Much of what's so fascinating to travelers in Southeast Asia is the ephemeral: that friendly shopkeeper who invites you to sample something new, a hole-in-the-wall antiques store, a local specialty served at street side, seemingly impromptu festivals, and the kindness of strangers. These serendipitous moments -- some call them "trail magic" -- are what make exploring this part of the world so memorable and yet so maddening for the publisher of a guidebook to chronicle. Those quaint little corners are as fickle as shooting stars and can often be found only by searching, only to disappear or change if sought after again. Our advice: Search away. Follow a passion -- an interest in local cuisine, history, or architecture -- and ask around. Go where the locals go. Accept invites where appropriate and take your time -- things unfold slowly in this part of the world. Visitors come away with their own experiences and impressions in even the shortest visit to this diverse region.
Below we list a few of the major changes in this updated edition. Travelers to Southeast Asia need to be hip to fluctuations in the international airline scene in today's cautious climate. While some Asian airlines have eliminated North American routes, many North American carriers have begun offering rock-bottom rates for premium flights, and there are even some new international connections. Check with ticket consolidators or carriers that sell regional multistop tickets: See Cathay Pacific (www.cathay.com), for example, or look into special travel passes arranged by ASEAN (www.asean-tourism.com).
Safety is on the mind of every traveler these days, and despite the public-relations disaster of the SARS crisis, avian influenza, and some political hot spots in the region, the well-informed traveler in Southeast Asia can be sure of a trouble-free trip and manageable adventures.
Though Thailand is generally one of the most politically stable countries in Southeast Asia, it has been experiencing unusual levels of conflict since a coup in September 2006 ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After a year of military rule, Samak Sundaravej was elected prime minister as head of the People's Power Party (PPP), taking over in January 2008. However, many saw him as a proxy for the deposed Thaksin, and the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) took to the streets to demonstrate in August 2008 and occupied Government House to register their displeasure with the situation.
Samak was removed from office by the Constitutional Court in September 2008 and replaced by Somchai Wongsawat. However, this change failed to appease the PAD since Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law, and protests have continued. At the end of 2008, the situation remained fragile, with the possibility of dissolution of parliament and new elections. These problems generally pose no threat to tourists as long as they avoid areas of protest.
However, it should be noted that the far south of the country is violent, as Muslim extremists terrorize the Buddhist population, police, and military. Attacks blamed on Muslim groups have moved north from the immediate border areas of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces to Hat Yai in Songkhla Province, a major transit point in the south. Although these attacks were isolated incidents, they did target tourist areas and at least two foreign nationals were killed. Travel to the far south is generally discouraged, although train service to Butterworth in Malaysia is generally considered safe, as it stays west of the most troublesome provinces.
In more positive travel news, the shiny Suvarnabhumi International Airport, plagued by construction delays, cost overruns, lost baggage, and cracks in the runway after its opening in September 2006, is now functioning smoothly. However, the old airport at Don Muang is now handling domestic, nonconnecting flights -- so make sure you know which airport you're flying in and out of. The new airport is roughly 30km (18 miles) east of central Bangkok, and in 2009 will be connected to the city's skytrain system by a high-speed rail link. When the line is complete, the airport will only be a 15-minute ride from downtown. Until then, the options are bus, taxi, limo, rental car, or a layover in the Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel (tel. 02131-1111), the only hotel serving the airport.
As for shiny new things in Bangkok, the JW Marriott (tel. 02656-7700), located in the heart of the busy Sukhumvit shopping area, is leading the way in in-room, high-tech convenience. Tucked away in the back streets of Sukhumvit is the enchanting Eugenia (tel. 02259-9017-9), a boutique hotel waiting to transport you back to the 19th century. On the Chao Phraya, the Millennium Hilton (tel. 02442-2000) adds another name to the already prestigious list of luxury riverfront spots. Back in the city center, the massive CentralWorld shopping mall has added half a million square meters (more than 5 million sq. ft.) of shopping space to a city that was already a dream for shopaholics.
Pattaya expects to see even more business with the new airport at U-Tapao, just more than an hour's drive away, and the Amari Orchid Resort & Tower (tel. 03841-8418) is hoping to cash in. It has now added a five-star luxury wing to the previous four-star property for a total of more than 500 rooms. The hotel also features the exclusive Mantra (tel. 03842-9591), one of the best new restaurants in the country. On the south end of the beach, the Sheraton Pattaya (tel. 03825-9888) is the best spot for a secluded getaway.
Farther east, the islands of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, once solely the domain of backpackers, now have several luxury resorts: the exclusive, all-villa Paradee (tel. 03864-4283-8) on Samet; and the Amari Emerald Cove (tel. 03955-2000), one of the chain's best, on Chang.
The most popular island destinations continue to be Ko Samui and Phuket, back to full speed after the 2004 tsunami. Both islands are slowly sinking from the weight of the resorts that have been built in recent years. Of these, a special nod goes to Six Senses Hideaway Samui (tel. 07724-5678), voted best resort in the world by Condé Nast Traveler readers in 2008.
The beachfronts of Krabi, a nice alternative to busy Phuket, have also seen their fair share of construction, with the luxurious Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra (tel. 07562-7800) and the even more exclusive Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Krabi (tel. 07563-7789) opening their doors during the last year.
Ko Phi Phi, thoroughly destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, is back to its old tricks and has added a truly unique boutique resort, Zeavola (tel. 07562-7024), that hearkens back to rural Thailand of the 1950s.
In Chiang Mai, the new kids on the block are the Shangri-La (tel. 05325-3888) and Le Meridien (tel. 05325-3666), both with an excellent location just a few steps from the famous Night Bazaar. They promise to give stiff competition to other luxury hotel chains already established in the northern capital, such as Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, and the Dusit group.
In the far north near the once mysterious Golden Triangle, those with the means should look into the Four Seasons Tented Camp (tel. 05391-0200), a superluxe, superexclusive resort. Getting to the camp requires a Kurtzian ride up the Mekong; once there, you will be pampered and wined and dined between mahout (elephant riding) classes and boat trips on the river.
French military men in the early 19th century bemoaned the posting of disciplined officers to Laos, telling of how the languid pace and earthly delights spoiled the men and made mush out of good soldiers. Things haven't changed much; in fact, after a visit to Laos, it's hard to get back into the rat race.
Security for travelers is not an issue, but some reports over the last decade give pause. The main north-south highway, Route 13, has been free of insurgent activity for some time now, but public bus company employees still carry machine guns just in case, which can be seen as either reassuring or terrifying. The national carrier, once called Lao Aviation, has renamed itself Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com); it has acquired a number of new planes and flies new routes, offering better service and a stronger commitment to safety (though it still has yet to pass international safety standards).
Much of the recent foreign investment in Laos has gone toward improving the roads. Not long ago, roads outside of the major towns were unpaved and many were impassable during the rainy season. The highways are much improved now, but rural roads are still reserved for the hardy.
In Vientiane, the capital, the newly opened City Inn Vientiane (tel. 021/218-333) is a stylish midpriced option just off the main drag. If you're looking for a room with great views of the Mekong, quirky character, and a whole lot of color, check yourself into the Hotel Beau Rivage Mekong (tel. 021/243-350). In foodie news, Amphone (tel. 020/771-1138) serves excellent Lao fare in a gorgeous outdoor setting.
Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage city of quaint French colonial buildings and stunning original temples along the Mekong, is the country's premier attraction. Many of the old colonials have been converted into stylish boutique hotels, with all renovations sticking to strict guidelines from UNESCO in hopes of retaining the town's history and charm. The newly opened Villa Maly (tel. 071/253-904) is a converted former royal residence mixing luxury accommodations with a sense of colorful whimsy. In other news, details remain top secret, but we have it on good authority that an Amman resort is currently under construction in the town proper. The La Résidence Phou Vau (tel. 071/212-194) continues to be a top choice for luxury, but those seeking rooms closer to the central action head straight for Maison Souvannaphoum (tel. 071/254-609), once the residence of the former prime minister Prince Souvannaphouma.
Ecotourism is still what brings many travelers to rural Laos, and the folks at Green Discovery (tel. 021/223-022; www.greendiscoverylaos.com) lead adventurous trips out into the back of beyond.
It's official; Vietnam is a tourism powerhouse. While backpackers still flock here in droves, Vietnam draws its fair share of upscale travelers, drawn here by the quality service and luxury hotels that have become hallmarks of the country's tourism industry. The economy is thundering along, and in the service sector, this means choices upon choices. And while the very shape of Vietnam lends itself to linear travel, it won't be long before the country becomes a region-specific locale that visitors will want to visit time and again. Vietnam is now a member of the WTO, and in 2008 we witnessed an official exchange between the top leaders of the U.S. and Vietnam for the fourth year in a row when President Bush welcomed Prime Minister Nguyen Tran Dung to the Oval Office. A certain pride is welling into the people along the old tourist trail, and Vietnam's war years are well behind it. Meanwhile, international investment continues to pour in, bringing with it international standards, styles, and sensibilities, and while it was always evident in Saigon, the entire country has a bustling feeling that is infectious and a joy for today's traveler.
Despite its popularity, Vietnam remains relatively cheap. Prices are rising in lodging from small guesthouses to luxury resorts, and in most restaurants. The price hikes are highest in the big cities; you'll be hard-pressed to find bargain accommodations in Saigon. Elsewhere, the increase is marginal, and service and quality remain high priorities. Leave the well-trod path, and you'll still find a seductive, sleepy Vietnam, where poised fruit sellers push bicycles through clattering streets, old Chinese inscriptions line the walls, and crowded public markets offer all the sights and sounds visitors have come to love and seek out in Vietnam. Plenty of discoveries await travelers, but, at the end of a day or a week of adventuring, comfort and good prices remain, right where you want them to be.
For evidence of real change, visit Hanoi. It's beginning to resemble Saigon, albeit less glitzy and glassy. But more and more cars are replacing motorcycles, and more motorcycles are replacing bicycles. Urgency has taken hold here in recent years, and Hanoi is emerging as a hip little capital, with a growing number of locals and expats involved in interesting affairs, from art to music and other entertainment. A good bet is the brand-new Inter-Continental Hanoi West Lake (tel. 04/3270-8888), a resort-like getaway and one of the most stylish hotels to hit Hanoi in years. The hotel is far from the bustle of the Old Quarter, but close to Xuan Dieu Street (pronounced Shuan Zee-oh), a small street of boutiques and good eats.
Unfortunately, the natural beauty of Halong Bay is becoming overrun with budget junks, and it seems the only way to get away from the traffic is to pay premium prices for boats that travel a separate path through the karsts. Among those, the pack leader is the newly launched Halong Ginger (tel. 04/984-2807). Life Resort's (tel. 08/3844-3605) fleet of 22 deluxe boats, set to launch in late 2009, is sure to give the Ginger a healthy dose of competition.
While you're in the north, don't miss a visit to Sapa, a once quiet, now bustling hive of activity for some of Vietnam's many hill tribes. As expected, all the development that's come to Sapa has taken away some of its quiet charm, but that only means you can get farther into neighboring areas with tours to other villages, valleys, and markets. Trek in the shadow of Fansipan, the region's highest mountain, and enjoy the cool air, or just wander Sapa, a gathering spot for the hill-tribe men and women, who are starting to combine traditional swaddling with the trappings of a globalized world -- hot-pink hats or knockoff sneakers, for example. Getting here by train and bus has become increasingly easy. Look out for Life Heritage Resort Sapa, set to open in late 2010. Call Life Resorts (tel. 08/3844-3605) for the latest updates on that project.
Colonial Hue offers visitors many chances to travel through Vietnam's varied past, from its time under Chinese rule to the American war. La Résidence Hôtel & Spa (tel. 054/837-475) is hands down the best hotel in this picturesque city. New to this guide is the Imperial Hotel (tel. 054/822-222), a contemporary affair whose rooftop bar has killer views of the Perfume River.
One of the best singular cities in Vietnam remains Hoi An, an ancient old town protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It can make for days of entertaining wanderings, but equally tempting are the southern tip of China Beach and its breaking waves. Between the old town and the sea lies a real look at modern Vietnam, from pho shops to river fishing boats; travel between the two by rented bicycle. Popular Life Heritage Resort Hoi An (tel. 510/391-4555), reopened in August 2008 after 6 months of major renovations; rooms are more spacious and a new spa has been added. In the old town, the newly opened Morning Glory (tel. 0510/3241-555) is a popular low-key eatery serving healthy Vietnamese street food.
Nha Trang, once known as a party town on the backpackers' Southeast Asian circuit, has grown up into a bona fide beach destination. Six Senses Hideaway at Ninh Van Bay (tel. 058/3522-222) is the ultraluxurious resort accessible only by boat, set among lush forests on a secluded beach at the edge of a mountain range. It remains the top choice for luxury in Nha Trang.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) remains the country's business nexus and is busy as ever. Food, entertainment, shopping -- all things remain unrivaled in old Saigon, but some of the classic stays in the city have been redone so many times they've lost their charm. The Park Hyatt Saigon (tel. 08/3824-1234) remains the best downtown choice. Online-dependants, however, should head straight for the Caravelle (tel. 08/3823-4999), the first downtown five-star to offer free Internet access to hotel guests. Farther afield is the newly renovated Mövenpick Saigon Hotel (tel. 08/3844-9222), formerly the Omni. Mövenpick's contemporary finish and new amenities make it a top choice for those who need a place to stay nearby the airport.
Cambodia remains a land of rugged mystery, a shadowy, war-ravaged country that has yet to turn the corner and is still developing. The ruling Cambodia People's Party, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has consolidated its grip on power, while the fractured royalist party's vote collapsed in the last election. Legislation remains shockingly slow, and exploitation of natural resources is still endemic. Corruption remains king, and the country has remained unable to come to grips with its past. A tribunal that had for years been bogged down in red tape was finally underway for former leaders of the infamous Khmer Rouge, but on October 9, 2008, the first of its trials was again postponed indefinitely. The country has yet to rise to its potential, and people living in rural areas are as poor as ever, but Cambodia isn't an uninteresting destination.
The good news, though, is that Siem Reap, the gateway city to the famed temples of Angkor, is outpacing the rest of the nation. Once a dusty, crumbling town travelers had to put up with in order to view the awe-inspiring temples, Siem Reap has blossomed into a place worthy of a visit. Great investments have been put into airports and roads, police seem on their best behavior, and an entire bar and restaurant area has matured around the Old Market, where you can still have cheap, wholesome food at a place such as the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant (tel. 012/763-468) or eat ice-cream sundaes in an air-conditioned, nonsmoking cafe, the Blue Pumpkin (tel. 063/963-574), which makes excellent sandwiches to pack to the temples. For the best boutique experience, complete with modern decor, a quaint pool, and a cool rooftop restaurant, head to Viroth's Hotel (tel. 063/951-800). In the next few years, the temple to see will be Ta Prohm, which was left much how the French found it: being swallowed by the jungle. Giant trees wrap their limbs around man-made stone, putting humanity in a perspective different from that of other temples. Development is underway, though, to reclaim this temple, pull it back from the edge of the forest, and this will mean the loss of some of its magic. The time to go is now.
Phnom Penh, meanwhile, remains a fascinating capital in Southeast Asia. Not as dust-blown as it once was, Phnom Penh's growth is accelerating, and the word "sleepy" no longer applies here. More and more cars are choking the streets, and where once a visitor got around on the back of a motorcycle, he or she can now find a more placid ride in the chaos via tuk-tuk, a cushioned, shaded cart pulled behind a motorcycle. Rent one for a day and drive around the city, or see the important genocide sites, Tuol Sleng or Choeung Ek, which are grim reminders of Cambodia's past but really put the place into perspective. A less grisly attraction in Phnom Penh is the riverfront, along Sisowath Boulevard, which has sprouted numerous boutique hotels and fine restaurants in recent years. The best boutique hotel, however, is located next to the Royal Palace. The Pavilion (tel. 023/222-280) took a former royal residence and created an oasis-like refuge complete with four-poster beds and an outdoor pool. While there, ask for an update on their Waterfall Bay project, a new resort set to open in 2010 on little-known Ko Rong Island.
The small beach town of Kep remains one of the country's best-kept secrets. In the past, a rough road and hard ride to the "Cambodian Riviera" kept many away, but the road is better now and a bus service brings passengers to Kep's doorstep. The beach is placid, if a little rustic, but numerous activities are available -- from day trips to tropical islands to motorcycle rides through jungly mountains. These, combined with several quality places to stay -- such as the Knai Bang Chatt (tel. 012/879-486) and the Veranda Natural Resort (tel. 012/888-619) -- make Kep an imperative destination for anyone interested in seeing Cambodia beyond its ancient temples or shadowy capital.
From 2009 onward, Singapore's downtown will look like a completely different place. In November 2008, the city completed the Marina Barrage, a giant dam project at the mouth of Marina Bay, which transformed the bay into a freshwater reservoir. Located in the heart of the city, the bay will support watersports and entertainment, and will be surrounded by parks and promenades that will enhance Singapore's waterfront lifestyle feel.
A huge parcel of reclaimed land is currently being developed with wide avenues and futuristic infrastructure to support office towers, luxury high-rise condominiums, and a new financial center. An extension of the Shenton Way business district, the new area is being developed as a round-the-clock hub for working, living, and playing.
The centerpiece of the new downtown development is the Marina Bay Sands, Singapore's first casino, built by Las Vegas Sands, which has invested S$5 billion ($3.35 billion/£2.25 billion). The huge complex will also feature 110,000 sq. m (1,184,040 sq. ft.) of meeting and convention space, two 2,000-seat theaters, three hotel towers, an ArtScience museum, luxury retail outlets, dining venues in floating pavilions on the bay, plus innovative public spaces that include a rooftop park with a 360-degree city view, an ice-skating rink, and indoor canals. The complex will open in stages from late 2009.
Towering above the Marina Bay, the Singapore Flyer, the world's largest observation wheel, has good views of all the construction.
There are also plans to join two landmark buildings within the Historic District, City Hall and the old Supreme Court building, and convert them into a large exhibition space for contemporary arts in Singapore and Southeast Asia, with visiting exhibits from around the world. The new art gallery, alongside the Arts House at the Old Parliament and the Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, will turn the former colonial administrative heart of Singapore into a vibrant arts hub.
On Sentosa Island, a second casino complex, Resorts World at Sentosa, is being developed by Genting International and Star Cruises, who will invest S$5.2 billion ($3.5 billion/£2.3 billion) to build an enormous facility on Sentosa Island. Geared toward family and leisure activities, the casino will be supported by spa resort accommodations, restaurants, and bars, plus retail and entertainment outlets. Perhaps the most exciting part of the package will be the addition of Universal Studios Singapore, promised to be Asia's largest, with 22 attractions in themed "worlds," including "Journey to Madagascar," and a DreamWorks Digital Animation Studio. Also in the works is the Quest Marine Life Park, with the largest single marine tank in the world, and an interactive dolphin habitat. The Equarius Water Park will feature water rides and a maritime museum. Three amphitheaters will have international entertainment, including a resident show from the creators of Cirque du Soleil. Resorts World at Sentosa is scheduled to open in stages starting in 2010.
Like Singapore, Malaysia has also launched an observation wheel. First opened in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, the Eye On Malaysia reopened in its permanent location in Melaka, at the mouth of the Melaka River, in November 2008. The observation wheel sits on 1.6 hectares (4 acres) of land, which is currently being developed to include a Light & Sound Giant Waterscreen Showcase, a laser light show that uses a screen made from flowing water (opening in second quarter 2009) and the Malaysian International Space Adventure (MISA), with interactive education exhibits celebrating Malaysia's first astronaut in space (opening in third quarter 2009).
This guide also includes a few new hotels. The Majestic Malacca is a welcome addition to the Melaka hotel scene, where accommodations tend to be either bland international chain hotels or tiny guesthouses. The Majestic is a luxurious property built within a charming 1920s mansion located along the newly cleaned Melaka River.
The terrorist attacks of 2002 and 2005 did not keep the tourists away for long: The last 2 years have seen a record number of international visitors pass through the Ngurah Rai airport. Security remains tight, with bomb-sniffing dogs at many resorts and in downtown areas. Bali's outstanding service, beautiful landscape, and deluxe hotels at reasonable prices still make it a very appealing place to visit.
A top area full of world-class restaurants and deluxe hotels near -- but not in -- the action in downtown Kuta is Seminyak. The new Anantara (tel. 361/737773) is on a sliver of oceanfront land right in the center of Seminyak's lively restaurant-and-nightlife scene. The oversize suites come with two bathtubs -- one indoor and one outdoor, overlooking the ocean -- and other luxe amenities such as an espresso machine, iPod, and a rooftop bar called S.O.S. (Sunset on Six) that's perfect for watching sunsets. If you're looking for more peace and quiet in a classy environment, travel a few miles north to the Hotel Tugu (tel. 361/731701), with elegant antiques-clad rooms situated next to an excellent surfer's beach. If you're looking for more value for your money in this neighborhood, check out the boutique villas and rooms at the Vivalavi (tel. 361/8476028), Villa Ixora (tel. 361/739390), or Desa Seni (tel. 361/8446392). Nearby restaurants to visit include the new Chandi (tel. 361/731060), serving modern Indonesian cuisine, Khaima (tel. 361/7423925), serving Moroccan delights, and Trattoria (tel. 361/737082) for home-style Italian pizza and pastas.
In the island's south is picturesque Jimbaran Bay. You'll find complete luxury and a kid-friendly atmosphere at the Karma Kandara (tel. 361/8482200), aimed at hip, young families who haven't given up their decadent Ibiza-like party lifestyle. The resort boasts dramatic cliff-side views, villas with private plunge pools, and a completely private beach with the Nammos Beach Club bar and restaurant that's only reachable by a steep funicular ride.
Also in southern Bali, the resort area of Nusa Dua is home to several outstanding properties, including the new St. Regis (tel. 361/8478111), situated around an enormous swimming lagoon that can be privately accessed from many of the villas. World-class meals at all of the resort's restaurants, including Kayuputi, and plenty of beachfront cabanas make this a perfect place to unwind. In the rice paddies of Ubud is possibly the best new resort in all of Bali: the COMO Shambhala (tel. 361/978888), a resort that focuses on wellness programs suitable for guests of all walks of life. Gorgeous villas, individualized counseling sessions, and complimentary yoga and Pilates lessons are just some of the amenities at this 40-hectare (100-acre) resort situated on a steep hillside overlooking the Ayung River. Also check out Uma Ubud (tel. 361/972448), a minimalist white set of boutique villas located right near central Ubud, and its dynamic restaurant Kemiri. The world-class French eatery Mozaic (tel. 361/975768) has added cooking classes and a private chef's table. You can work off the calories by visiting the new Botanic Garden Ubud, which features an orchid greenhouse, tropical fruit trees, and an herbal medicine garden.
In Bali's east, the Alam Asmara Dive Resort (tel. 363/41929) offers small bungalows near the sea, while the Alila Manggis' Sea Salt (tel. 363/41011) restaurant and Vincent's (tel. 363/41368) are the places to dine.
If you're seeking an even more remote environment, head to Lombok, where the new bohemian boutique Hotel Tugu Lombok (tel. 370/620111) awaits. Nearby is the backpacker mecca of the Gili Islands, known for their stellar snorkeling and idyllic atmosphere.