The Very Best of Southeast Asia

The Very Best of Southeast Asia
Photo Credit: Alamy

Southeast Asia is a traveller--s wonderland, whether you--re a simple backpacker or just a sucker for luxury

Lalitha Sridhar
July 25 , 2016
14 Min Read

Sunrise from Gunung Bromo, Indonesia
One of the finest places in the world from which to watch a sunrise is also one of the most accessible and climbable active volcanoes anywhere. Gunung Bromo simmers in East Java, its landscape other-worldly in its beauty. Visitors begin their climb up 253 stone steps carved audaciously on the slope in the middle of the night to arrive, panting but ecstatic, to a magnificent play of colours on the top. Dawn spreads over the Laotian Pasir ‘sea of sand’, the dramatic vistas of the Tengger massif and Bromo’s hissing crater, all of which is as unreal as it is unforgettable.

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Lombok, Indonesia
Bali has our heart but this is the island on which we want to get marooned. Separated from Bali by the Wallace Line, almost at the cusp of the Indomalayan and Australasian biomes, both prolific yet distinct ecozones, Lombok is administratively a part of the sleepier Nusa Tenggara Barat or NTB province, its lowlands fertile and highlands forested. The Mount Rinjani volcano broods over fabulous beaches and waterfalls, and an introverted indigenous Lasak culture. The Gili Islands lie off its west coast. Lombok is what Bali must have been before it became the world’s hippest island destination. Go before more people arrive at the same conclusion.

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Banyan Tree Spa, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
And you thought Singapore wasn’t about spas? Banyan Tree didn’t and when one of the world’s most talked about spa brands chooses this ‘homecoming’ for an urban spa that dares to meld modern glamour with its hugely successful Asian-spiritual themes, it’s time to take notice. Naturally, they get away with it in grand style, on the 55th level of the 2,561-room Marina Bay Sands Hotel, part of the massive 20-hectare ‘integrated resort’ overlooking the super-scenic Marina Bay. The Banyan Tree here came up toward the end of a multi-phased construction featuring a casino, mall, museum, elevated garden, art installations, hotels and restaurants with eye-popping first-time-ever stats, all of which the spa leaves outside. Inside, Banyan Tree’s fabled tranquillity and treatments reign unequivocally. www.banyantreespa.com

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Road to Mandalay Cruise on the Irrawaddy, Myanmar
The Mandalay to Bagan river journey can be done in three nights or eleven and it goes without saying, the longer the better, for Myanmar’s hidden treasures are experienced luxuriously in newly refurbished cabins on this journey, which ends with the roar of the Gorges of the Far North. The cruise begins from the Sagaing Hills, floats up to Mingun, Katha, Shwegu, Kyan Hynat and Mogok, before nudging up to Mandalay on a you’ll-never-forget sunrise, with excursions to picturesque villages, local markets, a forest reserve, ancient pagodas and a monastery along the way. A country that’s not easily seen unravels in slow motion. www.orient-express.com

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Similan Islands, Thailand
The Similans are a group of islands in the Andaman Sea and a part of the Phang Nga Province of southern Thailand. Dive sites here are the stuff of legend, divided over the northern, southern and central Similans topographically, and then there are the Outer Islands. Highlights include great boulders with massive swim-throughs, coral in unusual shades of yellow and turquoise, and big fish descending to uncharted depths. Anita’s Reef, Christmas Point, Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock are rated among the finest dive points here, and East of Eden in central Similan qualifies for a prime place in the world’s best lists. www.similans.net

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Street Food, Singapore
The tiny island nation, known as much for its spanking cleanliness as its high costs, hosted the world’s first street food congress—and why didn’t anyone think of it before?—in early June. It was a smart way to re-focus on the love for affordable eating that unifies Singaporeans. The best place to experience it? Lose yourself in the labyrinthine sights, sounds, smells and flavours of Chinatown and you can’t go wrong. If you want to get specific, join the queues at Tian Tian, the Hainanese chicken rice stall to beat all Hainanese chicken rice stalls, and we are talking about a delicacy that’s as close to a ‘national dish’ as things can get in multicultural Singapura. A filling plateful, spiced with chilli sauce and served with a bowl of chicken broth, comes for about Rs 150. That’s Stall No.10 at the Maxwell Food Centre on Kadayanallur Street.

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Pangkor Laut Spa Village, Malaysia
Here’s a truly Asian wellness retreat that does away with TV and wi-fi but goes all out to cocoon guests in private luxury (though you may have peacocks and hornbills visiting your balcony). This award-winning island spa offers wide-ranging traditional therapies but it’s their Chinese and Malay healing techniques that are of special interest to us. Apart from an energizing Chinese Foot Pounding, enjoyed originally by concubines of days past, bath houses (featuring Malay ‘circulating’ baths) and nap gazebos beg surrender. A batik sarong is gifted at the end as a well-timed reward. www.pangkorlautresort.com

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Palawan, Philippines
Here lies the cleanest and greenest province in Philippines, its extraordinary flora and fauna distributed over pristine wildlife sanctuaries, marine reserves, coral reefs and the Puerto Princesa underground river and national park (a mountain-to-sea ecosystem and Unesco World Heritage Site), all of which remains tourist-friendly with zero commercialization. Paradise? Certainly. Palawan is the main island and smaller atolls are scattered about it, from Mindoro in the northeast to Borneo in the southwest. Be sure to visit Kayangan and Barracuda (lakes), Secret Lagoon and Marimegmeg (beaches), Entalula and Malcapuya (islands), every one of which deserve the ‘unspoilt’ and ‘incredibly beautiful’ prefixes.

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Zaini Satay, Malaysia
Okay, so where do you find the best satay in the satay capital of the world? Descendents of the old and famous Majid Satay, the ‘raja satay’ of the sixties, this corner shop No. 5 at Jalan Kerja Ayer Lama in Kuala Lumpur’s Ampang Jaya suburb is open only from 6.30pm to 11.30pm, although everything may not be available as the evening wanes. Their chicken, beef and lamb satays cost between RM 0.8 to 1.5 per stick. The sauce is creamy and not over-spiced and, best of all, there’s no oil smothering it. www.zainisatay.com

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Nathan Horton Photography Tours, Cambodia
It’s one of the most photogenic destinations of the world and what better way to see it than with photography workshops, an itinerary tailored to the most photogenic hours of the day, and a ‘secret’ agenda that helps you avoid crowds but meet monks at Angkor Wat? There are ‘mixed’ and ‘advanced’ tours that allow you to choose your pace, and guidance is offered on technical, aesthetic and ethical issues you will encounter as you aim your lens. Natural light will be your constant companion, and you must come prepared for early mornings and steep hill climbs. Add a trip to ‘undiscovered’ Beng Mealea and several unplanned roadside halts and you will have an Angkor album to cherish forever. www.nathanhortonphotography.com

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Koh Mun Nork Island Resort, Thailand
We love Thailand’s beaches—who doesn’t?—but the exceptional popularity of this too-tourist-friendly nation has meant that most of its fabled beaches are full of people like us. Come over, then, to the Koh Mun Nork, a little-known resort island of no more than a dozen villas in the Gulf of Siam—it’s less than three hours away from bustling Bangkok, and that includes a 45min trip on the lone boat heading for it mid-morning, the only way to reach this patch of paradise. Guests are treated, not to high luxury, but friendly service and nice food. From THB 5,390 for 2D/1N; www.munnorkislandresort.com

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Hue, Vietnam
Vietnam’s imperial capital for nearly 150 years, Hue sprawls on the banks of the Perfume River, hardly a few miles inland from the South China Sea, a tropical land frequently muted by drizzling rain. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, Hue’s famous walled citadel and the ruins of the Nyugen emperors’ Forbidden City are a vast complex of pavilions, temples and moats, which lie to the north of the river. Sadly, these remarkable remnants of a powerful feudal era sustained extensive damage during the Vietnam War but what’s left is still captivating, and best seen on a hired cycle or motorbike, or the unique cyclo, the local version of the trishaw, where the passenger perches upfront. Finally, take a river boat to the architecturally impressive Tombs of the Emperors that sprawl to the south of the city.

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Kayaking the Four Thousand Islands, Laos
The formidable Mekong river braids 14 km wide to create the Si Phan Don archipelago of the beautifully named Four Thousand Islands in Laos. Kayaking is a sterling way to take in the enchanting landscape here. America-born traveller-writer-lecturer Steve Van Beek ventured east in 1966 and, by his own admission, “neglected to return home”. Now, he shows less devoted visitors some of the wonders of his adopted land in this 5-day trip. Highlights include paddling to the upper edge of the Khone Phapheng waterfalls (more water than the Niagara), a picnic at the Flooded Forest, where trees have been bent by the force of the water, watching dolphins feed at the Cambodian border, and a walk along an abandoned French railway line. www.stevevanbeek.com

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The Mekong in Sampans, Vietnam
The Mekong is more than mainland Southeast Asia’s grandest river, it’s a life force that has shaped and changed the diverse territories it feeds and floods, spawning remote riverine cultures that have lasted a millennia. The Vietnamese sampans belong in these waters just as a kettuvallam would in Kerala and, by quite a similar detour to tourism, some of them are now traditionally yet stylishly designed, their small and tidy aesthetics ideal for exclusive itineraries that can last from overnighters to four days of slow time on the river, freshly cooked river fish on the sundeck, cycles for on-land excursions, and row boats to navigate down small canals and arroyos. www.songxanhcruise.com

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Countryside Cycling Tour, Cambodia
Is it any surprise that a guy called Chai is super-popular? ‘Chai’s Off-Road Trip (CORT) Adventure’ is the much-liked one-man enterprise run by a diligent proponent of responsible tourism. He organizes your cycles and your itinerary, going the extra mile with his fantastic local knowledge and sheer enthusiasm. Chai includes trips over the rolling Siem Reap countryside leading to floating villages, local markets and the reservoir at West Baray. Yes, of course, he can customize Angkor for you, too, and he speaks excellent English. This is the real Cambodia and when you shop, you pay low-income rural families directly. www.chaioffroadtrips.com

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Amantaka, Luang Prabang, Laos
The former capital of Laos, situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong, is the setting for one of Aman resorts’ deeply luxurious yet localized experiences. This beautifully ventilated, picture perfect property in the erstwhile French colony of Luang Prabang is housed in buildings of that period. It’s just a stroll away from the former Royal Palace, the Phousi Hill and Luang Prabang’s lively night market. There’s a spa to be enjoyed, a thoughtfully catalogued library and fine dining of authentic Lao cuisine at multiple venues that beg guests to take up their offer to arrange private dining. www.amanresorts.com/amantaka


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