Everyone says not to judge books by their covers, but if you’re lazily looking for a quick way to review them then there really is no better way. I took the same attitude when trying to decide the cleanest country in Southeast Asia. Sure, I could have done a whole lot of research and bombarded you with facts and figures – but to be honest, the only figure I really care about is the number of rats I see (I have a fear of rats, check out this post to find out why). The rat factor may be a flawed system, but it’s as good as any other and could 1 day be the official cleanliness yardstick in respected publications like Lonely Planet (as long as they pay me for using my idea!).
Here is a list of countries in Southeast Asia, from the dirtiest (or home to the most rats that decided to reveal themselves to me) to the cleanest. Before you scroll down, see if you can guess the cleanest country in Southeast Asia – you might be surprised!
Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur is a haven for rats. I saw quite a few on the streets – it’s the kind of place where it’s better not to look down into gutters and drains! I also saw 1 in a market in Kota Kinabalu, as well as a few hanging around the restaurants and bars there. I saw 1 in Kuching and 1 stuck in a cage in a town near Ipoh, but thankfully I didn’t see any on the islands I visited.
I saw a lot of rats in Thailand, so many in fact that I became less and less scared each time I saw one. They seemed to be all over Bangkok – particularly in the Khao San Road area, and I even saw them running on the streets from the windows of taxis. I also saw a few in Chiang Mai and one in Kanchanaburi.
Seeing a rat running past your table in a restaurant is never a good thing, but you almost get used to it in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It happened to me at least 3 times and is one of the reasons I didn’t really enjoy my time there. I could also hear one clawing at the wall of my guesthouse – it was desperate to get in so I stood guard for an hour or so, banging at the wall every few minutes to try and scare it away. I eventually yielded so I could get some sleep – I’m not sure if the rat’s siege paid off or if my defences held up but I hope it was the latter. I also saw a few on the streets of Hanoi, and I’ve heard horror stories of rats onboard the Ha Long Bay cruise boats – I never saw one though.
Cities in the Philippines are pretty grim, and while I didn’t see any in the small amount of time I spent in Manila and Cebu, the 2 biggest cities in the country, I saw plenty in smaller provincial capitals. I saw the biggest rat I’ve ever seen outside a guesthouse in Dumaguete, Negros. I saw 3 or 4 more in the 2 nights I spent there, including one in my guesthouse’s lobby. I also saw a few in Tagbilaran, the smallish capital of Bohol and I’m pretty sure I could hear some in a guesthouse in Sabang, Palawan.
I only saw rats in the capital, Phnom Penh, but I did see a lot of them. They run rampant down by the river and often venture into the restaurants nearby. I once saw a huge one right next to the table I was eating at. I alerted the waitress who thought it was hilarious that I was scared of a rat. She said they see them all the time but that I shouldn’t worry – they come over from the river (I don’t know why that’d make a difference!). I never saw rats anywhere else in Cambodia, but I did hear that Koh Rong, an awesome island that you should definitely check out if you’re in the area, had a huge rat problem. I stayed in a guesthouse full of cats so I was safe.
I didn’t see as many rats as I expected in Indonesia (that might be tempting fate though; I have about 2 more weeks left of my current Indonesian adventure). I saw 1 in Jakarta and 1 in my room on Rote Island. That was quite a disturbing discovery, but my mosquito net was so good that I felt pretty safe.
I lived in Singapore for 2 years and saw 3 rats. 1 was near a hawker centre in Tampines, a middle class Singaporean suburb that no tourists visit. I also saw a couple near the beach at East Coast Park, but rats in open spaces like that don’t worry me so much.
I didn’t see any rats running around Laos (I spent 6 weeks there), but I did see a little girl in a small village holding a bunch of about 5 dead ones by their tails. I’m not sure what she was doing with them but I’d be very concerned if I was forced to eat a meal in that village.
And the cleanest country in Southeast Asia is…Myanmar
I didn’t see any rats during my month long trip in Myanmar, making it (according to the rat factor) the cleanest country in Southeast Asia! I hope the tourism board finds out about this important award and feels very proud.
Do you agree with this list? Is Myanmar really the cleanest country in Southeast Asia? Did you see a lot of rats while travelling in the area? Let me know!
*I didn’t include Brunei in this list as I only spent 2 days there – but I didn’t see any rats!
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Sunday 5th of February 2023
I have a huge phobia of rats! I am absolutely terrified of them and hate seeing them on TV or pictures of them let alone in real life! I get that there are rats everywhere in the world but in south east Asian countries, they seem to just be fine with them roaming about. Why aren't there rat boxes everywhere??? Why do they leave their trash bags on the side walks for the trucks to pick them up way into the night instead of having garbage cans that you can close off??? The government's make enough money from tourists in these countries and each year these countries are no longer becoming a cheap haven for tourists as they once were so why don't they invest in proper waste management and pest control???!!! I saw multiple rats in broad daylight for the first time in my life in Bangkok in Sukhumvit and it felt like I was having a heart attack. I couldn't breathe and my heart was racing. They were just coming out of the drain one after the other to rummage through the rubbish bags that were just thrown on the sidewalk there. To top it off, I then saw one on the balcony of our room! We are now in Siem Reap and I was hoping since we have seen so many wild dogs and cats here that I wouldn't see one again. Unfortunately we just came back to our hotel from Pub Street which is about a 20 minute walk and on one of the streets, I saw a giant rat just a few metres away, again there were trash bags on the sidewalk. People who don't seem to mind might read this and think we (people who suffer from musophobia) are over reacting when they see us panicking over seeing a rat but I'm sorry it's not normal to us! Just like you people who think we are over reacting, we think those who don't react are not normal either!! First of all rats are filthy animals that are omnivores which means they can eat almost anything. They are in the most dirtiest areas, garbage, drains, sewers, sub floors etc. They carry many diseases and viruses! Yes they are obviously important to the ecosystem for plants and as a food source to other animals but it doesn't mean they should just hang around our areas so freely either or that we should have them as pets and let them just chill around our restaurants and homes! So our fears are valid and not something to be laughed about. Yes I absolutely judge an area if it is infested with rats and I don't feel bad about that! I fell in love with the Cambodian people and how friendly they are but after seeing the rat on the street, it has made me terrified to walk and now will have to opt for a tuktuk everywhere I go. Also, after seeing the multiple rats in Bangkok and now also 1x so far in Siem Reap, it is making me question restaurants hygiene levels. Like I said, I'm well aware there are rats all over the world, but in other countries, you see they have rat boxes planted everywhere in the streets, you see proper garbage disposal and management practises etc but unfortunately in south east Asia they don't seem to care and it's really disappointing to see and a reason why I definitely won't be returning! I don't care if that sounds pompous or pretentious either because no it's not normal to have rats running across your table in a cafe! Absolutely no no no! Unacceptable and in my eyes it's disgusting and filthy. So if any of these establishments think it's fine then they have low standards of hygiene! I've travelled to countries in the Middle East, Europe and the West and while they probably have millions of rats hiding below the surface I have never seen them come up to the surface and run around the streets coz guess what?! They have prevention methods to avoid this problem from occurring or atleast occurring on a regular basis whereas in south east Asia they just think it's normal and those foreigners that laugh at those who are afraid of them are not helping this problem. Sorry we aren't used to living amongst this filth so it will never be normal to us and it makes me mad that the government's of these countries don't take care of their own citizens to protect them from these virus carriers more coz Asians are beautiful people who deserve better than these conditions and I'm sure I'm not the only tourists who wouldn't return and help their economy after encountering rats out in public!
Thursday 9th of February 2023
I feel your pain! I guess it's one of those minor annoyances most people don't think about but it can really trouble some of us. I have no idea what the fix could be but hopefully it gets better over time (or we become less scared of them). Enjoy your travels and keep a look out for rats!
Monday 16th of September 2019
Philippines? Nahh... as a Filipina and as living in the Philippines, in my life I just saw like 2~3 rats in my life. They're not that big though.. and, hey! There are 12 Philippine City in the list of cleanest city in Southeast Asia. And, there are 3 from Thailand!😊
Wednesday 18th of September 2019
That's good to hear -- hopefully your luck doesn't change!
Monday 25th of February 2019
Aka. Blogger Rat Hater 😍❤
Sunday 6th of January 2019
I don't know who make these comments. Bangkok is pretty dirty even in tourist areas. Phuket is OK! Philippines? Give me a break! All Chinese towns except Singapore are dirty!
Take a trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka and see how a clean city look like!
Wednesday 9th of January 2019
Hey Sam, yeah it's not the most serious article! I have been to Colombo but only passed through -- will have to return one day!
Tuesday 2nd of October 2018
I spent 3 days in Yangon and saw a dead rat near the sewer. I felt like Myanmar was actually less clean and developed compared to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia. Definitely less touristy (that could be a good or bad thing depending on who you are). There was a bit more trash on the streets as well. It seemed that the culture of Myanmar was a mix of South East Asian and Indian. Interesting article!
Friday 5th of October 2018
Hey Peter, I think I was pretty lucky not to see any rats in Myanmar! Did you visit Myanmar recently? I went back in 2012, I've heard it's changed quite a bit since then.