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Southeast Asia has long been a budget traveler’s dream. Affordable lodging, abundant inexpensive food, and a sense of adventure have been pervasive in the region for some time.
Today, location independent business owners are relocating to Southeast Asia by the boat load, drawn by the great cost of living and emerging opportunities in the region.
On top of that, huge numbers of Southeast Asians are becoming increasingly affluent, leading to more livable cities. I’ve used my travels to rank, in my opinion, the best large Southeast Asian cities to live in.[UPDATE: This list was updated to reflect improvements in the general quality of life in Ho Chi Minh City.]
The five most livable cities in Southeast Asia
5. Manila, Philippines
Yes, Manila has areas that aren’t so nice. However, no one is saying Beverly Hills is a dump because it’s as much a part of the Los Angeles area as Compton. With Manila, finding the right part of town is important. The benefit to Manila and the Philippines is that English is already widely spoken. Filipinos are incredibly warm and open to foreigners. And the Philippines offers more amenities Westerners are familiar with, such as larger refrigerators.
Areas like Makati and Fort Bonifacio (Manila’s own version of Singapore) offer great shopping. The Greenbelt Mall in Makati is filled with lush greenery, streams, a duck pond, and even a chapel. While not huge on culture, the city has several interesting museums and attractions from its Latin roots.
A one-bedroom apartment in Makati can be extremely affordable; even the most luxurious of buildings have apartments for less than $1,000 a month. For the successful businessman, luxury and abundance are always an option. There is always the option to buy as well. Finally, for Westerners, areas like Makati offer a city within a city with Western-style dining, such as the Filipino equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory.
4. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City is especially popular among location independent workers who travel with a backpack and a laptop. After all, there’s a cafe on practically every corner. Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 has everything a Westerner could want, from fresh Asian food to expat-run hamburger shacks and sky bar nightlife. If you’re young and single, District 1 has everything you could want. For more of a traditional, family lifestyle, other nearby areas have plenty of expats, too.
While purchasing real estate in Ho Chi Minh City can be expensive, rental apartments are are very affordable. If you’re willing to live a mile or so outside of the main action, you can get a serviced apartment for $500 a month, maid service included. A friend of mine leased a five-bedroom penthouse near the country’s top shopping mall for about $2,000 a month. While Vietnam has fewer easy options for international travel than other cities on this list, it’s close enough to beaches in Cambodia for a great weekend getaway. And, on top of endless sky bars and high-class nightlife, the city also has a Vietnamese opera.
3. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur has it all. Cultures from around the region have settled in this more liberal part of Malaysia led by its largest and capital city, “KL”. While transportation can be a bit disjointed in Kuala Lumpur (the airport is a long way from the city center and train lines don’t always connect perfectly) it is a great city for those who want a taste of different cultures. From Chinese to Indian to Malay, Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot. It has great cultural options and interesting things to do, including its elevation of street food to a highly social (and hygenic) art form.
KL is not exactly your typical urban jungle. The city has plenty of green areas, even amidst its business core. And I’ve seen beautifully decorated apartments right in the middle of the action going for less than $1,000 — some with views of my childhood favorite, Petronas Towers. When you consider that Singapore‘s ridiculously overpriced broom closets are but a half-hour flight away, Kuala Lumpur is a value destination in an upper-middle class emerging economy. And, as a hub for the low-cost carrier Air Asia, you can get anywhere in Australasia for great prices.
2. Hong Kong
My favorite city in the world, Hong Kong is a fantastic place to bank or do business (if you can). While not always considered part of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong is a truly international city on the South China Sea that defines much of the region.
Hong Kong is an incredibly expensive place to rent an apartment. A long-running real estate bubble has made it among the most expensive places to live. However, even in Central, there is a yin-and-yang about Hong Kong that makes it truly special. On one corner, well-dressed bankers dine on tony $100 lunches. On the opposite corner, local merchants hawk cheap clothing next to food shacks. You can get anything you want in Hong Kong; and the slightly gritty, big city nature of it offers up plenty of ways to live abundantly.
Hong Kong offers all the benefits of big city life. Plus, the weather is great much of the year. Beaches, greenery, and culture (like the Big Buddha) are a short bus ride away. And, if some of the world’s best shopping and waterfront views don’t excite you, the world’s largest gambling mecca is a one-hour ferry ride away. The strong business culture and low tax rates make it a great city for entrepreneurs. As an added bonus, Hong Kong airport is one of the world’s cleanest and most luxurious airports, with non-stop service to almost any civilized place you want to go.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore is both a symbol of economic freedom and a rather expensive place to live. While locals can use the country’s Central Provident Fund to help pay for their housing, it is a luxury foreigners don’t really get. While mega-rich investors like Jim Rogers have moved to tony Singapore neighborhoods like Orchard Road and the large homes that line streets in Bukit Timah, most rent apartments in any of the city-state’s diverse neighborhoods, which feature a melting pot of Westerners, Indians, Chinese, and Malay cultures.
While I personally prefer Hong Kong and its New York-like grit, Singapore is a more livable city, especially for families. The place is so amazingly sterile and clean that first-time visitors joke about eating off the ground. (Just don’t eat on the subway… you may get fined.) Public transportation goes everywhere and makes getting around a snap. It’s the most convenient option as well, seeing that if you want to drive a car, you have to buy an expensive “Certificate of Entitlement“.
That said, the diverse culture of Singapore and its highly affluent status not only make it a perfect place for fine shopping and dining, but also for a myriad of dining and cultural options from the foreign talent that helped build the place. While Singapore is rather isolated geographically, you’re not far from great beaches in Indonesia, or even the fake beaches of Singapore’s own Sentosa Island. And Changhi Airport offers non-stop service to every corner of the globe.
You’ll notice Bangkok isn’t on the list. Personally, I’m not a fan. While many expats coo over Thailand’s largest city, I find it hard to get around, lacking in cultural venues, and a bit overpriced at times. (And The Economist agrees with me.)
Feel free to leave a comment below and tell me why I’m wrong — or to agree on the other selections.