One of Bangkok’s best qualities is how easy it is to leave.
Hear us out.
As one of Asia’s leading transport hubs, you can fly direct from Bangkok’s airports to 160 cities around the world. While we freely admit that it’s unlikely we’ll make it to a tenth of those destinations (we’re looking at you, Almaty, Kazakhstan), it’s great to have the freedom to escape Bangkok for a weekend or longer to try another city on for size.
Whether you live in Bangkok and just fancy exploring more of the world during your time off from work, or if you’re travelling through and looking for other cities to get involved in, Bangkok’s connectivity can only be a good thing.
We’ve all done the usual suspects – Singapore, Phnom Penh, KL, Yangon – so we’ve rounded up a few of the more unusual destinations you can fly to from Bangkok in less than three hours.
Check out these weekend trip ideas for size…
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
Flight time: 2 hr 45 mins
Who fancies a quick hop over to Borneo? Bandar Seri Begawan is Brunei’s capital city and is notable for its cosy atmosphere that will appeal to those that appreciate glamorous shopping, moorish architecture, tropical rainforest and unique cuisine. It was described by Lonely Planet as “Southeast Asia’s most underrated stopover destination,” so should be irresistible to anyone looking to get off the well-trodden tourist trail.
Bandar Seri Begawan’s stand-out attractions include the sultan’s palace (Istana Nurul Iman) – the largest residential palace in the world – and Kampong Ayer – the world’s biggest village on water, home to 30,000.
Flight time: 1 hr 50 mins
Slighter closer to home, Mandalay is a great Burmese city alternative to popular Yangon. Located in the north of the country and boasting a diverse identity of both Chinese and Burmese ethnicities, Mandalay’s beauty is easily overlooked if you take the city on face value.
Once you give in to the charms of exploring the city, however, you’ll discover just how diverse Mandalay truly is: pagodas sit alongside temples, mosques and even churches while the city’s art and craft scene is throbbing. Stand-out attractions include the Mahamuni Paya Buddhist temple and the Shwe In Bin Kyuang monastery. You can take in the sights and sprawl of the city from the peak of Mandalay Hill.
Flight time: 2 hr 30 mins
Why not leave the comfort of Southeast Asia entirely and head over to Bangladesh instead? If you thought Bangkok was crazy, Dhaka is sure to give you some pause for thought and will give the phrase ‘melting pot’ an entirely different dimension. It’s one of the world’s most populous capitals, a veritable hub for culture and trade and, along with seemingly every other Asian city, it’s been described at one point or another as the ‘Venice of the East’.
Colours, noise, art and poverty are all competing for dominance in Dhaka and while a long weekend probably isn’t quite long enough to get to grips with its myriad of charms, it’s a good place to start. You’ve gotta check out that food scene too…
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Flight time: 1 hr 30 mins
The former Saigon is loved by many as a Vietnamese alternative to Bangkok: there’s a similar energy and passion in the air while its colonial architecture, food and museums are unmissable. One of the more foreigner-friendly spots on our list, you’ll certainly see how swathes of expats and tourists enjoy HCMC and make the most of the home comforts on offer: from international standard hotels to sleek shopping malls.
The character of old Saigon can still be found though; in the throbbing markets, pungent street food, Parisian cafe scene and multitude of temples weaved between the symbols of urbanisation. Top spots to check out include Ben Thanh market, Cu Chi Tunnels and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Flight time: 2 hr 50 mins
Just north of Hong Kong and Shenzhen, Guangzhou is one of the most rewarding city breaks in Mainland China without having to fly all the way up to Shanghai and Beijing. The city – the third largest in China – offers an oriental charm alongside its Western-style infrastructure, and a liberal atmosphere that’s unique in the country.
Shopping and indulging in the delicious cuisine are usually at the top of the list for travelling tourists in Guangzhou, but you’d be missing a trick if you didn’t check out some of the ancient heritage buried in the city, like the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall and the old neighbourhood of Enning Lu.
Flight time: 1 hr 45 mins
Oft-frequented by travellers renewing their Thai tourist visas, Penang, and in particular its capital, Georgetown, is a hub of art, food and culture, boasting a number of ethnic influences and cosmopolitan heritage.
Georgetown is known for its almost unparalleled street food and deliciously cheap Indian cuisine found in the Little India district. Temples and churches line the street while amazing graffiti wall art will leave you speechless. You’ll find attractions worth spending time at all over the island, including the Blue Mansion, Tropical Spice Garden and Kek Lok Si Temple – the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.
Flight time: 2 hr 40 mins
Who’d have thought you could get to India in less than three hours? Although traditionally associated with extreme poverty, Kolkata is truly the cultural centre of India and enjoys a variety of cosmopolitan influences dating back to its time as the capital of British India and the Raj era – there’s a racecourse, more golf than you can shake a stick at and wonderful examples of colonial architecture.
You’ll be able to immediately sense how the city has spawned so much creativity over the centuries with its emotive sights, smells and tastes. It’s a huge and sprawling city so don’t attempt to do too much in one weekend – pick one of the many districts and stick with it.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Flight time: 1 hr 40 mins
We’re back on the tourist trail here, but deservedly so – Luang Prabang is a beautiful city in its own right, boasting traditional architecture and a rich temple and market culture.
The real stand-out attraction of Luang Prabang, however, is the natural scenery it finds itself in: wrapped in mountains at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers and basking in the beauty of the three tier Kuang Si waterfalls. Unlike other Southeast Asian hotspots that are typically overrun with transport and noise, Luang Prabang is UNESCO listed so there’s no buses and trucks to be found. There’s also an 11.30pm curfew so it doesn’t attract the raucous backpacking crowd that frequent nearby Laotian spots like Vang Vieng.
Flight time: 2 hr 15 mins
Affectionately known as ‘Coconut City’, Haikou is the capital of Hainan, China’s second largest island found in the South China Sea to the east of Vietnam. As well as enjoying city amenities, Haikou is also blessed with beautiful soft sand beaches lined with coconut palms and popular with sailing and windsurfing enthusiasts.
There’s also a few historical and cultural sights to catch in the city, including the Temple of Five Lords, the Tomb of Hai Rui and Mei She Village, made of volcanic stone. The fresh air here will delight you, particularly after coming straight from smoggy Bangkok, and you can even hire a bike to explore the rest of the island.
Johor Bahru, Malaysia
Flight time: 2 hr 15 mins
Although for a long time considered the poor cousin to shiny Singapore, Johor Bahru has come into its own in recent years and is a good alternative to the Lion City if you fancy something a little different without the glitz.
As well as a Legoland (Ed: whatever floats your boat), there are plenty of museums, mosques and temples, a thriving nightlife scene and a beautiful heritage zone for gallery and cafe-hoppers. The next few years are sure to see even more investment in the city as Johor Bahru is part of the gargantuan Iskandar Malaysia development project.
Flight time: 2 hr 40 mins
Sometimes, the weekend calls for a quick jaunt up to a Chinese outpost for a spot of gambling and maybe a round or two of putt putt golf on the rooftop of the Venetian Hotel. We’re not sure that we agree with the moniker of the ‘Vegas of the East’ but Macau definitely offers something a little out of the ordinary and is good to experience at least once when it’s so close to Bangkok.
While it doesn’t sport the charm or magnificence of Hong Kong, it is home to a strangely bipolar heritage of a clutch of high-rolling casinos alongside the historic relics of its Portuguese colonial past. Once you’ve ticked off the cultural highlights of the ruins of the Church of St Paul, the Guia Fort and Mandarin’s House, it’s surely on to spend the evening in one of the many mega casino-hotel-leisure conglomerates – notable establishments include the Wynn, Galaxy, Venetian and MGM.
Which city is next on your hit list?