Travel Story Getting to the heart of Asia

Pak Ou cave and Mekong River.

Leave the big cities to experience the fascinating history and individual charms innate in these South-East Asian towns.

George Town, Penang, Malaysia

The streets of George Town on the island of Penang still echo with distant dialects and the fortunes made by early traders in tin, rubber and spices — Chinese, Malays, Indians, Armenians, Arabs and British. 

The World Heritage-listed town, home today to three-quarters of a million citizens, is also completely contemporary, with wi-fi, good eating and boutique accommodation. Its streets of colonnaded Chinese and Indian shop-houses insist on being explored. Start walking and see the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the Burmese Temple (of the standing Buddhas), the elaborate Chinese Khoo Kongsi clan house and, overlooking the Straits of Malacca, the superb Eastern & Oriental Hotel. 

In Little India Bollywood music wails from shops that sell saris, shirts and kitchen sinks. While there, snack on mutton Mysore or vegetarian murtabak, followed by a hawker’s fresh-brewed, theatrically poured kopi tarek — “pulled coffee”.

Ranong, Thailand

Here’s a slice of authentic, un-touristy Thailand. Ranong, an Andaman Sea port tucked between the southern tip of Myanmar and Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra, prospers mainly from fishing and trading. Being 570km south- west of Bangkok (or a five-hour drive north of Phuket), it is off the main tourist trails but still an excellent departure point for live-aboard boat trips to spots such as Richelieu Rock and the Mergui Archipelago. 

Meanwhile, most travellers visit Ranong’s free, open-air Raksawarin hot springs — and they are hot — and then just enjoy this amiable town of 25,000 people, which happily lacks the blight of bling vs poverty too often found elsewhere. Offshore is a cluster of pristine national park islands that are excellent for day-trips and two low-key resort islands, Koh Phayam and tiny Koh Chang.

Bagan, Myanmar

With its 2500 temples, pagodas and monasteries covering 40sq km, Bagan could be Buddhism’s version of Benares, Rome and Mecca rolled into one. During this royal city’s centuries in the sun — the 11th to 13th — more than 10,000 shrines and religious institutions covered the plain. Shwe Sandaw, one of the most glorious piles, has jutted like an Egyptian pyramid above this plain for 900 years. 

Climb it for a great view, pay a visit to the massive Reclining Buddha at its foot, and then clip along to another superstar, Sulamani Temple. There are masterpieces everywhere in this scattered Buddhist Vatican, such as the Ananda Temple, built in 1091 and regarded as Bagan’s holiest pagoda. 

You might explore, contemplate or photograph for hours within its galleries. After which, wanderers on secular pilgrimage inevitably exit via Bagan’s numerous gift shops, carrying fine lacquerware in particular by the armload.

Hoi An, Vietnam

The French left Peugeots, berets, bakeries and good coffee. The Americans left junked aircraft, old Dodges and rock’n’ roll. The Russians, nothing that anyone wanted. But long before these blow-ins, Hoi An, just south of Da Nang, welcomed trading ships from China, Japan and Europe over some 500 years. 

Still one of Vietnam’s prettiest coastal settlements (and fittingly World Heritage-anointed) its Old Town preserves a legacy of merchant houses, temples and warehouses. A unique 19th century covered bridge still spans the stream that demarcated the old Japanese and Chinese communities. Nearby, historic Phung Hung Old House is embellished with lanterns and wall hangings while the Chua Ong Pagoda built in 1653 still stands on Tran Phu Street. Tourism is alive and well in shops, cafes, bars and boutique hotels, yet Hoi An’s traffic jams remain minimal.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The sunny beach resort of Sihanoukville keeps on losing syllables, with travellers first contracting it to “Snookyville” and then just “Snooky”. Sitting on the Gulf of Thailand 190 bumpy kilometres south-west of the capital Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville offers white sand beaches, backpacker boozers, casinos for losers and time-warp bargains for everyone with its food, drink and accommodation prices. 

There’s dance and absinthe, island trips and scuba diving, or just doing nothing, with a good room costing from $30 a night. Ochheuteal, Cambodia’s most popular mainland beach, is lined with shade trees, bars and restaurants, while Otres Beach, a short tuk-tuk ride south, has 4km of empty, clean sand. The real gems here, however, are in Sihanoukville’s increasingly “discovered” offshore islands, Koh Rong Sanloem, Koh Rong and Koh Ta Kiev.

Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia

For more than a century Kuching was the capital of the famous “White Rajahs” of Borneo. What they left behind is one of the friendliest, most liveable provincial capitals in South- East Asia, not to mention a slew of romantic, if not eccentric buildings. 

This riverside city (with truly flamboyant sunsets) is made for walking so pull on comfortable shoes and stroll its White Rajah wonders such as the Pavilion (1907), a three-storey, Italianate enigma that now houses the excellent Textiles Museum. Nearby are the imaginatively named Round Tower and Square Tower, built as fortifications against pirates and Sea Dyaks, plus the colonnaded General Post Office (1931) and elegant old Courthouse complex. 

Between all these are good restaurants and bars plus real-deal fish and fresh produce markets. Across the river sits the stately Astana, once the White Rajahs’ pocket palace and now the state Governor’s residence, and the white battlements of Fort Margherita.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang sits on a peninsula in the Mekong River, bristles with temples and old French villas, and since scoring the jackpot of a World Heritage listing in 1995 has been thoroughly reborn. 

Some 300km north of Vientiane and a proverbial thousand miles from care, this former retreat of Lao kings is a visitor magnet. Prosperity has ensured the preservation of its colonial streetscapes and 32 major Buddhist wats while also swelling the population to 50,000, thus making this the second-biggest city in Laos.

Marigold-robed monks drift through dawn streets receiving alms and food from locals and tourists. A few hours later those streets are transformed when their boutiques and trendy cafes open and hipster baristas charge Perth-like prices for a coffee. Re-caffed or de-caffed, also take a look at the Pak Ou caves 25km upstream and their galleries of thousands of Buddha statues.

Chiang Rai, Thailand

Chiang Rai city in northern Thailand is a sleeper within the greater game of the country’s tourism industry (30 million annual visitors, and climbing). Not such a bad thing. Founded in 1262 and one of the oldest settlements in Thailand it retains a distinctive Lanna cultural identity in its temples, museums and music. 

Home to 80,000 people, Chiang Rai has long been a jumping-off point for travellers exploring the north’s hill tribe regions and Mekong shores as well as upcountry Laos. 

Wanting an “icon” for visitors and devout locals, Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat created Wat Rong Khun, the stunning “White Temple”. Think of a mirror-ball and a temple shaken together inside a snow-dome, resulting magically in a crystalline Buddhist wat. 

Meanwhile, dine at Chiang Rai’s downtown Night Bazaar or stylishly at the Bhubhirom Restaurant perched above a hillside tea plantation.

Top picture: Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang in Laos by John Borthwick.

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