Thursday, January 08, 2015

Top 30 cities in Southeast Asia you should see in your lifetime

Southeast Asia is a culturally-diverse region with many fantastic destinations. From architecture to cultural landscapes, sumptuous cuisine, natural heritage and so much more, Southeast Asia has so much to offer. Here are 30 cities in Southeast Asia that you should see in your lifetime. There are definitely more to experience. But let's start with this list of thirty very interesting cities which I arranged by country. How many have you visited?

1. Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
The capital of Brunei Darussalam, this laid-back city has been able to preserve its traditional water village known as Kampung Ayer. Grand mosques such as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque dominate the city's skyline.

2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda (Wat Preah Keo) which houses the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia can be found in this capital city. The city has two major museums – the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) of the Khmer Rouge, and the National Museum which houses the world's largest collection of Khmer art.

3. Siem Reap, Cambodia
This Cambodian city is the gateway to Angkor Wat. Need we say more? Hire a tuktuk and explore the Angkor Archaeological Park. You can also make a trip to Tonle Sap Lake from here.

4. Jakarta, Indonesia
With a metropolitan population of 20 million, Jakarta is Southeast Asia's most populated city. Check out Kota Tua (Old Town Batavia) with its Museum Fatahillah, the old Dutch Town hall building that's now a historical museum. At the old port area of Sunda Kelapa, you will see lots of Bugis phinisi schooners. The best satay and peanut sauce I've ever tasted was in Jakarta!

5. Ubud, Indonesia
While Kuta is Bali's beach, surfing and party city, Ubud is the island's arts and culture hub. And it's the jump-off point for a tour of Bali's temples which include Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave), Tirta Empul (Tampaksiring), Pura Taman Ayun (Royal Water Temple) and Pura Besakih (Mother Temple of Besakih).

6. Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Yogyakarta is spelled with a "y" but it's pronounced as Jogjakarta or just Jogja. It is no doubt the most popular destination on the island of Java being the gateway to Borobudur and Prambanan, both World Heritage Sites. Yogyakarta has its own sultan who lives at the the Sri Sultan's palace or Kraton, which tourists can visit.

7. Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang is the old royal capital of Laos and a World Heritage Site. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, it is a fantastic ensemble of traditional Lao architecture with obvious French character, Laos being part of the former Indochine. It's full of golden-roofed temples and monks walking about. Don't miss the alms ceremony which happens early every morning.

8. Vientiane, Laos
Have you ever heard of the Vertical Runway? You'll see that and more in Laos' capital Vientiane. Patuxai (Victory Gate) is the local version of the Arc de Triomphe. It's called the Vertical Runway because the concrete used to build it was donated by the US to build a new airport. And make sure to visit the Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos.

9. Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Sabah's capital city, Kota Kinabalu is all about the beach and nature. From the modern city, speedboats ferry tourists to the different islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. KK, as locals call it, is also the gateway to Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage Site. There are also wildlife parks nearby where you can see orangutans, proboscis monkeys and gibbons among many other animals.

10. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Two Southeast Asian cities made it to the New7Wonders Cities. One of them is Kuala Lumpur or KL. The Petronas Twin Towers dominates the city's skyline. Make sure to eat at a mamak, a 24-hour curry house, for great hawker food. There are also many food stalls in Chinatown and Jalan Alor.

11. Malacca, Malaysia
Dutch Square sits at the center of the historic port city of Melaka, once ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. Around this beautiful square are Christ Church, the Stadhuys and Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower. The city is also a showcase of Peranakan heritage. Jonker Street and other adjacent streets form its residential heart, with colorful houses plus many interesting shops, temples and mosques.

12. Penang, Malaysia
George Town in Penang is a living testament to the multicultural heritage of Malaysia. As you stand in front of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Temple, you will notice a small Hindu shrine and stalls of garland makers. Just a few meters away are joss stick makers. Down the same street is the Anglican St. George's Church. Walking down towards the church, a call to prayer will echo from the minaret of a centuries-old mosque. While you're there, don't forget to try the hawker food!

13. Bagan, Myanmar
It's stupa overload in Bagan, which has the largest concentration of Buddhist stupas, temples, pagodas and ruins in the world. Some date back to the 11th century. Taking a hot air balloon ride at sunrise is a very popular activity (note that this is seasonal though). If you want to go around the traditional way, hire a horse cart with driver.

14. Mandalay, Myanmar
It's not as old as other cities in Myanmar having been created in 1857. But the name Mandalay evokes the splendors of old Burma. It served as capital until the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885. Maha Myat Muni Paya is Myanmar's second holiest pilgrimage site, with a 4-meter high golden Buddha decorated with precious jewels.

15. Yangon, Myanmar
Formerly known as Rangoon, this former capital of Myanmar (it's been moved to Naypyidaw) is a fantastic mix of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences. It's replete with colonial architecture, although in decay and unappreciated, but still very interesting nonetheless, making it a perfect example of a 19th-century British colonial capital. Shwedagon Pagoda, which dates back to at least the 6th century (legend says it's been a religious site since the beginning of time), is most important religious site in Myanmar.

16. Banaue, Philippines
Banaue is a mountain town and gateway to the Rice Terrace of the Philippine Cordilleras, a World Heritage Site. You can make day trips to the majestic Batad Rice Terraces from here.

17. Cebu, Philippines
The oldest city in the Philippines, its known as the Queen City of the South. Every January, hosts the Sinulog Festival in honor of the Santo NiƱo. It's right beside Mactan Island and its very popular beach resorts. If you've got more time, go as far north as Bantayan Island for the real beach experience. Or go diving in other nearby towns and islands like Malapascua.

18. Manila, Philippines
The bustling capital of the Philippines may have a notorious reputation attached to it. But that should not deter you from experiencing this fantastic city. Visit the walled city Intramuros, and stop by Fort Santiago, and the San Agustin Church, a World Heritage Site. The National Museum of the Philippines has impressive collections of Philippine art, archaeology and ethnography. Walk the streets of Binondo Chinatown for some great Tsinoy food.

19. Puerto Princesa, Philippines
The Puerto Princesa Underground River, a World Heritage Site, was named one of the New7Wonders of Nature. You can also go island-hopping in Honda Bay or stay in Dos Palmas for a day. The city has an interesting food scene, mostly centered on seafood. There are a lot of Vietnamese-inluenced restaurants owing to its former refugee population.

20. Vigan, Philippines
The best preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia, the Historic Town of Vigan is a World Heritage Site. A trip to Vigan takes you back to historic Philippines, a rarity nowadays with so much of the country's heritage lost during the Second World War. Ride a kalesa (hose-drawn carriage) and explore its narrow streets and interesting shops. It was one of two Southeast Asian cities named to the New7Wonder Cities.

21. Singapore
Food in Singapore is legendary. You cannot leave this bustling Asian metropolis without trying its hawker food, which includes Chinese, Malay, and Indian dishes, the city being a microcosm of Asia. While its rich heritage is evident, it is also a modern city. And no doubt, it has the most impressive skyline in Southeast Asia. And take note, shopping is second only to eating as a national pastime.

22. Ayutthaya, Thailand
This former capital of the Kingdom of Siam was founded around 1350. It was said to be the biggest city in the world by 1700. But all this ended with the Burmese invasion in 1767, when the city was ransacked and burned to the ground. What remains today are ruins of this once impressive city, mostly temples and palaces which were the only structures made of stone. Ayutthaya is a World Heritage Site. And it's just two hours from Bangkok.

23. Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand's capital is one of Southeast Asia's most interesting destinations. After the fall of Ayutthaya, King Taksin made this former village into Siam's new capital and renamed it Thonburi. Its official name (if you can pronounce it), is the longest in the world. Major attractions include the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Within the palace grounds is Wat Phra Kaew, the most sacred Buddhist temple of Thailand since it houses the Emerald Buddha. Wat Pho is the birthplace of Thai massage and you can get a traditional massage there. Try to be in Bangkok on a weekend so you can shop 'til you drop at the Chatuchak Weekend Market.

24. Chiang Mai, Thailand
The old capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai's northern location and moderate elevation gives it a more temperate climate than other major Thai cities. It's no wonder that even those in Bangkok come here for a quiet vacation. It is a showcase of Lanna culture and architecture which is evident in its many temples. Of all the temples, it's the large gold-plated chedi of the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (built on a hill 1,073 meters high) which serves as the quintessential image of Chiang Mai.

25. Sukhothai, Thailand
The first capital of Siam, Sukhothai was established in the 13th century. Sukhothai Historical Park, the ruins of the old capital, is a World Heritage Site.

26. Ha Long, Vietnam
Famous for its scenic ocean karst topography, Ha Long Bay is a World Heritage Site. Organized tours leave from Hanoi daily and take you around the area on a traditional junk. Best time to visit is between March to June when the weather allows clearer views of the karst formations. It was named one of the New7Wonders of Nature.

27. Hanoi, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) may be Vietnam's largest city. But Hanoi, Vietnam's capital city, has the man himself. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum houses the embalmed remains of Vietnam's revered leader. The Presidential Palace and its grounds is where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked from 1954 until his death in 1969. South of the mausoleum is the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu). Founded in 1070, it became Vietnam's first university six years later. Hanoi's Imperial Citadel of Thang Long is a World Heritage Site.

28. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the former capital of South Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC for short. It's a bustling metropolis with thousands of motorbikes moving about its streets and grand avenues. Visit the Reunification Palace, the former presidential palace, which has remained largely untouched from the day before Saigon fell.

29. Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An was once bustling principal port of the Cham Kingdom. But thankfully, its importance as a port waned leaving with us an old port city frozen in time. Walk through the narrow roads of the old town, which becomes even more enchanting at night when locals light up traditional lanterns.

30. Hue, Vietnam
The old royal capital of Vietnam established along the banks of the Perfume River, the city has its own Forbidden Purple City in the Imperial Citadel and majestic royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty scattered along the banks of the Perfume River. Thien Mu Pagoda is the official symbol of the city of Hue.
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