Truth be told, the region’s party reputation has been greatly tarnished by the excesses of Ko Pha Ngan’s full moon parties and drug- and alcohol-fuelled incidents at Vang Vieng’s tubing bars, Laos’ backpacker central. Yet the real picture is far from this portrayal of a gap-year-fool’s playground.
Southeast Asian nights hide many more vibrant and authentic experiences. Here are a few of the best.
1. Dive into Kuala Lumpur‘s music scene, Malaysia
Apart for the well-known Bukit Bintang, Bangsar and TREC entertainment districts, the Malaysian capital hides a polyhedric music scene. Around the Golden Triangle, you can start from ZOUK‘s trance and R&B-filled rooms to No Black Tie’s classy jazz ambience.
2. Sample Ho Chi Minh City‘s bars, Vietnam
When the sun goes down, the bustling energy of southern Vietnam’s megalopolis transfers to its many clubs and bars. Atmospheric rooftop lounges like Chill Sky Bar stay open until late, and besides drinking, there’s a small but exciting music scene to check out.
Acoustic Bar in District 3 has pop-rock cover bands, while Carmen in District 1 offers an odd selection of Spanish flamenco played by skilled Vietnamese musicians.
For a casual good time, the plastic tables along Bui Vien – also known as ‘Beer Street’ – in backpacker central Pham Ngu Lao are a must.
Bangkok never sleeps: the whole Sukhumvit strip, from Asoke to Thong Lor and Ekkamai, boasts every imaginable type of club, including an Arab quarter filled with restaurants and shisha bars.
The Khaosan Road area, Bangkok’s backpacker haunt, is where young Thais go to dance and drink, while the RCA (Royal City Avenue) area, Bangkok’s biggest nightlife district, is where well-heeled Thais and celebrities uncork expensive whisky bottles.
At Narrow Marrow, a hole-in-the-wall hipster bar renovated from a storage space, artists and musicians chat over coffees and mojitos made with coconut-flavoured liquor. Soundmaker Studio keeps Penang’s rock underground alive with weekend gigs, and every August, the month-long Georgetown Festival brings to town dozens of international art performances.
Myanmar’s former capital is fast-forwarding to catch up with the world, and there’s no better time to experience it than now. With the loosening of the military junta’s political grip, all sorts of international trends are flooding into Yangon’s gridlocked cultural scene.
The result? Punk bands with bleached mohawks who criticise corrupt politics and the massacre of the Islamic Rohingya minority; vibrant bars spread around 7th Street in Chinatown; and the dance clubs of Tein Gyi Zay Plaza, where you may have to leave your fingerprints upon admission.
6. See street life and live music at Yogyakarta‘s Malioboro strip, Indonesia
Yogyakarta, the gateway to Indonesia’s most celebrated temples Borobudur and Prambanan, feels more relaxed than the artsy but busy provincial capital, Bandung. The main artery, Malioboro Street, is a delight of street stalls and simple coffee places where young musicians busk on their guitars and patrons chat over drinks.
Hunt more music down side alley Sosrowijian street, enjoying Oxen Free‘s DJ sets and cosy, open-air bistro, or Lucifer Bar’s reggae, country, classic rock and R&B bands on most nights. Asmara in Prawirotaman district is another spot where young Indonesian musicians know well how to work up the crowd.
7. Party till you drop in Boracay, the Philippines
This dumbbell-shaped island may be a bit removed from Southeast Asia’s main routes, but there’s a staggering number of dance clubs and bars, some seriously idyllic white beaches and, most importantly, a chance to experience a Western and Asian mixed party crowd.
In Boracay you can literally party 24/7, hopping straight from the beach to a sundowner bar, from beachside restaurants to cocktail bars, and then welcome a new day from the dance floor.
8. Go to the Sarawak Rainforest World Music Festival, Malaysia
Since July 2005, Borneo’s most famous annual music festival gathers thousands of fans who come to enjoy international world music at the Sarawak Cultural Village, 35km north of Kuching. For three days, you can join workshops and exhibits by day and attend gigs by night, learning about Borneo’s tribal cultures and dancing to some of the best world music from Asia, Europe and the Americas.
9. Chill at artsy Kampong Glam, Singapore
Forget the rigours of Clark Quay’s upscale bars and head to Victoria MRT’s station for the casual party atmosphere and the lower prices of Kampong Glam – once the old Malay and Arab district, today it’s Singapore’s arts hub.
Catch impromptu spoken word or music performances at the Artistry, admire the huge ‘girl with lion cub’ mural that Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevich etched along Victoria street’s wall, or attend rock gigs and theatre performances at the Aliwal Arts Centre.