5 Of The Most Liveable Cities In Southeast Asia For Expats

What’s that we can see in the distance? Is it a glimmer of hope we can make out on the horizon? What does a ‘new normal’ even look like?

With many of the world’s most beloved travel destinations beginning to open up their borders after a turbulent, tumultuous two years, the prospect of exploring locations far flung finally feels possible again. 

But why leave it at just ‘exploring’? The UK doesn’t exactly feel like the most welcoming, inspiring place to live in 2022, after all. The cost of living is rising unchecked, culture war concerns drown out any meaningful dialogue, and government corruption is rampant. For many, the idea of an extended ‘workation’ now that the world is opening up is seriously appealing. 

Should you be able to work remotely, then doesn’t an escape to the other side of the world – at least for a little while – sound like just the ticket?

In a world of 195 countries, it can be hard to narrow down your search into something meaningful. Let’s make that search a little easier; in recent weeks, several countries in South East Asia, including Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, have announced a lifting of restrictions and a shift in their approach to the pandemic. 

With a relatively low cost of living, warm climate and delicious food, the larger cities of South East Asia are some of the most attractive places on the planet for an extended break. Here are 5 of the most liveable cities in South East Asia for expats.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

The Malaysian economy has benefited from a seismic boom period since the 1970s and today, it is one of the most rapidly growing economies in the Southeast Asia region. As a result, many international companies today operate in the ‘golden triangle’ business district of Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, and as a result, there is plenty of demand for expat jobs in the city.

And what an invigorating city it is. Kuala Lumpur is one of the great Asian megacities, centred by its most iconic skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers. The country’s blend of Malay, Indian, Thai and Chinese cultures is at its most apparent here, and the cuisine is at its most diverse, punchy and flavoursome on the streets of the city. 

Indeed, this is a foodie mecca pretty much unrivalled anywhere else on the planet. It’s one of the world’s cheapest places to eat truly well, with Hawker Centres slinging bowl upon bowl of fragrant soups and rich, deep curries for the price of pennies. Doesn’t that sound ideal for the intrepid traveller or Brit on an extended workation?

Reflect on the sort of lifestyle you want to lead when living in KL before deciding which district you’d like to settle in. Are you a real party animal who loves going out and enjoying yourself? In which case, look into renting a room somewhere in Bukit Bintang, the vibrant shopping and entertainment district lined with luxury fashion boutiques, fun cocktail bars, street food, and night clubs. 

On the other hand, more well-established expats working for one of the global corporations housed in the business district usually opt for living in KLCC, the city centre. Or, for a neighbourhood with a strong international community, consider Mont Kiara.

To help you learn more about finding a room to rent in KL, have a look at what’s on offer through Property Guru’s website. 

*It should be noted that, as of February 2022, Malaysia is still not open to tourists from the UK.*

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s religious and cultural hub, is a very different proposition to the country’s hectic capital Bangkok. It’s laid back and slow-paced, with high rises at lower volume and, whisper it, a fair amount of green space and shade. 

The city is one of the best places to live in the world for remote workers, with digital nomads able to live on a baseline of £500 a month, with a one-bedroom apartment close to the centre of the action averaging around £300 per month

Even better, a bowl of noodles will set you back only a couple of dollars and you can find gorgeous meals for as little as $1 in food markets, both of which will rank incredibly highly on the not-actually-quantifiable ‘deliciousness index’. We made that one up, but anyway…

Read: 5 of the best places to eat Khao Soi in Chiang Mai, Thailand

It should be noted that the most popular expat areas to live in Chiang Mai aren’t actually in the ‘centre’, which refers to the Old City, a gorgeous part of town sitting inside the city walls and bordered by a moat of sorts. Here, it’s mainly hotels and guesthouses in terms of accommodation, but head just outside the city walls, and you’ll find the neighbourhoods of Nimman and Santitham, where there’s a wide range of more established condominiums with modern apartments to rent.

HANOI, VIETNAM

Though visitors to Vietnam often head first to the chaotic, cutting edge Ho Chi Minh City and its famous backpacker street Bui Vien, it’s in the north of the country, in the capital Hanoi, that expats might find the perfect place to live.

Whilst initially the city can feel like an attack on the senses, with the sights, smells and sounds overwhelming in their relentlessness, those who embrace Hanoi’s barely organised chaos find a truly global city which retains its individualism and sense of identity more than any other in the region.

Though travellers naturally head first to the Old Quarter, with its famous beer street and some of the best street food in the world, for expats looking for a little more space, a little less motorbike noise, but still plenty of that historic Hanoi charm, then Hai Ba Trung (the French Quarter) boasts wider promenades and plenty of traditional apartments to rent. 

Alternatively, Tay Ho (West Lake) is particularly popular with expats. During the day, the wide open space of the enormous lake offers respite, breeze and unadulterated views that nowhere else in Hanoi can provide. Apartments here are modern, and there are several ‘western’ supermarkets, should you be missing your Marmite and Bonne Maman conserve.

Read: 5 IDEAL districts to visit in Hanoi

The cost of living in Hanoi, and Vietnam on the whole, is low. Food and drinks on the street in Vietnam are some of the cheapest in the world, with a bowl of the country’s world-famous, nourishing noodle soups clocking in at around 30’000 VND (less than a pound) and a beer even less. With affordable apartments and a welcoming atmosphere, could there be a more liveable city for expats in South East Asia? We certainly don’t think so.

VIENTIANE, LAOS

For something a little more laid back, the capital of Laos is a city very much on the up. People say that Vientiane is the most ‘European’ in feel of all South East Asian cities, with French colonial architecture, broad and tree-lined boulevards, and a surprisingly serene pace for a capital city in this part of the world. It even boasts the Patuxai Victory Monument, an iconic landmark here designed to resemble the Arc de Triomphe.

Fortunately, the city’s not too European; we’re trying to escape that damn place, after all! Vientiane is defined by its Buddhist temples, including the towering Golden 16th-century Pha That Luang. They say that if you ever get lost in the city, you should just look up to find the temple’s glow and get your bearings. 

Even more mesmerising is Xieng Khuan, known as Buddha Park. Just 20 km out of Vientiane, there are over 200 Buddha statues here, all set inside the lush and inviting grounds of the park.

Back in the city, expats will find the cost of living some of the cheapest on the planet. In fact, the Price of Travel 2020 Backpacker Index puts the daily cost at just over $20 a day.

MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES

We’re finishing our tour of the most liveable cities in South East Asia for expats in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. One of the world’s most sprawling, heavily populated cities, many assume it to be an impenetrable place, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather than keep you here (we realise you’re keen to pack your bags and head off!), we’ll redirect you to these 10 IDEAL reasons to visit Manila

Good luck and send us a postcard from wherever you end up!

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