A popular destination with travellers for many years, increasingly foreigners are looking at Southeast Asia as a region not just to visit, but to live. In the age of remote working, affordable countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam with warm climates are natural choices for digital nomads and anyone looking for a new life abroad. Below, we’ll outline some of the best and cheapest cities to live in Southeast Asia with a full 2023 living cost comparison at the bottom comparing 20 cities across the region.
Table of Contents
- 5 of the Best Cities to Live in Southeast Asia
- Cost of Living in Southeast Asia – Cities Compared
5 of the Best Cities to Live in Southeast Asia
Chiang Mai, Thailand
One of the most popular cities in Southeast Asia and indeed the world for digital nomads and people working remotely. It may lack the energy and opportunities of bigger cities but there is a special magic to this town in Northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai has an international atmosphere, with travellers and nomads from all over the world passing through every day, which is combined with a taste of what feels more like the real Thailand than you get in Bangkok or some of the more touristy destinations in the South. That’s a really nice mix which enables you to learn about and experience Thai culture whilst also having easy access to many of the comforts of home.
The other major reason remote workers flock here is the low cost of living. It’s a great place to get started on your journey as a digital nomad and if you really watch what you spend, you could comfortably get by on less than 900 Dollars per month. That makes it a viable option for people who aren’t generating much income yet and need a bit of time to grow their online business whilst keeping living costs down to a minimum.
Living Cost Index – US$900 per month
At the other end of the scale to Chiang Mai, Singapore is a large, expensive, modern city. It does also boast a very international feel though with influences stretching far and wide from Britain to Beijing. It attracts workers from all over the world who are drawn in by high salaries and a city that is known for its extreme cleanliness and safety, as well as world class restaurants, shopping malls and attractions.
The city state has four official languages and is certainly one of the best places to live in Asia for English speakers. English is the most widely used and defacto working language in Singapore which makes things a lot easier for those coming from abroad when compared to most other cities in the region.
The high costs mean it is anything but an ideal place to hang around whilst looking for work and it would make little sense for remote workers to move here. However if you can land a job in Singapore, there are so many benefits and those include excellent travel opportunities with affordable air links to just about every major destination in Southeast Asia where your Singaporean salary should go very far!
Living Cost Index – US$3300 per month
Malaysia may be Singapore’s closest neighbour and share some of its traits but it is an altogether more affordable destination with some great options for places to live.
Kuala Lumpur is the capital and largest city and has plenty to offer, but the island of Penang and its capital George Town arguably makes for a more interesting base. Its historic centre is a World Heritage Site and a place where cultures meet. It has emerged as Malaysia’s gastronomic capital with a vibrant street food scene which makes it a great option for culinary lovers.
You can enjoy city life in Penang whilst also having fantastic access to nature and nearby beaches. Highlights in the region include the archipelago of Langkawi which is known for its crystal clear waters while it’s also not a long journey to reach Southern Thailand and its many travel opportunities. Both Penang and Langkawi feature in our Malaysia backpacking route which will give you an idea of some of the travel opportunities in the area.
Living Cost Index – US$800 per month
Many foreigners in Vietnam opt for the larger Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon) over the capital Hanoi but the latter is a prettier and less chaotic city by comparison. It is still a very busy place with over 8 million residents in its urban area but its old lakeside centre retains much of its ancient charm.
When compared to other Southeast Asian capitals, Hanoi also works out very affordable. It is cheaper than the likes of Bangkok, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. It also feels more authentic in some respects as the percentage of foreigners and businesses geared towards visitors is much less when compared to those cities. Hanoi may suit anyone who really wants to indulge in a new culture and take on a bigger challenge.
Hanoi’s northern location also ensures it has a slightly cooler climate than most of the cities featured in this rundown of the most liveable cities in Southeast Asia. That will be a relief for some but it does lack the modern transport networks that you’ll find in somewhere like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur with most people getting around by motorbike.
Living Cost Index – US$900 per month
Finally we head to the Thai capital Bangkok which it’s fair to say divides opinion. For many, it is the best city in Southeast Asia, a vibrant 24-7 metropolis with endless opportunities for passing days and nights in somewhere that is a true cultural melting pot in every sense. For others it is a seedy city that is best avoided at all costs in favour of Thailand’s many other beautiful destinations.
That will be a matter of personal preference of course but lovers of big cities will most likely enjoy Bangkok and the more unpleasant sides to it aren’t that hard to avoid. It is a city of extremes and you can find ways to either lead a life of luxury or get by on a really tight budget depending on your circumstances.
Whether you’re looking for Thai street food and budget bars or high-end international cuisine and fancy night clubs, you can find it all here and you can always hop on a train or plane to escape the city if Bangkok life starts to get too much. For those looking for a central base to live and work from, whilst exploring Southeast Asia in your free time, it’s definitely hard to beat.
Living Cost Index – US$1300 per month
Southeast Asia Cost of Living Calculation Explained
For the Southeast Asia Living Cost Index, numbeo’s cost of living calculator and data from livingcost.org have been used as a guide. The figures may change relatively quickly during these uncertain economic times though. They should at least give you a rough idea when it comes to finding the cheapest cities to live in Southeast Asia amongst those that also offer a high quality of life.
The figures are designed to cover the cost of rent and any day-to-day living expenses, however exact costs will clearly vary considerably from person to person. A budget-minded person who is happy to share accommodation with others and perhaps not necessarily live in the very best areas should be able to get by on less. Those wanting to live in their own private flat whilst having a bit more freedom to spend money and enjoy their free time may spend more.
The cost of any health or travel insurance packages are not factored into the figures and will heavily depend on your age and circumstances. SafetyWing are one company who offer flexible digital nomad insurance which may be suitable for those working remotely from a nomad hotspot like Chiang Mai.
Cost of Living in Southeast Asia – Cities Compared
|Asia Cost of Living Index (Monthly in USD)
|Ho Chi Minh City
Above, we have calculated the estimated living cost index for the 10 largest cities in Southeast Asia plus a further 10 cities which may appeal to foreigners looking to move to the region. Many, besides the five outlined above, are great places to base yourself and it really depends on what you’re after and what your budget is.
Overall, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest parts of the world, although Singapore is the obvious exception with estimated costs there more than double those in the next most expensive major city in the region.
However the cost of living has been steadily rising over the past decade in Southeast Asian capital cities like Bangkok, Vientiane and Phnom Penh. None of those places offer the bargains of old, although they still compare favourably to most major cities in the West or in the more expensive Asian nations. You will struggle to get anything like this kind of value in the best cities to live in Japan or South Korea for example. Likewise, those cities are very cheap when compared to even the cheapest places to live in New Zealand.
Away from the main economic centres, you can still find great value in countries like Thailand and Malaysia though with places like Penang and Chiang Mai ranking amongst the cheapest cities in Southeast Asia, whilst also being some of the most liveable. Indonesia is the cheapest place to live in Southeast Asia overall and you can find even better value than in Bandung and Surabaya which rank as the most affordable of the 20 listed above.
As of May 2023, 1 US Dollar = approximately 35 Thai Baht, 1.35 Singapore Dollars, 4.61 Malaysian Ringgits, 0.94 Euro & 0.81 British Pounds.
This post on the best places to live in Southeast Asia was last updated in May 2023.