6 Best Cities to Live in SE Asia as an Expat or Digital Nomad

Moving to SE Asia was one of the best decisions of my life. Overnight, I basically became “rich” due to the lower cost of living. I’ve also gotten to experience many different cultures—and even dating became more interesting.

If any of that sounds good to you, then I encourage you to plan your own “Escape to Asia,” too. In fact, that’s the whole point of this website. But what specific destinations should you consider first?

At the time of writing this blog post, I’ve been to 15 cities in Asia. In most of them, I’ve stayed several weeks or a few months. While they’ve all had good aspects, below are the six I’d recommend most for new expats or digital nomads.

Best Places to Live in Southeast Asia

Keep in mind: I’m a single American male digital nomad in his 30s. I like big cities (and beaches, too). I don’t drink alcohol or partake in much nightlife. I am not fluent in any SE Asian language. This all effects how I view the following cities.

1. Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok would be my first recommendation for many aspiring expats and nomads looking at Southeast Asia, particularly if you like big cities. But why is that?

First, Thailand in general provides a “soft landing” for new expats in Southeast Asia. I mean that it’s very developed and foreigner-friendly. The second city on this list is also in Thailand for this reason.

In Thailand, you’ll feel safe at all times, and you’ll feel like you have everything you could want at your fingertips.

In Bangkok, you get a lot of the same benefits as any international megacity: Endless shopping malls and restaurants, nice condos, nice parks, modern public transportation, incredible hospitals, and reliable fast internet.

At the same time, you still get a lot of the perks of living in SE Asia, like the low cost of living, as well as the charms of Thailand, like the street food and famous Thai nightlife.

Personally, I spent 25% of my first two years in Asia in Bangkok (that’s 6 months of my first two years). It’s the city where I choose to go for my dental and medical needs, and it’s basically a home base I return to often.

Life feels kind of easy in Bangkok because it’s both convenient and affordable. There are endless possibilities, as it’s a huge city—but it’s also pretty relaxing to live there because of the low costs.

Of course, there are still some cons to living in Bangkok, too. The biggest might be the traffic. Read more in my full post about the pros and cons of living in Bangkok.

2. Chiang Mai, Thailand

As mentioned above, Thailand is an excellent place to start as an expat or digital nomad in Asia. But if you’re not a fan of huge cities, then Chiang Mai may be the better choice for you.

Chiang Mai is the second most populated city in Thailand, but it’s not even close to Bangkok. It’s a much more chill place, with a famous university, mountains, very low prices, and no skyscrapers.

If you work online and you enjoy working in public, you’ll love Chiang Mai. There are dozens if not hundreds of beautiful and interesting cafes with reliable wifi spread across the city. And there are a few great coworking spaces, too.

Indeed, Chiang Mai has thriving communities of online entrepreneurs and digital nomads. It’s the home of the Chiang Mai SEO Conference, and in some years, the Nomad Summit.

The lower cost compared to Bangkok and Phuket also means Chiang Mai is an ideal place in Thailand for the digital nomad who’s still getting started. 

It’s one of the places in SE Asia where you really could live a pretty good life on $1,000 per month or less, if you’re mindful about your spending.

Read more in my post about the pros and cons of living in Chiang Mai.

3. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) is one of my personal favorite cities in SE Asia. It’s not as developed as Bangkok, but it’s developed enough that you can live an incredible lifestyle on relatively little money.

The taxis, and especially motorbike taxis, are very cheap and convenient in Saigon. With the Grab app, you can usually have a ride within 2 minutes (faster than elsewhere in SE Asia). 

The food is also extremely cheap if you mostly eat local food. (Personally, Vietnamese is my favorite cuisine in all of Asia.)

Compared to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Saigon has fewer options for nice high-rise condos, but there are some.

Personally, I like that Saigon is not quite as flooded with tourists as Bangkok, too. 

There are fewer long-term visa options in Vietnam than in Thailand—but you can still figure out ways to stay long-term (or return often) if you really want to.

Read more in my blog post about the pros and cons of living in Saigon.

4. BGC (Manila), Philippines

If you’re interested in the Philippines, my first suggestion would be Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig, Metro Manila. It’s perhaps the nicest, most developed part of the whole country. It’s clean and modern with great amenities, high-rise condos, and more.

Now, I’ll be honest—the Philippines has some downsides compared to other countries in SE Asia. The internet connections are often slow and unreliable, for example. And more beggars may hassle you on the street.

But there are also a few big benefits to living in the Philippines as an expat. One is the English level. 

Most Filipinos are fluent in English, which you can’t say about Thai or Vietnamese people. English is actually an official language of the Philippines. So that’s very convenient for us native English speakers.

The Philippines also may be the most fun place in the world for dating as a western guy. If you use dating apps as a western man in the Philippines, you’ll likely get more matches and attention than you’ve ever had in your life.

Personally, for cities in the Philippines, I’ve only tried BGC and Cebu City so far. Both were okay, but BGC was nicer, cleaner, and seemed to be running more smoothly in general (shorter lines at stores, for instance).

That said, BGC is expensive compared to the rest of the Philippines (and compared to other big cities in SE Asia, too). So, your monthly budget should be in the $2,000 or $3,000 range or more to choose BGC—not really the $1,000 range.

You can read more in my post about the pros and cons of living in BGC.

5. Canggu (Bali), Indonesia

I wanted to include a beach destination on this list. And although I’ve only visited Canggu for a few days myself, I see why so many expats and nomads choose to live there.

Canggu has a great beach, but it also has tons of restaurants and cafes with good wifi. So, it’s a great place to work online, while also getting those tropical beach vibes (and surfing, if you choose).

Like any popular area in Bali, you’ll be surrounded by many tourists, expats, and digital nomads in Canggu. Personally, that’s not my preference—but if you love to connect with other travelers and digital nomads, it could be great for you.

Side note: If you want to see some of the most beautiful sights in the region, I recommend taking a day trip to Nusa Penida. As shown here, the island and beach views are absolutely stunning.

6. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is such an interesting city. First off, it’s more ethnically diverse than any other city on this list. Most of the Malay population is Muslim, but there are large Chinese and Indian populations in the city, as well.

Like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur has an incredible selection of luxury high-rise condos at affordable prices. You’ll be shocked what you can find on Airbnb for just $30 to $40 per night. (And of course, rent will be much cheaper if you sign a long-term lease.)

Also like Bangkok, the city skyline views in Kuala Lumpur are phenomenal. With over 150 skyscrapers, it’s a very developed city (in the world’s top 10 cities for most skyscrapers).

The food and taxi prices in Kuala Lumpur are not as cheap as Saigon in Vietnam, but it’s still an affordable city overall.

I’ve only been to Kuala Lumpur for a few weeks so far, but I already absolutely understand its appeal as an affordable, convenient, beautiful, and interesting city in Southeast Asia.

More SE Asia Expat Destinations

I wanted to mention some more places that may also be worth looking into, depending on your preferences. Here are more suggestions based on 3 categories:

  • Cities With Beaches: If you want a city with a beach, consider Da Nang or Nha Trang in Vietnam, or Pattaya or Hua Hin in Thailand. Da Nang is the largest city of those, while Pattaya is the party city.
  • Islands with Beaches (Smaller Towns and Vacation Spots): If you want a relaxing beach stay (not a big city), then look at Phuket or Koh Samui in Thailand, Phu Quoc in Vietnam, Boracay in the Philippines, or Bali in Indonesia.
  • Cooler Temperatures: Most of SE Asia is hot and humid. But for year-round cool temperatures, take a look at Baguio in the Philippines or Da Lat in Vietnam. If you’d like a cooler winter but a hot summer, look at Hanoi in Vietnam or Chiang Mai in Thailand (already listed above).