Forget the road less travelled – this year is all about taking another look at familiar destinations, says Myanmar Times travel writer Rachna Sachasinh.
2016 was a rough year. War zones, refugees, racial profiling, finger pointing, demagoguery: it was a bonanza year for the unthinkable coming to pass. By the time 2017 came along I, like many people, just wanted a do-over. Or at very least, to pack my bags and go hide from the world for a week or two.
Even the perennially sunny travel industry wasn’t to be spared. We hit the pavement so hard that “off-beaten path” became the norm. Angkor Wat’s centuries-old walls are under siege from tourists’ palm grease. Bali’s spectacular corals are quickly turning into underwater ghost towns. Laos went from spiritual hinterland to backpacker hootenanny – even US President Barack Obama cruised Luang Prabang’s UNESCO-sanctioned avenues in his Lincoln motorcade and sipped coconut water on the banks of the Mekong.
So, what’s left? Thankfully, quite a bit more. Looking back at 2016 I realised that, in each of the countries I visited, there was still much more to see. Asia continues to astound with creativity, fortitude and reinvention. Small pockets of culture and wilderness still cling on – even in the most visited locales. And, thus, in the spirit of do-overs, 2017 is a year to go back to popular vacation spots and take stock of what we missed.
There is no doubt that Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is Cambodia’s strongest draw. This year, branch out and give the manmade wonder a break from humanity.
DO: Sam Veasna Center, Siem Reap
Local guides lead you into the savannah-like terrain north of Siem Reap in search of the engangered Ibis and floricans, among other exotic birdlife. SVC’s community-based tourism programs employ local villagers and use tourism-generated revenue to protect bird habitat, among other conservation efforts.
STAY: Maison Polanka, Siem Reap
For a truly local and luxury experience, retreat to Maison Polanka on the outskirts of Siem Reap. The boutique hotel’s Khmer House is a traditional house set among tranquil lush, tropical gardens. Not all bungalows boast heritage pedigree, although each embraces Khmer lifestyle beautifully.
DO: Jahoo Gibbon Camp, Sen Monoram
Do your part to help indigenous Bunong communities protect their forests and the critically endangered gibbons. The Bunong have inhabited Mondulkiri for over 2000 years, although the pace logging and land-grabbing threatens to push them from their land. This innovative program, launched by the Wildlife Conservation Society, inextricably links wildlife conservation, village income and tourism and the experience is hailed as one of the region’s finest examples of well-intentioned eco-tours that actually work.
Bali’s gorgeous coastline tops most travellers’ lists and for good reason. However, this “Island of the Gods” is equally heavenly when you head inland.
DO: Uma Wali, Pagi
A few kilometres from Tabanan’s world famous rice terraces, the quaint hamlet of Pagi sits in an emerald green sea of rice paddies. Local farmers here are going back to their roots – farming red Balinese rice organically and in step with the ancient subak irrigation system. The farmers launched Uma Walli, a homegrown eco-tourism program to teach locals and tourists how to work the paddy and live in harmony with nature. In the late afternoon, the village women serve sweet red rice tea in their flower-filled courtyards.
EAT: Moksa, Ubud
Moksa only opened in 2016, yet, it is full of good old-fashioned sense. The chefs here take “farm to table” seriously – the kitchen is steps away from the restaurant’s beautiful permaculture garden. Lounge on the verandah noshing on delicious vegan and veggie specials and wash it down with a punchy herbal elixir. Cooking classes and gardening workshops are also available.
STAY: Amandari, Ubud
Ubud is teeming with culture-conscious eco hotels. Amandari was one of the first and continues to be among the best. If you’ve got a few dollars to spare, or just want guilt-free pleasure, spend a few days here, perched above the picturesque Ayung Valley. The resort offers a classic Bali experience, giving guests a chance to visit village-based craft studios and learn traditional Balinese cooking and dances.
Been there, done that, got the t-shirt? Make 2017 the year you take another look at Northern Thailand.
DO: Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
Elephant tourism is a serious business in much of southeast Asia, and much of it imperils the health and welfare of the majestic beasts. Located in beautiful valley 60 kilometres from his sanctuary is a great spot to learn about elephant behaviour and the legacy of human interaction – and abuse. You won’t ride elephants here, but you will spend some quality time with the personable and emotionally-acute creatures. Daily tours and overnight stays.
EAT: Meena Rice Based, Chiang Mai
A hundred year-old rice barn is the setting for this wonderfully hidden al fresco eatery. The young owners are aficianodos when it comes to traditional northern Thai cooking. Banana flowers and young jack fruit form the base of spicey, citrusy larb or salads, and the toothsome coconut and fish curry pays homage to an old Lanna recipe. As you would expect, rice is celebrated here – it comes in five different colours!
SHOP: Par Kae Yaw, Chiang Mai
The matriarch who runs the arts and crafts shop has amassed a trove of Southeast Asia’s best examples of hilltribe textiles and handmade silver jewellery. The shop itself is a marvel – a traditional teak house in a gorgeous garden setting. If you don’t dig ethnic or tribal clothes, pick up some great pillow covers, framed textile arts and handloomed scarves.
136/1 Moo 2, T. San Klang, San Khampaeng, Chiang Mai
Once the bustling centre of the teak trade, Lampang is now a sleepy and charming town. In its heyday, some 100-plus years ago, Lampang was a multicultural trading post, which left its imprint on the town’s fantastic architecture. Old Burmese and Chinese mansions, British colonial façades and Lanna teak houses still grace Old Market Street or Kong Ta, the city’s original “downtown” area. On weekends, Kong Ta turns into a lively evening market where locals gather to eat, wander and shop. Lampang boasts a rich history of Lanna pottery, with stunning examples displayed at Dhanabadee Ceramic Museum. Lampang is the birthplace of the colourful rooster bowls used in noodle stands – your Ikea dishes probably came from here.
Kuching is the gateway to Borneo, although the town is much more. The capital city of Malaysia’s Sarawak Province, Kuching was once the seat of the Brooks Raj – a stunning period in history when the Sawarak rajah handed over the entire town to Brit adventurer James Brooks. These days the peaceful provincial backwater is great for ogling colonial architecture and feasting on street food, an eclectic and tasty fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indian and a handful of indigenous ethnic groups.
EXPLORE: Langkawi (East)
Langakawi’s beaches are renowned for their gorgeous and low-key beaches, or at least until everyone discovered it. Fortunately, the eastern side of the island still shelters a few pristine, quiet beaches. Tanjung Rhu beach is located within a national park, with day access available to the public. White sand beaches, crystal waters, karst outcroppings make the spot postcard perfect, and the water is warm. Bed down at the posh Four Seasons Langkawi or Tanjung Rhu Resort, or stay in a local guesthouse in nearby Padang Lalang village. The town mosque’s handsome dome hovers over the town centre, punctuating the day with rhythmic calls to prayer.
STAY: Bon Ton Resort and Temple Tree
Forgo the brick and mortar accommodations for some old-fashioned thatched roof charm. Each of the eight historic bungalows are original homes from across Kedah Province in northwestern Malaysia. Temple Tree, Bon Ton’s sister property, sits next door and features nine heritage Malay, Chinese and colonial buildings that were rescued from across the region, transported to and reassembled in Langkawi. The owners run a small animal shelter next door. If you miss taking your pooch for a walk, you can volunteer to help out each morning. Plenty of cuddly cats roam the resort’s the pretty gardens, making it a sanctuary for people and pets.