As a destination that’s well known for its diversity, the essence of a trip to Southeast Asia for most would probably include a rundown of the well-known ancient ruins, beaches and secluded islands, through natural landscapes and tropical rainforests and generally having a good time in the region’s megacities. A not so prominent (and less popular) theme are its old towns, some of which have been preserved as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These are deserving destinations in their own right, and are perfect supplements to those doing long trips across the region. Earlier this year, I had inadvertently completed a small milestone by visiting all the UNESCO World Heritage towns in Southeast Asia. As there are only five, it’s no mean feat. I was not really ticking it off any list. It just happened.
brightly colored buildings such as these in hoi an, are a common sight in all of southeast asia’s unesco towns
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might notice this habit of mine of ranking stuff regarding Southeast Asia. This one’s no exception. In order of preference (and I’ll explain why), this is how I would rank the 5:
1 – Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An is a great example of a preserved Chinese village in Southeast Asia. Of the 5, the area of the old town seems to be the largest as well. The town today is touristy (90% of the townsfolk derive their income from tourism) but still retains the quaintness of a small town. A good place to wander is during early morning when one gets to witness for a brief moment what life might have been prior to all the visitors rushing in. There are no must-see sights in Hoi An. The town itself is the attraction so it’s best to take it slow for a few days and be mesmerized by the slow rhythms of the place.
good morning vietnam!
Another thing I like about Hoi An is the food scene. I am by no means a foodie but I have a bias towards Vietnamese food, and I dare say that the food in Hoi An offers some of the best Vietnamese food around. The town is said to specialize in “cao lau” which is a noodle dish, white rose and wonton dumplings. These are all good but whatever Vietnamese dish you order, it’s hard to go wrong with the many quality and reasonably-priced restaurants around the old town.
The distinctive Hoi An experience: Exploring the nooks and crannies of the old town, with its old mansions and clan associations
How to get there: The nearest airport is Da Nang, which is about an hour away. From Da Nang, there are several domestic flights to Hanoi and Saigon and even international flights to places like Singapore.
2 – Vigan, Philippines
Vigan offers something which the other UNESCO towns in the region don’t – and that’s the Spanish flavor that one does not easily find elsewhere in the continent. Those who have come here compare it to a colonial Latin American town – in miniature. I wouldn’t know as I have not been to Latin America. But what I do know is that Vigan offers a nice change of scene with its cobblestone streets, turn-of-the-century buildings with peeling paint and horse-drawn carriages that evoke another era. It would have been a much nicer town if it were not for the smoke belching tricycles and the main plaza that has become the defacto parking lot of Vigan.
the twinkling streetlights of vigan at night
The distinctive Vigan experience: Riding a calesa (horse-drawn carriage) down the cobblestone Calle Crisologo.
How to get there: The nearest airport is at least a 2-hour car journey away, at Laoag, from where there are daily flights to Manila.
3 – Luangprabang, Laos
Those looking for a more “Asian” experience should come here. While the other towns managed to gain the UNESCO designations due to some foreign legacy, Luangprabang remains a mostly local affair. Temples with distinctive Lao / Northern Thai architecture dating back a couple hundred of years, former royal palaces, gorgeous sunset views as well as a burgeoning culinary scene, Luangprabang is perhaps the most exotic of the five. From Luangprabang, there are tons of daytrip possibilities, from a dip at the must-see Kuang Si Falls to the 2-hour or so boat ride up to Pak Ou Caves.
luangprabang comes alive at night with a street market
The distinctive Luangprabang experience: The giving of alms to monks during sunrise (around 6AM)
How to get there: Luangprabang is an 8 to 9 hour car ride down some zigzagging roads from Vientiane, Laos’ capital. Otherwise, it’s a 1 hour domestic flight. There is a limited number of international flights as well, including a service to Bangkok.
4 – Georgetown, Malaysia
Georgetown, and the island in which it is situated, has been compared to a number of places. As I have been living in Singapore for a few years now, the prevailing impression I have about Georgetown is its remarkable similarity to Singapore, albeit a less Disney-esque version. The shophouse architecture is similar, as well as the distinctive “Peranakan” culture which some cities along the Straits of Malacca are known for. Penang is also known for its ethnic diversity which reflects in the number of religious buildings around the old town. This includes some mosques, churches and Buddhist temples of Burmese and Chinese origin.
The distinctive Penang experience: A new attraction in the old town is the presence of a number of street art. Most of them are creatively done and are worth a few hours of exploration.
How to get there: Georgetown is situated in Penang, where there is an international airport with flights to nearby Southeast Asian cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok.
5 – Malacca, Malaysia
Similar to Georgetown in that it is recognized as one of the historic cities along the Straits of Malacca, the namesake city is again a delightful example of Peranakan architecture. Add to that an infusion of not just British but also Dutch and Portuguese influences and it makes for one quaint UNESCO town replete with old mansions, religious buildings as well as a night market. The food here is distinctive as well with the Peranakan cuisine mixing Chinese and Malay elements.
painting the town red is to be taken literally in malacca
The distinctive Malacca experience: Eat, eat and eat! Malacca is well-known for Peranakan cuisine which can be had in the restaurants around Jonker Walk.
How to get there: Malacca is a 2 hour car ride from Kuala Lumpur or 4 hour bus ride from Singapore.
How would you rank these 5? I’m interested to hear your thoughts!