, the visa page you get in your passport is a prize in itself.

The Lao people are extremely friendly and have immense pride and prowess in both crafts and cuisine. The coffee is outstanding, the beer costs about $1 and any street food vendor is going to serve you an amazing (and generally safe on the stomach) meal for around a couple bucks.

A sunset river cruise along this beautiful stretch of land may be one of the most memorable things you do in your future travels, so don’t miss out. Now is definitely the time to visit Laos. Hotels are really affordable too. Here’s a 48 hour guide, with some greatest suggestions on food, hotels and activities.

a city with a church and a road

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

When to visit Vietnam: If you’re looking for a buzzing city, January, February and March are extremely popular due to much lower temperatures and a humidity drop. If you don’t mind a bit of heat, August and September can be really beautiful too. 

Ho Chi Minch City, which most people would simply call Saigon is not just a trip, it’s a walk through some of the most powerful history – and that’s not just speaking of the Vietnam War. The city is a fascinating exploration of French and Asian fusion from the mouth watering crepes known as Banh Xeo to the colonial buildings.

As more nimble aircraft take over the skies and airlines focus on point to point travel, there are far more direct flights to Ho Chi Minh (SGN) Airport than ever before, including destinations as far away as Europe and the Middle East.

Basically, if connections were standing in your way before – don’t let them.

If you’re looking for nature, side trips are endless. The Cai Be floating markets or Ben Tre are truly incredible and there are beaches within just an hours drive. It’s a great place to kick off a trip, or end one.

a landscaped garden with Doi Inthanon and a pond

Chiang Mai, Thailand

When to visit Chang Mai: If you want cheap, April or October are fantastic as crowds draw out but weather is still more than pleasant. If you want to avoid as much humidity as humanly possible, November thru February are brilliant. 

Bangkok can be glorious for a couple days, but it’s one of the most crowded cities in Asia and is about as mainstream as it gets. Chiang Mai is no hidden secret, but at the same time, it offers a totally unique twist on Thailand in one of the most pristine settings you’ll find anywhere.

Much like the other cities on this list, airlines are taking note. International airlines are expected to resume direct seasonal flights from places as far as the Middle East to this lovely, Northern Thai paradise from December through May each year.

When it comes to hotels, there’s great options using cash or points at all budgets. Think: nature, luxurious nature, but also backpacker places too.

In fact, Chiang Mai has long been famous for attracting backpackers, but those silly hippies were sharing too many pictures and the rest of the world found out about this gem all the same. Doi Inthanon is even more beautiful in real life than in pictures, so if you love hiking, love cheap delicious eats and are looking for a redeeming getaway, get to Chiang Mai.

a mural of two children on a swing

Penang, Malaysia

When to visit Penang: Visits from February to April allows you to avoid the crowds while still enjoying mostly great weather. Hey, it rains almost everywhere sometimes, right? If you want a bit more ambiance from fellow travellers, the coolest and most approachable temperatures tend to be around November, December and January though.

What if you could have all the best foods of Asia delivered right to your door? That would be called Uber Eats.

But if you want the real stuff, the amazingly rich soy, smokey woks and true fusion Penang is the place to go out and get it yourself. If you’re a foodie, Penang has been called the eating capitol of Southeast Asia, partly because it’s a fascinating mix of rich Chinese, Malay and Southeast Asian heritage all rolled in one.

Luxury hotels like the Eastern & Oriental are an amazing nod to the days of explorers past, while more mainstream options offer slightly more accessible rates.

This is a city that can be done in a couple days, but is totally worth doing on any trip to the area. Given its proximity to Langkawi, it’s the perfect way to blend culture and cool relaxation for a few days with total beach bliss.

Both regional and major airlines have daily flights, or will again soon, so you’ve got options like Malaysian or Air Asia and plenty more connecting you to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and beyond.

While it’s certainly picking up in popularity – for now, it sits just under the bustling tourism of many other destinations, which is why now is the time.

a city street with buildings and cars

Chiayi, Taiwan

When to go: If you’re after cool, cool and more cool, winter months like January, February and March do really well. If you want to catch the Cherry Blossom, think late March or early April, depending on the weather. In general, think early fall or basically anytime in spring. Summer is just a bit muggy. 

Chiayi is making headlines for all the right reasons. The Netflix series “Street Food” shined a well deserved spotlight onto this gem of Taiwan. We thought the masses would go, but the last few years put a pause on that. Before others catch back on, this is the year to go.

The city itself isn’t the only thing that matters here though. Chiayi is the gateway to the Alishan mountains, which are amongst the most beautiful in the region. Think dense forest, jaw dropping vantage points and just a great place to travel.

So what about getting there? Chiayi is just over an hour and a half away from Taipei or Kaohsiung via high speed train and is an ideal place to spend a few days exploring a part of town which hasn’t bent its traditions to serve up touristy dishes, or vibes. EVA Air or China Airlines are safe bets. Here’s a helpful guide on getting to Alishan, as well.

As you may be putting together, Chiayi is particular cool because its an excuse to explore so much of Taiwan, from your likely port of entry in Taipei to the gorgeous forests of Alishan, while enjoying an eating experience you just won’t get in more touristy cities.

Adding even more intrigue, the Chiayi and Alishan link was made during Japanese occupation of the area. As a breather before catching Alishan forest air and before heading back to bustling Taipei, this is a fascinating city to take in.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Just got back from a trip to Penang in mid April. It was great, it did rain a on us on 3 afternoons out of 10 and was hot and humid but the food was great and it wasn’t too crowded. We brought out 2 year old and he napped during the hottest part of the day so we were inside then anyway. It was really kid friendly too, most of the hawker centers had high chairs and almost every restaurant did too.

  2. If Alishan is your destination and you’re arriving on the high speed rail to Chiayi then to catch the bus to the resorts you must make your way by taxi to the the non-high speed rail station across town. I made this mistake back in 2010 and due to language barrier I almost missed the bus. “Bus from train station to Alishan” sounds good until you realize you are at the wrong train station. A lot has changed since 2010 so perhaps they have buses from the high speed rail station now.

  3. Try Nasi Kandar in Penang… So delicious… So good… Heavenly food.. Forget the Michelin Restaurant… No regret for sure!

  4. Only fair to mention…the air quality in Chiang Mai is horrendous from Feb through May. Pretty much the worst in the world. This is because of agricultural burning in Thailand and surrounding countries. There’s a reason why the crowds withdraw!

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