My Favorite Southeast Asian Cities

I love living in Dongtan and before coming to Korea, I loved living in Gilbert, Arizona (USA). Though there are three Southeast Asian cities that I would always want to return to and will always have a special place in my heart.

Manila, Philippines

No surprise here since it is where I was born and where I pursued a double degree course at one of the country’s top universities. I grew up 4 hours north of the city and my family would often take trips down for medical checkups, shopping, and fun.

Decorations for luck and prosperity, Manila Chinatown

Decorations for luck and prosperity, Manila Chinatown (2012)

Since my parents still live in the Philippines, my husband and I try to go there every year and always fly in and out of Manila. We like returning to familiar places and exploring new ones. Each time, there’s always something different to see and try.

Manila Cathedral

Manila Cathedral, Intramuros (2003)

I like revisiting old buildings and ruins at the old walled city, Intramuros, and paying respects to the national hero Jose Rizal at Luneta Park. I always go to Chinatown for my favorite Chinese dishes and snacks, then shop at Divisoria for great deals. I love watching sunsets at Manila Bay, which would remind me of wonderful overnight trips to Corregidor. On warm summers days, I remember trips to Tagaytay and buying buko (coconut) pie along the highway.

Rizal Monument Luneta Park

Rizal Monument, Luneta Park (2011)

In Manila, people like to chill at malls and there you can find many things but most importantly, you can find many kinds of food ranging from dishes from different regions of the country to unique international cuisine you wouldn’t have thought to find in Asia.

I will always be at home in Manila and I will always crave Filipino food wherever I am.

Sunset Manila Bay

Sunset at Manila Bay (2011)


Bangkok, Thailand

In 2002, I wanted to do something different for my last summer vacation during university. My friend Jan convinced me to join the debate team as an adjudicator to represent our school at the 9th All Asian Inter-Varsity Debating Championship in Bangkok. It was great meeting other university students from all over Asia and evaluating great debate sessions. After the tournament, we had roughly 3 days to explore the city. It was my first time exploring a new city/country without family or a travel itinerary.

Phra Sri Rattana Chedi in Sri Lankan style

Phra Sri Rattana Chedi in Sri Lankan style, Wat Phra Kaew, Grand Palace (2002)

On the first day out, Gaby (another adjudicator from our team) and I went out to explore. Gaby didn’t hesitate to tell me to take the lead and that she’ll just go along with whatever I had planned. I remember relying on just a guidebook and a compass to get around the city.  We started at the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, where we got extremely satisfying Thai massages at its massage school.

3 Chedi and the Medicine pavilion

3 Pagodas (Chedi) and the Medicine pavilion, Wat Pho (2002)

As we were exploring the area, we met a very nice tuk-tuk driver who agreed to take us around the city for the rest of the day at a prearranged price. From there, we went all over the city and checked out the places on my list and additional locations the driver recommended. Although it was drizzling half the time, we had a great time.


Gaby and I in a tuk-tuk with our awesome driver, who wanted to look serious for the picture. (2002)

The next day, our Thai friends took us to the biggest market I’ve ever been to: Chatuchak weekend market. There we saw birds, clothes, pirated cds, posters, street food, and everything else imaginable. On the third day, we went out of the city to Ayutthaya, where we rode elephants and explored historical ruins.

As mind boggling as the red light district was, what made Bangkok amazing for me was how wonderful the people were and how peaceful everything was–even the stray dogs and cats were tame! I attribute my passion to travel and explore to my experience in this city.

Wat Arun Temple of Dawn

Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), Bangkok (2002)


Jogjakarta, Indonesia

When Steve and I got married in February 2010, we deferred our honeymoon to the summer to coincide with his vacation from work. Since I had been meaning to visit Jan again, who now lives in Jakarta, we picked Indonesia. Jan recommended to us a great tour company that arranged our trip to Jogjakarta and Bali. Since it was our own private tour, I was able to customize the itinerary based on what I wanted to see and do, along with recommendations from Jan and the tour company.

Magical Trees, Jogjakarta

Twin magical trees, Jogjakarta (2010)

Upon arriving at Jogjakarta, we checked in and had dinner. Then our tour guide took us to the center of the town where two very old trees stand in the middle of a big rotunda. It was said that whoever could walk blindfolded between the two magical trees would have his/her wishes fulfilled. At first, we thought it would be easy but for some reason, we always veered off. There was something mystical about the place and we were enchanted.

Sunrise at Borobodur Temple

A misty sunrise at Borobudur Temple with Mount Merapi in the distance. (2010)

The next three days were magical. We witnessed a surreal sunrise at Borobudur Temple, visited the Sultan’s Palace Kraton, saw Mendut Temple, trekked up to the cave of Mother Mary in Sendangsono, checked out Prambanan, explored Taman Sari (Water Castle), and shopped at Malioboro Street.

Taman Sari, Jogjakarta

Steve exploring Taman Sari (Water Castle), Jogjakarta (2010)

Maybe it was because it was our honeymoon or maybe those old trees did their magic but I loved Jogjakarta.

Couple shot Borobodur Temple

Steve and I at Borobudur Temple. ♥ (2010)

These are my favorite cities in Southeast Asia. I’m sure more cities will be added as we further explore.

What’s your favorite Southeast Asian city?

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  1. Great article and images, Johanne!

    My wife and I have a special place in our hearts for Puerto Princessa in Palawan. This city is the gateway for us to explore many natural and uncrowded areas in the Philippines.

    1. Thanks Mark! Great choice–Puerto Princesa is a lovely city! :)

  2. Gorgeous pictures, as usual!! I’ve always wanted to go to Indonesia… even more so now!

    1. Thanks Mimsie! You should totally visit Indonesia soon! :)

  3. Makes me want to go there now! I’ve never been to any of these cities. I’m going to Beijing and Kuala Lumpur in July, have you visited either?! My favourite cities at the moment are all European!

    1. I haven’t yet. I hope you have a great time at both places! What European cities are your favorites? :)

      1. There are so many but I love Mont Pellier in France and Cologne in Germany, and Barcelona! Have you travelled in Europe?!

        1. Not yet but we’ll definitely go there in the near future. I’m taking notes of places to visit in the meantime. ;)

  4. Great post! Love the photos and the way you found something unique to love about each city, and they’re all cities I haven’t been to (I had a 12 hour stopover in Bangkok once but that doesn’t really count!). Bangkok is top of my list to explore next – the market sounds amazing plus I’ve loved every other piece of Thailand I’ve explored so far, and the food is SO good! To be honest I never would have considered the other two, so thanks for opening my eyes a little.

  5. Glad to see someone giving Manila top billing. It’s a great city with great people. It doesn’t get enough credit.

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