By Jenna Berndt
If you think Southeast Asia is only for backpackers, think again. Accessible from South Africa, with easy visas-on-arrival requirements, or none in the case of Thailand, destinations such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are wonderfully suited to luxury-loving South African travellers.
Add to that those currencies against which the rand comes out looking strong, jaw-dropping natural scenery and food to dream about for months after your visit; Southeast Asia is the type of luxury that is as discreet as it is over the top.
Various travel experts help to compile a list of top luxury experiences to enjoy.
Cruise Halong Bay in Vietnam
Perhaps the most iconic image of Vietnam and splashed across social media is the glistening emerald waters and rainforest-topped limestone cliffs of Halong Bay. Traditional junk boats sail among more than one thousand islands in the bay, while tourists snap selfies.
Travellers can choose a more exclusive experience by joining a luxury cruise.
“Our luxury cruise in Halong Bay was the highlight of our trip to Vietnam,” says Murray Gough, who visited the country in August. “Enjoy the cool and calming breezes on the upper deck, G&Ts at sunset and being lulled to sleep by the gentle movement of the boat. It is a tranquil break from the bustling, motorcycle-thronged streets of the Vietnamese cities,” he adds.
Channel a more elegant era of travel on a 1930s Indochina-style luxury junk boat on the Luxury Gold guided holiday itinerary, says Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation which includes other luxury guided holidays brand such as Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold.
“With spacious cabins, ample communal space and even suites with their own Jacuzzi, this is a cruise for travellers looking for a more refined travel experience,” says Richardson.
“Watch a cooking demonstration, relax on the top deck, start the day with a Tai Chi session or an early morning swim in the warm waters. This is the way to do Halong Bay in style,” she adds.
A royal experience in Laos
With a rich history dating back more than 10,000 years and strong Buddhist traditions, find peace and tranquillity throughout Laos.
“Laos is a lot more spiritual and conservative than the other Southeast Asian countries,” says Jane Matthews from Cape Town, who visited in August. “It is quiet and really peaceful.”
“Get an early night in your luxury hilltop resort in Luang Prabang (we recommend the Luang Say Residence, a small luxury hotel of the world) and wake up with the dawn to visit the Buddhist monks. Join in on giving alms to the hundreds of monks that live here, a tradition that goes back for centuries,” says Richardson.
Don’t miss walking to the top of Mount Phousi to admire the views of the Mekong and a visit to Wat Xiengthong, romantically known as the Temple of the Golden City. However, the real treasure in Laos’s crown is the life-giving Mekong River. The river flows from the plateaus of Tibet through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Those in the know say Laos is the best place to cruise this mighty river.
“The Mekong is really beautiful,” says Matthews, who cruised on the river from Luang Prabang to Thailand.
“Laos looks like a rainforest… so green and lush. Cruising on the Mekong in Laos was stunning, as it is so untouched by civilisation and unspoilt. When you cross into Thailand, you start to see cultivated land but, in Laos, it looks the way nature intended.”
Up the luxury factor with a sunset cruise on the river.
Learn the secrets of Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Watching the sun rise or set over Angkor Wat, one of the world’s most mysterious and awe-inspiring religious monuments, is on most travel bucket lists, for good reason.
Just don’t make the mistake of wandering for days through the ruins without delving deeper into its secrets. You need a guided tour or, with Luxury Gold, a VIP tour.
“On a VIP guided tour, you can see the stories of these great buildings come to life before your eyes,” says Richardson. “Guided by a renowned Khmer scholar from the Angkor Temple Conservation Institution, learn about Khmer history, culture, archaeology and civilisation, all from the first-hand experience of a local and expert.”
Walking through 16 hectares of any monument can be exhausting, so check in to a luxury oasis for the night.
“We like the Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort,” says Richardson, “which is just minutes away from Angkor Wat and was once the home of royalty. The lavish hotel gardens, architect-designed pool and French colonial elegance combine to draw inspiration from its exotic setting and create a perfect place to relax. It also houses the best golf course in the country.”
With such a unique trio of luxury escapes to enjoy, what are you waiting for?