ASIA HITS THE SPOT

En­joy the hunt for all that’s new in this wild and won­der­ful part of the world

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - BEST OF SOUTHEAST ASIA - SARAH NI­CHOL­SON

When Aussies day­dream about get­ting away it’s des­ti­na­tions around South­east Asia that of­ten pro­vide the back­drop for hol­i­day fan­tasies. Empty beaches, an­cient tem­ples, bustling cities, lush rain­forests, hec­tic mar­kets and serene is­lands prom­ise some­thing to sat­isfy ev­ery ap­petite, but where to go when new re­sorts, tours, ex­pe­ri­ences and des­ti­na­tions pop up ev­ery day?

Es­cape chats with in­dus­try in­sid­ers to re­veal the des­ti­na­tions that de­serve at­ten­tion in 2018.

LOOK­ING TO LAOS

First it was Viet­nam, then Cam­bo­dia, and now it’s Laos’ time to shine with the land­locked coun­try straddling the Mekong River at­tract­ing in­trepid trav­ellers will­ing to pay big and small.

New­comer Mekong King­doms is of­fer­ing two and three-night voy­ages be­tween Luang Pra­bang and Chi­ang Khong on the “bou­tique barge’’

Bo­heme; Pan­daw is build­ing a new boat to join the Mekong River flotilla in 2019, and ho­tels the Rose­wood Luang Pra­bang and Pull­man Luang Pra­bang will launch soon.

In­sider Jour­neys’ Indo-China prod­uct man­ager Aaron Edg­ing­ton says trav­ellers keen on ex­plor­ing Laos should see the coun­try’s south, in­clud­ing the Mekong’s 4000 Is­lands, with the “laid back and largely un­vis­ited area’’ of­fer­ing ex­pe­ri­ences from tem­ples and cof­fee plan­ta­tions to wa­ter­falls and iso­lated ham­lets.

“Take part in a cook­ing class in a vil­lage, meet lo­cals over a game of pe­tanque, which is the na­tional pas­time, en­joy a tra­di­tional break­fast with French cof­fee, and re­ceive a tra­di­tional bless­ing at a ‘baci’ cer­e­mony in a fam­ily’s home,’’ the regional ex­pert rec­om­mends.

SRI LANKA BY SAIL

Sri Lanka con­tin­ues to siz­zle – tour com­pa­nies re­port de­mand dou­bling and even tripling in the past year with the trend set to con­tinue af­ter SriLankan Airlines be­gan di­rect flights be­tween Mel­bourne and Colombo on Oc­to­ber 29 – and G Ad­ven­tures of­fers an­other tour­ing op­tion with the in­tro­duc­tion of a wa­ter­borne dis­cov­ery.

“Af­ter see­ing such growth in the past year, of­fer­ing a sail­ing trip was the next nat­u­ral step and it’s a fan­tas­tic des­ti­na­tion with plenty to do and see,’’ re­ports G’s sail­ing man­ager, Vince Don­nelly.

“Trav­ellers will ex­pe­ri­ence the lo­cal cul­ture and flavours as they ex­plore the coast­line. High­lights of the new itin­er­ary in­clude Galle which is a mag­nif­i­cent fort city on the south­west coast founded by the Por­tuguese that feels like a small Euro­pean town.’’

AF­FORD­ABLE IS­LAND STAYS

It’s easy to spend big bucks on an is­land va­ca­tion but Travel-Man­agers per­sonal travel man­ager Aileen Collins says there are “un­der-ther­adar gems’’ for hol­i­day mak­ers seek­ing “des­ti­na­tions of­fer­ing lo­cal flavour and style’’.

“Cam­bo­dia is as­so­ci­ated with tem­ples but that’s fast chang­ing and Koh Rong San­loem is an is­land pre­serv­ing its nat­u­ral beauty. I rec­om­mend the quirky Moon­light Re­sort, fea­tur­ing unique domed bun­ga­lows, for those af­ter a no-news no-shoes hol­i­day,’’ the Asia spe­cial­ist ex­plains. “Viet­nam’s Phu Quoc is­land is be­ing fast-tracked into five star but Mango Bay Re­sort is the an­tithe­sis with back-to-na­ture sim­plic­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion.’’

BOUND FOR BOR­NEO

Bor­neo is shap­ing up to be 2018’s quiet achiever with Wendy Wu Tours and G Ad­ven­tures an­nounc­ing tours to ex­plore the is­land shared by In­done­sia, Malaysia and Brunei.

“Bor­neo is less vis­ited than a lot of other Asian des­ti­na­tions, of­fers unique wildlife and cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences, and is close to Aus­tralia so easy to reach,’’ ex­plains Ad­ven­ture Des­ti­na­tions’ Kar­ryn Papen­fus.

“See­ing orang-utans at the Sepi­lok Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­tre and in the wild on the Kin­abatan­gan River, spend­ing a night at an Iban long­house, go­ing to the Mulu World Her­itage Area with its pin­na­cles and caves, and vis­it­ing the San­dakan me­mo­rial are things trav­ellers should ex­pe­ri­ence.

BALI BY BOAT

Vik­ing Cruises is promis­ing a fresh ap­proach to Bali in 2018 with two new voy­ages – the 13-day Bangkok, Bali and Be­yond, and 17-day Ko­modo & the Aus­tralian Coast – and ex­ten­sion pack­ages cre­ated to of­fer new per­spec­tives on a fa­mil­iar ad­dress.

“Ex­plor­ing Bali as part of an ocean cruise is the per­fect way to re­dis­cover the des­ti­na­tion and Vik­ing is of­fer­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent with the launch of pre and post-cruise ex­ten­sions that mean more time to dis­cover,’’ the com­pany prod­uct man­ager Lu­bica Sibikova ex­plains.

“Any­one choos­ing our five-day ex­ten­sion Bali & Yo­gyakarta can ex­plore the main is­land of Java by delv­ing deeper into the cul­ture with vis­its to an­cient tem­ples, sam­pling typ­i­cal Ja­vanese food and trav­el­ling by ox cart to Bugisan vil­lage where lo­cal ar­ti­sans show­case their trade.’’

WAN­DER­ING INTO WILDER­NESS

South­east Asia has long been the premier des­ti­na­tion for beach hol­i­days but the de­but of lux­ury jun­gle camps – Shinta Mani Wild in Cam­bo­dia’s south­east cor­ner, Bali’s Capella Ubud, Wild Coast Tented Lodge be­side Sri Lanka’s Yala Na­tional Park – sees it be­com­ing a spot to ap­pre­ci­ate the wilder­ness.

Be­yond Travel India & Be­yond sales man­ager Bryce Cramp­ton says Sri

... REAL WILDLIFE EX­PE­RI­ENCES AT A FRAC­TION OF THE COST OF HEAD­ING TO AFRICA

Lanka is the clos­est “true sa­fari des­ti­na­tion’’ to Aus­tralia. Yala and Udawalawe na­tional parks of­fer “real wildlife ex­pe­ri­ences at a frac­tion of the cost of head­ing to Africa’’.

“For any­one with an in­ter­est in wildlife, Sri Lanka has the premier na­tional parks for see­ing leop­ards and ele­phants – es­pe­cially Asian ele­phants – in the wild,’’ he says.

THE MIGHTY MEKONG

See­ing the Mekong River from a river­boat is as pop­u­lar as ever with Luke Nguyen ready to re­join APT ex­pe­di­tions in 2018; Scenic will add a three-night stay in Siem Reap at the be­gin­ning or end of its voy­ages, and Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions is com­bin­ing with Soneva Kiri and The Siam Ho­tel to launch the Se­crets of Indo-China tour.

“We have seen con­tin­ued growth in the pop­u­lar­ity of river cruises in South­east Asia, how­ever the key is of­fer­ing au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences and trav­ellers want to dis­cover the lan­guage, lo­cal her­itage, cul­ture and cus­toms, and his­tory of the des­ti­na­tions we visit,’’ says Cruiseco na­tional mar­ket­ing man­ager Carolyn Mack­ley.

“We only em­ploy crew mem­bers from the re­gions our cruises visit and guests can add ex­ten­sions to pro­vide fur­ther ex­plo­ration into the coun­tries our lux­ury ves­sels ex­plore.’’

CULI­NARY EN­COUN­TERS

He­shan Peiris, ex­ec­u­tive chef at Viet­nam’s Banyan Tree Lang Co, says South­east Asia’s chefs are notic­ing food lovers aban­don­ing big cities to sam­ple regional flavours with ho­tels fea­tur­ing less-known dishes made from lo­cal in­gre­di­ents on menus.

“Our guests are in­quis­i­tive about those other dishes and, just like Aus­tralia is more than meat pies, Viet­nam is more than pho and spring rolls, and Thai­land is more than tom yum and Thai green curry,’’ the Mel­bourne-born chef notes.

Thai­land’s six Sala re­sorts present dishes cap­tur­ing the culi­nary char­ac­ter of each lo­ca­tion in the Taste of Place pro­gram; Cen­tara Grand Lad­prao Bangkok im­ports rice from the coun­try’s north to per­fect a menu cel­e­brat­ing the na­tional food story, and Cape Kudu Ho­tel serves roti at break­fast to honour the tra­di­tional food of Koh Yao Noi.

World Ex­pe­di­tions will lead a spe­cial Viet­namese cir­cuit for food lovers with the jour­ney set to de­part in Septem­ber 2018 in­clud­ing cook­ing classes, walk­ing tours, mar­kets, meals and unique neigh­bour­hood eater­ies.

SUR­PRIS­ING SIN­GA­PORE

Skyscan­ner re­ports a 40 per cent jump in Aus­tralians search­ing for flights to Sin­ga­pore and adds the Lion Na­tion is 13 per cent cheaper to visit this year com­pared to 2016.

A swag of new ho­tels are launch­ing be­fore Christ­mas – Andaz Sin­ga­pore, Sof­i­tel Sin­ga­pore City Cen­tre, In­ter-Con­ti­nen­tal Robert­son Quay, Court­yard Mar­riott Novena, Dux­ton Club, Yo­tel Sin­ga­pore – with Raf­fles re­open­ing in 2018 af­ter a restora­tion pro­gram sym­pa­thet­i­cally mod­ernises the clas­sic ad­dress.

Trafal­gar will add 12-day Colo­nial Sin­ga­pore & Malaysia to its sta­ble in 2018 with the small-group jour­ney – that also vis­its Malacca and George Town – cre­ated to un­lock the rich her­itage and cul­tural in­flu­ences that shaped the des­ti­na­tions.

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK, SUP­PLIED

South­east Asia of­fers a world of au­then­tic­ity, whether it’s wildlife such as leop­ards and orang-utans, the Borobudur tem­ple in Java, a jun­gle camp in Bali or Bud­dha sculp­tures in Laos.

BUD­DHA PARK

CAPELLA UBUD

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