Southeast Asia is often one of the first places people try 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 people usually fail to consider that it’s more than just a short-term place to go on holiday to.
It’s actually a great place to live.
Our Trifecta strategy has helped us appreciate cities that offer something more than others: good service, shopping malls, excellent food, transport and 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, many cities have great potential here.
We recommend the destinations on this list based on factors like foreign accessibility, efficiency, variety of available services, lifestyle options, and travel connectivity.
If you want to live, work, or invest in Asia, set up a call with us today. We’ll create a tailored holistic strategy for you that helps you build your best life in Asia in a location on the list below.
8. Bali, Indonesia
Known for its outstanding beauty and stunning beaches, Bali has become a popular destination for expats, startups and entrepreneurs looking for a life that balances adventure and relaxation.
Nomads can easily bounce between the main hubs in Ubud, Canggu and Seminyak, and compared to other Southeast Asian destinations, the cost of living in Bali is pretty reasonable.
Bali is also a hugely popular destination for those interested in yoga retreats, meditation, and alternative health classes.
Our remote team was in Bali for a three-month stay and loved it. You can read about our Bali experience in our nomad guide to living in Bali.
There are, however, a few things to be aware of in Bali.
For one, there are some stories of credit card scams. The economy has long been geared towards tourists, so you need to stay vigilant.
Also, it can be harder to fly to, though there are good options through Singapore and Hong Kong. You may also consider incorporating an extended stop-off to enjoy the luxuries of the big city after living the more laid-back lifestyle between the jungles and beaches of Bali.
Internet connection can be unreliable here (definitely buy protectors and power stabilisers), and traffic on the island can sometimes be quite congested.
A downside worth noting is that Indonesia has adopted a worldwide taxation system, meaning that expats considered tax residents will pay tax on income earned inside Indonesia and whatever they make abroad.
That said, the Balinese culture is generally very welcoming and hospitable and the nomad hubs of Ubud and Seminyak have greatly influenced the Southeast Asia nomad lifestyle.
7. Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam and an excellent option for nomads and expats. We’ve written previously about the cost of living in Vietnam and how to be part of the emerging economy there.
Hanoi is one of the more underrated cities to focus on as a potential Southeast Asian base. The city has a colonial charm and an excellent cultural scene for nomads who prefer somewhere a little different than the typical mall-heavy cities of Bangkok or Singapore.
One of the exciting things about Hanoi is the tube houses, which result from old property tax laws. The city has some fascinating zoning laws, resulting in an interesting array of homes and neighbourhoods.
As with its southern neighbour, Indonesia, unfortunately, Vietnam also applies a worldwide taxation system, so regardless of where an individual’s income is paid or earned, they will be taxed at a progressive rate of between 5% and 35%.
Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are fast-growing cities that reflect the increasing interest in Vietnam as a regional economic powerhouse.
Plus, as capital and operations continue to move from China to Vietnam due to rising costs and other factors, including politics, we believe that Vietnam will continue to be one of the most promising frontier markets to invest in well into the future.
6. Hong Kong
One of our favourite cities in the world, Hong Kong is an incredibly popular place to bank or do business.
While not always considered part of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong on the South China Sea is a truly international city that defines much of the region.
Hong Kong is a costly 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 Hong Kong, there is a yin-and-yang atmosphere about the country that makes it truly special.
On one corner, well-dressed bankers dine on US$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 weather is great most of the year. Moreover, its big-city nature offers plenty of ways to live abundantly.
Beaches, greenery and culture, like the imposing bronze statue of the Big Buddha, are all just 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 destination is a one-hour ferry ride away.
The strong business culture and low tax rates make it a great city for entrepreneurs and, as an added bonus, Hong Kong Airport is one of the world’s cleanest and most luxurious airports, with a non-stop service to almost any civilised place you want to go.
Now, on to our top five countdown.
5. Manila, Philippines
The Philippines is a fascinating place with a business-friendly environment, rich culture, and plenty of English speakers, especially in the capital, Manila.
With Manila, finding the right part of town is essential. For homesick Westerners, areas like Makati offer a city within a city featuring familiar Western-style dining, such as the Filipino equivalent of the Cheesecake Factory.
If you’re after a spot of shopping, concentrate your efforts on areas like Makati and Fort Bonifacio, Manila’s own version of Singapore. Meanwhile, the Greenbelt Mall in Makati is filled with lush greenery, streams, a duck pond and even a chapel.
Though it doesn’t have a global reputation for culture, the city has several interesting museums and attractions from its Latin roots.
There are downsides to choosing Manila, however.
The capital itself doesn’t score highly as far as efficiency is concerned. It isn’t the cleanest city and everything tends to run slow and arrive late.
This island chain isn’t the easiest place to navigate because it’s, well, an island chain. Manila International Airport isn’t overly impressive, so you should anticipate challenges and frustrations when flying in and out; indeed, there are much better transit hubs elsewhere on this list.
But if you can get past being a little late for appointments and roll with the travel punches, you’ll eventually blend in. Above all, if you enjoy beautiful beaches, great people and exciting food, Manila could be a spot worth considering.
Also, it’s worth noting that foreigners can only buy freehold condos in the Philippines.
Others may recommend rival cities like Cebu or Davao, but at Nomad Capitalist, we’d choose Manila over anywhere else in the Philippines: it’s the best location in the islands to pursue a global citizen lifestyle.
4. Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok is a city that can satisfy a variety of tastes and desires.
It’s big, it’s bustling, it has everything you need and you can fly anywhere in the region with very little trouble. BKK Airport is an international travel hub that makes flying in and out of the Thai capital easy.
It’s a great city for making a budget stretch, allowing you to do more with your money than you might be able to in other places. On the other hand, the high-end lifestyle so beloved of Nomad Capitalists is easily accessible in areas like Silom with its sky bars and a plethora of gourmet restaurants.
The country’s famous for its beaches, which are easy and cheap to access. Overall, while the city has limitations, Bangkok remains popular with nomads of all backgrounds. Regardless of whether they’re young digital nomads, retirees or wealthy expats, they all come to enjoy the lifestyle, culture and freedom the city offers.
3. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh has more going for it than you might think. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the city punches well above its weight.
While Hanoi remains the Vietnamese capital, Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s most populous, with over nine million citizens. The city has become especially popular among digital nomads who travel with just a backpack and a laptop – after all, there’s a cafe on practically every corner.
Vietnam’s currency, the Dong, is weak, allowing your dollar or euro to go incredibly far in a market already offering affordable living, developed shopping, fantastic restaurants, and beautiful apartment buildings.
The currency situation also makes it an excellent place for business, with many nomads going there to bootstrap their businesses and get the most bang for their buck.
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 after a more family-oriented lifestyle, the city won’t disappoint with plenty of nearby traditional options.
The food is exquisite, the culture is intriguing, and you can easily maintain a Western lifestyle there. In short, Vietnam is an excellent place to live.
Singapore is highly developed, delightfully efficient and so amazingly sterile and clean that first-time visitors often joke about eating off the ground.
Here at Nomad Capitalist, we love to sing Singapore’s praises, particularly when it comes to banking, investing and storing your wealth.
But living there is a different matter. Like Hong Kong, Singapore is both a symbol of economic freedom and a rather expensive place to live.
While not necessarily as extreme as other major finance centres, the high cost of housing and low yields here should still give you pause for thought. While locals can use the country’s Central Provident Fund to help pay for their housing, it is a luxury foreigners can’t really access.
Of course, living as an expat in Singapore has plenty of perks.
The city’s diverse culture and highly affluent status make it a perfect place for fine shopping and a myriad of dining and cultural options provided by the foreign talent that helped build the place.
While Singapore is relatively isolated geographically, you’re not far from great beaches in Indonesia or even the artificial beaches of Singapore’s Sentosa Island.
1. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
The first place on our list goes to Kuala Lumpur because this city has it all. We’ve been big fans of Kuala Lumpur for a long time and consider it Asia’s hidden gem.
Bar none. Kula Lumpur is the most underestimated place to live in the world.
In Malaysia, you’ll come across many of the same elements that make Singapore great, including a sizable English-speaking population and good connectivity to the most important parts of the country with one of the best airports in the world. The regional airline, Malaysia Airlines, is also very affordable.
Kula Lumpur isn’t the best in every way. For example, its disjointed infrastructure means it can’t quite compete with Singapore’s efficiency. But such minor deficiencies are 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 much cheaper than in Singapore.
The country offers an excellent lifestyle for the average six- or seven-figure entrepreneur who wants to settle down either full or part-time.
Many who visit Kuala Lumpur find it a refreshing mix of Singapore and Hong Kong. The lifestyle can be as luxurious as you choose and you have some of the best cuisine in the world that you can share with some of the friendliest people.
We rate Kuala Lumpur as number 1 on this list and while some may disagree, we encourage you to visit this wonderful country and give it the kind of rich consideration it deserves.
Our list of Southeast Asian destinations is based on our liveability criteria of foreign accessibility, efficiency, variety of services, lifestyle options and availability of travel.
Liveability is subjective – two people may have completely different ideas of what’s liveable. People who prefer a slow-paced life may like Chiang Rai way more than Bangkok, and that’s completely alright.
What’s important is knowing your options and going where you’re treated best. If that’s your goal, reach out to us, and we’ll help you find the new home and life that treats you best.