From its idyllic beaches and tantalizing food to centuries-old cultures, the lure of Southeast Asia continues to thrive, says Sam Lewis
Limestone karsts rise out of an azure ocean peppered with brightly colored long boats. Monks gather in the shade of ancient ornate temples. Amidst paddy fields and tea plantations in a remote hill village, travelers sit with locals, their faces etched with a thousand tales.
These are just some of the reasons why tourism to Southeast Asia is booming, and growing demand for authentic experiences means operators are becoming increasingly creative with their itineraries, adding more activities and the opportunity to get off the beaten path.
Most agents and operators point to Myanmar as one of the biggest growth areas, particularly after the launch of new river cruise ships along the Irrawaddy enabling travelers to explore remote areas in luxury. Over the last year Sanctuary Retreats, AmaWaterways, Haimark, Belmond and Viking Cruises have all launched new ships here.
A key route is a three- or four-day cruise from Mandalay, the country’s second city, to the ancient capital and World Heritage Site, Bagan.
Derek Ong, A&K director of sales, Southeast Asia says: “Travel along historic rivers affords a comfortable way to explore remote regions and glimpse the daily lives of their people, often in villages rarely seen by Westerners.”
Cox & Kings president (Americas), Scott Wiseman, believes Myanmar will come into its own with the launch of new luxury hotels by Kempinski and Peninsula. The operator has seen a 25% growth in Asia and demand has been fuelled by the launch of cruises along the Mekong River. Vietnam is experiencing huge tourism investment with, according to data specialists Tophotelprojects.com, at least 38 new hotels and resorts in the pipeline. Cox & Kings singles out Laos as one of the ones to watch in 2016.
“Not everyone thinks of adding Laos,” says Wiseman. “Yet it has so much beauty and charm — it really is a step back in time.”
Read on for a snapshot of some of Southeast Asia’s essential experiences…
Best for beaches
Famous for its powder-white sands and clear blue seas, Thailand remains a bestseller for beach lovers, with even the most developed regions such as Phuket and Koh Samui proving mass tourism doesn’t have to ruin paradise. In Phuket, top beaches include Pansea, where only guests staying at the Amanpuri and Chedi resort hotels can recline on luxury loungers and sip tropical cocktails while enjoying the coastal view.
And on Koh Samui, Lamai Beach is also picture-perfect with luxury hotel brands such as Banyan Tree Le Meridien providing guests with front-row views of the ocean panorama.
Candidates for best beach in Thailand are seemingly endless, says A&K director of sales, Southeast Asia, Derek Ong. “For natural scenery, my favorite hotel is the Rayavadee in Krabi. Set on a small peninsula, it has beaches on three sides and limestone karsts towering above the resort and all across the horizon. It’s an unbeatable, stunning location.”
Situated in the unspoiled Phra Nang peninsula, the hotel is also an ideal base from which to explore nearby Phi Phi Island, famous for its remarkable variety of dive sites concentrated in such a small area.
Meanwhile, Audley Travel singles out Soneva Kiri, in Koh Kood. Surrounded by dense jungle and pristine beaches where fishing boats dot the horizon, guests stay in 42 pool villas and can dive in crystal clear waters or enjoy after-dark snorkeling activities.
Best for food and drink
With food being one of the key components of any trip to Asia, it’s tough to single out a specific destination for traveling gourmands. That said, those keen on a cruise should book the Aqua Mekong, according to A&K, as the ship’s executive chef is none other than the Michelin-starred David Thompson, famous for his Thai restaurant Nahm in Bangkok, which is ranked as one of the best in Asia.
Thompson has tailor-made a menu for Aqua Mekong guests, combining the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia with the freshest ingredients, such as river prawns and catfish sourced from local Mekong River markets and regional producers.
Thai-bound travelers should also consider a stay at Iniala Beach House, the five-star boutique beach property near Phuket, suggests A&K, for its degustation menu at Aziamendi, the resort’s gourmet restaurant. At the helm is three-star Michelin chef, Eneko Axta, from Bilboa, Spain, who fuses Basque techniques with fresh Thai ingredients to create innovative dishes with dazzling presentations.
“Southeast Asia has an endless number of food experiences,” says A&K’s Ong, adding that the operator provides streetfood walking tours with local experts, western writers or chefs in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi. In Bangkok, it also arranges cooking classes in local homes, hotels or private cooking academies, or even private lessons with Thai celebrity chefs
such as Ian Kittichai, the famed Thai food ambassador.
Best for adventure and activities
Vietnam is attracting increasing numbers of adventure-seekers, according to Audley Travel. Charlie Read, sales development manager, says Halong Bay seaplanes are driving interest in northern Vietnam, while camping in the renowned Phong Nha Ke Bang caves has also spiked bookings.
Marion Hager, owner of boutique luxury agency Hager’s Journeys, also highlights Vietnam, thanks to its numerous opportunities to join walking tours of the bustling streets and markets of Hanoi, Saigon and Hoi An, float down rivers in a kayak or hop on a vintage Vespa for a tour to hill villages.
Meanwhile, for travelers who want an activity-laden hotel, the Nam Hai, situated on the picturesque white sand beach of Ha My, near Hoi An, has recently launched two new guest tours, including a helicopter ride above Da Nang and a dramatic excursion taking guests deep into Vietnam’s remote central highlands. The hotel also has a spa, cookery school, yoga center and two 18-hole golf courses nearby.
Best for history and culture
While Bangkok remains an ideal introduction to Asian culture, A&K recommend alternatives, such as the Four Seasons Tented Camp at the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand. With only 16 tents located on a ridge above the Mekong River, the ultra-luxury safari camp is home to its own elephant camp and includes local cultural sightseeing along with all meals.
For repeat visitors to Asia, A&K’s Ong suggests Laos, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, which packs culture, people and natural beauty into a small town on the banks of the Mekong.
“In one place you have temples, monasteries, palaces, local markets, art galleries and workshops, as well as great Lao fusion cuisine. And it even has great hotels — the Amantaka is just a short four-minute walk to the main street where everything is located, and the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao overlooks the town from a nearby hill,” says Ong.
Alternatively, he recommends a cruise on the Sanctuary Ananda in Myanmar with itineraries that include Bagan and remote villages. “I visited last October before the cruise launched and was part of the first Westerners one local girl had ever seen. In return for allowing Sanctuary Ananda guests exclusive access to this little village, we help sponsor the village school.”