There comes a time in every traveler’s life when they find themselves at a critical crossroads. On the one hand, settling down so they can keep doing the 9-5 office thing, buying a house, paying bills, and generally acting like a responsible adult. Of course, they’ll still try to go on vacation once or twice a year and make the most of it.
Or, they can throw caution in the wind and choose a more adventurous existence on the path less traveled by living abroad . Whether it’s for six months, one year, or for the rest of their lives, I think it’s a great and enriching experience to live abroad at some time – including for families (the kids get a far better education than they ever will in school!).
There are endless possibilities for where expats can relocate abroad, but one of my favorites (and yours, too!) is Southeast Asia.
Here are my top ten places to live (NOT just vacation!) in Southeast Asia (in no particular order):
1. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
I’m not a big city person, but Phnom Penh (or just PP) is an incredibly vibrant and energetic city, with such unique and rich culture, history, architecture, and yes, even nightlife. This capital city is so big and spread out that you can literally live there for years and still explore and find unique little neighborhoods, and their artwork, coffee culture, and French-fusion inspired restaurants are surprisingly modern. Despite being a big city, PP also has a river “Quay” or walking plaza that stretches a couple of kilometers, which gives it a community feel as residents hang out, play sports, and relax every early morning or as the sun falls. PP also has some really nice parks, and I would consider it safe except for petty crime. The poverty and conditions turn some people off (and it is one of the poorest countries in Asia), but for me, being in the city makes me feel alive!
2. Kampot, Cambodia
If you’re looking for a “second city” or smaller alternative to reside in Cambodia, skip Siem Reap (gets way too small and is way too touristy) and definitely avoid Sihanoukville (the beach isn’t that great, and it’s pretty scummy). Instead, try Kampot, which is a town with sun-baked and faded French colonial architecture right on the might Kampot river – with unbelievable nature and temples all around! Where else can you bicycle down countryside dirt roads, kayak or paddleboard up to a hidden Buddhist temple in the jungle, or take a motorbike up a soaring mountain within one town? It’s also only an easy 3-4 hour car or bus ride to the big city or even less down to Sihanoukville, which also has an airport.
3. Jomtien, Thailand
“Pattaya” is often a bad word in polite company because the seaside city about an hour from Bangkok is known for its red light districts. While those still exist, Pattaya has matured into something more similar to Las Vegas, with amazing food, shows, beautiful hotels, and fun activities for the whole family – not just partiers. And Jomtien, a quiet suburb only 15 minutes outside of Pattaya – is like you turned the volume on the whole thing from a 10 to a 3, with a more quiet and enjoyable pace of chill life – but still with access to all of those great restaurants and amenities.
4. Koh Samui, Thailand
There are better tropical islands and perfect pristine beaches in Thailand but, as I mentioned in part one of this blog about where NOT to live, people usually don’t stick there long term. Instead, try Koh Samui, which is a really balanced and livable island. Of course, it has its own airport (actually one of the nicest you’ll see since it’s private) and a bigger “city” in Chewang, but you can easily find more relaxed and less crowded areas like Lemai Beach. Enjoy the beaches, night markets, great food, and Thai hospitality – but still with luxury accommodations and western-quality amenities in Koh Samui.
5. Chang Mai, Thailand
Chang Mai is actually a mecca for digital nomads, with heaps of foreigners from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Europe, and even other parts of Asia resettling in the Thai northern mountain city. Chang Mai offers plenty of advanced infrastructure, with a nice airport, great food, cheaper prices than in Bangkok or other tourist destinations on the ocean, and lightning-fast internet. It also offers plenty of old-world charm and cultural festivities. Just don’t be in Chang Mai in March, when all of the farmers in the province burn their fields and the air is literally unbreathable in the city!
6. Nha Trang, Vietnam
When I first moved to Southeast Asia in 2013, I actually started in Nha Trang, the fun and picturesque coastal city in Central Vietnam. It’s set up perfectly for expats, with plenty of bars, restaurants, and modern apartment buildings to serve foreigners, but still a decidedly local city. The beach and coastal area are nice to look at, but you probably don’t want to swim in that water. But a quick moto ride down the coast you’ll find plenty of gorgeous beaches. However, I did find that Nha Trang was a little cold culturally (or maybe I just didn’t vibe with the Vietnamese people), and it wasn’t as cheap to live as Vietnam.
7. Dumaguete, the Philippines
Ahhh, my beloved Duma! I’ve lived here for a year and a half now, and that’s an ETERNITY for me! Dumaguete really is a great place to live for a foreigner, and it’s also been named one of the top places in the world to retire in Forbes Magazine. A city that feels like a smaller town on the water in the central Philippines, Dumaguete is a very vibrant and balanced place, with plenty of nature, a thriving academic community with about nine universities and colleges here, a significant foreign/expat/retiree community, and it even has its own small airport and a ferry terminal for getting out of town. However, Dumaguete is also getting more crowded, a little more expensive as theirs a shortage of modern housing for foreigners, and the restaurants are limited. Still, it’s an amazing place to visit or live!
8. Manila, the Philippines
Since I first saw it in 1999, one of my least favorite cities in the world is Manila. It’s insanely big, crowded, chaotic, polluted, and traffic is so bad that it can take two hours to travel a few miles! No joke! That being said, I’m probably moving to Manila ina. Few months! Why? It’s also THE center of business, politics, and modern Philippines life, with a more modern, sophisticated, and educated populace (in certain areas). You can live in a nice condo (although they cost a fortune by Philippines standards), walk to huge outdoor complexes filled with excellent restaurants, coffee shops, stores, etc., enjoy Manila’s never-ending bars, nightlife, art galleries, sports, etc., and still get to the airport to fly to the islands and beaches every weekend!
9. Bohol, the Philippines
If you want a more chill and natural place to live in the Philippines than Manila (and I don’t blame you!) then Bohol may be a good option. It’s actually made of two big islands, but on the smaller Panglao Island, there’s still plenty of land and room to build or get a house or apartment, near white-sand beaches, beautiful ocean, and plenty of tourist activities. The internet is good, the restaurants and shopping are far better than in nearby Dumaguete, and Bohol has its own major airport.
So many travelers end up in Indonesia, staying in places like Bali, Ubud, and more. Indonesia is as culturally rich and dynamic as you’ll find, with cheap prices, amazingly healthy and great food, and fantastic nature from mountains to jungle to beaches. It’s also a hot spot for foreigners from the yoga or scuba diving communities who move there.
11. Phuket, Thailand
Phuket is probably the most touristy place in Thailand, but the Island has plenty of room to get away from the crowds if you step away into the outskirt coastal communities or island center. There’s actually a whole village in the central part of the island dedicated just to Muay Thai training and fitness, where a lot of foreigners come to stay for a while (but few live there). But Phuket is one place you can go get a job, open a business, or enjoy the best of Thai beaches and sunshine without sacrificing infrastructure – just as long as you’re willing to put up with the tourist madness and higher prices.