Want to Escape the Tourists? Visit These Three Great Cities
Southeast Asia is undoubtedly popular among foreign visitors. Bangkok draws more visitors than perhaps any city on earth. Bali and Phuket are packed. Siem Reap attracts thousands to Angkor Wat. Even sleepy Luang Prabang in Laos has rapidly growing visitor numbers – indeed the advice given there to foreign tourists is to try to stay out of camera shot when other foreigners are trying to take authentic photos of monks receiving alms. If you’re desperate for the urban experience in Southeast Asia without the tourists, however, there are places you can go where foreign holidaymakers are thin on the ground, and that’s definitely not because these destinations are awful. Misunderstood, perhaps, but certainly not awful.
The first city on your list should be Jakarta. The Big Durian. The sinking capital of Indonesia. The place you change planes on the way to Bali. That Jakarta.
Many guidebooks recommend skipping Jakarta altogether – but that shouldn’t be taken as evidence against the city. It’s just that Indonesia has so much else to offer that the capital can be safely overlooked, but if you give it a chance it will certainly grow on you.
The big advantage is that you’ll be sharing the sights primarily with the locals wherever you go, and that usually means the locals will be a little more friendly and ‘natural’ than they would be when they’re swamped with foreign visitors. Jakarta can be easy to get around if you use the commuter trains or the Transjakarta buses, which have dedicated lanes on the roads, making them more like trains. You can buy a travel card at the stations that is valid on both systems. Bluebird taxis are also reliable, but they’ll get stuck in traffic, which is some of the world’s heaviest.
For things to see, Merdeka Square is great – you have the huge MONAS tower, a monument to independence. You can take an elevator to the top, and it’s open in the evenings too if you want to see the city lights at night. The Istiqlal Mosque is one of the biggest in the world, and they’ll happily show you around as long as you cover up and avoid the main prayer times. The National Museum is nearby, along with the excellent Bank Museum, and from these it’s a short ride to Jakartakota – the old part of the city where you’ll find the Dutch colonial influence in the architecture and canals. Café Batavia in the old town square is the ideal spot to watch life go by.
The Headquarters of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is in Jakarta, and they have a small museum and library that welcomes visitors. You can even see the original charters and treaties signed by renowned Asian leaders.
And if you’re looking for modern comforts, luxury hotels in Jakarta come at reasonable prices, and the latest shopping centres offer a calm and cool environment if the heat of the streets gets too much.
If you thought Jakarta was great, then Manila is awesome. Well – parts of it are awesome. Other parts not so much, but once you know where to go, you’ll be fine. Getting around Manila is a similar challenge to Jakarta. The traffic is horrendous, but there is a rail network you can use. You could also take public ferries along the Pasig river. Public transport comes in the form of Jeepneys, which are a kind of pick-up truck with a very low roof – like a cross between a bus and a bungalow. The good thing is that the destinations written on the Jeepneys are legible, and the drivers usually speak enough English to make sure you don’t get lost. So just jump in and enjoy the adventure. At night, however, you’re better off using taxis, as Manila isn’t the safest place after dark and it’s best to take precautions.
Many visitors choose to stay in Makati, which is the more modern and upmarket part of the city. You’ll find order, cleanliness, safety, good food, and great shopping. For a look at the older parts of Manila, however, you should head for Intramuros – the old walled section of the city. Nearby, you’ll find Rizal Park, where families go to find greenery and open space. From here you can see Manila Bay, and perhaps find restaurants from which to enjoy the sunset. The Natural History Museum is adjacent to the park, and is well worth your time, while you can also find the Planetarium and National Museum nearby.
If you choose to walk south from Rizal Park, however, you will come to the Malate district, which is currently in a state of severe urban decline. It’s not a place you’ll want to explore, although it used to be a popular nightlife hub. Today it merely highlights the difference between nice Manila and down-at-heel Manila. If you take a taxi through Malate along the bay, you will soon come to the enormous SM Mall of Asia, which even boasts its own Sports Arena. This is a great place to hang out by the waterfront.
The best thing about Manila, though, is its people. While a majority of the city’s inhabitants speak Tagalog, English is a strong second language so it's easy to communicate, make friends, and understand what’s going on. Even though you might be the only tourist, you’ll never be lonely in Manila.
Yangon hasn’t changed much since it was known as Rangoon, although they do drive on the right now, albeit in vehicles still designed for driving on the left. That’s great when you have to catch a bus, and the door is on the wrong side, in the middle of the road!
In Yangon, the locals will still be dressed in traditional clothing. The men wear a kind of long skirt rather than trousers, while the women look amazing in their silk dresses. A visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, which might just be the finest Buddhist temple anywhere in the world, almost becomes a fashion show as you watch the Burmese faithful dressed up in their Sunday best.
To further immerse yourself in local life, there is a circular rail route that runs around the city, using old Japanese carriages on dilapidated rails. It will show you a side of the city you might never see anywhere else.
Although Yangon can feel like a trip back in time, you can still find modernity in some of its hotels, restaurants, and shopping outlets, which offer much-needed air-conditioning and relief from the blazing summer temperatures. For a unique experience away from the tourist hordes, it is a city that should be high on your list.