The Best Mega Cities for Backpackers in South East Asia.

ASEAN-map-blankWhat is the best and what is the worst mega city in South East Asia? Having visited a lot of big cities in South East Asia on this trip and before, I come to notice the differences. I know tastes are different but I have my personal preferences which I try to objectify a bit by using a scoring system. In the end the ranking is still subjective and reflects the answer to the question: If you would have do stay for a few days in any of these cities, where would it be? What place is the nicest from a backpacker’s point of view?

The nine cities are scored on scale from 1 to 10 in each category. The overall score determines the rank. I have to say that the two top cities as well as the two cities on the bottom ranks are pretty far away from the big mid-range field. The cities ranked 3rd to 7th are quite close together and the order could be different in this range with only slightly different tastes.


9. Jakarta

I am sorry to say that, this city may be the largest metropolis in South East Asia, but it is certainly the most unpleasant to visit. There is hardly any reason to stay here. Even the very few colonial sites feel neglected and walking around in the old town keeps you only busy for half a day. Backpacker’s will miss their own enclave, there is just a bunch of shabby guest houses in Jalan Jaksa. Often there is no way for pedestrians, you have to walk on the road along with all the vehicles and crossing the road can be a challenge on its own.

The city is just huge and crowded. For a city that size it is a pity there is no rapid mass transit system, only a kind of substitute by a bus network. It can become pretty hot in Jakarta. At least the price level is pretty good here as in Indonesia as a whole. So my advice would be to move on as quickly as possible to see one of the many nicer and more exciting places in Indonesia.

Score:
Sights 1/10
Urbanity 5/10
People 4/10
Food 3/10
Transport 2/10
Prices 8/10
Climate 6/10


8. Yangon

Yangon is often called the economic center of the emerging country of Myanmar. It is large and people are hungry for modernity, yet it often feels like living in another century. Yangon can by no means keep up with the nicer and more modern megacities in the region. The streets are crowded, it is really hard to walk and the traveler will often face the problem of being understood. Just like in the rest of Myanmar street food is relatively cheap, but of low quality. People look very different from other metropolises. They wear their longyis, the long skirts and women are often seen with the white thanaka cream in their face.

Foreigners are still not as common here as elsewhere and besides from being immediately spotted when there is a foreigner-only entrance fee for you to pay, you will find locals are often reserved and mistrusting towards foreign people. The only things that makes Yangon better than Jakarta are the impressive religious sites. The majestic Shwedagon Pagoda is beautiful and takes a while to appreciate. There are also some other interesting pagodas to visit in the city.

Score:
Sights 6/10
Urbanity 3/10
People 2/10
Food 2/10
Transport 2/10
Prices 8/10
Climate 7/10


7. Manila

Many travelers avoid the capital of the Philippines at all cost. Actually Manila is one of the mega cities where I have spent the most time in South East Asia. There are not many reasons to go to Manila itself as a backpacker, but I found if you are stuck here, it is not the worst place to stay either. This sets Manila apart from Jakarta and Yangon where I would not want to stay any longer than really necessary.

Manila is home to the Intramuros area, one of the best-preserved examples for Spanish colonial architecture in Asia. There are nice alleys, churches and an old fortress. Besides from Intramuros there is nothing much to see. Manila is a good place for visiting malls since the Philippines are pretty americanized. While the streets may sometimes look shabby and sad with a lack of nice restaurants, you just have to find the nearest mall for helpful stores and good restaurants. Beware, the price level is not as low as in cities on mainland South East Asia.

A major annoyance is the traffic which is one of the worst in the region. Getting to the airport can take several hours, so good planning ahead is advisable. Manila has an urban light rail system however it is not as useful or as nice to use as the ones in other cities like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. On the downside is the often shabby atmosphere and the dubios feeling you get in the city along with some red-light charm. I would not say it is as dangerous as in South America, but the city lacks the general feeling that you feel totally safe as usually common in the region. However Filipinos themselves often are among the nicest folks you can meet.

Score:
Sights 3/10
Urbanity 8/10
People 8/10
Food 3/10
Transport 2/10
Prices 5/10
Climate 8/10


6. Hong Kong

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Technically you can argue if Hong Kong is a part of South East Asia as the region is often defined by being south of China and east of India. But as it is a major hub for transport in the region and more often combined with South East Asia trips than with China tourism for mainly historical and immigration procedure reasons, I include Hong Kong here.

You cannot beat the view over the harbor towards the skyline of Hong Kong island. The city is incredibly modern and urban. Besides from the breath-taking views it somehow lacks sights. People mostly come here for business or shopping. Hong Kong has a modern and interesting transport system with a metro, an express train to the airport, ferries, buses, trams and even outdoor escalators.

I am sure many people would rank the city much higher, however there are some reasons why I see it only in the mid-range. First it is pretty expensive. Second I was disappointed with the choice and availability of food. It lacks the abundant diverse street food scene found elsewhere in the region. It’s mostly only Chinese fare and in some areas it takes you a while to spot something to eat. It may be a modern city but the downside is that its inhabitants are constantly busy staring on their mobiles and not on the street which makes walking among people often a real annoyance. And it can become pretty cold, especially in winter. I know for many this is even an advantage, but I love tropical climate and I rather sweat in Singaporean equatorial heat than freezing inside a rain jacket hiding from the wind.

Score:
Sights 3/10
Urbanity 10/10
People 5/10
Food 4/10
Transport 9/10
Prices 3/10
Climate 4/10


5. Phnom Penh

Cambodia’s capital was a nice surprise for me. It is truly a place for a backpacker. You can find a rock bottom cheap room in the downtown area and with food it is the same. There are nice smaller backpacker enclaves and an area with pubs and bars. It is not as modern or urban as other cities, but this gives it somehow a cozy feel and it still feels a bit chaotic. The climate is hot and you don’t need to bother taking a jacket. Flip-flops and shorts are sufficient.

You can visit the palace and some decent temples that however do not come close to similar sites in Bangkok for instance. What is more interesting yet cruel and often hard to bear, are the sites of the more recent history of Cambodia. There is the former torture prison of Tuol Sleng, now a museum and a bit outside of the city are the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. You can get along cheaply by tricycles however there is no real mass transit system, only a bus system which is hard to figure out and Cambodia uses the Khmer script which makes orientation more difficult.

Score:
Sights 5/10
Urbanity 3/10
People 6/10
Food 5/10
Transport 4/10
Prices 9/10
Climate 8/10


4. Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it is called often, may not be the capital of Vietnam, but it is for sure a mega city. The reason why I did not include Hanoi also is very simple – I have not been there yet, so Saigon represents Vietnam here. In many ways it is like a bigger sister of Phnom Penh. It lacks ancient sites but is a fascinating place for museums and people who are interested in the recent history of the country.

The climate is pleasant, the prices are cheap, the city has a good vibe and with the Bui Vien area one of the most enjoyable backpacker quarters in South East Asia. Some people say it is there now like the Khao San road in Bangkok used to be once. There is a good choice of food and Vietnamese people are usually welcoming and friendly. It is also pretty well organized, people drive more civilized on the road than elsewhere. You are dependent on taxis however, there is no metro. Similar to Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City was a really positive surprise for me on my journey.

Score:
Sights 4/10
Urbanity 5/10
People 8/10
Food 6/10
Transport 4/10
Prices 9/10
Climate 8/10


3. Singapore

I have not been to Singapore on this trip so far. However I have visited the city a few years ago. What I really like about Singapore is the ethnic diversity and the food that comes with it. You find some of the best Indian, Chinese, Malay, Thai, Arab and Western food here. English is an official language here and getting along is very easy. This is true particularly for people who visit Asia for the first time. The city is very modern and clean, and pretty green also. To many people it somehow feels pretty sterile and overpenalized. Severe punishments for jaywalking or smoking in the wrong area? Death penalty if someone puts 10 grams of heroine into my baggage? On the other hand there is hardly any street crime here.

The sights are mainly oriented towards business and families, air-conditioned and organized. Not really much for a backpacker here. The greatest drawback are the prices. Except for the food everything is very expensive in Singapore. This is especially true for alcohol. It is very close to the equator, hence it can become very very hot in Singapore.

Score:
Sights 4/10
Urbanity 10/10
People 7/10
Food 9/10
Transport 10/10
Prices 1/10
Climate 6/10


2. Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is one of my two favorite mega cities in South East Asia. Somehow it feels like a backpacker-friendly version of Singapore. It is very modern, has good rail-based transport, also to the airport, it is ethnically diverse, and rich in amazing food. Yet it does not feel as sterile and it is not nearly as expensive as Singapore. You can easily find a budget room in the Chinatown of KL as the city is usually abbreviated. There are modern sights like the impressive high Petronas Towers and the Menara KL, I liked the KL Bird Park also. And you can see mosques, temples and can get lost in Chinatown or the Little India. The city is also more compact than Singapore. You can get along by foot, however crossing the road or finding a pedestrian way can sometimes be a challenge.

Score:
Sights 6/10
Urbanity 7/10
People 7/10
Food 9/10
Transport 9/10
Prices 8/10
Climate 7/10


1. Bangkok

Bangkok was the first city I have visited in South East Asia. This city has got it all. From marvelous religious temples and historical sites to several hypermodern air-conditioned spots. Transport by rail is easy and to the places where it does not go, there are often connections by boat or bus. Thai food is one of the best in the world and even if you like to eat something else, there are plenty of choices. Bangkok is a paradise for shoppers. There are huge street markets like the Chatuchak market as well as an abundance of modern shopping malls.

Keeping in mind the city’s size, people are still comparatively friendly and helpful. There are good reasons why Bangkok is popular with Asia first-timers as well as with veterans and ex-pats. Downsides are the political instability of the whole country and the price level is no more as low as it used to be. However every time I get back to Bangkok I discover something new and I do not remember a visit in this city that I did not enjoy.

Score:
Sights 8/10
Urbanity 10/10
People 8/10
Food 8/10
Transport 7/10
Prices 6/10
Climate 8/10


What is your favorite big city in South East Asia? If you do not agree with the ranking, leave a comment and say why.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Mega Cities for Backpackers in South East Asia.”

  1. Great list! Glad you found KL pleasant. It has changed a lot in the past couple of years.. these days many shops and stores are manned by foreign nationals. Chinatown barely has any Chinese traders left. It’s a charming city with loads to explore, nonetheless.
    Have yet to visit Bangkok, but am planning to sometime next year. Thanks for the helpful insight! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Luna. Thanks for your comment! 🙂 I am aware that the nice impression a short-term visitor gets is not always reflecting the developments behind the scenes. I don’t know how it was before, my first visit was in 2011, the last in 2015. I have the feeling that many of the big cities in the region are changing very rapidly, not always to the better.

      Like

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