newsletter  /  march '08

the best beaches in asia and the best beach hotel deals

This Issue:

Life's a beach in Southeast Asia: Agoda shares its sun–kissed secrets

Just 30 years ago, the pristine shores of Southeast Asia and her plethora of islands, archipelagos and exotic coastlines were largely inaccessible to the average traveler. Rumors of white–powder beaches and placid, crystal clear waters to be found off the Andaman and China Seas were circulated mostly among backpackers. While Phuket and Bali were on the tourist map so to speak, even these larger land masses harbored sandy stretches where foreign feet had barely made an imprint.

Indeed, enigmatic Southeast Asia provided endless opportunity for exploration, and gave rise to an almost mythical impression of virginal beaches and uncompromised beauty. A myth undoubtedly fuelled by the emergence of literature such as Alex Garland's The Beach and the massively–popular movie that followed. And so the secrets of the beach–rich East began to be revealed, and investment and development arrived in the form of luxury hotels, bitumen roads, international airports and golf courses. Suddenly, for the less intrepid of travelers, paradise had been found, all safe and sound.

And – even though some may be skeptical – luxury development has not ruined Southeast Asia's secrets. She still hosts her fair share of furtive shores. Surely where there is quantity, there is quality, and this becomes a question of preference. After all, we could journey to the corners of the earth searching for an untouched paradise, but why should we when we have such good options already? Just because paradise has been found, certainly doesn't mean it's lost. On the contrary, Southeast Asia's legendary shores are more impressive than most writers are ever adequately capable of describing – and well worth the voyage. More importantly, the vast majority of luxury resorts available in the region are tasteful, environmentally sensitive and provide valuable income to local communities.

So, here are Agoda's best beach resort picks for the region. They're sure to whet your appetite for sandy adventure and sun–kissed indulgence. Prepare to be inspired.

1. Centara Grand Beach Resort and Villas, Krabi, Thailand

Sitting majestically affront the private beach of Ao Nang in Pai Plong Bay against a backdrop of dramatic limestone cliffs, the Centara Grand Beach Resort offers luxury accommodation and a stunningly beautiful view. Guests can journey to the resort with relative ease now that the township of Krabi has a domestic airport, where they are picked up and whisked away by boat to the serene shores of Ao Nang. Drawing on contemporary tropical Thai architecture, the resort's design complements the natural elements outside, bringing the spectacular vista inside. This is a heavenly combination of opulence and naturally striking surrounds.

2. Pandanus Hotel, Phan Thiet, Vietnam

Acknowledged as the most luxurious hotel in the Phan Thiet province, the Pandanus Hotel is also located on one of Vietnam's most attractive coastal stretches. Built inside a 10 hectare tropical garden, with its own private beach, the resort is within close proximity to the area's famed 'red' sand dunes and the canyon of Mui Ne. Friendly, service–oriented staff ensure guests are in want for nothing – and with an oceanic view like this on offer, exotic cocktail in hand, what could be better?

3. Sokha Beach Hotel, Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Poised on a peninsula that extends into the Gulf of Thailand, the Sihanoukville shore is a largely unknown treasure of Robinson Crusoe proportion. And Sokha Beach is its highlight. With such magnificent surrounds, a hotel need not go to too much effort, and yet the Sokha Beach Hotel embodies the warm hospitality of the Cambodian people and their rich culture. Its Khmer-styled, hand–crafted architecture comprises of mostly natural materials such as wood and stone, adding to the wonderful ambiance of the location.

4. Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach Resort & Spa, Khao Lak, Thailand

Overshadowed by nearby island neighbor and tourist giant, Phuket, the Khao Lak stretch of Thailand's Southwest mainland has managed to maintain a tranquil atmosphere and an unspoiled, awe–inspiring landscape. The Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach Resort & Spa doesn't disappoint in terms of location and service. Within an oar's reach of the stunningly famous Phang Nga bay and accessible by car from Phuket International Airport, Khao Lak is an excellent choice for a tropical beach sojourn.

5. Shangri–La Mactan Island Resort, Cebu, Philippines

Located within the province of Cebu on Mactan Island, this Shangri–La resort certainly lives up to its name. Guests will have panoramic views of the azure Visayan Sea and its cluster of remote islands. With state–of–the–art facilities and luxurious interiors, the high standards of service further enhance this beach resort in the Philippines. The island airport also allows for easy access from many international destinations.

6. Sanur Beach Hotel, Bali, Indonesia

Sanur beach is Bali's best–kept beach jewel. Quieter than the popular surfing beach of Kuta and other favorites such as Nusa Dua and Seminyak, this stretch of sand offers a glimpse into the Balinese fisher village lifestyle, as well as providing visitors with pristine bathing waters teeming with colorful fish. The hotel's staff will go to extraordinary lengths to meet guest wishes and the hotels' plush interiors and exotic Balinese design will ensure pure comfort and luxury.

7. The Empire Hotel and Country Club, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam

Built on a colossal 162–hectare landscape of tropical garden, the Empire Hotel takes the concept of luxury accommodation to an entire new level. It is impressive in every detail when it comes to service and facilities, but more importantly (well, for the purposes of this article at least), is located on a magnificent stretch of coastline. Guests can fully escape into this private utopia which also boasts its own golf course.

8. Zeavola Hotel, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Phi Phi is a long island favorite among Thailand's frequent beach travelers. Its beaches are simply idyllic with their powdery sand shores and clear waters. The boutique Zeavola hotel offers Phi Phi paradise with luxury amenities disguised by a rural feel and charm. A unique accommodation option positioned in front of a prime, serene stretch of beach, couples can relish in the resort's privacy and lush natural environment.

9. Berjaya Redang Beach Resort, Terangganu, Malaysia

Malaysia is often surpassed by the highly publicized tourist destinations of Indonesia and Thailand for its natural offerings, despite it being rich in beauty. Redang Island is one such example and the Berjaya Redang Beach Resort offers guests private access to one of the country's finest beaches – one accentuated by vibrant corals and tropical fish. The comfortable villas and rooms have a tropical beach feel that encourages relaxation, while friendly staff and excellent water sports facilities make it a good choice for families and couples alike.

10. Furama Resort, Danang, Vietnam

The largely undeveloped coastal stretch which stretches 25km from Hoi An to Danang on Vietnam's Central Coast, is one of the countries most magnificent. Known in English as China Beach, the Furama Resort was the first luxury hotel to be built along this unspoiled coast. The design blends Vietnamese style with tropical architecture and the staff are friendly and helpful. Only 10 minutes drive from Danang International Airport, this hotel has become a preferred choice among Southeast Asian beach seekers.

Bangkok by boat: Cruising the Thai capital's waterways

To understand the nature of Bangkok – and indeed of Thailand – one has to understand the historical significance of its waterways; the matrix of canals that played such a vital role in agricultural life as well as trade and transportation. The magnificent Chao Phraya or 'River of Kings' was the main artery of this network of intricate, life–giving water channels and remains a significant symbol for Thai people today as it did once before.

Being revered as a holy source, the Chao Phraya is also the venue for the Royal Barge Procession, a ritual observed for many centuries to honor the Thai King and the source of life. Painted and richly decorated in gold, 52 barges are rowed down the full length of the river to mark Thai milestones such as the annual Coronation Day. The gilded paddles of the principal barge, the Sri Suphannahongse, are raised in unison, as if were a mythical bird is about to rise from the river. This is one of the most splendid cultural displays in the world and one that was celebrated most vigorously in 2006 when the current King – who is the longest–serving monarch in the world – reached his 60th anniversary to the throne.

But regardless of whether you're in town whilst there is a royal procession, there is definitely something majestic about Bangkok's river and canal network which warrants the experience of a long–tail boat, river or barge cruise at some point of your visit. After all, Bangkok has often been referred to as the "Venice of the East" and even while river and canal life may not be as important in an everyday context as it was historically, many locals still rely on boats for their daily routines.

Chugging along the Chao Phraya

Fortunately for tourists, access to the chief Chao Phraya ferry boats is very easy and there are legitimate tourist information points to assist you. You can enjoy the full length of the river from one of these public boats for no more than THB15. Best to start at Sathorn (or central) pier which is linked to the BTS train station Saphan Taksin. From here you can catch either express boats (limited stops) or normal ferries up the river and get on and off as you choose.

For those looking for a more romantic river experience, then consider a lunch or dinner cruise on the river. Most of the major hotels on the water offer dining cruises, some even have restored rice barges such as the classic Manohra at the Marriott. Cruises vary in price but are usually quite reasonable for what they involve. Especially if you want to relax and take in the river properly, without the crowds or chaos that can accompany public boat piers.

Messing about in long–tail boats

Bangkok's long–tail boats are designed to be narrow and – obviously – long. This is so they can easily weave their way around the canals. For tourists, organizing a long–tail boat tour of the canals is simple, but whether it gives you a real, value–for–money insight into Bangkok's waterways is another question. Tours will differ in price depending on who you organize them with (for example they will probably be twice as much through a hotel tour operator) and are generally cheaper at the river piers – namely at Ta Chang, the pier closest to the Grand Palace.

There are many touts in the vicinity of the Grand Palace and the Ta Chang pier however, so getting a reliable tour can be a lottery. If in doubt, it's best to go with a tour operator that has an actual information desk and offers a canal route with a price that cannot be haggled on (at least you know it is standard). Canal tours generally range from THB 400 to 800, so make sure you ask exactly how long the tour is and which route you will be taken on. A cheaper tour may only last 30 minutes and take you into one of the nearest canals for a relatively non–scenic ride.

For those with a sense of adventure and a natural disdain for tours, you'll want to try the public long–tail boat which heads up the Bangkok Noi to the town of Bang Yai. This route is very scenic and will give you a fantastic peek into local life on the water. Teak houses punctuate the journey and you'll often see people in small canoes, sporting conical hats and tending to their lotus water gardens or selling goods or meals. Finding this boat will be difficult for most tourists, especially as unofficial 'tourist information' personnel will claim that the only way to see canal life is via a 'certified' canal tour. They can be very pushy, to the point of even trying to prevent you from traversing the part of the pier where the public long–tail boat departs from. Being 'farang' or foreigner, you have to simply ignore the operators and remember that the piers are a public platform for all transport services.

How to use the public long–tail boat to Bang Yai: This boat departs from Ta Chang pier everyday in the afternoon from 3:30pm until 6pm (every half an hour). Get on the earliest one possible to take advantage of the light for photos. There is no return journey and you cannot get off along the way (stops are literally at people's houses), but you can easily get a taxi to Nonthaburi pier and catch the Chao Phraya express back down the river or get the taxi directly back into Bangkok. To get to the departure point for this long–tail boat, you need to walk past the tour operator desk in front of the pier (facing the water), turn to your immediately left and walk down the jetty to where the long–tail boats come in. Look for a small desk there to enquire – the boat will come in on the left–hand side. The costs are cheaper for Thais than foreigners but you shouldn't pay more than THB 70 for the 45 to 60 minute journey.

Whichever way you choose to take to the water of Bangkok, it will be a memorable experience. It may provide you with an intriguing insight into one of Asia's most ancient water networks, or a glimpse at local life – still disaffected by the evils of urbanization – or it could offer a simple, breezy escape from the sweltering heat in downtown Bangkok. But what is true for all Bangkok visitors, is that you simply must cruise the River of Kings.

Chiang Mai: A Walk in the Clouds

The city of Chiang Mai is a portal to Thailand's spiritual past and the gateway to some of its most verdant and beautiful forestry. Unlike the tropical island scenery many visitors associate with Thailand, Chiang Mai is ringed by misty mountains and jungle – it is also in close proximity to the apexes of China, Burma and Laos, otherwise referred to as the "Golden Triangle".

Founded 700 years ago as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom (Lanna means "a million rice fields") Chiang Mai is home to more than 300 temples and a multitude of national parks, mountain trails, waterfalls and ancient ruins. In recent years the town has become increasingly metropolitan, though not quite to the extent of other Thai cities, including the nation's bustling capital, Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, visitors will see 500–year–old temples juxtaposed against convenience stores and modern boutique hotels.

The possibilities for adventure and activity are endless for a visitor to Chiang Mai. For temples (known in Thai as Wats), a good place to start is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai's most famous temple which is visible from any corner of the city. The view of Chiang Mai and the Ping valley is spectacular enough to warrant the 200 step upward hike required to view the temple. (Nowadays trams are available to make the trip as well.) Other Wats worth visiting include Wat Chiang Man (the oldest temple in Chiang Mai), Wat Phra Singh, and Wat U–Mong. For more cultural expeditions Chiang Mai boasts a number of interesting museums, including the Chiang Mai National Museum and Tribal Museum.

Chiang Mai is a haven for nature enthusiasts, with its many national parks and waterfalls, and fully exploring just one park can take a number of days. The highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, is 2,565 meters above sea level and is part of the Doi Inthanon National Park. In the winter the temperature is below freezing at the park and the mountain is usually covered in thick fog, a favorite time for visitors to mount the peak. Doi Inthanon is the source of many rivers that flow through the region and boasts beautiful waterfalls, exotic flora and fauna and a cave worth exploring.

Visitors in search of a more nontraditional experience can take a breathtaking balloon flight over the city, participate in a mahout course at Maesa Elephant Camp and be part of the conservation of Thailand's national animal, go bamboo rafting, take a leap from 165 feet in the air with Jungle Bungy or enjoy a Thai cooking class (contact TAT Northern Office: Region 1 at 0 5324 8604). In Chiang Mai the sky is–literally–the limit. Many travelers also use Chiang Mai as a base before trekking into the Hill tribe villages of the further north. Hill tribes consist of ethnic groups that have migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos. Each has a unique culture and is self–sufficient. The main groups include the Mien, Lasu, Lisu, Akha, Karen and Hmong tribes.

Chiang Mai is best suited to travelers with a healthy sense of adventure. What makes this city so appealing is its natural surrounds and structures that have stood the test of time. With its rich history the Lanna city has earned a position as the most culturally significant city in the north of Thailand. Certainly, Chiang Mai is a window into different kind of Thailand, where time seems to stand still and the clouds are close enough to touch.

Travel Tip: Why you should always map out your travels carefully

Whenever visiting a new country or city it's best to map it out. Literally. Go to the nearest bookstore or news agent and find yourself a detailed map of the area – especially one that includes all road routes and public transportation stations. Study it. There is nothing worse than feeling lost and helpless in a foreign country – especially when you do not speak the language.

Review of the month: Railay Resort & Spa, Krabi, Thailand

Posted By Alison Micallef Brennan

Overall this hotel offers good value for money. Most staff were eager to please and tried hard to ensure good service. The restaurant menu was extensive with a good choice of Western dishes, Thai food and snacks suitable for kids. The prices were reasonable for this class of hotel. Breakfast was of a good standard and could be taken in the restaurant or on the terrace. The hotel wifi is free of charge in the restaurant area. If you arrive by longtail boat from Ao Nang beach, walk to the hotel and find a porter, who will then bring a trolley for your luggage. Once you check in, both you and your luggage will be transported by electric buggy. We traveled with a lot of luggage and I was concerned about getting from the longtail boat to the resort but it was fine.

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