Looking to pack your bags and begin an exciting new chapter abroad? These 6 dreamy expat destinations in Southeast Asia will certainly deliver.
Ancient temples tamed by unruly jungles. Pristine ribbons of white sand lapped by turquoise seas. Glistening metropolises that pulse with life around the clock. Whatever excites you about living abroad, Southeast Asia has it in bucketloads – and then some.
But while it’s long since been a hotspot for backpackers and vacationers, a growing number of expats are calling the region home. And with increasing connectivity, ever-improving digital infrastructure, and an intoxicating way of life, it’s easy to see why. Whether you’re a family looking for an exciting new challenge or a digital nomad planning your next big move, our list of the best expat destinations in Southeast Asia will surely inspire you.
Moving to South East Asia? Whether you're a digital nomad in Da Nang or settling down in Singapore, Cigna can ensure you and your family have access to world-class healthcare wherever you are. Create a Cigna health insurance plan that's tailor-made to your needs and get peace of mind before you start your new life in the sun.
No list of the best expat destinations in Southeast Asia would be complete without mentioning Thailand. The best-known country in the region, Thailand really has it all. In the verdant north, you’ll find temples and elephants in equal measure, while the rowdier islands of the south offer beach-side living on picture-perfect white sand that stretches as far as the eye can see. And, of course, in the heart of it all is the indulgent hustle of the capital, Bangkok. The so-called Big Mango is every inch the modern world city – while still promising adventure around every corner.
If you’re considering moving to Thailand, you have plenty of options. Expat-friendly Chiang Mai is a popular base for both families and digital nomads looking to explore the local laid-back vibe. Bangkok attracts foreigners of all backgrounds, with an ever-growing digital industries sector. Older expats and retirees, meanwhile, will no doubt be drawn to the sun-kissed, easy-living beach resorts of the south, such as Phuket. New arrivals will soon discover the joys of Thai bureaucracy, but don’t let that put you off. Simply smile politely and you’ll be relaxing with your next Chang beer before you can say, “Khob khun ka“.
When it comes to Southeast Asia, Vietnam is an increasingly popular option for expats relocating to the region. Like Thailand, Vietnam revels in its variety. From mountainside rice terraces in the north to tropical mangroves in the south, there’s something for everyone. Most new arrivals settle in one of Vietnam’s two major cities: Ho Chi Minh City in the south, and Hanoi in the north. However, there are plenty of other options, including the charming ancient canal city of Hoi An and the booming beach resort of Da Nang.
Expats arriving in Vietnam will find the locals open and friendly to foreigners, both in larger cities and smaller towns and villages. While the lively, more digitally-advanced Ho Chi Minh City (also known locally as Saigon) attracts most expats, many looking for a quieter slice of Vietnamese life head to Hanoi. With a cooler climate, cultural feel, and buzzing street life, you won’t be disappointed. The local cost of living is relatively cheap in Vietnam. That said, make sure to give yourself a soft landing by using some savings while you get your new life set up.
3. The Philippines
Want to wake up next to a deserted beach and dip your toe in the crystal clear waters before breakfast? Then why not consider moving to the Philippines? Covering an area of 7,000 tropical islands, this archipelago nation is a compelling country – and still considered by many as Asia’s hidden gem. At first glance, the congested capital Manila can seem overwhelming. However, start exploring and you’ll soon find plenty of charming neighborhoods. That said, the many beautiful islands on offer, such as Cebu and Palawan, attract expats to the Philippines.
Generally speaking, the locals are very friendly and welcoming to foreigners in all aspects of life, and English is widely spoken. The cost of living is also low, particularly outside the more touristic areas. Compared to other places on our list, however, the Philippines is less developed in terms of expat-friendly infrastructure. The quality of public transport, healthcare, and schools, therefore, can vary significantly across the country. The Philippines also has a reputation for being unsafe. However, apart from certain southern areas, this has improved dramatically in recent years.
Although often overlooked in favor of its better-known neighbors, Malaysia is a great option for expats looking to move to Southeast Asia. Spread across the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo, the country is an intriguing melting point of cultures, traditions, and gleaming modernity. For many expats, their destination of choice will be the country’s thriving capital, Kuala Lumpur. Here, you’ll find a heady blend of east and west. Over on the west coast, the eclectic port cities of Penang (Georgetown) and Malacca have large Indian and Chinese communities and captivating local cuisine.
Expats moving to Malaysia will be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to settle in the country. English is widely spoken and the cost of living is relatively cheap. Even in the capital, you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is when compared to Bangkok and Singapore. Kuala Lumpur is also much greener than other cities in the region, with easy access to the surrounding jungle. However, be aware that the country lacks some of the conveniences you may be used to. Also, as a largely Islamic nation, don’t expect to pick up much cheap alcohol.
Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam is the enchanting kingdom of Cambodia. From the might of the ancient Khmer empire to the more recent deadly dictatorship under the Khmer Rouge, it’s fair to say the country has a checkered past. However, these days it’s an open and welcoming country for foreigners. If you’re interested in history, Siem Reap is a good place to base yourself. As well as being a pleasant city with a high standard of living, you’ll also be able to explore the many spectacular ruins of Angkor. This includes the world-famous Angkor Wat temple which is best seen at sunrise.
Most expats moving to Cambodia will head to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, or Sihanoukville, on the southern coast. Here, you’ll find a developed expat community, as well as more options catering to foreigners. Cambodia is a developing country, which means both health and education services can vary, even in the larger cities. However, the country’s digital infrastructure is improving and locals are generally welcoming to expats. English is also surprisingly prevalent, although picking up some Khmer is always advised, particularly in rural areas.
Last but certainly not least on our list of the best expat destinations in Southeast Asia is the shimmering city-state of Singapore. Nestled at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, the so-called Lion City is a popular option for expats moving east. The city is a truly global city and acts as the regional hub for many multinationals, particularly companies in the financial sector. Singapore has plenty to see and do for the whole family, from amusement parks and aquariums to rooftop bars and chic shopping malls. The city even boasts 50-meter-tall solar-powered trees to explore.
Compared to the other countries on our list, Singapore offers the easiest transition into expat life in Southeast Asia. Everyday life in the city is fairly straightforward – if a little expensive – with good quality infrastructure and services. Generally speaking, Singaporeans also speak very good English. ‘Singlish’, as it is locally known, can make the transition easier, particularly if you have young children. Setting up your new life may take longer than expected. However, with a large local expat community, you’ll soon find friends to help you make the right decisions.