While Southeast Asia can be a laidback adventurer's paradise, it's also home to some pretty chaotic cities (Bangkok, Saigon, Kuala Lumpur). Escape the crazy and be sure to add these six charming towns to your next SE Asia itinerary for a little calm and a whole lotta charm.
Hoi An, Vietnam
You won't be the first tourist in Hoi An, and you won't be the last. But you'll love the darling cafés and abundance of beautiful Vietnamese things for sale (fans, paper lanterns) and the romantic charm that comes from a town with a little river pleasantly running right through it. Have a cocktail at one of the bars looking out at the river, check out the numerous historic sites associated with this UNESCO World Heritage Site and bike out through the rice paddies for a day at the gorgeous beach nearby.
Malacca might not be on everyone's Malaysia must-see list, but it should be. After all, it's no Penang — but that might be a good thing. Malacca is relatively small but packed with interesting historic sites and museums that reveal its intriguing past (it was an important trade route in pre-colonial times, and later colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and British). Add to that dozens of European-inspired cafés, and a vibrant night market, and you have the setting for a few very relaxing days away from the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur.
The typical tourist route to Cambodia is often nothing more than a quick dash to Siem Reap and the capitol of Phnom Penh with perhaps a jaunt to Sihanoukville on the site. Make a break for the much cooler Otres Beach, then spend a few days in Kampot before heading on your travels. Discovering Kampot's colonial charms may be slowly on more traveller's itineraries, but this place is hardly overrun with packs of tourists. Instead, it's filled with a nice mix of mellow travellers, expats and locals, all happily co-existing side by side in a little town that runs right alongside a river. Do a daytrip to nearby Bokor National Park, take a sunset river cruise, take a day trip to nearby oceanside Kep for world-famous crab, and soak in the town's relaxed, comfortable vibe.
Pro tip: dine at one of Kampot's cheap Cambodian open air restaurants or grab tapas and cava at cute Spanish-guesthouse-and-café baraca.
One minute in chilled-out Pai and you'll see why its reputation as a hippie haven is earned. Nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand, Pai is filled with Western cafés galore, serving up everything from European-style coffees and elegant breakfasts to down-home Americana cookin'. Rent a motorbike to explore the waterfalls and nearby Pai Canyon, trek with a local guide through fields and jungle, and block off plenty of time to unwind at one of Pai's chilled out cafés.
Pro tip: stop by Edible Jazz for open mic nights and beers served in a funky open air setting surrounded by twinkling lights.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Duh. Who wouldn't to visit Luang Prabang, one of the prettiest little cities in Southeast Asia, if not the world? Luang Prabang's French colonial past has been well kept and is fun to explore, from the wine bars running along the town's main thoroughfare to old buildings now maintained as upscale boutique hotels facing the river. There's no shortage of activities to keep you busy, from cooking classes to a visit to the old palace to wandering the night market where loads of gorgeous local handicrafts are sold. Be sure to hire a tuk tuk for a visit nearby Kuang Si falls, famous for their numerous pools of aquamarine water where you can take a refreshing dip — bring decent shoes for a challenging uphill hike to the very top of the falls.
Galle, Sri Lanka
Like Luang Prabang, Galle knows its audience, and it aims to entice the chic, upscale traveller with money to spend rather than budget-conscious backpackers. Still, with tons of history to explore within the Old Dutch Fort — not to mention loads of good eats — it's worth adding to any adventurer's lists. There are dozens of historic sites scattered through the Old Dutch Fort, from old churches to small museums to the clock tower whose British-made clock still keeps perfect time, so wandering around the cobblestone street soaking in the history is an enjoyable way to pass a day or two. If a massage at swanky Spa Ceylon is too much for you budget, relax with a gelato from Pedlar's while soaking in the sunset from atop the old stone walls that protect the historic fort.