Dateline: Tbilisi, Georgia
Southeast Asia is one of the first places people try out when they start their nomadic lifestyle. It’s cheap, it’s warm, it’s easy to get to, and it’s a lot of fun. But what people often don’t consider is that it’s more than just a short-term place to vacation or run errands.
It’s actually a great place to live.
Following my Trifecta strategy has made me increasingly focused on cities with something more: good service, shopping malls, excellent food, Uber access, ease of settling in — a place that feels like home.
Whether Southeast Asia is just one base in part of your multi-base strategy or a place to settle down and live full time, there are many cities that provide great opportunities for you.
Here at Nomad Capitalist, “go where you’re treated best” is an individual thing.
The choices you will make about where to base yourself very much depend on the lifestyle you want to lead.
The cities on this list are what I myself and my team would recommend based on factors like foreign accessibility, efficiency, variety of available services, lifestyle options, and travel availability.
Even within my team, we have very different lifestyle preferences and may choose one city over another.
As you read our recommendations, look for how these cities will fit into your nomadic lifestyle.
Let’s start at the top.
8. Bali, Indonesia
Bali is a place I mostly look to for a vacation.
It’s a major nomad hub, especially for startups and new entrepreneurs.
And it is a heavenly place for anyone who wants a vegetarian diet and beautiful nature scenery while bouncing between the main hubs in Ubud, Canggu, and Seminyak to surf, work, and enjoy the nightlife.
This is also a hugely popular destination for interests like yoga retreats, meditation, and health classes.
My remote team was in Bali doing a three-month stay and loved it. (We have written a nomad guide to living in Bali here).
There are, however, a few things to be aware of in Bali.
For one, there are some stories of credit card scams or duplicates.
The economy of Bali has long been geared towards tourists, so you need to stay vigilant.
Also, it can be harder to fly to, but there are options through Singapore and elsewhere for a long and refreshing visit to the big city after being in the jungle or on a beach for a while.
Also, certain connectivity issues can come up.
Internet connection can be unreliable (definitely buy protectors and power stabilizers) and transport/traffic on the island can be quite congested at times.
That said, the Balinese culture is generally very welcoming and hospitable and the nomad hubs of Ubud and Seminyak have had a huge influence on SE Asia nomad travels.
7. Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam and a great option for nomads and expats.
We have written before about the cost of living in Vietnam and how to be part of the emerging economy there.
I think Hanoi is one of the more underrated cities to focus on as a base in SE Asia.
Hanoi has a colonial charm and excellent cultural scene for nomads who want to be somewhere a little different than the typical mall-heavy cities of Bangkok or Singapore.
One of the interesting things about Hanoi are the tube houses that result from old property tax laws.
The city has some fascinating zoning laws that result in an interesting array of homes and neighborhoods throughout.
Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam in general, are fast-growing cities that reflect the increasing interest in Vietnam as a regional economic powerhouse.
6. Hong Kong
One of my favorite cities 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 and 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.
Now, on to our top five!
5. Manila, Philippines
The Philippines is a very interesting place with friendly people that, combined with the prevalence of English-speaking locals, makes the city of Manila of great place to start.
With Manila, finding the right part of town is important.
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.
It won’t be the easiest place to navigate because it’s an island chain and the Manila airport isn’t that great to say the least, making travel around as well as in and out of the region harder than other options on this list.
Manila itself doesn’t score too high as far as efficiency is concerned either.
It isn’t the cleanest city and everything will tend to run behind, but if you can get past being a little late you’ll eventually blend right in.
If you enjoy beautiful beaches, great people, interesting food, and aren’t so worried about what I’ve mentioned, then Manila could be a great place for you.
Other people may recommend other cities like Cebu or Davao, but as someone who likes capital cities, I would choose Manila for my global citizen lifestyle over anywhere else in the Philippines.
4. Bangkok, Thailand
Now, Bangkok was not always on the list and it’s place on this list changes often.
I personally don’t get it.
While many expats coo over Thailand’s largest city, I find it hard to get around, lacking in cultural venues, a bit overpriced at times, and I just don’t get the energy of Bangkok.
I enjoy a city with a little bit slower pace.
I like to live in places that are more developed than Bangkok so that I have better access to the things I want.
But, I understand on paper why it works for people.
While I wouldn’t live there (and would make the case for my favorite SE Asia city over Bangkok as I did in the video below), it is a good option for some nomads and expats.
Bangkok is a city that can fit a wide variety of pockets.
It’s big, it’s bustling, and it might have everything you need. You can fly anywhere in the region with very little trouble.
If you want to live cheaply, you definitely can — eating street food, living somewhere further from the metro or BTS, etc. There’s even cheap massages.
It’s a great city for making a budget stretch, giving you the chance to do more with your money than you might be able to in other places.
If you are looking for a high-end lifestyle, it is accessible in areas like Silom at sky bars and different gourmet restaurants.
Moreover, as an international hub, flying in and out of BKK is easy.
Spending the weekend on the beach is also affordable and easy, making Thailand an ongoing popular option.
When I did this list back in 2013, I left Bangkok off of it, much to the consternation of many viewers who hold the strong belief that Bangkok is the best place to live in Southeast Asia.
Many people love the Thai lifestyle and cultural hospitality.
It’s not a place for me to set up a base, but it’s a functional city where people have a lot of fun.
3. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh is one that really punches above its weight, as people say. It has more going for it than you might surmise at first glance.
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 be looking for, while other nearby areas can be great for plenty of expats with those of a more traditional, family lifestyle.
The Vietnamese dong is weak, allowing your dollar or euro to go incredibly far in a market that offers very affordable living, developed shopping, fantastic restaurants, and beautiful apartment buildings.
This also makes it a great place for business. Many nomads go there to bootstrap their businesses and get the most for their dollar.
The food is interesting, the culture is great, and you can easily maintain a Western lifestyle there.
It’s just a great place to live.
Some might find our ranking for the second place city on our list debatable. Because it’s the most developed city on this list, many people may believe that Singapore should come in first.
The place is so amazingly sterile and clean that first-time visitors joke about eating off the ground.
Singapore is tremendously developed and efficient and I love that about it.
You can go from airport, to a car, to the city center in no time. You have access to many of the things that you want.
Singapore just runs well.
What turns me off about Singapore is the high cost of housing.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore is both a symbol of economic freedom and a rather expensive place to live.
It’s not as expensive as other similar global cities, but it’s also not cheap. Buying a house in Singapore is going to cost quite a bit, creating a very low yield.
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.
Because of that, me living in Singapore means renting. Which in turn means that, if I want to maintain a quasi-nomadic lifestyle, I’m going to be throwing away a lot of money.
That makes Singapore less interesting to me.
That said, the diverse culture of Singapore and its highly affluent status not only makes it a perfect place for fine shopping but also for a myriad of dining and cultural options provided by 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 Sentosa Island.
I personally think that Singapore can be a great place to store your wealth, and it has quite a bit going for it. But, it just doesn’t compete with what I believe to be the most livable place in Southeast Asia.
1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
First place goes to Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been a big fan of this city for a very long time. Kuala Lumpur has it all.
Bar none, it is the most underestimated place for living in the world.
You have many of the elements that make Singapore great, including a sizable English-speaking population.
You have good connectivity to the most important parts of the country with, quite frankly, one of the best airports in the world for getting around.
The regional airline, Malaysia Airlines, is also just really, really affordable.
Beyond that, you have every cuisine known to man, some of the best food in the world that you can share with really nice, friendly people.
Including its elevation of street food to a highly social (and hygienic) art form.
You lose some of the efficiency of Singapore because of some disjointed infrastructure, but this is more than made up for by the fact that you can buy a relatively nice apartment for a quarter million dollars.
Plus, you can get a residence permit for much cheaper than it would cost you in Singapore.
It’s a more livable lifestyle for the average six- or seven-figure entrepreneur who wants to settle down either full- or part-time.
I rate it as #1 on this list and, while some may disagree, I encourage you to take a visit to this wonderful city and give it a full shot before writing it off. Many who visit find it is a welcome refreshing mix of much of the good of Singapore, Hong Kong, and others in one.
Based on my livability criteria of foreign accessibility, efficiency, variety of services, lifestyle options, and availability of travel, this is my top eight list.
Other people have different preferences.
Some people like an even slower pace than I do, preferring rural areas like Davao in the Philippines or Chieng Rai in Thailand.
That’s all fine. To me, those are great places to visit. To spend time relaxing in.
I wouldn’t call them livable in the same way I would refer to cities on my list.
For me, livability is where I can have my global citizen lifestyle and get everything I need anytime I want.
Your needs and preferences may be different, but this list will give you a better idea of where in Southeast Asia you would like to spend your time.