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3 Must-See Small Cities in Southeast Asia

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On a recent trip throughout Southeast Asia, some of TPG International Contributor Lori Zaino‘s favorite stops were small cities in three different countries — Luang Pruang in Laos, Chiang Rai in Thailand and Bagan in Myanmar. Here’s why she feels these relatively quiet destinations deserve a visit during your own trip to Southeast Asia(Photos by the author, except where noted.) 

Southeast Asia is best known for big cities (like Bangkok and Hanoi) and gorgeous, often crowded beaches. But to have truly authentic experiences of the region’s various countries, be sure to visit some small towns, as well. In the following three destinations, for example, you’ll typically find friendly locals, traditional architecture and pristine landscapes — and they may just end up being your favorite parts of the trip.

Welcome to the picturesque Luang Prabang
A quiet residential street in Luang Prabang, Laos.

1. Luang Prabang, Laos

Set in the Mekong River Valley and surrounded by mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage site offers a mix of well-preserved, ornate wooden houses and stone temples from the 14th-16th centuries — when this relatively sleepy city was a popular stop along the Silk Route — and the French Colonial era of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. The most popular of Luang Prabang’s many, many temples is Wat Chomsi, reachable by 355 steps up Mount Phousi, a 490-foot hill set right in the middle of town.

Luang Prabang from up top.
Luang Prabang from up top.

At the top of the mountain, you’ll find an often misty 360-degree panoramic view of the sprawling city, the rushing Mekong River and the lush valley. Nature fans will love the town’s beautiful landscapes, trekking trails and nearby excursions, including a boat trip up to the Pak Ou Caves, home to more than 4,000 huge statues of Buddha that tower above the Mekong, and one of Southeast Asia’s most graceful, impressive cascades, the Kuang Xi Falls.

The Kuang Xi Waterfalls are just outside of Luang Prabang.
The Kuang Xi Waterfalls are just outside of Luang Prabang.

Surrounded by deep forest, the three-tiered, crystal-blue Kuang Xi always has flowing water — even during Laos’ dry season — as well as little fish that nibble the dry skin off of your bare feet. It’s a calm, safe place to swim and a serene spot to relax.

Locals give rice and other things (like umbrellas on a rainy day) to monks daily at dawn
Every day at dawn, locals offer rice and other needed items (like umbrellas on a rainy day) to the town’s Buddhist monks.

A visit to Luang Prabang wouldn’t be complete without waking up at dawn to see the local villagers giving alms — anything from rice and snacks to umbrellas — to Buddhist monks clad in orange robes. And each night, an open-air market runs along the city’s main drag, offering street foods (like skewers of baked Mekong river fish), as well as clothes and home goods, and even jewelry and silverware made from Vietnam War-era bomb shrapnel.

For a more detailed account of Luang Prabang — including where to stay and eat — check out Eric Rosen’s post on What To Do On A Visit To Luang Prabang. 

The white temple is amazing, but Chiang Rai has a lot more to offer
The white temple is amazing, but Chiang Rai has a lot more to offer.

2. Chiang Rai, Thailand

In Northern Thailand, the big city of Chiang Mai and the majestic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) get the lion’s share of tourist attention. Nearby, however, the far less crowded Chiang Rai is an ideal spot to immerse yourself in a version of Thailand that’s not designed to cater to foreigners, but is nonetheless happy to welcome curious, friendly travelers.

The black house features several traditional Lanna buildings with an eerie vibe.
Chiang Rai’s peaceful yet slightly eerie Black House features several ornate, traditional Lanna-era buildings.

There are several gorgeous temples scattered throughout the town center, but only Wat Phra Kaew features an emerald statue of Buddha. Be sure to visit the Black House, or Baan Si Dum, an ornate and pretty darn creepy collection of 40 buildings that date back to the 13th-century Lanna Kingdom. The compound features just about everything eerie you could possibly imagine, from human skulls to a (caged) live boa constrictor, animal heads and crocodile skins used as tablecloths — and that’s just for starters.

The hot pot is delicious for dinner. Plus, it costs just about $2!
Hot pot is a delicious option for dinner — and costs just about $2!

Go get lost in the daily night market, where you’ll find enthusiastic Thai locals — most of who speak little to no English, but are willing to work with you, smiling and gesturing politely if you can’t manage your way around the Northern Thai dialect — selling all sorts of items, from food and clothes to electronics and toys. When you get hungry, order a “hot pot” here, and you’ll be given assorted vegetables, noodles and a choice of raw meat, seafood or chicken to cook at your own table. Pair this meal with a Singha beer or two, and for the equivalent of a few dollars, you’ll be dining just like a local.

While Airbnb offers a lot of cute lodging options (like this guesthouse, where I stayed) for about $15-$20 per night, you could also choose to redeem 3,000 Starpoints or spend 3,000 THB (about $83) per night at the Category 2 Le Meridien Chiang Rai.

The temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Some of the many, many temples of Bagan, Myanmar.

3. Bagan, Myanmar

With its many temples, Bagan has the allure of Angkor Wat in Cambodia’s Siem Reap, but you’ll find far fewer people competing for elbow room. Set on the Irawaddy River in central Myanmar, this small city is home to an official archeological zone of roughly 3,000 temples that date back to the 9th century — about 2,000 of them well preserved and another 1,000 in varying states of ruin — spread throughout an area that spans roughly 30 square miles. This magical landscape is certainly Earth-bound, but it may make you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world.

Look for the fee counter before you exit the airport to get your ticket to the temple zone
Look for the fee counter before you exit the airport to get your ticket to the temple zone.

Tickets to enter the archeological zone are available at the airport for $20 US, and they’re valid for five days. You won’t have to show your pass at every single temple, but I was asked to show mine a few times.

E-bikes are great way to explore the temples
E-bikes are great way to explore the temples.

I’d suggest starting your explorations via a taxi tour in order to get a feel for this large area and visit some of the most far-flung temples, then rent an e-bike (electric scooter) for about 5,000-6,000 Kyat (roughly $4) to tool around at your own pace.

The temples themselves have few restrictions, and you can roam pretty freely amongst (and even climb atop) them for breathtaking views of dusty brick and stone spires scattered amidst tree-dotted plains and along the Irawaddy River. While you wander, you might find yourself either alone or with only a few other people.

Don’t miss Bulethi at sunset; Pyat tha da at sunrise; the amazing river views at Shwe-kun char; the white-washed Lay myet hnay; and Khay- Min-Gha, otherwise known as the Leaning Tower of Bagan.

The gold Shwe-zi-gon Paya temple complex
Be sure to see the gold Shwe-zi-gon Paya temple complex.

If you need a break from the temple zone, you can always head up to the nearby Mount Popa to enjoy some panoramic views, but beware of the monkeys that roam the stairs and steal your belongings! For lunch and dinner, head over to the main street, Aung Myay Thar, for a variety of Western and local food options. Be sure to see Eric Rosen’s 2014 post on What To Do In Bagan, and stay tuned for my post on updated tips for visiting Myanmar.

Tips on Using Money and Credit Cards in Southeast Asia 

While visiting these three small Southeast Asian cities, make sure to have a mix of Thai baht and US dollars on hand, as many local attractions, restaurants and markets will only accept cash. However, larger hotels and restaurants may accept credit cards, so be sure to carry ones that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Citi ThankYou Premier Card. Have a wonderful time visiting the less-crowded corners of Southeast Asia!

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